Almshouse charities can be found across the Cotswolds, including Cirencester, Tetbury and Stow on the Wold. Many people imagine that almshouses are relics from the past but with 35,000 people living in them across the UK, these charities are providing a vital need for social housing. Charlotte Shepherd looks at the relevance of almshouse charities today.

FIRST established in 1235 as an asylum for two woman lepers, the St Lawrence Hospital charity in Cirencester is one of the oldest almshouse charities still in existence in the country today.

One of the largest of four almshouse charities in Cirencester, St Lawrence has 22 houses, many of them listed but several newer properties, occupied by 27 residents (known as beneficiaries).

The charity provides housing for people of pensionable age and limited means, who have a connection with Cirencester. Trustees work behind the scenes to ensure that the properties are maintained and any problems that the beneficiaries have are sorted out.

Lord Bathurst was recently appointed master of this almshouse charity, a position held by several generations of his forebears. He said: "We can offer our beneficiaries a home for life providing they can look after themselves. It offers people security."

With four residents above the age of 90 and seven over the age of 80, the St Lawrence Hospital charity is keen to offer more than just a secure home and wants to promote a community feeling amongst its beneficiaries.

Chris Rowles, clerk to the charity's five trustees, explained: "We are a charity looking after people who may be vulnerable. The ethos of St Lawrence is that beneficiaries know they have someone they can call on."

A community feel is also important at Cirencester's largest almhouse charity, St John's Hospital. With 25 houses around the town, this charity, which was established by King Henry 1, helps elderly people who are perceived to be in need.

Clerk Richard Mullings explained: "One of the strengths of almshouses is that they are a community. We always try to select residents who we feel will fit into that community. "Almshouses are such an important part of our town's heritage but are also providing a social service."

Almshouses trace their history back to monastic times where the terms bedehouse, hospital, maison dieu, almshouse and others described the provision of accommodation for those in need.

Almshouses are seen as the original providers of social housing and today there are around 1,700 separate almshouse charities in the UK. Of these over 30 percent occupy listed buildings and many have celebrated anniversaries of over 400 years.

Like those in Cirencester, many almshouses lie in the heart of towns and villages helping residents to retain links to the local community and services.

The Almshouse Association supports independent almshouse charities throughout the UK, including those in the Cotswolds. Deputy director Julian Marczak, believes almshouses are more relevant today than ever before. "Almshouses house around 35,000 people in the UK and in some rural areas they are very often the only provider of social housing in the area," he said.

"People perceive them to be a thing of the past because many almshouses are in listed, old buildings but they are a key provider of social housing. People are living longer than ever before so providing accommodation for people of advanced years is more relevant than ever before."

Christina Snell, chief executive of Gloucestershire Age Concern, agrees. She said: "We have a growing elderly population and in these times many are struggling to make ends meet. Almshouses form an important part of the tapestry of the provision we have for the elderly. The number of older poor people is not going to decline at any time in the future."

But almshouses do not just provide accommodation for the elderly. The Tetbury Almshouse charity has been up and running since the 1600's, with three flats in one house and provides accommodation for women of all ages.

"We offer our flats to women who are perceived to be in need and have connections with the Tetbury area," explained trustee Pamela Bird. "One young lady is in her early 30's and another lady has been with us for 20 years. The almshouses are still very important today and have always been well used. I do think there will always be people who need this sort of thing."

For 79-year old Alma and 84 year-old Fred Sollis, who moved to Cirencester from Bicester, their two-bedroom St Lawrence house offers them the chance to be closer to Fred's daughters. "We lived in a housing association flat in Cirencester but I always wanted to be in a place with my own front and back door," said Mrs Sollis.

"We will have been here for seven years this year and really like it. We won't move from here now. If there are any problems we know that the trustees will sort it out. We are very happy here."