alms·house noun, plural alms·hous·es Chiefly British.

  1. a house endowed by private charity for the reception and support of the aged or infirm poor.
  2. (formerly) a poorhouse.
Sermons Alms house
Sermon’s alms house
Butlers Alms house
Butler’s alms house
Farnells Alms house
Farnell’s alms house
Ingrams Alms house
Ingram’s alms house

If ever there was a growth industry in Old Isleworth it was the founding of almshouses. Over the last 400 years these small, well built, terraced cottages have provided a secure home for some of the district’s most vulnerable people. The names of the almshouses:- Butler’s, Bell’s, Farnell’s, Ingram’s, Rayment’s, Tolson’s and Sermon’s are a reminder of the generous benefactors who bequeathed money for the benefit of the less fortunate members of their community. This is the story of one of them- “a great benefactress to the parish.”

Ann Tolson

Ann Tolson was born in 1661 in Duffield in Derbyshire, the daughter of George Newton. She married three times, first to Henry Sisson and then to John Tolson. When Mr Tolson died Ann found herself “reduced to narrow and confined circumstances and supported herself by keeping a school for the education of young ladies, for which she was well qualified by a natural ingenuity, a strict and regular education, and a mild and gentle disposition.”

Life was hard for Ann in her second widowhood and became more difficult when her eyesight began to fail. Keeping a school for the education of young ladies became impossible and she was obliged to turn to charity for help. Then something happened that resulted in an unexpected change in her circumstances. Dr. Caleb Cotesworth, a ‘doctor of physick’ living in Richmond married one of Ann’s close relations. He was not a poor man. “By a long and successful practise and great economy he had made a fortune of one hundred and fifty thousand pounds and upwards.” When he died in 1741 he left £120,000 to his wife Susannah. Unfortunately Susannah died within a few hours of her husband and not having made a will herself £40,000 of this money passed to Ann Tolson. As a local history reports “With a due sense of this signal deliverance, and unexpected change from a state of want to riches and affluence, she appropriated by a deed of gift the sum of 5000 pounds, to be expended after her decease in building and endowing an alms-house at Isleworth for six poor men and six women.”

By now Ann Tolson was 80 years old, an age when most people, particularly those with a large sum of money in their pocket, would be content to put their feet up and take life easy. This was not Ann’s way because soon she married again. Mr Joseph Dash was a London merchant and happy to help Ann spend her fortune. By the time she died 9 years later in 1750 her £40,000 nest egg had shrunk to £6,000, barely enough to cover her bequest to establish the promised almshouses in Isleworth. But ever greedy Mr Dash wanted that money as well and instituted a suit in chancery to get it.

Tolson Memorial

Although she was elderly Ann had been alert to her husband’s spendthrift ways and before she died had established a deed of settlement assigning the £5,000 almshouse bequest to the Parish of Isleworth. Mr Dash, who had already pocketed the money, lost his suit in chancery and in 1756 was obliged to hand over £5,000, plus interest at 4%, to Ann’s trustees, Colonel Schutz and Gilbert Jodrell. They immediately put it towards the construction of the almshouses and the provision of an annual pension of £9 and 4 shilling to every resident along with coal and clothing.

Mr Jodrell later oversaw the raising of a marble memorial to Ann Tolson in All Saints Church, Isleworth. The inscription carefully states, “Since her decease (a charity) has been established, and now subsists, under the prudent care and attention of those to whom the conduct of it is committed, by the name and description of Tolson’s Almshouses.” Not once is this generous and determined lady ever referred to as “Mrs Dash” … which is the way it should be! And Mr Dash? He was never heard of again.

New Tolson House

By 1860 Ann Tolson’s almshouses had become decrepit and new buildings were erected on an adjacent site given by John Farnell. In 1959 these buildings were sold and replaced by Tolson House and Lodge which were built in 1967. In 2011 Tolson House and Lodge were demolished and a new development of 20 almshouses for beneficiaries of the Ann Tolson endowment and beneficiaries of the Parthenia Hayburn endowment was built. The new Tolson House opened in April 2012. Ann Tolson’s name also lives on as Tolson Road in Old Isleworth.

— from Martyn Day