Burwell: Charities for the poor

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


A F Wareham. A P M Wright, 'Burwell: Charities for the poor', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire), (London, 2002), pp. 368-369. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp368-369 [accessed 24 June 2024].

A F Wareham. A P M Wright. "Burwell: Charities for the poor", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire), (London, 2002) 368-369. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp368-369.

Wareham, A F. Wright, A P M. "Burwell: Charities for the poor", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire), (London, 2002). 368-369. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp368-369.


Burwell's substantial Church and Town lands charity, recorded by 1595 as St. Mary's or the Town lands, (fn. 1) comprised principally c. 99 a., believed in 1603 to have been bequeathed or given (fn. 2) by or for Thomas Catelyn (d. 1445), William Sygar (d. 1477), both apparently childless, and 'Foster', perhaps Thomas Forster (d. 1496), whose rents had been used to pay tenths and fifteenths, when levied, for the inhabitants and parishioners of the town, any surplus going to repair St. Mary's church. Sygar's devise of his lands was specifically for those purposes; Catelyn and Forster had left the residue of their property for charity. (fn. 3) The Town land feoffees, who held those lands and who were expected by John Ellis in 1600 to distribute the £10 that he left for a stock for the poor, (fn. 4) took charge of other charitable bequests, described below.

Lee Cotton by will proved 1613 left a 'little mansion' in his yard with a barn to the feoffees of his proposed school endowment as almshouses for four men to occupy for life, rent free. They and succeeding inmates were also entitled yearly, presumably through common rights, to half a stone of sedge and to keep two bullocks. (fn. 5) William Thompson by will proved 1627, besides leaving to St. Mary's parish the income from £40 for apprenticing poor fatherless children, ordered his executors to build within a year three almshouses for three poor widows or three other poor parishioners. (fn. 6) William Mounford left a house and a rood for two poor men to inhabit similarly, while John Wosson or Watson by will of 1642 left to support church repairs a house, also later let as an almshouse. Thomas Frierston by will of 1650 charged a close and dovehouse with paying £1 yearly for the poor on St. Thomas's day. (fn. 7) In 1711 Jacob Webb gave a dovehouse yielding 10s. a year to support apprenticeships. (fn. 8)

When Burwell fen was divided in 1678-9 the parish was allotted for its poor, for the common rights of its town houses, lots of 10½ a., three for Thompson's and possibly one for Cotton's. (fn. 9) Accordingly the feoffees possessed c. 1700-30 c. 100 a. of arable with four fen lots and two Town closes. Besides the guildhall, their holdings included in the 1710s sixteen 'almshouses', among them four cottages by the churchyard occupied by widows. That property yielded altogether into the mid 18th century c. £55 in rent, besides a stock lent out, reduced from £145 in 1709 to £75 by 1730, including Thompson's bequest. (fn. 10)

Although the original uses of the Church lands were still formally in force in the 1690s, until 1716 the income was used for many charitable and parish purposes, including apprenticeships. (fn. 11) When the vicar, supported by the archdeacon, induced new feoffees to resolve in 1727 that the 100-a. endowment was solely for church repairs, (fn. 12) protests led to an inquiry in 1730. The resulting decree, which displaced the vicar's allies as trustees, assigned to relieve the poor the residue, after maintaining the church, of the income from the 100 a. and all that arising from the fen lots. It formally devoted the other bequests to their original purposes. The £30 of the stock not lost to its borrowers was to be invested in land. (fn. 13)

In the mid 18th century the trustees therefore maintained town houses, numbering ten in 1790, fifteen by 1805. They gave from the income, without distinction of origin, £15-20 a year by the 1740s, £10 from the 1750s, to the 'worthy poor', partly in cash doles. They also paid occasionally for apprenticeships, frequently arranged by the parish between 1739 and 1800. Even after the vicars recovered control of the charity after 1770, up to £6 yearly, a tenth of the increased income, went until the late 1780s directly to the poor, for whose benefit subscriptions were paid from 1788 to Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge. (fn. 14) Cash doles, sometimes £10 yearly, out of c. £150 of rent, were again occasionally given in the 1820s. (fn. 15) About 1830 money and bread were supposedly distributed to the poor while fuel, coal and turf, was apparently sold cheaply to them. (fn. 16)

At inclosure in 1817 the Town lands feoffees were allotted 56 a. for their arable (fn. 17) and owned thereafter 92 a., including 28 a. of fen. (fn. 18) Thompson's three cottages were pulled down c. 1835 and their sites added to the churchyard. (fn. 19) Following fierce disputes in the 1830s over the use of the charity, (fn. 20) a decree of 1855 assigned half the net income to maintain the church, the rest, together with the interest on a £360 fund, increased in 1904 to £1,000, to be accumulated to cover large church repairs, to benefit the poor through education. (fn. 21) The charity's total income, c. £165 in the 1860s, besides royalties from coprolite diggings, (fn. 22) was halved after the 1880s to £80 by 1900. (fn. 23) The charity still maintained almshouses, thirteen in 1865, scattered along the village streets, which were let to poor people at nominal rents. From the 1930s those cottages fell down or were condemned as insanitary, and their sites, with some land let as allotments, were sold. Two by the churchyard, supposed Mounford's went in 1933-4, the last three in 1960-1. (fn. 24) In the late 20th century the charity retained c. 91 a. of rented land and drew increasing sums from invested accumulations. Its income, still officially shared equally between church and education as ordered in 1855, grew from c. £250 gross in the 1960s to over £4,500 of rent, besides up to £1,000 from investments, by the early 1990s, when much capital was spent on restoring the Victorian guildhall. (fn. 25)

About 1850 Chancery ordered Burwell's worked out Poor fen, c. 169 a., to be cultivated to produce income for the poor. After their resistance had been overcome in 1851, (fn. 26) the land was leased as Poor's Fen farm. However, compound interest on large mortgages raised to pay for legal costs and agricultural improvements absorbed and eventually exceeded the rent, reduced from 1894 by two thirds to £84. Until the 1960s the charity produced much vexation for its trustees, but no money for distribution. From 1899 to the 1930s its tenant farmer, having acquired the mortgage cheaply, occupied it effectively rent free. (fn. 27) Only after the whole farm had been sold in 1964-5 for c. £23,000 and the mortgage completely paid off, did the invested price begin to yield an income, initially c. £800 yearly, by the 1990s over £3,000, mostly distributed, as prescribed in 1883, in coal to c. 300 people and by the 1990s to c. 450 yearly. (fn. 28)

Anne Turner, daughter of a former vicar, by will proved 1844, left £500 for the poor of Burwell, invested when it was received in 1858 to yield c. £15 a year, usually given thereafter in cash to 30, 60, or 120 people, sometimes in clothing. (fn. 29) Charles William Hunt by will proved 1927 left £500, invested to produce £18 yearly, to buy coal for the elderly poor of Burwell, the residue of his estate, worth £900, to the vicar and churchwardens also for good causes. (fn. 30)


  • 1. C.U.L., Queens' Coll. Mun., 19: terrier 1595.
  • 2. For origins of charity estate, as reported in 18th cent.: P.R.O., C 93/57/8, inqn.; summarized, 31st Rep. Com. Char. 151; cf. B.L. Add. MS. 5804, f. 115; Char. Don. i. 96-7.
  • 3. For those testators, W. Suff. R.O., 500/1/R 2/9, f. 54v.; 500/1/R 2/11, f. 80 and v.; P.R.O., PROB 11/11, f. 64 and v.; cf. Ramsey Liber Gersumarum, ed. DeWindt, p. 359.
  • 4. P.R.O., PROB 11/97, f. 170v.
  • 5. Ibid. PROB 11/123, f. 31 and v. Ascribed, perhaps in error, in ibid. C 93/57/8, to deed 21 (not 11) Jas. I.
  • 6. P.R.O., PROB 11/151, f. 75.
  • 7. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 151. B.L. Add. MS. 5804, f. 115, shows that Frierston's gift was that ascribed in Char. Don. i. 96-7, to Thos. Bates.
  • 8. Char. Don. i. 96-7. Not distinguished later.
  • 9. P.R.O., C 229/6, no. 17 (m. 2); ibid. C 93/57/8, inqn., perhaps mentions another, from ct. roll of 1699.
  • 10. W. Suff. R.O., 800/1/29 (terriers 1709, 1716); C.R.O., P 18/25/95; P 18/25/99, accts. 1731 sqq; cf. ibid. P 18/25/28 (terrier 1791).
  • 11. C.R.O., R 52/28/6A, f. 32v.; P.R.O., C 93/57/8, inqn.
  • 12. C.R.O., P 18/5/1, s.a. 1726; P 18/25/98, s.a. 1727.
  • 13. P.R.O., C 93/57/8.
  • 14. C.R.O., P 18/25/99, passim. For apprenticeships, ibid. P 18/14/1, nos. 1-34.
  • 15. Ibid. P 18/25/100, s.a. 1821 sqq.
  • 16. Rep. H.L. Cttee. on Poor Laws, 320-1.
  • 17. C.R.O., Q/RDz 9, ff. 23-4.
  • 18. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 153.
  • 19. C.R.O., P 18/25/125, case for defence.
  • 20. Ibid. passim; cf. above, ch. (bldg.); educ.
  • 21. Copy: C.R.O., P 18/25/32c; cf. Char. Com. file 207509, Scheme 1904.
  • 22. Char. Digest Cambs. 1863-4, 374-5; cf. C.R.O.. P 18/25/101, 130.
  • 23. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1883 sqq.).
  • 24. Char. Com. files 207509 B/1, acct. 1865; A/1, corr., valuations etc. 1907, 1933-4, 1936-7, 1955-7; 207509/1, corr. 1960-1; Richardson, Burwell, 85; cf. P.R.O., RG 11/1676, ff. 6v., 40v., 41; C.R.O., P 18/25/108-9; ibid. 470/O 19.
  • 25. Char. Com. file 207509, accts. 1962-93.
  • 26. Above, econ. hist.
  • 27. Char. Com. file 206397 A/1, corr. 1855 sqq.; cf. Camb. Weekly News, 28 June 1907; Camb. Ind. Press, 25 July 1913.
  • 28. Char. Com. file 206397 A/2, corr. 1952 sqq.; 206397, Schemes 1883, 1968; accts. 1962-92.
  • 29. C.R.O., P 18/25/88-9.
  • 30. Ibid. P 18/25/91; Char. Com. file 237550.