The Estate Charity is comprised of five separate charities
1) The Charity known as the Town Estate (including the Ancient Almshouse)
In the fifteenth century various pieces of land were bequeathed to the parish of Bardwell, with the intent that the rents from the land would be used for charitable purposes. There were four main donors:
John Doffous, in 1442. He left his meadow to the church, but did not specify how the income should be applied.
John Hart, in 1460. His will has not survived, so details of the bequest and its intent are not known.
Elizabeth Harleston, in 1464. Although her will has not survived, she was the widow of Sir William de Berdewelle's grandson, and it is likely that she gave the land at Bowbeck that was originally part of the Town Estate.
William Beton, in 1466. He left a house and about forty acres of land, the income from which was to be used to pay any taxes imposed by the King, with any surplus remaining used for the benefit of the parish. This legacy was not released until after the death of his wife in 1483.
A Charter was drawn up to manage this on January 2nd 1485, establishing twenty-four inhabitants of Bardwell to act as Foeffees, holding the land in trust for the parish. The Charter stipulated that the income was to be used for the relief of the poor inhabitants, to repair the church, and to pay "all taxes, tallages, and other charges". It was enrolled at the Court of Chancery at Westminster Hall on May 18th 1485, making it the first recorded legal document covering the management of the Bardwell Charities.
The land was known as the Town Estate, the word 'town', at that time, being applied to any settlement, large or small. Each year, four men were selected from the Foeffees to serve as Town Wardens, responsible for the management of the charity. A few small bequests increased the amount of land after the Charter, and in 1518 William Beton's house, now Willow Cottage, was rebuilt, while another house, now Church Cottage, was built in 1520, both to be rented out.
An important aspect of the Charity at this time was the annual feast known as the "St Thomas Drinking", held on July 7th, a feast day dedicated to St Thomas Becket. This entailed a special mass in the church for the souls of the charity donors, following which a dole of bread and beer was given to the parishioners, who gratefully added their own prayers for the souls of their benefactors. This ceremony ensured that the names of the donors were not forgotten, and their souls were regularly prayed for to reduce their time in Purgatory, which was one of the main motivations for such bequests to be made.
After Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome at the Reformation, however, the concept of Purgatory was abolished, as were prayers for the dead. The last mass for the donors was held in July 1544, with the dole now renamed as "the Town Drinking", as St Thomas Becket had also been consigned to oblivion by the reformers. Also in 1544, perhaps taking advantage of the confusion arising from the new ways, William Beton's granddaughters served the Town Wardens with a sub poena, in an attempt to regain possession of the land bequeathed to Bardwell. One of the Wardens had to ride down to London to consult a lawyer in Chancery, but fortunately the right of the parish to the land was upheld. In 1547, when Parish Guilds were abolished, the fine Guildhall built by Bardwell's Guild of St Peter came into the Town Estate, where it was converted into an almshouse for poor and aged parishioners, the "Ancient Almshouse" of the Charity title.
Managing the Fund
A survey of the Town Estate made in 1579 shows it to consist at that time of 18 acres of land at Bowbeck, 55 acres and two houses in various parts of the parish, and the Guildhall. The accounts from that date until 1882 still survive, and give a clear picture of how the funds were used. Quite a large proportion went on the maintenance of the church, including a major repair project for the tower and nave in 1579, and ongoing expenses for the bells. The fund also paid for river cleaning, bridges to be repaired, as well as maintaining the town well, and the obligatory set of stocks. As defined by the original charter, taxes of various kinds were also paid. The poorest members of the community were given fuel and clothing, and medical care when needed. Orphaned children were fostered, their keep and clothing paid for, and apprenticeships bought for them. For those who were too old or infirm to work, the Guildhall provided rent-free lodging.
Like all parishes, Bardwell was obliged to keep a muster roll of men fit to serve as soldiers if the need arose, and to maintain arms and armour for them. The expenses of this was also paid from the Charity, and in 1588, they had to pay the considerable cost of sending a band of Bardwell soldiers to Tilbury, to defend against the threatened Spanish invasion. In the event, the Armada was defeated, the invasion never happened, and the Bardwell boys marched home safely.
In 1640, a new house, now Bell Cottage, was built and added to the Town Estate. The Charity fund paid for the installation of the church clock in 1658, the mechanism for which is still in use today
The Town Drinking
The Town Drinking, having survived the Reformation, continued to be an annual event. At first, it consisted a pitcher of beer and two loaves of bread given to every household on November 1st, but during the 17th century the amount of beer increased, and a generous portion of cheese was added, as well as butter. Then they introduced an entertainment for the Foeffees and the Estate tenants on November 2nd, the day on which the annual accounts were presented. This quickly became an established tradition, and rather than bread and cheese, they were enjoying roast beef with their beer, and a good portion of tobacco for their pipes, all paid for from the Charity funds.
By the end of the 17th century, complaints were arising about the way in which the profits of the Charity land were being used, particularly as regards the Foeffees "small entertainment". It was suggested that the Foeffees were leaving themselves open to being sued for misapplication of the funds, so in 1700 a lawyer was consulted. He was given a list of questions and a copy of William Beton's will, and came back with a set of answers that can have done nothing to placate the complainers. His reply to the question of whether the Foeffees could safely continue the custom of giving themselves an annual feast was evasive, and his understanding of what was within the intention of the original will was inadequate. The result was that the Town Drinking and the Foeffees' treat continued on for many more years, until, in 1773, a new young Rector, David Davenport, was appointed to the parish of Bardwell. The Rector was always included amongst the Foeffees of the Town Estate, and when Mr Davenport attended his first meeting in November of that year, he entered this note at the end of the accounts:
"I protest against the above disbursement of the profits of the Town Lands of Bardwell, as far as it is extended to the ease of any of the taxes which ought to be yearly imposed upon the substantial inhabitants of the town, or to the expenses of private meetings, or any other expenses which do not lead to the worship of god, and which are unprofitable to the poor and necessitous inhabitants, as I conceive such disbursement to be contrary to the will of Beton and the rest of the Benefactors, contrary to a Decree of the Court of Chancery, and altogether contrary to the very notion of charity."
His indignation is clear, and his intentions were good, but he was an irascible man, and sadly lacking in tact. The Foeffees, who consisted of most of the farmers and tradesmen of the parish, must have felt they were being accused of dishonesty, and Mr Davenport's popularity never recovered. But he achieved his purpose, and the following year all the money usually spent on the food and drink was given to the poor.
The 18th century saw a great expansion in the population of the country, contributing to a rise in poverty and an increased need for support for the poor. No bequests were made to the Charity during this period, and the rents from the lands often struggled to meet the demand on the purse. The tenants of the Town Houses were frequently excused from paying their rent, as they simply did not have the money. A shortage of housing became an increasing problem for rural parishes, and in 1816 the Charity built a terrace of four stud and plaster cottages next to Church Cottage, to be rented out at £3 per annum. The Guildhall was further divided, to contain twelve apartments, still rent-free.
The biggest change to the Town Estate came in 1829, when the Parliamentary Inclosures Act for Bardwell was passed. This meant that commons, such as Bardwell's large area of heath, were divided up and awarded to individual owners. Many people took the opportunity to rationalise their land-holdings, which were often dispersed throughout a parish in inconvenient parcels, and much of the original scattered Town Estate land was replaced by a block all in one place. As required by the Act, this then had to be planted with hedging, entailing the purchase of over twelve and a half thousand hawthorn bushes.
The remaining bequests included in the Estate Charity were all made after the original Charter of 1485, and they are:
2) The Charity of Thomas Reade (1678)
Thomas Reade bequeathed £50 to buy enough land to produce an annual rent of fifty shillings. This was to be paid to "some industrious inhabitant of Bardwell" to teach the poorest children how to read. A house and land in Stanton was purchased to achieve this, and the teaching began in 1680. When the present school was opened in 1855, the money was transferred to that, to help pay the salary of the schoolmaster. In 1906 the Charity Commission created the Bardwell Charities Educational Foundation as a separate Charity, under the management of the Trustees. The Stanton land was sold in 1925 and the money invested
3) The Charity of John Green (1596)
John Green left an amount of 3s 4d to be paid on Christmas Day every year for the benefit of poor widows, financed by a piece of land called Guttrage's Acre in Ixworth Thorpe. This land was sold in 1925.
4) The Charity of Robert Garrard (1661)
This bequest gave £20 to buy lands to produce enough rent to pay 20 shillings every year on Christmas Day to ten of the poorest widows of the parish. The money was to be divided equally between them, and in the event of a surplus, this was to be paid to other people in need. A piece of land, which became known as "the Widow's Field", was bought for this purpose, and the widows received their payment for many years. The Widow's Field was sold in 1925.
5) The Charity of Thomas Jeffes (1822)
Thomas Jeffes was the owner of Place Farm. His will gave £3 to provide a dinner on Christmas Day each year for ten poor men and ten poor women. This was to consist of beef and plain pudding, served in one of the public houses of Bardwell at two p.m., with any surplus divided among the diners after their meal. This cost became a rent charge on Place Farm, so that it continued through changes of ownership. The dinner was abandoned during the First World War, and cash payments were given instead, and this practice was maintained after the war. The beneficiaries preferred to have the money to spend as they liked, and changing costs of living meant that it was not possible to provide a meal for twenty people out of £3. The rent charge on Place Farm was redeemed in 1970 by the owner, who paid £36 for the redemption.
The Charity Commission
A fundamental change took place in 1883, when the decision was taken to register the Charities with the Charity Commission, an organisation set up in 1853 to regulate the activities of registered charities. The Town Estate and the four subsidiaries detailed above were amalgamated under the title of "The Bardwell Charities", and a Scheme was set up by the Commission to define how this was be managed. The lands were vested in the Official Trustee of Charity Lands, an officer of the Commission, and there were to be eleven local Trustees. The Scheme divided the Charity into three parts, the Church Branch, the Education Branch, and the Poor's Branch, with the income from the Town Estate land allocated equally between them. Most of the land was now divided into half-acre allotments and let out to individual parishioners.
A decline in the income of the Charity after the First World War meant that the Town Houses, having been carefully looked after in earlier periods, became too expensive to maintain. In 1925, the Rector, the Reverend Mumford, decided to sell the Town Estate land and all the cottages, retaining only the Guildhall. This was strenuously opposed by the Parish Council, and by the majority of Bardwell people, concerned about losing their allotments. A letter was written to the Ministry of Agriculture, and a question was raised in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, a public auction went ahead, but many of the allotment holders attended to protest, and very few buyers turned up. Only one house was sold, Bell Cottage, which was bought by the church. The land financing the charities of Thomas Reade, John Green and Robert Garrard was also sold at this time, but all the rest of the land and cottages went unsold.
However, as the 20th century wore on, the other Town Estate properties were gradually disposed of. Church Cottage was sold in 1933, and the adjacent terrace of four cottages in 1935. They were in a bad condition, and being situated below the road level, were subject to drainage problems, and were subsequently demolished. Willow Cottage in Low Street was sold in 1954 for £480. Only the Guildhall remained to the Trustees, and that had been in a parlous state for many years as maintenance became ever more costly. In 1930, a rent was introduced for the first time ever, of 6d a week, rising by 1956 to 4s for the single-room apartments, and 6s 8d for the larger ones. There continued to be demand for them, however, amongst the older population of the village. In 1937, Thingoe Rural District Council issued the Trustees with an "Unfit for Human Habitation" order, and a notification of an intent to demolish. Fortunately, a reprieve was granted, and the six inhabitants were allowed to stay. A further temporary licence was granted in 1947, to allow the Trustees to continue using the building, as long as they could keep it watertight. In 1955 it was given its Grade II listing, but pronounced no longer suitable for use as an almshouse, and the last entry in the Rent Book is dated November 30th 1956. The roof was in need of replacement, and the building was further deteriorating by standing empty, so after several unsuccessful attempts to raise the money, the Trustees were left with no option but to sell. The Guildhall was therefore sold in 1962 for £500, and converted to the two dwellings it remains today.