After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, there were no longer any institutions to look after the poor and needy. Only in 1601 did the Poor Laws make this a duty of local government. Until then, the poor depended purely on the charity of individuals. It was up to the gentry and nobility to set an example in this work, and many of them founded almshouses, to take care of the 'deserving' poor. Even after the new laws came in, there was still a need for decent free housing for the old, and almshouses became a regular feature of village life.
The Countess of Cumberland intended her foundation to be for thirteen poor widows: a Mother and twelve Sisters. By her death in 1616, however, only the round building was completed. This contained accommodation for the Mother, who had a tiny bedroom as well as a living room, and for six of the Sisters, with one room each. All the rooms had fireplaces. In the centre of the building, and at the heart of the women's daily lives, was the chapel, in which prayers were said each morning by a specially-appointed Reader. Its unusual design was possibly inspired by the round churches built by the Knights Templar, such as that in the City of London.
The furniture in the chapel today was provided by Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke, who continued her mother's work at Beamsley. In a deed of 1631, Lady Anne stated that she had, after her mother's death 'erected the greatest part of the said hospital.' This refers to the long range facing the road, which used to contain six dwellings, each with a tiny attic. It is possible that she also put the finishing touches to the round building, in addition to furnishing it; and she certainly put the Hospital's finances in order.
The Hospital's income came from two farms, the rents from which kept the buildings in repair and paid the allowances promised to the Mother and each of the Sisters, and to the Reader. To begin with their management was the responsibility of the Mother, but this later passed to the agent of the Skipton Castle Estate, representing the Castle's owner, who was hereditary Chairman of the Trustees. All the Hospital papers, however, were stored in a painted chest in the Mother's room. This still exists, although sadly for its safety it is no longer kept in the building.
The almswomen's lives were lived according to the Rules set out by Lady Anne. How little these changed over the centuries can be seen by comparing the original version, as recorded by Lady Anne in 1665, with the printed Orders hanging on the wall in the entrance passage, dated 1929.
By the 1950s the buildings at Beamsley were old-fashioned and inadequate, and most of the rooms were empty. A programme of modernisation was carried out from 1958-60, and for a few years after this, the Hospital was full. Then numbers started to fall again. With the arrival of council retirement homes and sheltered housing, the elderly no longer needed the Countess of Cumberland's protection.
In 1983, the Hospital Trustees decided to pass the buildings on to the Landmark Trust, as a charity which specialises in the care of historic buildings. After restoration, the long range is now let to two permanent tenants, while the round building is let for holidays to parties of up to five people, who can live briefly in these curious rooms, with the quiet central chapel in their midst.
To read more about the history of Beamsley Hospital please click here.