This article combines two entries from the Victorian publication Curiosities of London: exhibiting the most rare and remarkable objects of interest in the metropolis; with nearly sixty years personal recollections by John Timbs, John (1801-1875).
Publication date: 1867
Publisher London : J. C. Hotten
The Almonry, was named from its being the place where the alms collected in the Abbey Church at Westminster were distributed to poor persons. It was situated at the east end of the Sanctuary, and was divided into two parts: the Great Almonry, consisting of two oblong portions, parallel to the two Tothill streets, and connected by a narrow lane (the entrance being from Dean’s-yard) ; and the Little Almonry, running southward, at the eastern end of the other Almonry.
In the Almonry the first printing-press ever known in England was set up by William Caxton : according to Stow, in an old chapel near the entrance of the Abbey ; but a very curious placard, in Caxton’s largest type, and now preserved in the library of Brasenose College, Oxford, shows that he printed in the Almonry ; for in this placard he invites customers to “come to Westmonester in to the Almonestrye at the Reed Pale,” the name by which was known a house wherein Caxton is said to have lived.
It stood on the north side of the Almonry, with its back against that of a house on the south side of Tothill-street. Bagford describes this house as of brick, with the sign of the King’s Head : it is said to have partly fallen down in November, 1815, before the removal of the remainder of the other dwellings in the Almonry, to form a new line (Victoria-street) from Broad Sanctuary to Pimlico, when wooden types were said to have been found here. A beam of wood was saved from the materials of the house, and from it have been made a chess-board and two sets of chessmen, as appropriate memorials of Caxton’s first labour in England, namely, The Game and Playe of the Chesse, 1474, folio, the first book printed in England.
According to a view of Caxton’s house, nicely engraved by G. Cooke, in 1827, it was three-storied, and had an outer gallery, or balcony, to the upper floor, with a window in its bold gable : its precise site was immediately adjoining the spot now occupied by the principal entrance to the Westminster Palace Hotel, in digging for the foundation of which was found, at twelve feet from the surface, a statuette of the Virgin and Child, eleven inches high, carved in sandstone, and bearing traces of rich gilding.
In the Little Almonry lived James Harrington, author of Oceana, in a ” faire house,” which, according to Aubrey, ” in the upper story, had a pretty gallery, which looked into the yard (cover …. court), where he commonly dined and meditated, and took his tobacco.” This ” gallery” corresponds with that in Caxton’s house, which we well remember : its identity has been questioned j and in one of the appendices to Mr. Gilbert Scott’s Gleanings from Westminster Abbey, Mr. Burges suggests, not altogether without probability, that it was in the spacious triforiuui of Westminster Abbey that Caxton first set up his printing-press. Walcott states his ” place of trade near a little chapel of St. Catherine. It is not, however, wholly improbable that at first he erected his press near one of the little chapels attached to the aisles of the Abbey, or in the ancient Scriptorium.”
” There is an old brick house in Tothill-street, opposite Dartmouth-street, which was probably at one time connected with the Almonry. It has upon its front, sunken in the brickwork, the letters E. (Eleemosynaria?) T.A. (perhaps the initials of the almoner’s name), with, however, a late date, 1571. A heart, which is above the 1 inscription, was the symbol used in the old Clog Almanacks for the Annunciation, the Purification, and all other Feast-days of Our Lady.” — Walcott’s Westminster, 1819.
This Office, in Middle Scotland-yard, Whitehall, is maintained expressly for the distribution of the Royal Alms, or Bounty, to the poor. The duties of the Hereditary Grand Almoner, first instituted in the reign of Richard I., are confined to the distribution of alms at a Coronation. The office of the High Almoner is of a more general description. In the reign of Edward I. his office was to collect the fragments from the royal table, and distribute them daily to the poor ; to visit the sick, poor widows, prisoners, and other persons in distress ; to remind the King about the bestowd of his alms, especially on Saints’ days and to see that the cast-off robes were sold, to increase the King’s charity.
Chamberlayne describes the Great Almoner’s office, in 1755, to have included the disposal of the King’s alms, for which use he received moneys, besides all deodands and bona felonum de se. He had the privilege to give the King’s dish to whatsoever poor men he pleased ; that is, the first dish at dinner, set upon the King’s table, or instead, 44. per diem. Next, he distributed every morning, at the court-gate, money, bread, and beer, each poor recipient first repeating the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, in the presence of one of the King’s chaplains, the Sub-Almoner; who had also to scatter newly-coined twopences, in the towns and places visited by the King, to a certain sum by the year. Besides these, there were many poor pensioners to tho King and Queen below stairs.
For more than a century the office of Lord High Almoner was held by the Archbishops of York ; but on the death of Archbishop Harcourt, in November, 1847, the office was conferred upon Dr. Samuel Wilberforce, Lord Bishop of Oxford.
The distribution of Alms on the Thursday before Easter, or Maundy Thursday, takes place in Whitehall Chapel ; that at Easter, Whitsuntide, and Christmas, at the Office in Middle Scotland-yard.
Thus, the Royal Maundy was distributed on Maundy Thursday, 1866, in Whitehall Chapel, with the customary formalities, to 47 aged men and 47 aged women, the number of each sex corresponding
with the age of her Majesty.
The procession is formed in the following order : — Boys of the Chapel Royal, Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, Priests of the Chapel Royal, Sergeant-Major of the Yeomen of the Guard, the Sergeant of the Vestry, the Lord High Almoner, the Sub-Almoner, and the Sub-Dean, six children of the National Schools, the Yeoman of the Almonry and his assistants, the Yeomen of the Guard, one carrying the Royal Alms on a gold salver, of the reign of King William and Queen Mary.
A special service is then read, and after the first Anthem, £l. 15s. is distributed to each woman, and to each man shoes and stockings. After the second Anthem woollen and linen clothes are distributed.
After the third Anthem, purses. And after the fourth Anthem, two prayers composed for the occasion are read, and the prayer for the Queen, when the sermon is ended.
Each red purse contained the usual gold sovereign, and a further sum of £1, 10s. as a commutation in lieu of provisions formerly issued from the Lord Steward’s department of the Queen’s Household. Each white purse contained the Maundy coin, consisting of silver fourpenny, threepenny, twopenny, and penny pieces, amounting to 47, the age of Her Majesty.
On Friday and Saturday in the previous week, and on Monday and Tuesday in the current week, Her Majesty’s Royal Bounty of 5s., and the Royal alms, in ancient times distributed at the gate of the Royal Palace, were paid to aged and deserving poor who had been previously selected by the Lord High Almoner and the Sub-Almoner, from those who had been recommended by various clergymen and by other persons in London and its vicinity. The number relieved exceeded 1000 persons, among whom very many were blind, paralyzed, and disabled, some exceeding 90 years of age. Formerly bread, meat, and fish were distributed in large wooden bowls, and the officers carried bouquets of flowers and wore white scarves and sashes ; but the earliest custom was the King washing with his own hands the feet of as many poor men as he was old, in imitation of the humility of the Saviour. The last monarch who performed this act was James II.
The pious Queen Adelaide, who died in 1849, and is known to have expended one-third of her large income in private and public charity, maintained in her household an Almoner, whose duty it was to investigate all applications for the royal benevolence.