Reviewed by Bernard Nurse

Edward Alleyn’s foundation 400 years ago of the College of God’s Gift is best known today for the Dulwich schools and the Picture Gallery, both of which have developed far beyond what their humble origins would have suggested. However, the plight of the elde,lmm7uyrly poor featured larger in his bequest than the education of the twelve poor scholars which he provided for then. His will of 1626 envisaged not just supporting almshouses in Dulwich for the same number of residents as the College but also in other London parishes with which he had connections.   

Brian Green has taken the opportunity of its 400th anniversary this year to record the extraordinary fortunes of the almshouses in Dulwich and elsewhere, and set their history in context. When he stipulated that the six poor brethren and six poor sisters be given places should be over sixty, religious and sober, receive free accommodation, a pension and even a share of any surplus income from the estate, the welfare state was a long way off and average life expectancy was about 35. Unfortunately, as the author points outs, individual stories are missing from surviving records. Over 1000 have been assisted in Dulwich, but only those who were punished for bad behaviour (particularly drunkenness) or taking in relatives seem to have got noticed. The thoroughly researched story focuses more on the effect of the various schemes of reform from 1834 onwards and negotiations with the Charity Commissioners and the other beneficiaries over the share of income from Alleyn’s estate.

While upgrading the premises as far as possible since the 1950s, proposals to find more space or move nearby are common themes which emerge strikingly from this account. Those familiar with the temporary exhibition area in the Picture Gallery may not realise that this was originally constructed to provide rooms for the six poor sisters and accommodated them for about seventy years. Now fourteen residents are settled in the east wing of the Old College, renamed Edward Alleyn House to reflect the transformation from almshouses to the present warden-assisted housing for which the residents pay rent. The present trustees recognize that it is not possible to adapt the present building to meet modern standards and provide the desired facilities for more people; only a new site and building will answer current needs. This book issued on the occasion of the 400th anniversary provides useful support for their policy at a critical time.