Along The Moors
Approaching Preston-upon-the-Weald Moors from the west it is almost impossible not to notice the elegant classical outline of Preston Hospital… one of Shropshire’s genuine architectural treasures. The distinctive grade one listed building, replete with central hall and arcaded wings of red brick and stone dressing, was built in the mid 1720s at the bequest of a member of the local gentry to provide shelter and accommodation for poor widows and girls. Despite its humble origins, the hospital is now widely recognised as one of the finest examples of small-scale Georgian almshouse architecture in Britain. Yet, the principle reason for its existence lies much further afield.
Lady Catherine’s Legacy
Preston Hospital was founded at the bequest of Lady Catherine Herbert, daughter of the first Earl Bradford, who died in 1716. She left a legacy of £6000 to her brother Lord Torrington who was given responsibility, along with a number of other trustees, to build and endow almshouses for 12 poor women and 12 girls born in Shropshire. The reason behind Lady Catherine’s generous gift lay in her rescue while lost in the Alps where, according to legend, she was led by St. Bernard dogs to a monastery. When the monks refused payment for her salvation, she decided instead to build her own refuge for the less fortunate as thanksgiving.
Under the terms of Lady Herbert’s bequest, the 12 widows were to be selected by the trustees from women of ‘formerly good character but in reduced circumstances’, while the girls, all aged between 7 and 14, were to be instructed for domestic service and agricultural work. After his death in 1718, Lord Torrington’s estate was added to the legacy, together with his property at Preston, a saltworks at nearby Kinley and £1000 to build a hall in the centre of the almshouses, intended for use as a chapel and school-room for the girls. Building work appears to have been completed by 1726. The architect of the scheme is unknown, although evidence suggests it was probably Francis Smith of Warwick, who designed mansions at Kinlet and Buntingsdale (Market Drayton) in the same decade.
The widows occupied linked parlour-bedrooms, with their own small gardens, in the west wing of the hospital. In 1830, they each received a pension of £18 per annum, two tonnes of coal, bedding and furniture and a £5 allowance for funeral expenses. By that time, the number of widows living on site had increased to 26, following the addition of two side wings by JH Haycock, completed in 1827. The number of girls boarding at the hospital appears to have increased, too, and in 1818 there were 20 scholars receiving tuition in the central hall, while the upper age limit for young residents was raised to 16 by 1880.
Boarding appears to have continued on site until 1952, while elderly widows and unmarried women were still accommodated in the hospital’s 24 bed-sit flats in 2001. However, the slump in demand for such properties, combined with their secluded location and the prohibitive cost of improving them, led to the homes’ trustees reluctantly deciding to sell the hospital building and relocate to more modern facilities in Newport, which opened in 2004. Since then, the almshouses have been sympathetically re-developed as private properties and have retained much of their original character. This is evident as the trail approaches the outskirts of Preston, where two gate lodges (built in 1831 with materials from the village brickworks) still stand guard over the hospital quadrangle. The forecourt is approached via a tree-lined avenue that comes to an end before a set of original 18th Century wrought iron gates, incorporating the crest of the Newport family — the original founders of the institution.