This article was written by Michael Brooks for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter in January 2005 and is reproduced here with permission.
In his Epistle to the Corinthians, which established the three theological virtues, St Paul says “and now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three, and the greatest of these is Charity”. From earliest days Christianity practised charity and St Augustine said “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by its use we love him.”
Long before the 16th century local churches had begun to take responsibility for the impotent poor, the old and the sick in the community, along with some voluntary charity from wealthy lay persons. The Church’s responsibility was legalised by a statute of 1536. At that time changes in agriculture, the plague epidemics and the suppression of the Monasteries from 1536 onwards had greatly increased the levels of poverty throughout the land. Where voluntary charity was concerned Buckinghamshire’s record was better than that of most other counties in England. Between 1480 and 1660 half of all the charitable bequests in the county were made to alleviate the suffering due to poverty, though many of our mediaeval ancestors may have left money as much to ensure the welfare of their souls as to provide for the welfare of their fellow men.
Amersham has a long rich tradition of charity over the centuries. The earliest charitable body identified locally was the Fraternity of St Katherine which was established by 1490 (and probably even earlier). The Fraternity occupied, and probably built, the hall on the north side of the Market Square, later to be known as the Church House after the Reformation. The Priest of the Fraternity prayed for the souls of its members and the Fraternity cared for the welfare of its members when sick, out of work or in old age. This Fraternity was dissolved in 1552 when the Reformation swept away all the Monasteries, Chantries and such-like organisations. The Reformation began a long process of secularisation of charity which, over time, was to substitute the State for the Church as caretakers of the dependent members of the community. Private benefaction was however vital for many centuries before the arrival of the modern Welfare State and State Education. St. Peter reminded us that “Charity covers a multitude of sin” and as new religious establishments arose, pious giving found new outlets in a profusion of local charities. The attitude of the benefactors may be summed up by the opening words of a wall tablet in St. Mary’s Church recording Elizabeth Bent’s benefaction of 1728, “Deo Ecclesiae et Pauperis” (for God, the Church and the poor) although it is possible that thoughts of immortality still intermingled with those of charity!
In Buckinghamshire there was much emphasis on the provision of Almshouses. It is recorded that the sum of £16,287-6s-0d was bequeathed for this purpose between 1551 and 1660. This was almost 1/5th of the total of charitable giving in the whole county. Amersham however was not to get its first almshouse until 1604 under the will of Thomas Bennett who had died in 1592. He left a large cottage in Whielden Street to be an almshouse “for the better habitacion of 3 or 4 widows for ever”. This property was demolished after 1840, the site being occupied by the Nag’s Head public house (now Prezzo). Sir William Drake’s Charity of 1669 provided six almshouses with maintenance for six widows and Miss Harriet Day’s Charity of 1875 provided accommodation and fuel for six poor widows in Hatches Yard. Both these Charities still exist to this day though somewhat modified from the donors’ original intentions.
Following a run of five years of very poor harvests, which led to much abject poverty throughout the country, the Poor Law Act was passed in 1598 which enacted that local Justices of the Peace should nominate two to four substantial house-holders to serve with the churchwardens as Overseers of the Poor. Their duties were to set the poor, and their children, to work, and also to raise money, the Poor Rate, to enable them to carry out their duties and aims, to provide accommodation for the inadequate, indigent and poor, to provide education and training, and later apprenticeships, for young persons.
The pattern of most of the early charities took the form of a gift or legacy of land, or property, or money to purchase such land or property, the yearly rental arising therefrom providing income to carry out the charitable purpose under the supervision of a body of named trustees. The trustees often included the Parish Rector, the Churchwardens and the Overseers of the Poor.
In 1735 a Charitable Uses Act was brought in which prohibited the gift of land, or money to be laid out in land, for charities. This was in order to prevent alienation of real properties by corporations, which never demised and so never provided the feudal dues on the demise of the tenants. After 1735 it therefore became increasingly the custom to provide investments in gilt-edged stock or bonds to provide the income for the charity. Land holdings had in any case been greatly affected by the various Enclosure Acts. Many charity portfolios were augmented or altered by these Acts, whereunder they were assigned additional or alternative lands in the respective common fields in lieu of Rights of Common. As the charity trustees gradually sold off land, investing the proceeds in gilts or bonds, the unfortunate long-term effect was to be the gradual erosion of the charity income, despite the efforts of the trustees or later the Charity Commission, which was finally established as a permanent body in 1853.
The Charity Commission was established as result of four separate Brougham Commission enquiries between 1818 and 1837 which investigated the activities of the multitude of charitable trusts in England and Wales. The problem was that by the year 1818 it had been discovered that 443,000 acres of agricultural land ( 2% of the total ) was held by charities! The Brougham Commission spawned over 30,000 pages of evidence. Prior to 1853 charities had only been controlled by various Acts of Parliament, often enacted as knee-jerk reactions to some gross abuse of charities through poor administration such as non-replacement of dead trustees or outright fraud. It is fascinating that, despite many changes and occasional maladministration by trustees, churchwardens, and even sometimes the Rector, many of the ancient charities of Amersham were very successful and some remain active to this day in one form or another.
With the advent of the Welfare State and State Education in the 20th century there has been a great need to modify and control the charities set up over a period of over 500 years and this has been effected with the help of the Charity Commission. In 1975 the charities were combined to form the Amersham United Charities Trust which has three parts:
- The Amersham United Pensions Charity for the Poor, which provides small sums of money to deserving persons.
- The Amersham and Coleshill Almshouse Charity, which administers and manages the Drake and Day Almshouses.
- The Amersham and Coleshill Charity for Young Persons, which did at first help young people into apprenticeships, but now mainly gives grants for the purchase of books and tools.
Amersham also still benefits from Lord Wharton’s Bible Charity of 1696 which provides various bibles which are distributed three times a year under the supervision of the Vicar of Aylesbury to various parishes throughout the county. Amersham Museum has bibles presented to inhabitants of the town over many years in their collection.
A full account of the twenty main named charities established in the town before 1900 may be found in the Amersham Museum. There were many other acts of charity over the years by individuals and other organisations not covered by any formal trust. The Drake family, in particular, were very generous providing fuel, food and clothing for the poor, setting up soup-kitchens in severe weather, paying for medical attention and visiting the sick.
Organisations such as the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Freemasons, the Oddfellows, the Rotarians and Round Table and other clubs have provided a variety of charitable help. Many of these held their meetings in local inns and public houses, which have also played a part. Other organisations who raised money for charity have been the Brass Band, the Fire Brigade, the Literary Institute, Church Concert Societies and many more.