Trinity Hospital

Paul asks

What’s happening to Trinity Hospital?

I know there were redeveloping the back of the hospital, but yesterday we walked past the main (front) entrance, it looked dilapidated: piles of leaves blown up against the front door and gate, the pathway to the front door (through which you could often see that gorgeous internal courtyard) all sad and neglected, with two-foot high weeds growing in-between the kerbstones.

Do we know what’s happening? Even if they’ve changed the main entrance to the back, why are they allowing this gorgeous facade to become so neglected?

The Phantom replies:

I noticed this the other day when I was taking my American friends for a lightning tour of Greenwich’s highlights and those leaves made it quite clear that the door hadn’t been opened since Autumn. I confess I’m not really worried yet though. If memory serves, they never open that door during the winter months. Presumably it’s such a wind tunnel that, given the choice between that and a side door or the back entrance, they can hardly be blamed for denying us a lovely view. It was a shame for my visitors as the ‘secret’ glimpse through the railings is one of the loveliest sights in Greenwich, but I’m not going to panic until those leaves are still there in the Spring.

While we’re on the subject though, I guess now is as good as any to take a closer look at this dear little almshouse. Of course Greenwich is hardly short of them – we have at least four – but this has to be the prettiest.

It was founded, despite the date on the front (1616) in 1613 by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, and comes with a curious caveat. On the outside, by the door that’s presently covered in leaves, a sign says that it is home to “21 retired gentlemen of Greenwich.” So far so good. But not completely accurate. Only 12 of the “decayed” pensioners, “become poor by casual means and not through his own dissolute life” were to be from the local area. Eight more decrepits (the other one must have been added at a later date) were to come from Shottesham in Norfolk – a left-field concept at the very least.

If the last decayed gentleman in Shottesham happened to be a “common beggar, drunkard, whorehunter, haunter of taverns or alehouses” or if he was an “unclean person infected with any foul disease, blind or so impotent as he is not able;” even worse if he were “an idiot” or unable to say the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed “without book,” he was out. But that still didn’t mean to say that any more Greenwich decayed gentlemen got a look in. The net was just widened to include the Norfolk village next door, Bungay.

Simple enough reason – it was Howard’s birthplace. It was his party and he decided who was invited…

The bit you can see from the river walk (the cute bit) isn’t as old as it looks – it was rebuilt in 1812 in Strawberry Hill Gothique style. And very gorgeous it is too. But if you’re looking for old, you’re going to have to hope they open that centre gate in the summer, where the 17th Century Courtyard is just lovely. It’s a cloister-style, with an ancient wisteria growing around the columns. In the middle is a twinkling fountain and usually some geraniums dotted around. Very Mediterranean, but somehow also very British. The pic’s a bit dark – click on it to make it a bit sharper.

Under the cloisters are some wonderful old notices telling “The Poor Men” what they were expected to do – and, of course, what they were not expected to do. Carousing around town was definitely OUT. Presumably the retired inhabitants are allowed out after 6.00pm nowadays.

Until 1946, everyone had to wear a fancy uniform – they just wear it for special occasions now, mainly for the annual Visitation from the Mercers Company who took over running the hospital in 1621. The gardens at the back are ancient and leafy, though only the bit closest to the buildings has (very splendid) borders – the rest is very old trees, including a mulberry (James I again, with his bloomin’ silly English Silk Trade idea) and a medlar.

They used to be much more extensive though. The thoughts of the pensioners when their principal source of income, their market garden and orchard, was grubbed up to make room for the gigantic power station 100 years ago are unrecorded, perhaps because they would violate at least one of the hospital’s myriad regulations…

I visited on one of their special open-house days – they have fund-raising events from time to time – and I had a chat with some of the pensioners. (They don’t include decayed Norfolk people any more – they got their own Trinity Almshouse in Victorian times – a Phantom day-out for the future, perhaps…)

It was just before the new buildings at the end of the garden had been started and they were excited. The current rooms were small, dark, cramped and damp, however picturesque they were on the outside. The new build (on land that was, frankly, the compost heap) meant that the same number of people could have a more comfortable retirement. I think they’ve done pretty well with the new build, but I haven’t seen inside.

You know what, I won’t talk about the chapel inside today. It warrants a post of its own.

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