Tuesday, 10 August 2010

"History illuminates the soul" (Lord Acton)

What has happened to Thomas Bubb's Charity I want to know? Set up in his will of 1769 it paid for an annual sermon to be given on Trinity Sunday in the church at Stapleton, Gloucs, "for ever".

Well is it? Clearly I have missed Trinity Sunday this year but shall I check next Trinity? Perhaps those nice people in the Taunton office will check up what has happened to Bubb's charity.

Still, perhaps there is something rather fitting in the fact that I'm here preparing for the Lecture I am to give on September 22nd reflecting on my decade at ACEVO and I discover an ancestor who obviously liked sermons. Perhaps I should dedicate my own "sermon" to Thomas?


The 18th century was a time when many people left legacies for the preaching of sermons. Thomas was obviously a liberal sort of guy as many of the legacies were exact in the nature of the sermon to be preached. "Against Popish practices" was a popular theme. Legacies in a previous age would have been for masses for the souls of the deceased benefactor or for Chantry Chapels but The Reformation and Henry's land grab put a stop to that form of charity.

This is just one of the fascinating things I am turning up in my research at the Charity Commission's Library. I have been looking through the 32 Reports of the great Royal Commission of 1818-1837 set up by Parliament to enquire into the state of charities in England and Wales. A mammoth undertaking which saw Commissioners riding out on horseback into the highways and byways of the country investigating 28,000 charities. They reported to a Parliamentary Select Committee. (So there is a precedent for our demand for such a Select Committee now!).

These are a fascinating read, recording all the wondrous uses of charity at the turn of the 19th century. The many forms of "dole" and the various stipulations of benefactions to the many endowed schools around the country. What colour clothes orphans must wear, what must be taught (often only the classics; a famous Lords' ruling in the case of Leeds Grammar School forbade the teaching of arithmetic on the grounds the benefactor has stipulated only the teaching of the classics!). The "dole" could take many interesting forms. Once, if you appeared at the almshouse of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester, knocked at the Porter's Lodge and asked for the Wayfarer's Dole, you would be given a loaf and two pints of wine! And even today the dole is still available - although this is now only a small beaker of beer and a morsel of bread.

It was not till 1860 that a Charity Commission was established as a permanent body.

I checked out the entries for my own dear Charlbury. The visitation occurred in 1823. There were two charities in existence. The Mrs Walker Charity which provided a school for poor boys in Poor Boys Close (where is this I wonder as the name has disappeared in more PC times?). Then there was the Thomas Gifford charity, established in the great Elizabethan age at a not dissimilar date from when my own lovely Armada Cottage in Charlbury was built in 1587. In fact this charity is still in existence, although still I believe in discussion with the Charity Commission on various changes they want to make. It made a not necessarily advantageous land sale where there had been a British National School supported by the charity, in order to fund a Community Centre. We are now having to raise the money locally. But it is an illustration of how long lived is our charitable tradition.

Now I'm just off for another day in the archives!

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