Almshouses

There are 35 groups of almshouses in the city centre of Leiden. One for one, these almshouses complexes are idyllic places, where the noise of the town is shut out and where it is as if the time has stood still. Almshouses were run by charitable foundations, intended to accommodate the elderly poor. The Dutch word for almshouse or group of almshouses is "hof", which literally means court of courtyard, and the are so called because they were built as a collection of small houses around a communal inner yard or garden.

There is often only one entrance and exit, which, via a passage or a hallway, opens on to the public road. There was usually a caretaker who was responsible for opening and closing times (so at a fixed time the gates closed and no one further was admitted) and who also provided various services for the residents and the governors. The foundation's governing body usually comprised of the founder's relatives, but later many almshouses came under the control of institutions caring for the poor and needy.

There was often a separate meeting room for the governing body, the Governor's room. In certain places, this room is extraordinary richly furnished as is the case in the Meermansburg almshouses. The governors sometimes ruled with an iron hand and bound the residents with all sorts of regulations, dictating numerous conditions. It was considered a great fortune that the residents were able to live free of charge and also that they received benefits in the form of bread, meat, beer, shirts and shoes; it was therefore only to be expected that they behaved most respectfully and thankfully.

Life in the almshouses was usually as a rule the very picture of peace and respectability. Almshouses were usually founded by rich elderly people. No doubt they hoped that after their deths, the prayers of the residents would enable them to gain a place in heaven. If the founding of almshouses was laid down in a will, the executors of the will were obliged to undertake the building of the almshouses. In some cases the founders began building during their own lifetimes.

When you want to find out more, the city walk 'Along Leidens Almshouses' is available at the Leiden Visitor Centre.