St. Mary’s Almshouses (also known as St. Mary’s Hospital) is one of the most outstanding medieval buildings in Sussex. The building on the current site off St. Martin’s Square dates back to 1269, but an earlier building is believed to have stood not far from the present-day Market Cross at least a century before.
The current building is a fine medieval tithe-barn type structure, that consists of a chapel and a series of small self-contained flatlets for poor widows of the city deemed to be worthy of charitable shelter. The running of the almshouses has not always been as it should. Following the fall of the city to Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War, puritan reformers sought to ensure that the funds of the hospital were directed towards the residents rather than into the pockets of the warden and the trustees. Similar concerns were still being raised over one hundred years later.
Today there are no such qualms and the charity is one of the oldest and most respected in the country.
In 1868, pioneering folklorist, Charlotte Latham, referred to St. Mary’s in her seminal work on the superstitions she still found ‘lingering’ in West Sussex. One superstition she recorded was the belief that after a death the front door of the deceased’s home must remain open until their burial, otherwise another death was sure follow.
A short time ago a death occurred in the St. Mary’s Almshouses at Chichester; and on the morning of the funeral, as soon as the body had been carried out, the niece of the deceased locked the door of the apartment, and had hardly done so when she heard the inmates of the Almshouses thumping and rattling it to force in open. On finding all their efforts useless, one of them exclaimed, “Hang that good-for-nothing woman! her locking this door before the old girl is buried will bring death among us pretty soon again.”
St. Mary’s is open to the public but only by prior appointment. Telephone 01243 783377
One lady who does not want her name used on Facebook or the web, but whom we can call ‘an old inhabitant of Chichester,’ wrote –
Your article about St Mary’s reminded me of the annual Harvest festival offerings at the Tower Street Primary school – now the site of the Novium. Every year a crocodile of pupils took food stuffs to the old ladies in the almshouses. In the 1950s the inmates had a small cell like area about 10′ x 10 ft for their bed, cupboard etc off the nave. There were rows of them each side. There were dividing partitions but no ceilings as such.
We also had an annual Christmas nativity play in the school. Bishop Bell invariably attended and as an angel – bit of miscasting there! – but with blonde hair down to my waist I was patted on the head in a paternal manner.