Earlier in June, as part of Croydon Heritage Festival, the Croydon Almshouses, home to 15 residents, opened its doors and invited Croydonians to step back to experience over 400 years of history at one of the London Borough’s most historic landmarks. In this, the second of our Croydon Heritage Festival blog mini-series, Almshouses tour guide Yvonne Walker shares some of the of building’s ghoulish secrets.

In these modern times, Croydon has sometimes been referred to as ‘a concrete jungle’ and ‘place of little history’. True, there was a great deal of development after the last war, obviously needed after the damage inflicted by air raids and particularly the flying bombs. But look carefully. The town boasts several historical gems of fascinating interest, not least the Hospital of the Holy Trinity built by Archbishop John Whitgift at the end of the 16th Century. Whitgift loved Croydon and it was his dream to establish an Almshouse in the area. He set about his task in 1596 when he built on the site of the Old Chequer inn, which he bought for £200. His final bill came to £2716 11s 11d – a few million in today’s money.

The Almshouse was for the care and maintenance of 30-40 poor people, particularly for the Archbishop’s old servants from Croydon and Lambeth. However, they had to behave themselves. They would be admonished, fined or even expelled for offences such as witchcraft, blaspheming, fighting, and they couldn’t haunt taverns or alehouses. The Archbishop said that the women must not outnumber the men. That may have been the case in his time but it certainly isn’t now; most of today’s residents are ladies.

The Almshouse is not without a dark side for a sinister tale has been handed down over the centuries. Archbishop Whitgift had enjoyed a pleasant evening dining with his pensioners in the Common Room. Afterwards, he retired to his bedroom set high in the eastern gable. Whitgift had his own private army. One of the soldiers was crossing the courtyard when he noticed a man scrambling on the rooftops. The intruder was a would-be assassin with a knife and it was his intention to lower himself down one of the chimneys to reach the Archbishop in his bedroom. The soldier sounded the alarm and shot the man, who fell right down the chimney and that was the end of him.

John Whitgift had a lucky escape but he took the warning to heart. Thereafter, his bedroom door was safely secured with many locks, inside and out, and in an alcove halfway up the staircase leading to his chamber, a trusted servant would be on guard. However one night, the armour clad servant, who perhaps had over indulged at the nearby Swan Inn, fell asleep, fell out of the alcove and tumbled down the stairs, which are extremely steep. Sadly, the poor man broke his neck. Reputedly, he returns to haunt the area, as does the murderous intruder. Another phantom is a lady in long grey robe smoking a pipe. At night time, she flits around, sometimes trying the door handles of the flats. She is quite harmless but if anything strange happens, she usually gets the blame.

The Almshouses will next open to the public in September for Open House London. Stay posted for exact times and dates by following The Whitgift Foundation on twitter at @1596whitgift