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Harberton Almshouses 1680-196?

Just opposite Vine House to the south were the almhouses.

(The following report and pictures 2 and 4 appeared in the Western Morning News on 24 January 1963. These almshouses once stood where Wyse House now stands behind the Church House Inn.)

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South side (1) South side (2) North side (3) North side (4)

Henry Wyse was a far-seeing man when in 1680 he built the still-standing range of 10 almshouses for deserving inhabitants of the parish of Harberton, near Totnes.
He provided for the future by imposing a condition that the maintenance of his almshouses should always be the responsibility of whoever owned land near Bridgwater, in Somerset, which at the time was his.
It worked perfectly for some 270 years so that down through the centuries the almshouses were always in good repair, and occupied by a succession of grateful tenants.


But even Henry Wyse could not anticipate the modern trend for wholesale development of housing estates.
A decade ago his former possessions in Somerset were sold for this purpose, and today the land is so split up that no-one knows just who should be paying to keep the Harberton almshouses habitable.
So the building, now tenanted by three men and a woman, has fallen into disrepair to create a problem which has involved the Feoffees, responsible for administering the charity, Totnes Rural Council and Devon County Council.


It is: Can Henry Wyse's almshouses, which have weathered 280 years, be made suitable for 1963 homes, and, if so, who will pay? Or should they be replaced by brand-new old people's dwellings?
The Rural Council started the chain of events which may or may not end in the doom of the almshouses, which, however, are protected as an ancient building designation. The Feoffees were told that they must either be re-conditioned or demolished.
Miss D. Jervoise Smith, chairman of the Feoffees and a rural councillor, said: "The Feoffees started operations to improve the almshouses by joining the Almshouses Association whose architect prepared a plan for conversion of the building into five nice, comfortable dwellings.
"Each was to consist of a living room, bedroom, bathroom., lavatory and fuel store, all facing south with a nice piece of garden, main sewer, and water supply.
"Our next step was financial and as we could not get a grant without some idea of cost, tenders were invited , and one accepted. All this took a good deal of time and trouble.
"Then, and only then, the County Council decided to send down its representatives, who at once sat down heavily upon the whole scheme, with the result that the Feoffees have now to pay 400 in fees for nothing."'


Miss Jervoise Smith said that the Feoffees held several meetings to explore ways and means of raising funds without a County Council grant, but other grants were not forthcoming.
"We had little option but to drop the whole matter and to tell the Rural Council so. In fairness, there were two technical snags which to a small extent exonerate the County Council.
"A road at the back is somewhat above the floor level and the ceilings are not quite up to standard height.
"But to my certain knowledge there has nearly always been 'a waiting list' of applicants."


She added: "If what was envisaged could be carried out we should be able to give comfortable quarters at less than half the price of new council houses.
"It seems to me that local people who try to do their duty are scuppered and overridden by Exeter. The Feoffees have been between the devil and the deep blue sea."
But the fate of Henry Wyse's almshouses is not yet sealed. The Rural Council has asked the Feoffees to reopen the matter and to meet Council representatives to see if they can somehow be retained. An official said: "There are other grants, such as improvement grants, which might be obtainable."
Devon County Council's attitude was explained by Mr. M. G. Speed, the County Welfare Officer.


"The proposals for the almshouses would have fallen far short or modern standards,"' he said.
"Our architect felt that the cost involved was not justified, and our suggestion was that the almshouses should be replaced by new purpose-built bungalows.
"'The Feoffees could have proceeded if they wished, but the County Council was not prepared to make a grant. I suppose it is a matter of opinion on how much should be spent on old buildings and it might well be that architects will vary in their opinion.
"There must be a sentimental attachment to the almshouses, which are certainly very beautiful and of character".


Mr. Speed said that he did not know of any proposal to build old people's dwellings at Harberton.
The land which Henry Wyse once owned in Somerset will never again provide money for the almshouses.
Mr. M. J. Locke, a Feoffee, said: "Payments were received up to about 10 years ago. The land was then broken up and in spite of persistent searches we could not identify it.
"For all practical purposes as far as we are concerned the land has vanished into thin air, and the Charity Commissioners have given us permission to write off this source of income."

(article from Western Morning News, 24 January 1963, including their punctuation)

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