2. The Almshouses
George Newman 1794–1855
For a man who lived in Higham Ferrers for a maximum of fourteen years, George Newman has made a lasting impression.
So, what do we know about the person who left us one of the most recognisable buildings in the town?
His early years
The earliest record found dates from 17 April 1794 and it is the baptism of one George Newman at St. Mary’s, Portsea, Hampshire. Portsea is a district of Portsmouth just across the Solent from Whippingham, Isle of Wight, the place that George gave as his birthplace on the 1851 census. This information ties in with the dates and later information found on contemporary censuses indicating that this is the George Newman who later came to live in Higham Ferrers.
From looking at the Newman family tree it appears George came from a reasonable sized family for the day. It shows he had 4 sisters. George may well have had a twin sister, he and she being younger siblings of a previous set of twins as well as sister born before any twins. It can also be assumed that his family were not averse to travelling. The oldest sister married a chaplain and lived in Russia for a while and Martha, whom is thought to be his twin, emigrated to Port Elizabeth, South Africa and had at least six children.
George’s working life
Sadly, we know nothing else about George until 1841 when we find him living in Church Street, Wollaston, aged 45. He is employed as an ‘Officer of Excise’ which means he worked for the Inland Revenue and perhaps it is during this time that George acquired sufficient wealth to enable him to buy some thirteen cottages.
In February 1849 he is found to be listed as one of many “Persons of whom the company or partnership consists”. This list is for the Northamptonshire Union Bank which means that he was a shareholder and not necessarily employed by the bank1 . The bank was established in 1836 and at one point it could issue its own bank notes2. In 1920 it was acquired by the National Provincial and Union Bank of England and later was subsumed into what is now The NatWest Bank.
These cottages remain thatched so they were untouched by the fire. George Newman might have been lodging in one of these houses. Note the open drain on the right-hand edge of the picture.
George and Higham Ferrers
By 1851 George was living, apparently lodging, in High Street, Higham Ferrers, with William & Sarah Brown and family. William was a Tailor and Draper. The census unfortunately does not tell us in which property they were living. This was before the fire in 1882 which devasted many houses in High Street, but as William Brown’s house was not destroyed it can be assumed that the house was one of those after Nene Road. At this time George’s occupation was noted as being “Proprietor of Houses”. He was 55 years of age.
On Saturday 14 Feb 1852 he is listed again as a shareholder for the Northamptonshire Union Bank and still living in Higham Ferrers.
Just over four years later, on 7 October 1855 George died aged 62. He was buried in St Mary’s Church, Higham Ferrers and his grave is clear to see behind the east window, close to the main church building. The proximity of his grave to the church is perhaps an indication of his level of importance to the town.
A transcript of his will and the bequests therein shows him to have amassed a substantial estate over the years in both property and money. His wealth and possessions amounting to him being the equivalent of a millionaire by today’s standards. The monies and possessions of his estate were distributed to people close to him in Higham Ferrers with financial bequests to his (twin) sister’s children in South Africa. His executor was William Brown, with whom he lodged.
In order to build the Almshouses the Corporation of Higham had to engage in a land swap with The Honourable George Fitzwilliam. The exchanges went ahead and it enabled the Corporation to build the Almshouses to face the road in one row. The memorial stone set into the front of the houses states that the foundation stone was laid on 25 June 1866 by Henry Green, Senior Alderman of the Corporation of Higham Ferrers some 11 years after George Newman’s death. By 1871 six ladies, either widowed or single, were living in the newly built Almshouses. The blue plaque indicates that they were built in 1885 some 30 years after his death.
Those are the bare facts of the life of a man who was clearly given to charitable works and helping others as his will and the newspapers from the time amply demonstrate. Nothing has been found as to why he chose to set up the Newman’s Charity to help widows or spinsters of Higham Ferrers but numerous women have benefitted from his generosity. His gift, some 400 years after that of Archbishop Chichele, gave help to poor women just as Archbishop Chichele had given help to poor men.
The Newman Charity / Trust still exists to this day and is administered by residents of the town with Trustees to ensure that where possible widows and spinsters are housed in accordance with George Newman’s wishes.
Little has changes over the past seven decades