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)

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