Charlotte Catherine Anne was a wealthy dowager countess who built a reputation in Victorian-era Berkhamsted for her charitable acts. One of her most noted philanthropic endeavours used Berkhamsted Castle as its base of operations for feeding the hungry.
Feeding the poor
In the 19th century, long before any ideals of a welfare state had taken hold, the well-being of the poor was entirely dependent on charity. The area around Berkhamsted was still largely rural; farm work was seasonal and at the mercy of the weather, and casual farm labourers often found themselves destitute in winter. When the canal froze during harsh winters, boat-building work ceased for months, and poorly paid cottage industries such as straw-plaiting and lace-making also suffered in the winter months. As a result, many local people fell on hard times with the changing seasons. The Berkhamsted Union workhouse opened in 1835 to provide work and shelter to many, but conditions were harsh.
It was not uncommon at this time for wealthy landowners to provide support for the poor, and one figure in the local area stands out for her generosity. Charlotte Catherine Anne, Countess of Bridgewater was the widow of John William Egerton, the 7th Earl of Bridgewater at Ashridge House, the Bridgewater family seat. After the death of the Earl, Lady Bridgewater began to take a great interest in the welfare of local people.
Acts of Christian charity certainly did no harm to the reputation of the gentry, although as the daughter of a Bishop of Durham, Charlotte’s sense of Christian duty was doubtlessly genuine. She established several benevolent initiatives in neighbouring towns and villages, including the Educational Trust in Ivinghoe, a Junior school at Gossoms End, and a donation of land to the Parish of Great Berkhamsted to open a new cemetery on Rectory Lane.
The Castle Soup House
Lady Bridgewater led the establishment of a soup kitchen at Berkhamsted Castle to feed the town’s poor. It is not clear exactly when the soup kitchen was established, but we do know that in 1841 the Countess ordered the Soup House to ’be built and fitted up for the use of the charity at the building in the Old Castle.’ Each year, between January and March, hundreds of poor people, including families with children, lined up along the road next to the railway embankment, waiting to be fed. The queue entered through one door, where soup tickets were collected, passing through the kitchen where pints of soup and bread were distributed, before it exited by a second door. Soup tickets were distributed in advance, (sometimes sold at a low price) by the Berkhamsted Soup Charity. Many local people volunteered and the charity was supported by local Christian clergy.
It is not clear how long the Soup House remained in existence but there are references to the charity until the late 1890s. In 1858, the Berkhamsted Times refers to a Soup House within the “Castle Grounds”. The Bucks Herald of 24 July 1897 reports that the kitchen fed a group from the Watford Ragged School, and the Berkhamsted Soup Charity’s 1895 annual report survives (although it fails to describe the actual location of the kitchen). Aside from occasional mentions in the local press between 1847 and 1897, there is little documentary evidence about the Berkhamsted Castle Soup House and it does not appear on any maps.
So where was the Soup House located? It appears from recent research that the present Visitor Room at the Castle was once the location of the Soup House, as this is the only intact building within the Castle precinct and one whose floorplan has remained unchanged since at least 1878, when the first Ordnance Survey Maps of the town were published.
There are in fact two separate buildings here, linked by a passageway; the single-storey Visitor Room and the two-storey Keeper’s Lodge. At first glance, the Lodge appears to be a quaint Victorian cottage and is inscribed with the year 1865 over the door. However, evidence in the construction and old map records suggests that this could originally be a much older building, possibly Tudor or earlier, that was simply renovated by the landowner, Lord Brownlow.
The smaller Visitor Room building seems to be the likely location for the Soup House, having a plain, single-storey structure with a large chimney typical of the 1840s. It is also similar in construction to other contemporary soup kitchens that exist in Kent.
Death of Lady Bridgewater
The Countess of Bridgewater died at the age of 85 in 1849, having lived for 26 years as a benevolent widow. Both Charlotte Catherine Anne and her husband are buried in the family crypt in in Little Gaddesden Church, on the Ashridge Estate. Although the Soup Kitchen is long gone, Lady Bridgewater’s generosity is still remembered to this day.