16 August 2019

The almshouses in
Peterborough that
became an alehouse

The Wortley Almshouses seem to have survived recent large-scale commercial developments in the centre of Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I walked from the railway station in Peterborough into the city centre to visit Peterborough Cathedral earlier this week, I noticed the Wortley Almshouses, which seem to have survived the recent large-scale developments of this side of Peterborough.

When Sir Edward Wortley Montagu was an MP for Peterborough in 1734-1761, he bought two small houses and the grassland that sat behind them in 1744 and donated them as a new parish workhouse to supplement the existing workhouse in Cumbergate.

A new and larger workhouse was built on Thorpe Road in 1837 as the new Peterborough Union Workhouse. The two city centre houses were largely rebuilt and converted into a row of almshouses or almsrooms, still with the purpose of helping the poor and needy.

Local legend in Peterborough claims Charles Dickens visited the Wortley Alamshouse at this time and that they provided inspiration for his Oliver Twist.

The building was almost demolished in the Queensgate development. But, as the Queensgate shopping centre took shape in the 1970s, the houses were saved. They were bought by Samuel Smith’s brewery and became a pub in October 1981. So, an almshouse became an alehouse.

The pub was refurbished in 2003, when that six drinking areas were provided, with two bar areas, two snugs and two reception rooms with real fires, and the walls were decorated with pictures of old Peterborough.

The pub closed for some years and there were fears for the future of this building. But, as plans unfold for the new North Westgate development in Peterborough, the developers confirmed that the Almshouses will not be demolished, and the Wortley Almshouse reopened last February 2019 after a lengthy closure.

The Wortley Almshouses were founded in 1744 and rebuilt in 1837 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The original benefactor of the Wortley Almshouses, Sir Edward Wortley-Montagu (1678-1761), was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, husband of the writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and father of the writer and traveller Edward Wortley Montagu.

The Montagus and Harringtons, two inter-related families from Northamptonshire, were at the heart of the early years of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and James Montagu was the first master.

Sir Edward Wortley-Montagu, born in 1678, was a son of Sidney Wortley Montagu (1650-1727) of Wrotley, Yorkshire, and Walcot, Northamptonshire, who was an MP for both Huntingdon and Peterborough and a grandson of Edward Montagu (1625-1672), 1st Earl of Sandwich. He was educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge (1693) and trained in the law at the Middle Temple (1693). He was called to the bar in 1699 and entered the Inner Temple in 1706.

He was best known for his correspondence with, seduction of, and elopement with the aristocratic writer, Lady Mary Pierrepont, daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. They were married in 1712.

Wortley Montagu was a prominent Whig politician. He was MP for Huntingdon (1705-1713) before becoming a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury from 1714 to 1715.

He was nominated the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (1716-1718), and arrived with his wife at Adrianople, present-day Edirne) on 13 March 1717. In this role, he was charged with negotiating between the Ottomans and the Habsburg Empire.

But he was not successful in this post and he did not become the full Ambassador to the Ottoman Porte in Constantinople before he was recalled in October 1717. He left Turkey on 15 July 1718 and, for some time travelled in the East.

When he returned to England from Constantinople, he fell out with the Whig leadership. However, he returned to Parliament as an MP, first for Huntingdon once again (1722-1734) and then for Peterborough (1734-1761).

From 1757 to 1761, he remodelled Wortley Hall, adding the East Wing. He disinherited his son Edward in 1755. When he died, he left Wortley Hall and a large fortune to his daughter Mary, who married the future Prime Minister, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute.

His wife, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, is remembered for introducing the smallpox inoculation from Turkey to England. She died in 1762 and is commemorated in a monument by the west porch of Lichfield Cathedral.

It is interesting that the almshouses took the name Wortley and not Wortley Monatgu. The heraldic arms outside the Wortley Almshouse look more like a pub sign than an 18th century memorial. They caught my eye, because they are similar to so many depictions of the Montagu arms around Sidney Sussex College, but they show Sir Edward’s arms before he was knighted.

The heraldic arms at the Wortley Almshouses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint John’s Church:
the parish church that
moved in Peterborough

The Church of Saint John the Baptist is officially the parish church of Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

It would be easy to excuse visitors to Peterborough Cathedral who miss the city’s parish church, Saint John the Baptist Church, which is only a few steps away but is hidden from the cathedral by the Guildhall in Cathedral Square.

The seemingly strange state of Peterborough having both a cathedral and a parish church within a stone’s throw of each other is due to the fact that the cathedral was for the monks, the church for the townspeople, and the former Benedictine abbey did not become a cathedral until 1540 with the formation of the new Diocese of Peterborough at the Tudor Reformation.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist is officially designated as Peterborough’s parish church and its vicar is the Vicar of Peterborough. There are several other Anglican churches throughout the city.

The original parish church, dating from the 11th century, was some distance to the east of the current location, on a site now occupied by Bishop Creighton Academy.

But the site of the church in the Bond or Boongate area was subject to flooding. When the centre of Peterborough moved west, the church was relocated stone by stone. The present church was built in 1402, using material from the original church and some material from the nave of the chapel of Saint Thomas Becket by the abbey west gate nearby.

The completed church was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist on 26 June 1407.

When two royal funerals took place in the cathedral in the following century – Katharine of Aragon in 1536 and Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 – the two queens were buried by the same sexton of Saint John’s, Robert Scarlett, and the bells of Saint John’s Church rang for both funerals.

Following the English Civil War, the Puritan Parliament made an order in 1651 to demolish the church and to use it as building materials. Thankfully, the plan was never carried out.

A restoration programme in 1819 ‘brutally swept away’ old features and added the clerestory and galleries.

A later, Victorian restoration was commissioned by the Revd Henry Syers in 1880. The architect John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), designer of Truro Cathedral, designed new roofs, a new clerestory, aisle parapets and tracery in 1882-1883. The galleries were removed, the east window unblocked and raised, the floors were lowered and a new pulpit was added. John Thompson was the builder, and the cost was £11,000.

Saint John the Baptist received a Grade I heritage listing in 1952 as a prominent and ‘architecturally ambitious parish church ... exemplifying Perpendicular town church design.’

The early 15th century, two-storey South Porch at the Church of Saint John the Baptist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The south porch, 15th century font, 20th century screens, the monuments and tombs are interesting features of the church.

The church has an aisled nave and chancel, with the chancel projecting one bay beyond the ends of the aisles. The west tower is set over the west bay of the nave with the aisles extending past it.

The exterior is largely Perpendicular in appearance, although this is partly due to extensive 19th century restoration. The tall west tower has large, four-light, transomed bell openings and corner turrets with pinnacles.

The west door has a west window above.

The nave and chancel are roofed as one, with an embattled parapet and three-light clerestory windows with square heads.

The aisles and chancel chapels are also roofed continuously, and have plain parapets. The aisle and chapel windows have mainly 19th and 20th Perpendicular style tracery in a range of patterns, including the fine, large East Window of 1881-1883.

Two windows towards the west ends of both aisles retain very good intersecting Y-tracery of 1819 with the leading for the clear glazing following the pattern of the tracery.

The lower part of the 15th century South Porch is open and vaulted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The early 15th century south porch is two storeys high. The lower part is open and vaulted with good bosses, the upper part has two-light early 15th century windows. It has a plain parapet with pinnacles and a heraldic beast said to be an antelope. There is a stained-glass window in the open, lower section.

The shallow, embattled north porch dates from 1473 and has carved waterspouts.

The church has a very large and spacious interior, also entirely Perpendicular in style. The nave arcades are tall, and have complex moulded arches on quatrefoil piers with moulded capitals and high, polygonal bases.

The arches at the north and south chancel chapels are similar, but simpler, and the chancel arch dies into the wall at a high level.

A stained glass window of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the South Porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The tower has north, south and east arches in a Perpendicular style, and there are further arches dividing the second last and final west bays of each aisle, replacing early 19th century blocking inserted to stabilise the tower.

A new stained-glass window, designed by Brian Thomas and installed in 1968, depicts notable people connected to Peterborough: Symon Gunton, vicar of the parish during the plague in 1665-1667; Nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed in Belgium in 1915; Captain Thomas Mellows, who died in 1944, fighting in the French Resistance; and the nonjuror and spiritual writer William Law (1686-1761).

The late Georgian iron railings around the church probably date from 1819. They have twisted posts and slender, spiked intermediate shafts.

The church was refurnished in the High Anglican style in 1938, including a rood and reredos. In recent years, the west end was reordered at the west end, with the removal of some pews and screens, to create meeting and service areas.

The tall west tower has large, four-light, transomed bell openings and corner turrets with pinnacles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Between Saint John’s and Peterborough Cathedral, the Old Guild Hall in Cathedral Square dates from 1671, and was built by John Lovin, who also restored the Bishop’s Palace after the restoration of Charles II.

The Guildhall, which was restored 1929, has two storeys and attics, and two gabled dormers with leaded windows. It is built of stone, has a hipped stone slate roof, coved eaves, and cornice.

The ground floor is open with round-headed arches and shield-shaped keystones. There are four-light mullion and transom windows, casements with leaded lights in moulded frames, and the centre window is flanked by narrow pilasters. The able at the east side has Royal Arms on a panel.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist seen from the ground floor of the Guildhall in Cathedral Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)