Mary Layton Almshouses
The Mary Layton Almshouses are a group of 3 single-bedroom bungalows set at the western
end of Little Wilbraham’s High Street as it divides into Fen Road and Mill Road. The founder
of the almshouses was one Frederick Layton who was born on 18 May 1827 in a house that
previously stood on the site, the only son of John & Mary. In 1836 the Laytons moved to
Great Wilbraham where John Layton established a small butcher’s shop and taught
Frederick his trade. In 1842 John & Frederick emigrated to the United States eventually
arriving in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the following year. For whatever reason Mary Layton
remained in Great Wilbraham before joining them in 1847.
After a couple of years as farmers, father and son returned to the butchery trade and here
they prospered. The business grew quickly and was helped by their supplying meat to the
Union Army during the civil war. Following the cessation of the war, along with a partner
they absorbed a couple of railway companies so as to further improve the distribution of
their meat products. As his fortune grew Frederick was more able to further his interest in
art to the point that he was wealthy enough in 1888 to donate to Milwaukee the Layton Art
Gallery whose facade bears a striking resemblance to the Fitzwilliam Museum: the
foundation remains to this day although the original building was demolished in 1957.
Following his retirement from business in 1900, Frederick revisited his birthplace the
following year and bought the house and land where he was born. The previous dwelling
was demolished and the 3 almshouses on the site today were erected in 1901 and named in
memory of his mother. The Charity’s Deed specifies that the occupants should be:-
Such persons being agricultural labourers and inhabitants at the time of election of the
said parish of Little Wilbraham or being and having up to the time of election remained
the widows of agricultural labourers who were at the time of their death inhabitants of the
As well as donating the land and buildings to the first Trustees – the rector of the church was
the first chairman – a sum of £1500 was also invested to pay the administration costs of the
charity in addition to the care and maintenance costs of the properties. Should there be
anything left over then the tenants were to be paid a sum not exceeding 6-shillings (30p)
every Saturday – and they lived rent free as well! The cottages were improved and extended
around 1974 creating an internal toilet/bathroom and installing central heating; there has
been a steady and gradual program of renewal and updating ever since.
Times have changed somewhat since 1901. Agriculture was the very basis of Little
Wilbraham at the time and probably had been since the village came into existence.
Although obviously blessed with foresight there is no way Frederick Layton could have
envisaged the farm machinery available today and that thousands of acres could be
managed by one man in a tractor. The Trustees would be unable to appoint any tenants to
the cottages were they to stick absolutely to the Deed so a fairly liberal interpretation is
employed whenever a tenancy now becomes available although preference is still given to
those applicants who have lived within the parish or have a close association with it.
Moreover, whereas the original occupants of the cottages lived rent-free there is now a
monthly maintenance charge to be paid and the gift of 30p per week to be paid on a
Saturday is definitely a thing of the past.
It is obvious that Frederick Layton was a very successful businessman and this allowed him
to indulge his twin passions of art and philanthropy. As well as establishing the art gallery to
which he donated over 200 exhibits he also had built the Layton Home for Incurables in the
grounds of the Milwaukee hospital as well as donating to significant numbers of smaller
charities. Frederick and his wife Elizabeth, for all their wealth, were very private people and
lived very modestly in the same house for 54 years. They had no children. Elizabeth died in
1910 with Frederick passing away on 16 August 1919.