Old Age, Alms Houses and Birmingham’s Lench’s Trust

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by Cameron Bonfield

Why did I apply?

I wasn’t always certain about applying for the Undergraduate Research Scholarship and if memory serves me right, I didn’t apply until the day of the deadline! But heading into third year of university meant I had to start looking at feasible options post my university adventure and while I hadn’t given much thought to academic research I was willing to give it a try. Added to that was the avid watcher of shows such as Long Lost Family and Who Do You Think You Are was keen to explore ancestry and genealogy.

What is the Lench’s Trust?

The Lench’s Trust was founded in 1526 by William Lench. Through a network of sheltered homes (almshouses) and pensions, the Lench’s Trust provided for the elderly poor – in particular elderly females with all the almshouse residences in Birmingham being women only. These residents were all recorded through the various censuses of the 20th Century and offered just a small snippet into their lives. Today the Lench’s Trust is still helping to provide the eldery people of Birmingham shelter and care.

What did I expect?

I went into the research scheme with an open mind and keen to broaden my historical knowledge as well as attempting to improve my ability to look at different historical sources, from that end, I very much got what I bargained for.

What was the project about?

The project revolved around the work the Lench’s Trust have begun to start in preparations for their 500th year anniversary in 2026. Working alongside Professor Nick Crowson I was tasked with continuing these preparations in ways we saw fit. This included generating case studies that Lench’s could utilise in further public engagement activities and liaising with the Lench’s Trust regarding further projects.

From my very first reconstruction of Clara Lishman, a resident in Conybere Street in 1939 who had such a huge tale to tell about her, her two husbands and subsequent children, it became clear these women were more than simple historical stereotypes and much more than simply names on a census.

What was my daily routine?

My day to day routine varied hugely in the five weeks I undertook the project. Each week offered different challenges. Week One was all about getting to grips with using genealogical resources such as Ancestry.com and FindMyPast, resources I had no experience with prior to this internship. Once I’d started to develop an understanding of what I was using, it was a case of starting to put it into practice by beginning to reconstruct various almswoman’s lives through browsing censuses, birth, marriage and death certificates as well as even a few newspaper articles. After reconstructing around half a dozen almswoman and their lives, it was then all about transcribing the residents in the five or six main almshouses. Getting their names, birth years, ages, marital status and birthplace onto an excel spreadsheet meant there is now an electronic copy that can kept for years.

These reconstructions began from the census the almswoman featured in and was a case of working backwards all the way back to their birth via various offspring, marriage, jobs, growing up and moving to different locations.

My long-forgotten GCSE ICT skills had to be called upon, especially when transcribing names and dates over to Excel and working out the average age of residents amongst other things.

What will I take forward from this project?

My summer of immersing myself in almshouses, censuses and the Lench’s Trust is coming to an end. What started as a genealogical project has ended up as a thoroughly insightful look into the lives of countless residents, each with their own story to tell.

There are many things I will take from completing the Undergraduate Research Scholarship. Firstly, most importantly for me moving forward as a historian, is to keep challenging what I see. Looking at transcriptiosn of censuses from Ancestry and FindMyPast and realizing that actually they may be different to what I’ve transcribed. Secondly, linked in with constantly challenging is constantly cross-referencing and checking for historical accuracy. Both of which will make me a better historian.

The main thing I will take from this project is enjoyment. Enjoying learning new skills and enjoying a subset of history I was yet to explore.

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