St Albans’ 18th Century Marlborough Almshouses in desperate need of refurbishment

Duchess of Marlborough's almshouses

Duchess of Marlborough's almshouses - Credit: Archant

Built in the 18th century to help house the needy, St Albans’ largest almshouse is in dire need of help itself.

An application for permission to improve the roof of the listed Marlborough Almshouses in Hatfield Road, opposite Alban City School, is to be lodged with St Albans district council in the hope that the £500,000 project can begin in October.

The refurbishment plan will be scrutinised by English Heritage and a conservation officer at the council, as the building has a Grade II listing. Even the coal bunkers inside it and uneven paving fronting the landmark building are listed.

Bill Fardell, clerk to trustees for the Charity of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, said: “We can’t replace the roof because it is a listed building, and we have to keep as much of it as possible.

“But some of the roof beams have a problem and there is no proper flashing around the chimneys, so we have issues with water ingress. There is a lot of work to do as we need to take the roof off in phases to enable us to give attention to the roof beams, to put new beams alongside them for extra support.

“It needs modern felt and 20 per cent of the tiles need replacing, but we need to source those tiles from historic buildings.”

The almshouses were founded by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, in 1736.

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Bill said: “They were built in 1740 for the needy and over 60 year olds, which back then would have been a ripe old age, and there can’t have been that many people in St Albans of that age at that time.

“There are six almshouses in St Albans and this is the biggest. There are 36 flats at Marlborough – people living here aren’t tenants, they’re residents as they don’t pay rent, because they live here under licence. They pay a maintenance contribution.

“This building is a home for people who have fallen on bad times.”

Bill said there were a number of improvements on a ‘wish list’ the trustees were keen to pursue over the coming years but much depended on what changes could realistically be made given its heritage status.

Also, residents themselves are not keen on too much change.

Trustees have organised for a new shared external laundry room to be built, which takes away the need for washing machines in the flats, and they are hoping to eventually offer a communal area for residents to mingle in as currently there are no other shared facilities in the building – not even a lounge to meet in.

Bill showed the Herts Advertiser a room that was vacated recently by a man in his 90s who, because of mobility problems, had to shift to a more practical ground floor unit. Carers visit him three times a day.

Basically untouched since the 1970s, the vacated room has a small and uncomfortable looking ‘hip bath’ dating back to Victorian times and in the barely used kitchen newspapers dating back to the early ‘70s line the floor, for extra insulation beneath the linoleum.

Bill said: “There are all sorts of problems with this room. We have stripped it back - we can’t just paint it - and we are just deciding what to do, but we can replace the bath with a shower and improve the kitchen.

“The former resident never used to use it, apart from making a cup of tea, as he goes into the city every day for a meal. I was surprised at how bad it was. Residents normally tell me if they need anything done, but he never said anything, and was always content.”

The room still has the remnants of gas pipes for the old gas lights.

While many changes were made in Victorian times, including replacing a former 1700s earth latrine with a toilet block, nowadays trustees have to be more mindful of restrictions because of its Grade II listing.

Bill said: “English Heritage is very nervous about changes, so everything is scrutinised very thoroughly [but] we want to make it nice for people.

“The almshouse was built for the people of St Albans, so they could live the rest of their lives in dignity and safety. Such is the demand that we could fill 100 more rooms.”