15 September 2022

Picturesque almshouses
in Aylesbury are part of
an old church-linked charity

Church Street in Aylesbury … the appearance of the street has been preserved thanks to the Thomas Hickman Charity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

An impressive aspect of Church life in Aylesbury is the very visible role of the Church in local charities. This is seen in particular in the almshouses and housing for the elderly clustered around Saint Mary’s Church.

These almshouses on Church Street and Parson’s Fee are managed and administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity, Aylesbury’s first and only independent, privately-endowed charity, and the rector of Saint Mary’s of the day is always an ex-officio trustee of the charity.

The charity takes its name from a century generous, 17th century local philanthropist, Thomas Hickman (1637-1698), who lived most of his life at No 1 Church Street.

Thomas Hickman held a schoolmaster’s licence. Although there is no evidence that he taught at the Grammar School in Church Street, he may have taught writing and arithmetic, and he had enough finances to lend money to people in need at a time when there were no banks.

It is probable that at the age of 33, he served as one of the parish’s four overseers of the poor and distributors of the ‘rate’ which landowners had to pay to support the poor of their parish. He inherited many nearby small houses and cottages, and during his life he bought a number of neighbouring properties.

Hickman made his will on 1 January 1696, when he was in his late 50s, and he died unmarried at 1 Church Street at the age of 61 in 1698. At the time, he was living with his cousin, Faith Platter, and he asked to be buried ‘in the grave of my dear mother.’

Robert Hickman’s former house at 1 Church Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In his will, he listed his home on Church Street, his cousin Robert Hickman’s house at No 1 Church Street, a house in Market Square, a farmhouse in Walton with outbuildings and 32 acres of land, which he had acquired in small lots, and four cottages in Parson’s Fee.

Hickman left the five cottages he had inherited as almshouses for the poor people of Aylesbury, with a proviso favouring his kin, stating that they could live in them even if they had previously lived far away.

He left funds in trust to pay an annual allotment ‘to the poorest and most pitiful objects of charity in alms to them, and not to ease the rich in their collection but to this my gift be given that they may have a more comfortable subsistence in their poor and mean condition, as long as this world continueth.’

He appointed his cousin Robert, to whom he left a cottage in Church Street, and two older relatives to be trustees. The trustees also included the churchwardens of Saint Mary’s.

Following the sale of land owned by the Hickman family, more houses in Aylesbury were bought and these almshouses were to be occupied by elderly people in Aylesbury who were in need.

Houses on Parson’s Fee overlooking Saint Mary’s Churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Mary’s Church stood at one end of Church Street, with the Grammar School on the corner with Saint Mary’s Square. One of Hickman’s cottages still stands at the top of the street; the four others are around the corner in Parson’s Fee, overlooking the churchyard.

Robert Hickman, who lived until 1742, rebuilt the farmhouse in Walton, and the house of his uncle, Thomas Hickman, was renovated in 1739, with a brick frontage and a pedimented doorway.

For over a century, however, no accounts were being kept, as the churchwardens realised when they tried to sort things out in 1821. Charity inspectors who visited Aylesbury in 1833 reported that the almshouses were occupied by Thomas Hickman’s kin, except for the one house occupied by John Porter, who had married the widow of one of the kin.

The inspectors found the residents took little care of their dwellings and some even ‘wantonly damaged their cottages.’ Because the charity was responsible for repairing the cottages, the cost of repairs reduced the funds distributing annually among the poor of the town.

The corner of Church Street and Parson’s Fee (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Edward Bickersteth (1814-1892) became Vicar of Aylesbury and Archdeacon Buckingham, in 1853, and also became a trustee of the charity. By 1864, two of the almshouses had been vacant for some time owing to their ‘state of decay’ and poor sanitary arrangements. Archdeacon Bickersteth took matters in hand, and in 1867 he set about drafting new rules for the almshouses and their residents, then referred to as ‘inmates.’

These ‘inmates’ were to keep their houses neat and clean and in decent repair; they were not to take in lodgers; they were to conduct themselves in a quiet orderly manner, maintaining peace and charity with their neighbours; and they were to attend Divine Service regularly. Any occupant who transgressed these rules was to be evicted.

By the end of 1875, the five cottages had been repaired and made uniform in a ‘rather advanced old English picturesque’ and ‘Victorian Gothic style.’ Bickersteth left Aylesbury that year when he became Dean of Lichfield.

Electricity was still not connected to the houses until 1949, none of them had bathrooms, and the outside toilets were without lights until 1968. By 1955, only one of Thomas Hickman’s kin was living in the almshouses; the rest were occupied by local people.

Meanwhile, in decades after World War II, Aylesbury was transformed into a large urban centre, and the price of land soared in the 1960s. The sale of Hickman lands in 1972 allowed the trustees to advance plans for further housing.

Over the next few years, houses were acquired in Castle Street (1978-1985) and Church Street (1984), the Chantry Project (1984-1990) incorporated new bungalows and what has become known the secret gardens, and major refurbishments were carried out over time.

The Chantry is part of the portfolio of the Thomas Hickman Charity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The charity’s portfolio of properties today includes Nos 1 and 2 Church Street. Two front cottages form part of the Chantry complex that includes 11 flats and eight bungalows with an interior courtyard.

Nos 6 to 11 and 12a to 12c Church Street involved the conversion and extension of Church Street almshouses which was carried between 1975 and 1978.

No 18 Church Street and No 1 Parson’s Fee are two transformed cottages that form part of the original endowment of Thomas Hickman.

Green End House, on Rickford’s Hill was bought in 2000, and the Chantry complex off Church Street now includes the gardens at Green End between Castle Street and Rickford’s Hill.

The charity was further consolidated in 2004 when it received money from Dame Isabella Dodd’s bequest.

Today the charity has five trustees, including the chairperson and the rector of Saint Mary’s Church, Aylesbury. It is now the largest freeholder in Aylesbury Old Town, and owns 49 properties.

The Church Street almshouses were extended and converted in 1975-1978 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Thursday 15 September 2022

A wreath of poppies on the memorial to 19-year-old Private Robert Davies in Lichfield City station who was murdered in 1990 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (15 September) recalls Saint Cyprian (258), Bishop of Carthage and Martyr, with a Lesser Festival.

Two of us are spending a few days in York as I take some rest following what is known as ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in Sheffield earlier this week. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Saint Cyprian of Carthage … argued that the sacraments are only valid within the Church

Saint Cyprian was born in Carthage ca 200, and was a teacher of rhetoric and a lawyer in the city before his conversion to Christianity. He gave away his pagan library and set his mind to study the sacred Scriptures and the commentaries that were beginning to proliferate. He became a priest and then, in the year 248, was elected Bishop of Carthage by the people of the city, together with the assembled priests and other bishops present.

Cyprian showed compassion to returning apostates, while always insisting on the need for unity in the Church. During the persecution of Valerian, the Christian clergy were required to take part in pagan worship. Cyprian refused and was first exiled and then condemned to death. He died on this day in the year 258.

Luke 9: 23-26 (NRSVA):

23 Then he [Jesus] said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.’

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: 4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ (Whitman)

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [15 September 2022], I am listening to the fourth movement, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ (Whitman).

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

Vaughan Williams based this movement on an earlier setting of the same words he had composed in 1914, before the outbreak of World War, and which he now incorporates into Dona nobis pacem.

This is a setting for a third poem by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), ‘Dirge for Two Veterans,’ from Drum-Taps (1865). The poem provides a second drum study for Vaughan Williams, but the drums this time are not the drums of war but the drums heard after war, the drums of death and burial, the drums of mourning and a funeral procession.

The drums and brass are transformed into instruments of noble commemoration; the strings and harp create a serene field filled by the choir fill with tender, loving words.

We are invited into a moonlit scene where we find a mother, highlighted by the moon, watching the funeral march for her son and husband, who have both been killed together in battle.

Her grief is symbolic of the grief shared by all families when lives are cut short one generation after another.

A compassionate world witnesses the scene with one heart, giving love as the moon gives light. The mourning turns to an outpouring of compassion and love as the wife and mother opens her heart and pours out her love for husband and son.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

4, ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.

Lo, the moon ascending!
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon;
Immense and silent moon.

I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-keyed bugles;
All the channels of the city streets they’re flooding,
As with voices and with tears.

I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring;
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.

For the son is brought with the father;
In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell;
Two veterans, son and father, dropped together,
And the double grave awaits them.

Now nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive;
And the daylight o’er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumined;
(’Tis some mother’s large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)

O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.

The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music;
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.

A wreath of poppies on my grandfather’s grave in Portrane, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Thursday 15 September 2022, Saint Cyprian):

The Collect:

Holy God,
who brought Cyprian to faith in Christ,
made him a bishop in the Church
and crowned his witness with a martyr’s death:
grant that, after his example,
we may love the Church and her teachings,
find your forgiveness within her fellowship
and so come to share the heavenly banquet
you have prepared for us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our Redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened
by the blood of your martyr Cyprian:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today (International Day of Democracy) in these words:

We give thanks for the ability to express ourselves and bring about democratic change. May we remember those who fought for our rights and pray for those who live in undemocratic countries.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org