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)

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