NOSTALGIA: Happy alternative to the Eastbourne workhouse

Lin Wilkinson has penned a book about the Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes
Lin Wilkinson has penned a book about the Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes

Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes was initially the brainchild of the then mayor of Eastbourne Councillor Charles Simmons, writes Peter Austin. He wrote to the Eastbourne Gazette in 1906 of his concern that the aged deserving poor should have an alternative to the workhouse in Church Street.

His plan was for a single building containing eight tenements to provide accommodation for 16 old people.

He estimated the building cost would be £1,100 and furniture and fittings costing about £200.

He wrote at the time, “There can be no doubt that many poor old people have a distinct dread of the workhouse and endure much hardship in preference of going there.”

The letter by the self made businessman touched the hearts of Eastbourne people and brought a positive response with a working committee soon set up.

Within months a site for the Cottage 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 within 10 years.

Such was the success of the Homes, the Duke donated the freehold five years later.

A public appeal for the £1,400 building cost was launched and most of it was met by generous benefactors including Simmons himself, the Reverend Herbert Alston, Miss Alston, Miss Swift and Councillor Cayford.

Building work by local firm Miller and Selmes began in October 1905 and by the spring of 1906 the building was nearing completion.

On June 5 the Homes were formally opened by the Duchess of Devonshire.

The Devonshire family’s support has continued with the current Duchess being patron of the Homes.

The Homes’ archive provides details of some of the early tenants:

a) Husband and wife. Life residence (in Eastbourne), both aged over 75 years. Income derived from two Friendly Societies amounting to about 6s per week.

b) Husband and wife aged 71, 78, a Crimean veteran and 23 years honourable civil service. Income, a small pension.

c) Formerly kept a school – age 72. Life resident. Weekly maintenance guaranteed by friends.

d) Residence 33 years. Age 79. Income 5s per week derived from life savings and small legacy left in consideration of long service.

e) Crimean veteran, aged 73. Worked for Corporation for 15 years. Small pension.

For those first tenants the rent was a nominal 1d per week, but the rules and regulations of occupancy were austere, requiring residents to scrub their rooms each week, share general upkeep duties, observe a 10pm curfew and keep Sunday free from liquor.

The first of a number of new wings was added to the Homes in 1912, funded by the Rev Alston.

The generous retired clergyman paid for a further block three years later, and in 1924 the Homes added more rooms following a £5,000 legacy from John Chisholm Towner.

The Homes’ founder, Charles Simmons, died in 1925, and a wing was renamed after him, and continues to bear his name today.

Expansion was not without its difficulties however.

In 1937 a new wing was funded by a £4,000 bequest from the estate of local entrepreneur Caleb Diplock.

However, a family feud resulted in Diplock’s will being contested and the Cottage Homes was among a number of local charities obliged to pay back their bequests.

An overdraft was required to settled the debt which was not cleared until 1951.

In more recent times the Homes has celebrated the Millennium, and its 2006 centenary, with new buildings and modernisation, creating a complex that Charles Simmons could only have dreamed of.

The Cottage Homes remains a charity overseen by trustees and while the definition of ‘aged deserving poor’ has changed with time, a local background and limited means remain criteria for residency.

Lin Wilkinson’s book details the people and events that have enabled the Homes to grow into a modern retirement and care complex.

The book is available from the Queen Alexandra Cottage Homes, 557 Seaside, Eastbourne, BN23 6NE, at £4.50, plus £2 postage and packaging where required, or from the Heritage Centre, 2 Carlisle Road, Eastbourne.

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