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Newsletter 44 - Autumn 2005
The ‘Pest House’ at Odiham
Sheila Millard and Edward Roberts
A 17th-century poor house
The ‘Pest House’ stands by the south-west corner of Odiham churchyard next to Old Court almshouses. It is an extraordinary survival from the early-17th century: a tiny, single-storey house measuring approximately 3.85m (12 feet 8 inches) by 6.10m (20 feet). Its brick walls – in English bond - are 228mm (9 inches) thick. It was formerly partitioned to provide a small, heated living room and a smaller unheated room with a rough sleeping loft above.
The origin of the Pest House is revealed in an Odiham Consolidated Charities report as follows.
By indenture of feoffment, bearing date 21st February 1622, Julian Smith of Odiham conveyed to John Godson and 11 others, described as inhabitants, parishioners, churchwardens and overseers of Odiham and their heirs, a parcel of land, containing by estimation 20 feet in breadth, and 40 feet in length, bounded on the north by the churchyard; with tenement or cottage thereon lately erected by the parishioners, churchwardens and overseers, to the intent that the same should be continually employed for a dwelling-house for some of the poor of the said parish.
Thus this tiny house – in spite of its present name - was built in, or shortly before, 1622 as a parish poor house. Rather grand almshouses endowed by benevolent gentlemen survive fairly commonly from this date. Good local examples are the almshouses in Basingstoke founded by Sir James Deane in 1607, almshouses in Alton founded by Capt. Thomas Geale, J.P., who died in 1657 and Old Court almshouses in Odiham founded by Sir Edward More in 1623.
However, more lowly poor houses supported by parish rates rarely survive. The Pest House is also a fascinating and rare example of a type of house then occupied by the very poor. There may once have been many such hovels that were demolished long ago to be replaced by houses that satisfied rising standards of living. This tiny cottage has survived because it continued to provide shelter for the parish poor.
Fig. 2. Plan and sections of the Pest House (after drawings in the Odiham Society archives).
The Old Pest House
Although it had been founded as a poor house by the late-18th century it had acquired new names. Odiham parish burial registers of that date identify graves as being near ‘the Old Pest House’ or ‘Gathercoales’. Several of the gravestones are still extant, their location proving that these names were indeed being applied to the poor house. This is further confirmed by a reference in the parish burial register to a path ‘by Gathercoales leading to Sutton’ (see Fig. 1).
Robert Gathercoale, a pauper who ‘maintained the churchyard’, occupied the ‘Old Pest House’ from 1786 until his death in 1805. His wife’s place of death in 1817 is described as the ‘Cottage by the Almshouses’ as was also Ann Hescot’s in 1815 when she was described as ‘Churchyard Cleaner’. Churchyard Cottage is given as the place of death of later tenants who were also paupers. This confusing variation in naming was compounded in 1875 when it was called ‘Julian Smith’s house’ after the man who had gifted the poor house to the parish in 1622.
When Odiham’s Charities were consolidated in 1886, a report described Julian Smith’s gift as ‘a cottage with a small garden on the south side of the churchyard, which is occupied by a poor family rent-free, placed there by the parish officers’. After this date, the Pest House was administered together with the adjacent almshouses: a poor, single occupant receiving 7/- (35p) a week. The last resident died in 1930 and local reminiscences record how he obtained daily a bucket of water from the pump outside the wash house of the adjacent almshouses of Old Court.
The ‘New’ Pest House
Given that the Pest House was founded as a poor house and continued to be used as such until within living memory, its present name, ‘The Pest House’ calls for some explanation. ‘Pest’ is a word formerly used to denote plague. For example, in 1665/66 the Privy Council sent orders to the Justices of the Peace of Middlesex and Westminster to erect pest houses to prevent the spread of the plague. Pest houses were still being built in the mid-18th century for smallpox victims but, by the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, many are described as ‘formerly’ or ‘late used as’ pest houses.
Odiham parish burial registers record a total of thirteen deaths from smallpox in the years 1788, 1789, 1792, 1796, 1799 and 1800 and outbreaks of smallpox continued in Odiham until the early 20th century. Cholera, too, was rife in Odiham in the 19th century. Thus there was clearly a need in the parish to help and, if possible, to isolate sufferers. It is the importance of isolation in order to limit the spread of infection that makes the location of a pest house near a church so strange. We can only conclude that, lacking an alternative place to keep those suffering from infectious diseases, the overseers of the poor in Odiham were occasionally obliged to use an unsuitably situated house that had been intended solely for the poor.
Traditionally pest houses were built on the outskirts of settlements and, in the late-18th century, Odiham’s overseers of the poor took steps to set up a new pest house at some distance from the town. Hence the house by the churchyard became known as ‘The Old Pest House’. At a meeting of the overseers in 1781, it was ‘ordered that the plan proposed by Mr. Hannam (a local surgeon) for building a house for airing the poor in the smallpox be taken into consideration at a future meeting’. The following year Dame Welch (perhaps the matron of the Workhouse) was paid for airing the Pest House and may date the building of a ‘new’ Pest House in a more customary position.
Fig. 3. The Pest House from the north.
The ‘new’ Pest House was situated on the north-east outskirts of the town at Colt Hill at a point where the road to Hartley Wintney crossed the Basingstoke canal (Fig. 1). An indenture dated 1812, but citing transactions as early as 1784, refers to closes of land in Odiham ‘adjacent to the Turnpike road to Hartley Row’ and to ‘a tenement called the pest house by a part of Odiham Wharf’. A valuation of lands for the lord of the manor in 1801, after the opening of the canal in 1794, refers to ‘Pest House Close’, which was rented by the wharfinger.
The Basingstoke Canal Company bought additional land in the vicinity and by 1815 a new wharf, warehouse, coal pens and cart sheds had been built. Parish records show that the new Pest House remained and that between 1821 and 1824 the births and deaths of three children from one family are recorded there and in 1822 a place of birth was described as at Odiham Wharf.
Odiham’s 18th-century Workhouse
From the early-18th century, further provision was made for Odiham’s poor by a workhouse situated in what is now Albert Terrace near the London Road (leading to Colt Hill – see Fig. 1). It was sold in 1836 after the opening of a Union Workhouse in Hartley Wintney as an outcome of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. As the new workhouse incorporated an infirmary, to which a medical officer was appointed, the ‘new’ Pest House by Odiham Wharf would have been redundant. There is no mention of a pest house there in c.1843 when the Odiham Tithe Map and Schedule show that all the land in the vicinity of the canal belonged to the Basingstoke Canal Company.
The more recent history of the Pest House
As the Pest House fell into disuse, it became the subject of rather romantic stories. In 1949 the author of an illustrated letter to Country Life suggested that it was ‘built half underground in order that germs might not float out of the single window and endanger passers-by’!
Lack of use led to lack of care. An illustrated newspaper article shows that in 1938 the Pest House was lime washed and thus perhaps still in a reasonable state of repair but, by 1969, it was used as a store for churchyard maintenance equipment. By then vandals had so seriously damaged the roof that a local resident wrote to the Daily Telegraph pleading that the adjacent footpath leading to the football field be moved and that the Pest House be surrounded with a high wire fence ‘for the protection of this ancient monument’. An article in the Hants & Berks Gazette in 1974 described it ‘in need of repair’ and it was again damaged by vandals in 1976. Proposals to build new almshouses in 1978 threatened the Pest House with demolition but the Pest House Rescue Committee persuaded its owners – the Odiham Consolidated Charities – that this historic building should be saved.
The roof was repaired in 1979 when the sleeping loft and a Victorian extension to the south were removed. Further restoration and maintenance was undertaken in 1980-81 by the Odiham Society with a view to its subsequent use as a mini heritage centre housing artifacts of local interest. Grants toward its restoration were obtained from the Department of the Environment, Hampshire County Council, Hart District Council and Odiham Parish Council. The Odiham Society organized fund-raising events and with donations from generous local residents and Society members, who in many cases provided voluntary labour, the newly restored Pest House was officially opened in October 1981.
All the restoration to this Grade II Listed building was supervised by the Historic Buildings Bureau of Hampshire County Council. Maintained by the Odiham Society, the Pest House is opened at weekends or by appointment (www.odiham-society.org). It is frequently used as an educational resource by schools both locally and from outside the immediate area.
Finally, the fact that the Pest House, along with other housing for the poor, was built in the early-17th century is not hard to explain. By the second decade of that century, the purchasing power of the agricultural labourer’s daily wage-rate was only 44% of what it had been in the late 15th century. Moreover, the assistance to the poor that had formerly been provided by the monasteries was, of course, no longer available. Little wonder, then, that this was a time when the well-to-do were erecting almshouses all over England.