It could be said that the story of Coventry lacks continuity, too often forgotten in the desperate scramble to find something new to replace the ruins of the old. And because of that, the city can feel like a place with a very short memory.
But Bond’s and Ford’s Hospitals are the exception that proves the rule. The Battle of Bosworth Field, climax of the Wars of the Roses, was still within living memory when Coventry merchants Thomas Bond and William Ford gave real meaning to their charitable instincts by founding these two almshouses in the first decade of the sixteenth century.
Yet today, half a millennium later, the buildings would be immediately recognisable to those who knew them 500 years ago. What’s more, they are still fulfilling the function envisaged for them all those centuries ago – providing safe and comfortable accommodation to elderly folk.
Michael Orton’s new book, For So long As The World Shall Endure, admirably captures their slow, steady progress from the end of the medieval world into the third decade of the 21st century.
Dr Orton, an academic in the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research, first tackled the history of Bond’s and Ford’s back in 1991. His new book – its title drawn directly from Thomas Bond’s instructions in his will – benefits from new evidence that has come to light since, principally at least one ‘lost’ minute book from the beginning of the 20th century.
Thus armed, he weaves a clear thread through all the complexities of finance and income, administration and the changes in society over those 500 years, telling a remarkable story of how Ford’s and Bond’s adapted to changing times and maintained their purpose and function.
As Michael Orton shows, it hasn’t always been an easy ride. The almshouses have come close to dereliction, been deprived of desperately needed funds by a corrupt Corporation and faced the threat of extinction from first Henry VIII’s attack on the monasteries and then from a grandson of Thomas Bond, who clearly wanted the income from their supporting estates but did not want the responsibility and cost of looking after their residents.
There are elements of tragedy in the story too. On 14 October 1940, a month before Coventry’s infamous November Blitz, six residents and two members of staff were killed when Ford’s Hospital took a direct hit during an early bombing raid.
And then there is the tale of John Johnson, a resident who in 1619 was said to have murdered six his companions so that he could become the most senior among them.
Next year, when the new Hill Street development of Bond’s Court is completed, the almshouses will be providing safe and comfortable accommodation for 150 people.
That figure would surprise many and would surely truly astonish the founders. I’ve a notion that they’d be delighted as well.
For So Long As The World Shall Endure, by Michael Orton, is available for sale at Bond’s Hospital in Hill Street, Coventry, price £20.