25 June 2024

Dr Milley’s Hospital,
one of the oldest
charities in Lichfield,
celebrates 600 years

Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street, Lichfield … celebrating 600 years this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

One of my favourite buildings in Lichfield is Dr Milley’s Almshouse on Beacon Street. I stopped to look at again yesterday as I was visiting Lichfield Cathedral and later as I was walking from Lichfield Cathedral along Beacon Street to lunch at the Hedgehog on the corner of Stafford Road and Cross in Hand Lane.

Dr Milley’s Almshouse houses local women in need, and the charity is celebrating 600 years of its work. The almshouse was originally founded by William Heyworth, Bishop of Lichfield, in 1424, and its current home on Beacon Street was built in 1504, when it received an endowment from Canon Thomas Milley, a residentiary canon of Lichfield Cathedral.

The hospital originally provided accommodation for 15 single women and has since seen additional flats created in a more recent extension. It is currently home to ten residents who stay for varying lengths of time, with the charity aiming to provide a ‘safe, secure home for women with limited housing options’.

The 600th anniversary was celebrated last Wednesday (19 June) at the Roses Ceremony that takes place annually, when the Bishop of Lichfield is presented with ten red roses by the residents in lieu of rent. A special thanksgiving service is being held in Lichfield Cathedral later this week (Thursday 27 June 2024).

Dr Milley’s Almshouse is a charity overseen by trustees under a scheme approved by the Charity Commission. The current chair, Elaine Price, said: ‘This is always a special occasion for everyone involved, marking our strong links with the cathedral. It is even more special this year as it marks the 600th anniversary of the Almshouse.’

Remembering the founder of Dr Milley’s Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

I visited Dr Milley’s Hospital at No 7 Beacon Street, Lichfield, many years ago as part of a small tour organised by Kate Gomez and the local history group, Lichfield Discovered.

We were welcomed by the chair of the trustees, Mrs Sheelagh James, who was then also Deputy Mayor of Lichfield and later Mayor of Lichfield in 2016-2017. We were shown around in small groups by two other trustees, Peter Parsons and Ronald Monk.

Alongside the Cathedral and Saint John’s Hospital, Dr Milley’s Hospital is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Lichfield. The original almshouse was founded 600 years ago by the Bishop of Lichfield, William Heyworth, in 1424, and it was refounded and endowed by Canon Thomas Milley over 500 years ago in 1505.

The pedimented tablet above the entrance says: This hospital for fifteen women was founded by Thomas Milley, DD, Canon Residentiary of the Cathedral Church of Lichfield AD 1504.

A view of the front of the hospital, drawn in 1841, suggests a number of alterations were made in the 18th century. These included the facing of the exterior with plaster, the insertion of wood casement windows, and the addition of gabled dormers to the roof.

Stepping into the hospital was like stepping down in a bygone age, and I mean stepping down, for the ground floor of Dr Milley’s Hospital is now well below the street level on Beacon Street, due both to its original location in the town ditch, and to the raising of the street levels over the years, catering for the heavy traffic along the A51 which was once the main road from Chester to London, running through the heart of Lichfield.

The front range, facing onto Beacon Street, contains a central stone porch giving access to a wide entrance hall flanked by rooms for the matron and almswomen. It is possible the large beam in the entrance hall below the chapel dates back to the building of 1504, and during that visit I had to stoop my head several times to avoid a nasty bump.

The hospital building is a two-storey, red-brick building, with a stone plinth and stone dressings. Originally the building was L-shaped in plan: from the southern end of the front range, a long rear wing extended back along the southern boundary of the property.

Dendrochronology or tree-ring dating tests suggest that parts of the hospital were rebuilt around 1652 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is generally believed in Lichfield that parts of Dr Milley’s Hospital date back to the 16th century and that the building survived the English Civil War in the mid 17th century.

However, a scientific report by MJ Worthington and DWH Miles of the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology in 2002 used dendrochronology or tree-ring dating techniques and they suggest that much of the hospital did not survive the civil war and that it was rebuilt just after 1652.

An examination of glass-making techniques has shown that some of the glass in windows in the upper storey survive from the late 17th and early 18th century.

The chapel is the oldest part of Dr Milley’s Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chapel is in the oldest part of the building, and is in a separate space on the first floor, above the porch and hallway and facing east.

The rear wing has a corridor on each floor, and these corridors originally gave access to residents’ rooms on the south side of the building. On the north side of the corridors is the staircase and also a two-storey addition, probably dating from the late 18th century, containing two rooms. At the bottom of the staircase, there is a covering over a well that provided fresh, clean water in the hospital until the first half of the 20th century.

The internal partitions are of heavy close-studded timbering and incorporate many of the original early 16th century doorways.

The original well beside the stairs is now covered over (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By the early 20th century, the hospital was in need of modernisation and repair, and a complete rebuilding was proposed, with plans to demolish the old building. However, the Charity Commissioners wanted a careful restoration instead, and their recommendations were carried out in 1906-1907. The alterations allowed for only eight resident women, but their accommodation was now more comfortable. New stone-mullioned windows were inserted at the front, and the external plaster was stripped away to reveal the earlier brickwork.

Each woman had one room for all her needs, but water had to be carried from the well at the end of the passage.

Looking out from Dr Milley’s Hospital onto Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The building was designated a Grade II* Listed building in 1952, and it was not until 1967 that the hospital was provided with one bathroom and a communal laundry room.

Dr Milley’s Hospital was extensively refurbished in 1985-1987, with a major extension and the provision of a communal lounge. New kitchens were provided in 2013, the communal lounge and heating were renovated in 2014, and this year sees the updating of bathrooms in in the apartments.

Dr Milley’s Hospital now has 10 residents. Six of the women live in self-contained flats and the other four live in studio apartments. Each resident has her own kitchen and bathroom, and some women live in studio apartments.

The Dennis Birch Room serves as a community or common room, and there are beautiful gardens at the rear of Dr Milley’s Hospital.

The current trustees of Dr Milley’s Hospital are: Wendy Dee, Susan Gallagher, Donna Marie Greatorex, Roger Michael Hartley, Sheila Marjorie Linger, Mark Lupton, Elaine Price, Gail Ryan, Cynthia and Mary Tipper.

Sunshine in the gardens at the rear of Dr Milley’s Hospital (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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