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Old Dears Almshouses

by Pat Saunders

Carrying Christmas food to ladies in the Almshouses. Early 1900’s

By Pat Saunders, Volunteer at The Novium Museum.

The building on the north side of The Hornet (no 19) has a foundation stone dated to 1802. The building now houses an arcade of smaller shops. Up to about the 1970s however it was the 'Old Dears' Almshouses, so named as it provided housing for elderly ladies living on slender means. Prior to the start of the 19th century there had been six earlier almshouses on the site. These had become severely dilapidated to the extent they could no longer be used. However, local philanthropist Martha Dear left a legacy of £1,000 to fund them again.

Martha was the eldest daughter of John Dear Esq, Alderman and Town Clerk. She died aged 77 on 18 July 1807. Her will listed an extensive portfolio of farms and lands and a number of bequests to various people. As an unmarried woman she'd been wealthy. One clause in her will directed where she was to be buried and that a memorial tablet be erected in St Martin's Church (since removed) Included on the tablet was the following inscription which provides an insight into Martha's personality.

"To delineate / the Character of this venerable Woman/ would be to exhibit/ those solid and useful Virtues/ for which/ the best of her Sex have been memorable/ She was Just, without Severity/ Charitable without Ostentation; and/ Pious, without Enthusiasm/"

Besides the almshouse bequest, Martha left a number of legacies to various individuals for the benefit of the city. These included a legacy of £50 for the Governor or Patronesses of the Blue Girls School, £120 to the Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Chichester to be invested and the proceeds paid over for the running of the recently established Dispensary. Martha also asked that £10 worth of bread to be distributed to the poor of St Martin's parish on the evening of her funeral, the most in need determined by her executors.

According to the Charity Commissioners report of 1836 the almshouses had already been rebuilt by voluntary subscription on the site of the six earlier almshouses that had ceased to be used. The day to day running of the charity was administered by the St Pancras parish council and was recorded in the churchwarden's and vestry books.

In the early 20th century it was apparent the almshouse inmates were in need. In November 1905 it was resolved that a collection be made by the Mayor & Corporation of St Pancras. As a gentleman's dining club various traditions have become established within it, one is the support of the 'Old Dears' as the former residents had become known. This fundraising tradition by the St Pancras Corporation continues to this date. Each December a few days before Christmas, members of the Corporation, accompanied by Father Christmas or a troop of Morris men or both form a procession at St Pancras Church with symbolic wheelbarrows and walk to the current residences of the Dear's Charity in St Pancras. Here the residents receive a variety of gifts. The charity supports women who have resided in the City of Chichester for not less than 5 years.

Throughout the year the Corporation of St Pancras holds other fund-raising events such as a Wheelbarrow Derby which started in Eastgate and finished at the Dolphin & Anchor, West Street. The Derby in July 1988 had a fancy dress element included which was judged by Miss Sybil Long (then 83) who'd been one of the last 'Old dears' to live at The Hornet Almshouse.