The History of Thorner’s Homes

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In 1973, Mr. Alfred Rose OBE JP, Chairman of Thorner’s, researched the history of the Charity and wrote a very detailed typewritten booklet summarising its history to date; extracts from this were well publicised at the time in the “Southern Evening Echo” and he wrote up the story for the “Hampshire Magazine”. This was at a time when Thorner’s Trustees were heavily involved in building work, the careful planning for which had been due to Mr. Rose’s energy and foresight.

The following is taken from that publication and a later publication to celebrate the bi-centenary and was written primarily for the interest of the Residents of Thorner’s, and draws heavily on Mr. Rose’s work for the early history, although since 1973, more information has become available in the form of old documents now housed in the City Archives.  The additional research and writing of this history was undertaken by Mr. Bryan Hunt, a former Trustee, to whom we owe our thanks.

ROBERT THORNER: HIS WILL AND LAST TESTAMENT

The existence of Thorner’s is due to a bequest made by Robert Thorner, a London merchant who lived in the turbulent times of the 17th century; during his lifetime the long struggle between Parliament and Crown came to a head, with the country plunged into civil war, which ended with King Charles I’s execution. To add to these troubles, the great plague decimated the population of London and many provincial centres: this was followed in 1666 by the Fire of London, which destroyed 13,000 houses and led to the rebuilding of the insanitary old city area. It was under these conditions that Robert Thorner built a successful merchant business, of which little detail is known. He had been born in 1621, and as his health began to fail he decided to retire to Hampshire, at North Baddesley near Southampton. He moved there sometime in the 1680s and was twice married, dying in 1690. He was buried in the churchyard of North Baddesley; his second wife outlived him, and married again. Robert Thorner, along with his two wives, still lie today in their tombs under a yew tree opposite the manor house where he spent his last years.

His will, copies of which still exist, was made in May 1690. He appointed five Trustees to administer his estate, one of whom was a clothier, Isaac Watts, father of the famous hymn writer whose statue stands in the Southampton parks. Being a deeply religious man, Robert Thorner joined the Above Bar Congregational Church (known at that time as the “Independent Congregation of Southampton”), and his will provided that, after certain individual bequests, sums of money should be devoted to educational and apprenticeship purposes in Wessex towns, as well as specific amounts to his Church, of which he was a staunch supporter and trustee. He also left £500 in 1690 to Harvard College, New England, now the famous American university.

The balance of his estate, which consisted of properties in the city of London from which rentals accrued, was to be employed in the building of Almshouses in the town and county of Southampton for the maintenance of poor widows, each of whom was to be allowed two shillings per week. The almshouses were to be built as soon as the estate built up enough capital from the rents received.

The will also laid down that each Trustee should nominate his successor before death, or else the surviving trustees should find a pious and sober successor.  This provision caused some problems in later years, because subsequent trustees gradually lost a local connection, and could, and did, live anywhere in the UK, though they always made one annual visit to Thorner’s in Southampton.

THE FIRST ALMSHOUSES, LONDON ROAD, SOUTHAMPTON

It was nearly a hundred years after Robert Thorner’s death that the Trustees  were able (or saw fit) to consider building the first almshouses, though they  had faithfully carried out the terms of the will by administering the various religious, educational and apprenticeship responsibilities, under the direction of the High Court, later the Charity Commission. It seems likely that the delay was caused by the income from the property rents not having been sufficient to perform all the conditions of the will, but, at last, in 1787, the Trustees purchased for £450 a piece of land adjoining the present Civic Centre Road, and, by 1793 eighteen tenements and a small chapel had been constructed at a cost of just over £3,500. This housed 18 widows, who were selected by the Trustees, with preference given to those who supported the Congregational Church.

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In 1825, the Charity Commission carried out a thorough investigation of all the Hampshire Charities. At that time, the Southampton Trustee who looked after the day-to-day affairs of Thorner’s Charity was the Rev. Thomas Adkins.

The Commission’s report was not unfavourable to the management, but they felt that enough money had been accumulated to undertake further building, and the Commission recommended that proper fire insurance should be provided. In 1826/8 an additional block was built, and the minute books, which are lodged in the Southampton City Archives, tell us of the Trustees’ annual visits to Southampton, of the general welfare of the widows, new admissions, and financial details, repair work etc. The almshouse buildings were twice disturbed from below; first in 1817, when the tunnel of the semi-derelict canal began to subside — there was no compensation for this, as the Canal Company was insolvent. However, when the railway company constructed its tunnel under London Road to extend the line to Dorchester, Thorner’s had a second subsidence, and some rebuilding was necessary in 1849. Compensation was obtained on this occasion, though the buildings and the Residents always suffered from the vibration from trains passing underneath.

From 1850 until the early 1930s, Thorner’s in London Road accommodated up to 43 widows in an attractive setting initially, surrounded by farms and nursery gardens, as old town plans indicate: but as the town developed, the Homes became surrounded by shops and offices. During the 1920s, the Town Council had been planning to build a central headquarters for local government, and decided to locate this on the “Marlands”. Alderman Sir Sidney Kimber who was a tireless worker on the Council during this period, was lying awake early one morning, hit upon the idea of purchasing Thorner’s Charity in order to continue New Road to the West Station and thus improve the approach to the new Civic Centre. After various negotiations with the Trustees and in particular Alderman Dunsford the site was bought for £90,000 in October 1930 – the money being used for the new Thorner’s in Regents Park, where the occupants were re-housed. By 1934 all that remained of the original buildings was a heap of rubble, as the new Civic Centre was built. Various stone tablets have been retained to record the original Thorner’s, as well as a watercolour picture by a local artist, painted just before the demolition. By today’s standards, the old Thorner’s Charity would surely have been a listed building, and Southampton lost a charming and distinguished old landmark.

THORNER’S AT HENSTEAD ROAD (Originally the “Polygon Road Block”)

By 1860, the Robert Thorner London property was bringing in more income again, and the Trustees decided to build more homes. A piece of land was bought in Henstead Road, and developed in 1866, with additions in 1887 and 1898. Adjoining land was bought in 1909, and more flats constructed there in 1910, 1927 and 1933, giving accommodation for 40 widows.

By modern standards, the accommodation was primitive, though we learnt from the minutes that gas was installed in the 32 flats existing in 1926, but electricity was not added until 1932!

By the late 1960s, the Charity Commission was reviewing the standards of comfort of all almshouses, and they recommended that the Trustees should either upgrade or rebuild all the buildings in Henstead Road.

Giving consideration to these recommendations, the Trustees decided that it would be best to make a clean sweep of the old buildings, and re-build from scratch; there were, however, considerable legal problems and restrictive covenants to contend with, not to mention the considerable capital cost. However, the Charity Commission, often considered to operate in a 19th century manner, had begun to catch up with the times, and were now prepared to allow money to be borrowed from public funds; they also agreed that the Residents, some of whom were in receipt of Social Security benefits, need no longer live rent-free (as had been stipulated by Robert Thorner’s will), but should make contributions towards the running of the establishment and help to pay the interest from borrowed money. The Department of Health and Social Security agreed to cover any increased payments which the Residents would have to make under the new arrangement.

In 1970, plans were made to demolish all the Henstead Road buildings and erect 85 new flats – an increase of 45 over the old, using money borrowed on mortgage from the Local Authority. There were unfortunately many delays over the scheme, and it took two years to arrange the mortgage, followed by a brick shortage, a building workers’ strike and trouble with the foundations. The first 24 flats were occupied in January 1973, when the first Residents’ contributions were naturally much lower than today’s ! The new buildings included accommodation for a resident Warden and a common room for the Residents. The builders were Richard Miller Ltd, and the architects Gutteridge & Gutteridge of Southampton. The final cost of the scheme was £345,736.

As the first of the old buildings was demolished, the ladies occupying them were moved to the new flats in West Court, Regents Park, as described later. At the time, Mr. Rose (the Chairman) wrote to a former Trustee:

“We were all very sad to see the old buildings in Henstead Road pulled down; I had known them since a boy; it was a sad business moving Residents from their homes, but of course West Court is an enormous improvement, modern, well heated and wired for TV.”  

Later, some of the ladies who had been moved to West Court elected to return to Henstead Road as the new buildings became ready for occupation. The Henstead Road site is a well laid out modern development, with good car parking and general facilities, and with easy access to a pleasant shopping area, and not far from the city centre.

THORNER’S AT REGENTS PARK

When the Town Council planned to buy and demolish the London Road Thorner’s property for the Civic Centre development, the Trustees bought a large house and two acres of land in Regents Park for £5,000 in April 1929, on which to build replacement almshouses. The architects selected were Sir Aston Webb & Son of Westminster, and the successful tenderer for the building of sixty flats was Thomas Lowe of Burton-on-Trent, the cost was £41,000, which today wouldn’t build one small flat!  London Road housed 43 ladies, so Regents Park could accommodate 17 more. The moving of Residents took place gradually as the new buildings were completed, and the whole estate was occupied by the end of 1932, as was described in the “Southern Evening Echo” at the time.

The land purchase included Clifton Lodge and Clifton Cottage, facing Oakley Road; for many years until 1971 the cottage was occupied by the gardener who looked after the grounds. However, by this time the administration and gardening work of the two Thorner’s establishments had become considerable, and it was arranged that the Swaythling Housing Society (of which Mr. Rose was also Chairman) should take over the increasing burden, which was carried on by the Society until 1975. So in 1971 Clifton Cottage was added to the lease of Clifton Lodge, which was subsequently  rented to Oxfam.

THE ROBERT THORNER HOUSING ASSOCIATION

In 1937 the Thorner’s Trustees had acquired a parcel of land in Clifton Road adjoining the Regents Park Homes, and this included a dilapidated house named Clarendon Lodge; this was pulled down, and it was planned to build additional flats on the site. Considerable legal problems were encountered, and no action was taken until after the War, when the building of twenty flats was considered, with a view to selling off the ageing Henstead Road premises, and concentrating all the Residents at Regents Park.  This was turned down by the Charity Commission, as the total accommodation for widows would be less than before.

Considerable complications followed, as the local authority threatened to purchase the site compulsorily in 1957 if Thorner’s did not develop it; however, assurances were given that the site would be developed. In spite of that, the matter drifted into inaction, until there was a major change in the composition of the Trustees after 1966, when more local Southampton-based Trustees were elected.

The new Trustees planned to build 24 flats, borrowing the money from the local authority, with housing subsidies and a contribution from the Residents helped by what was then known as the D.H.S.S. The Charity Commission refused to sanction this project, as the mortgaging of a Charity property was still frowned on, but they did suggest that a Housing Association might be formed as an adjunct to Thorner’s Charity. Such an Association would be able to borrow money from public funds, under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act of 1965, and registered under the Charities Act of 1960. A decision to implement this idea was agreed by the Trustees in 1967, and the Association registered in 1968. There was a further problem in that the new body had no ready cash to proceed and it was not allowed to borrow from Thorner’s; however, Mr. Reg Bums, one of the Trustees, generously made a gift so that the legally-required professional team (architect, solicitor and valuer) could start work: in due course planning permission was obtained for 24 flats. Thus the Robert Thorner Housing Association came into being, and borrowed £70,000, with building started in 1970, to be called “West Court”. The first flats were occupied in November 1971 by ladies moved from Henstead Road, which was in the process of demolition.

The completion of West Court was the subject of considerable local publicity: there was a feature in the “Southern Daily Echo” and an illustrated article in the “Hampshire Magazine”.

In the middle 1970s there was discussion in the Southampton area that Housing Associations might operate together under some ‘umbrella’ system to make administration easier. Since the formation of Robert Thorner HA., the administration and garden work had been carried out by Swaythling Housing Association, with Trustees’ meetings held at Swaythling. However, changes at Swaythling H.S. in 1974 led the Trustees to decide on the appointment of a paid “Clerk to the Trustees” for Thorner’s Homes, an approved post under the Charity Commission rules. It was arranged that the Clerk would also look after the affairs of Robert Thorner HA, with the latter paying Thorner’s Charity for rent and administration. Meanwhile the ‘Umbrella’ scheme had been dropped, and in 1976 Robert Thorner registered under the Housing Corporation, which had been established by the Government in 1964 to promote the development and function of Housing Associations, and to regulate them. “West Court” is for all practical purposes part of Thorner’s, though its accounts were kept separately and Flats could be let to elderly single ladies.

R.T.H.A. was subject to the national rules of all Housing Associations, and received monitoring visits from the Housing Corporation, whereas Thorner’s is subject to Charity Commission and Housing Corporation control.  A complex story, but one which ended well, as the same Trustees have overall responsibility for both organizations.

DEVELOPMENTS AT REGENTS PARK

In 1979 Miss McOwan, for many years Matron for Thorner’s, retired, and in the following year the house which had been bought for her in Northlands Gardens was sold, and another in Lawnside Road was purchased for the Regents Park warden. Subsequently a small office was built for her in the grounds. The Residents in Regents Park had never had a common room, so in 1979 efforts were made to buy No. 135 Regents Park Road, which conveniently adjoins the Thorner’s property, and was up for sale. Unfortunately, the sale fell through as the occupier decided to stay on. However, the house came on the market again in April 1986 and was purchased as a common room, with a flat for the warden above. This enabled the house in Lawnside Road to be sold, and the warden now lives within the Regents Park property. In September 1987 a visit from the Mayor of the City, Mrs. Ivy White, marked the formal opening of the Common Room. The ground floor of 135 Regents Park Road had been converted into a comfortable L-shaped Common Room with a cloakroom and good sized kitchen. So now ladies at both Henstead Road and Regents Park could meet for a chat over a cup of tea, play Bingo, organise other entertainment or come to change their library books, which are supplied by the Public Library. The Warden then lived in a flat on the top floor which is much more convenient and it enabled the house at Lawnside Road to be sold.

THE THREADS OF HISTORY

We have so far covered the origins of Thorner’s Charity, and the story of the Almshouses to 1987. However, there are some historical points concerning the management of the Homes, and the work of the Trustees which are of general interest.

It was earlier stated that Robert Thorner’s will laid down that each Trustee should nominate a successor during his lifetime; often sons or business partners were so nominated, and over the years the trusteeship passed gradually away from persons with a local Southampton interest, though the “absentee” Trustees always had a local Trustee or agent to deal with day-to-day affairs, and all Trustees paid one annual visit to hold a meeting in Southampton and visit the Almshouses.

From after Robert Thorner’s death until 1920, the Charity Commission held Thorner’s London property in trust, and the rents from it were used to fulfil the terms of the will. By 1912, the Trustees had shed their responsibilities for looking after and selecting the Wessex apprenticeships by transferring the administration to Southampton Municipal Charities, though one educational commitment under the will — an annual payment to a school in Dorset — is still maintained. In 1920, it was agreed with the Charity Commission that it would be beneficial to sell the London properties for a sum of over £32,000 and invest the capital, with the resulting income available for Thorner’s. At that time the Residents were still living rent free, but received the two shillings per week grant for living expenses: this was now raised to sixteen shillings.

When war came in 1939, the Charity Commission considered that the construction of air raid shelters for elderly persons was an expensive and unsatisfactory idea, so the Residents were transferred to the Toc H Hostel in Bournemouth for the duration, where it appears that most of them were quite happy and comfortable under the circumstances, and were given the opportunity of visiting Southampton once a month. Some of Thomer’s flats were used to accommodate bombed-out families. Normal life was resumed after 1945, and the Residents were relatively undisturbed until the rebuilding programme of the 1970s, by which time all the “absentee” Trustees had resigned in favour of business and professional persons closely connected with Southampton, who were prepared to administer Thorner’s rather than agree to the suggestion that the Council should take over, as had been suggested by the former Trustees. Great credit for the new arrangements is due to three persons in particular; to the late Alfred Rose, OBE JP, to the late Mr. Reg Burns and to Mr. (former Alderman) Ronald Pugh. Today’s Trustees are appointed by the Board of Trustees, with one nominated by the City Council. They no longer nominate their successors, but serve a five-year term and are available for re-election.

Between the early 1970s and 1987, the Trustees of Thorner’s did not undertake any major new developments. Large annual sums for maintenance and repairs are always required by the Trustees: in 1986 major restoration work had to be done to the windows and brickwork at Regents Park. At Thorner’s Court an investigation into various roof problems in 1985 revealed the flat roofs needed major repairs and the work was placed in hand in 1987. This resulted in the whole area being repaired and resurfaced.

INTO THE 1990s – THE REFURBISHMENT OF THE FLATS AT REGENTS PARK

During the next six years a major project was undertaken — the complete refurbishment of the sixty flats at Regents Park. The opportunity was taken to convert the existing bed-sitter style accommodation with limited and out­dated facilities, designed over sixty years ago, to one bedroom flats with modern kitchens and proper shower rooms, together with an adequate hot  water supply. An ensuite bedroom with a separate living room greatly
enhanced the attractiveness of these flats to our current and future Residents.

The work was planned by architects P.G. Tutte Partnership — in particular Mr. John Hardcastle — and the builders were J. Hobden Ltd. The major proportion of the costs were borne by the Housing Corporation with the remainder being provided by the Charity. The total cost of the work being £950,000.

In order to complete this upgrading each lady had to move out of her own flat into another one whilst the refurbishment took place. This was a big upheaval and placed a heavy workload on the Warden, Mrs. B.J. Taylor, Relief Warden, Mrs. M. Bingham, and Clerk to the Trustees, Mrs. M.L. Lodwick.

The refurbishment of the flats commenced in September 1989 and was completed in August 1993. This coincided with the bi-centenary of the first almshouses built by Thorner’s Charity in 1793.

21ST CENTURY REDEVELOPMENT OF REGENTS PARK ROAD

In the early 1930s Alderman Sir Sydney Kimber persuaded the town council to build the Civic Centre on the Marlands land, in exchange for making other land available for housing, such as the Flowers Estate. Thorner’s Homes had to move, and duly moved to their current site in Regent’s Park Road, Shirley.

Although the estate of some 60 one-bed units was designed by a distinguished national architect, Sir Aston Webb, by 2010 the accommodation was found to be no longer fit for purpose for modern living, and older people were unwilling to live there. The decision was taken to demolish and rebuild, because after careful consideration by the Trustees, refurbishment was found by to be impractical. Planning permission for the rebuild in a much more contemporary style was given by the City Council, with the condition that the clock-tower and principal arch feature and the railings of the original buildings were retained.

July 17th 2014 marked the official opening of the new buildings.