The Trinity Green Almshouses in Stepney: A 17th century mariners’ retirement complex
The history of 17th century almhouses on the Mile End Road.
Standing in a busy, built-up part of the East End, the district of Stepney couldn’t look less rural. However, there’s one particular complex of buildings that have been standing since the area was surrounded by fields. If you walk down traffic-laden Mile End Road, you may find your eye drawn to the historic Trinity Green Almhouses and Chapel.
Originally named Trinity Hospital or Trinity Almhouses, the complex was built in 1695 by the Corporation of Trinity House (est. 1514) to provide housing for “28 decay’d Masters & Commanders of Ships or ye Widows of such”. Captain Henry Mudd of Ratcliffe (1630-1692) – an elder brother of Trinity House – donated the land to the charity in his will. His grave can be found in St Dunstan’s churchyard less than a mile away. Deputy Master of Trinity House, Captain Robin Sandes (d.1721) also contributed funding the building. As well as accommodation, the retired and incapacitated mariners also received a money allowance and coal. It’s been claimed the almhouses were designed by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and John Evelyn (1620-1706), although this cannot be verified. Many historians believed it was the work of master carpenter Sir William Ogbourne (1662-1734).
The Trinity Almhouses featured two rows of cottages facing a central garden with a separate chapel in the north. Each red brick house features is spread over one storey and a basement, with wood block and bracketed eaves cornices providing some lovely period detail. The front doors feature a wide hood supported by carved brackets.
At the south end of the two rows of cottages stand ornate gable ends facing Mile End Road. Each gable end is two storeys high and features white, rusticated quoins. The top storey features a brick niche surrounded by an ornate, stone architrave, while the building is crowned with a stone pediment. While the eastern gable end is still in good condition, the western one’s windows have been bricked up. The main attraction of the gable ends are the four model boats perched on the corners. These are actually 1950s fibreglass replicas of the original marble ones, which are being protected by the Museum of London. The models are of 42-gun Stuart warships of the 4th Rate and carved by Robert Jones. Each gable end also features a cartouche depicting the purpose of the almhouses, the contribution of Mudd and his widow and the year it was built.
The centrepiece of the gardens is the Chapel. Built in a Classical Revival style, it stands two storeys high, with rusticated quoins and pediment. The chapel is entered through a white door, at the top of a flight of stone steps curving outwards. Trinity Green is protected from the street by curved brick wall, wrought iron railing and iron gates.
Through the 18th and 19th century, the almhouses provided a happy and peaceful retirement home for former seamen. The 1871 and 1881 censuses sees a host of retired ‘master mariners’ living at the almhouses with their families or live-in servants. However. in 1895, local authorities suggested demolition of the ageing almhouses (see a London Metropolitan Archives image of the complex in the 1890s). Architect Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) launched a campaign to save the site and was supported by William Morris, Octavia Hill, Lord Leighton, Walter Besant and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Fortunately, they succeeded and Trinity Green became the East End’s first historic building to be preserved, setting a precedent for protected buildings, a rather unheard of concept at the time.
Trinity Green came under threat again in World War II when it was bombed by the Luftwaffe. In 1941, a bomb destroyed the almhouses north of the chapel, as well as the chapel. The north almhouses were never replaced and the site now contains council housing. In December 1950, Trinity Green was Grade I listed by Historic England, with the London County Council purchasing the site four years later. The LCC restored the remaining almhouses and the chapel, including its roof and clock turret, between 1956-1962, with Queen Elizabeth II visiting when they were completed. The chapel was restored using 18th century panelling from Bradmore House by Hammersmith tube station.
Today, the chapel and green is owned by Tower Hamlets Council. The LCC transferred ownership to Stepney Borough Council, who renamed the site Trinity Green. The homes are mainly one bedroom or studio flats spanning two floors and are a mix of privately or council owned. The chapel has been converted for community use and is currently used by a deaf charity. The almhouses remain the oldest surviving ones in central London. In recent years, local campaigners successfully fought off plans to build a tower block overshadowing the almhouses and garden.
- Trinity Green almhouses, Mile End Road, Stepney, E1 4TS. Nearest station: Whitechapel.
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Posted on 25 Apr 2019, in Architecture, History, London and tagged 17th century, East End, Sir Christopher Wren. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Trinity Green Almshouses in Stepney: A 17th century mariners’ retirement complex.