Shaftesbury Almshouse Seeks Support For Accommodation Upgrade

Chubbs Almshouse has provided affordable accommodation for Shaftesbury’s elderly citizens since the 17th century. Now, the locally-based charitable trust needs to find a source of affordable finance to update their rooms to meet today’s expectations.

Alfred’s Keri Jones toured the Salisbury Street premises.

Tony Morgan has been closely connected with the Chubbs Almshouse for decades. “I have been a trustee for well over 40 years. It was the first job I was given when I became a borough councillor,” Tony said.

Tony Morgan outside Chubbs Almshouse

“All of the trustees give their time freely. Nobody claims anything in the way of expenses and a lot of time does go into it,” added Tony, who is leading this refurbishment project.

The almshouse is named after Matthew Chubb, who became Dorchester’s MP in 1601. His wife Mary was from Shaftesbury. Before Chubb died in 1617, he funded accommodation for our town’s needy and it has continued to operate to this day.

“Matthew Chubb has been recorded in history as a philanthropist, but he was also described as a rapacious moneylender, which I found amusing,” said Tony. “Perhaps he was trying to find favour in another life by giving some of his money away.”

Chubbs Almshouse

The current almshouse is a collection of brown brick, post-war buildings, which resemble private flats. They are halfway down Salisbury Street, on the left-hand side as you head into town. Tony says there used to be another almshouse opposite. “It was once the Spillers and Chubbs Almshouses, and there were two buildings. One was where we are sat at the moment, which is Chubbs. Across the road was Spillers. Fifty years ago, Spillers was sold off to a housing association,” Tony added, as he explained how the ownership of that building has changed over the years through the merger and growth of housing associations.

“Chubbs’ position was that they wanted to remain an almshouse. They took the very brave decision to pull down the old building and build a brand new property. This was considered a luxury building fifty years ago, because rooms had a little kitchen and a bathroom inside, whereas the original building had the toilets outside,” said Tony.

The Chubbs Almshouse is not a retirement or nursing home. “To come into here, you’ve got to be able to look after yourself, wash, dress and cook your own food,” Tony said. “We do have people here who quite simply are frightened to live on their own. We have two people here who have been burgled in their own homes. They want the feel and ‘family’ of being in this environment,” said Tony.

A group of locals assesses applications from people who would like to live in the Chubbs Almshouse. “We have a small committee who looks very carefully at each application. We don’t restrict it to Shastonians, but they would have priority, as would people who have lived around the town for a number of years,” said Tony.

Cann and Melbury Abbas residents are also considered and that neighbouring parish appoints a representative trustee. And the accommodation is affordable. “The rents are £100 pounds a week,” Tony explained.

We headed down a corridor and Tony opened the door to one of the rooms created by the works around half a century ago. He described the décor and layout as ‘old and tired’. As we looked around, Tony explained how the trustees hope to enhance and upgrade the almshouse facilities.

An unrefurbished room

“The long-term plan is to turn the 20 bedsits into 24 one-bedroom units. We’ve extended the building on both the west and east wings. We’re reasonably confident that we’re going to find enough money to start on the east wing, which we’ve already vacated. The cost would be enormous if you tried to pick off one or two flats at a time,” said Tony. “We took the bold decision of not advertising the rooms and keeping all of the people on the waiting list ‘on hold’, so we could vacate all eight flats on the east wing. That means that these rooms are empty, ready for the builders to move in.”

The empty room that we inspected was in good repair, but it was just one room for living, eating and sleeping. There was a tiny kitchen and an outdated bathroom. Tony told me his granddaughters, who are students, live in bedsits. He is comfortable with that, ‘as a place to get your head down’ but he says that such a restricted living space isn’t suitable as a permanent home for older people.

An original bathroom

“Would you really want to spend the rest of your life in a one-room bedsit? You couldn’t swing a cat in the bathrooms. Baths are just ‘not on’ for elderly people. The new build rooms have all got a walk-in wet room and shower,” Tony said.

We walked down another corridor to view one of the remodelled rooms. “We have completed the first eight, vacated the next eight and we are hoping that the builders will be back with us in September,” said Tony.

The new rooms appear to be far superior. These are light and airy one-bedroom flats with a separate living room and a cream-coloured, modern fitted kitchen. They are well-finished, and Tony says they are well-insulated too.

The almshouse residents share a garden space and they can also socialise in a large communal living room. As I arrived, the staff were ‘putting the kettle on’ for elevenses for their residents, who were gathering in anticipation.

Communal area

Residents don’t face the headache of hefty bills, but these reasonable rents also mean that this charity doesn’t generate much money for major works. The trustees have dipped into their reserves to fund some of the recent upgrades, but they need to find significant funding for the next stage. “We need now about another £250,000,” said Tony.

The previous works, 50 years ago, were funded through an expensive loan from the former Borough Council. “The trustees took on a mortgage of £60,000, at a fixed rate of 8%. It was only within the last 10 years that we cleared that off.”

Last month, the trustees approached Shaftesbury Town Council to ask for cash help. Tony wasn’t surprised that the request for such a significant sum was turned down. It was suggested that the almshouse trustees should approach socially-minded lenders.

Balancing the books, as an independent almshouse, has been a worry. “That’s what keeps me awake at night,” Tony confided. “We’ve been extremely lucky with grant aid. North Dorset District Council awarded us £200,000 through their social fund. The William Williams charity gave us £100,000. We have come very close to the end of the list of charities that might support us. Understandably, they have huge demands on their money,” said Tony.

People have left money to the almshouse, too. “Over the years, because of bequests, we had quite a lot of investments in equities and a couple of parcels of land. We’ve sold the equities because we needed to. This project is going to cost well over a £1million. We sold two parcels of land – one on the Motcombe Road and one down Coles Lane, near Margaret Marsh,” explained Tony.

The trustees have appointed a North Dorset-based firm of builders for the next phase of works, even though the cash isn’t yet in place. Tony says his team is determined to find a funding source in time.

“Throughout my business career, I have never planned to fail. My heart is totally in this. It will go ahead. The bit I don’t like is that we’re going to have to borrow money. What worries me is that we may be borrowing it at a rate that I wouldn’t be comfortable with,” Tony said.

Now the trustees are hoping that someone with Shaftesbury connections would like to offer the cash. “There may be somebody out there who is looking at their investment in the bank, who doesn’t want risk and they are getting about 1%. Perhaps they will lend Chubbs Almshouse the money for a much better return? There are some wealthy people and some good people who want to help out the community,” said Tony.

If you can help or know someone who can, Tony urges you to make contact. “We have a Clerk – Rutter and Allhusen at Longmead Industrial Estate in Shaftesbury. They deal with all of the administration for us,” said Tony.

For 400 years, a Dorset businessman’s benevolence has meant that elderly Shaftesbury residents can feel at home in their hometown. Now the almshouse trustees hope that another public-spirited local will ensure that Chubb’s legacy continues into the 22nd century.