NOSTALGIA: Fascinating beginnings of Eastbourne’s longest-established local charity

The first tenants of the Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes in Seaside
The first tenants of the Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes in Seaside

In the Victorian era finding a home after retirement could be a worrying prospect for elderly people of low income and without friends or family to turn to, writes Peter Austin in the first instalment of a new book written about QACH.

For some in Eastbourne, the end of a working life in tied accommodation meant help from the Board of Guardians or accommodation in the workhouse in Church Street.

This weighed on the conscience of many in the town in a position of influence, and in 1905 the mayor, Councillor Charles Simmons, decided to do something about it.

The result was the Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes in Seaside which has this year celebrated its 110th anniversary.

From a modest building of eight small apartments providing accommodation for 16 of the town’s ‘aged deserving poor’; the Homes have grown into a complex comprising 68 flats, studios and bungalows, together with a 28-bed care wing.

It remains Eastbourne’s longest-established local charity.

The growth of the project over the years has now been chronicled in A History of Eastbourne’s Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes put together by Lin Wilkinson, a former warden.

It all began in 1905 with a letter from Councillor Simmons to the Eastbourne Gazette:

Sir, I have, for some years past, felt the urgent desirability of doing something of a practical character on behalf of the aged deserving poor and have formulated a scheme for the erection of Cottage Homes, which could be granted to such cases as might be deemed worthy of a duly constituted committee.

I have had a plan prepared of a single building containing eight tenements, which will provide accommodation for sixteen old people.

Each tenement consists of a living room and bedroom with the necessary offices and if desired further extensions would be made at a comparatively small cost.

It is estimated that such a building can be erected for about £1,100 and the furniture and fittings would cost about £200.

There can be no doubt that many poor old people have a distinct dread of the workhouse and endure much hardship in preference to going there. Some of them no doubt have friends who could provide a small weekly sum for their maintenance but if not then I think some arrangement might be made whereby the Guardians would contribute a small weekly sum for that object.

I have not brought the proposal before the inhabitants of Eastbourne earlier as I was anxious to do nothing to hamper subscriptions to the Mayor’s Poor Fund; but I think the time has arrived when I may ask those who are interested in the matter, and who would like to hear further details, to communicate with me in order I may get them to attend a meeting to be held in the Mayor’s Parlour at an early date when I would further explain the proposal.

I shall therefore be much obliged if you would insert this letter in your next issue as I feel certain that if a beginning in this direction is made in Eastbourne it will be copied in other towns.

Yours faithfully

C F Simmons, mayor.

Simmons was a self-made businessman who had come to Eastbourne from Seaford in 1878 with his blind mother. He set up a small retail dairy business in Tideswell Road supplied by cows kept in fields at Langney. Shops in Seaside Road, The Goffs and Meads Road followed and Charles became part of the local establishment, joining the town council in 1896 and going on to become chairman of the Pier Company and a director of the Eastbourne Mutual Building Society.

The letter brought a positive response and on March 16 1905 a public meeting was held in the Town Hall and a working committee formed.

Charles Simmons’ vision was of accommodation modelled on that pioneered for the needy elderly in Denmark where a cottage home was provided for the ‘well-conducted poor’; Queen Alexandra had discreetly urged the introduction of such a scheme in Britain, hence her agreement to allow the Eastbourne homes to be named after her.

Within months a site for the Homes had been found in what was then a sparsely populated area of Seaside. The land was leased by the Duke of Devonshire for £500 with a £15 per annum ground rent and the option to buy the freehold for £500 within 10 years. Such was the success of the Homes, the Duke donated the freehold five years later.

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