Rotherham’s oldest charity, The Feoffees, continues to care

With a long history of generosity, The Feoffees of the Common Lands of Rotherham have been selflessly giving back to the people of Rotherham through doles and education scholarships since the 14th century.

What was once effectively the town’s council which controlled the common lands, today the Feoffees remains an organisation which is run by Rotherham people, for Rotherham people. Yet, while many people in the town may have heard the name before, some still aren’t aware of the work that Rotherham’s oldest charity does.

The Feoffees are a board of 12 trustees, linked in some way to Rotherham, who all volunteer their time to financially supporting both young and older members of our community. Thanks to the continued compassion and contributions of local businesses and individuals, the Feoffees still maintain their support of the ‘aged, poor and impotent’ for which they have been doing since 1328, long before the Poor Relief Act was introduced in 1834.

Rotherham Feoffees

Each December, they distribute doles to up to 100 elderly, infirm or disadvantaged people at a ceremony at Rotherham Minster; a time-honoured tradition that has taken place for over 700 years. When once bread, coal and clothing made up the bulk of the dole, today it is a monetary gift of £50 to each person. None of the recipients are means-tested; instead, the doles are given in good faith to benefit people nominated by other charities or church wardens.

Up until a few decades ago, some of the doles were for differing amounts based on the endowments and legacies that individual donators had specified.

“It is remarkable that someone could have donated money in the 1400s and those funds are still being used to help people in the 21st century. It’s a very special thing to be involved in,” says one of the current feoffees, Chris Hamby.

Together with larger bequests and historic rent accumulated over the centuries, all income gained by the Feoffees is invested astutely. This has enabled three education awards to continue, helping fund the future of Rotherham’s young academic talents.

The Feoffees have always been heavily involved in education in the town. They revived the College of Jesus’ grammar school in the 16th century after it was dissolved at the hands of King Henry VIII. Some centuries later, they bought a property on Moorgate Street to house a growing student cohort (the building is now an accountancy firm), before purchasing what is now Thomas Rotherham College further up the road in the 1890s.

They also launched Rotherham’s first National School in 1707 on the Crofts to teach children from poor working-class families how to read, write, knit and sew. Later, they built a new charity school in 1776 which is now the Bluecoats public house, named after the blue uniform the children wore.

Rotherham Feoffees Scholarships and Bursaries

While local authority and academy trusts have since taken over the governance of education in Rotherham, the Feoffees still provide financial support to three students every year.

There are two scholarships which are both valued at £1,000 and, depending on subjects studied, all sixth form students in Rotherham are eligible to apply.

The Bridges Scholarship is primarily for students who successfully gain a place at university to study maths, physics, chemistry or engineering and is the legacy of Harold Bridges, an Old Boy of Rotherham Grammar School who won a scholarship to study at the University of Durham and who went on to become the CEO of Shell Canada and USA. This year’s recipient is former Wales High School student, Hannah Jones, who has begun a physics degree at Collingwood College at the University of Durham.

2020 Scholarship recipients Hannah Jones (L) and Cora Lancashire (R)

The second is the Feoffees Scholarship which is awarded to a student who is going to study English, history or a foreign language at university. This year’s recipient is Cora Lancashire who went to Thomas Rotherham College and is now studying history at the University of York.

There is also the £2,500 Rudston Bursary awarded in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University to a newly qualified primary school teacher who is beginning their career at a local Rotherham school. Split over three years, the bursary supports new teachers in the first few years of their career.

Last year’s recipient, Poppy Bowen-Green said: “Whilst I never for a moment imagined I would be completing my NQT year during a global pandemic. Undoubtedly, this year has taught me so much that I will take forward in my future years of teaching.

“The funding provided from the Rudston Bursary by the Feoffees has helped me greatly in my first year of teaching. I used some of the funds to purchase a large supply of books for my classroom in the hope of encouraging ‘Reading for Pleasure’ with my class. During lockdown, the funds also enabled me to purchase resources to use with my key worker and vulnerable children who remained at school.”

2019 Bursary recipient, Poppy Bowen-Green

The Feoffees are also hoping to launch two new apprenticeship awards over the coming year to support young people who are learning in a work-based environment.

“It is important to us that we support young people on both sides of the education coin. The scholarship recipients who are going off to university may never come back to Rotherham, so we also make a conscious effort to award those who do choose to find employment within the local area, too,” says John Bigham, another feoffee.

Along with regular awards, the trustees also help organisations on an ad-hoc basis and this May they donated a sum of money to Crossroads Care Rotherham to help their fellow charity continue to support local carers affected by Covid-19.

Through the plague to the pandemic, the Feoffees of the Common Lands of Rotherham continue to work not for them, but for everyone.

The History of Rotherham Feoffees

Established in the 14th century, The Feoffees of the Common Lands of Rotherham was initially devised to control and police the common lands – that being land which anyone could gain access to graze their stock.

Over time, they accumulated other land and premises which they rented out and the income from which they used to distribute back into the community.

A large part of medieval Rotherham was owned by the monks of Rufford Abbey who had links to the Feoffees. When King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the Feoffees had their powers and the common lands confiscated; an abrupt end to what had been 300 years of monastic control in the town.

However, all was not lost. When Elizabeth I came to the throne 20 years later, she permitted the Feoffees to recommence their charitable work and awarded them the Royal Charter in 1589.

For the next 300 years, the Feoffees were responsible for the town’s water supply, health, welfare, defence, law and order, archery butts and distributing ale and beer. They paid for constables, plague pits to be dug, the town jail and hangings. They also ran the grammar school and the later charity school and maintained the Chapel on the Bridge.

The Feoffees’ main concern was to support the aged, poor and impotent and so in 1694 they built the first almshouse on the Crofts. Along with providing work, it also served as accommodation for 44 families at its peak. The workhouse closed in the 1830s when a new, larger one opened on Alma Road which was run by a separate entity.

When Rotherham became a borough in 1871 and a town council established, the Feoffees relinquished most of their duties. But they still had a solid interest in the town. After gaining Royal Charter, the Feoffees’ portfolio of land and property grew. Up until the early 20th century, much of the town centre, Eastwood and East Dene was owned by them, who sold or gifted it to the council for redevelopment purposes.

Rotherham Feoffees

There used to be a stipulation that two local councillors had to be on the board of 12 trustees but this has since been abolished. All Feoffees are voted in for a five-year term but can be re-elected until they choose to retire. They are chaired by a Greave who is supported by a Little Greave. These are currently Jeremy Mason and Tony Grice.

To be a Feoffee, you must have an interest in Rotherham; be it through employment, owning a local business, being a resident, or having been born in the town. Today, there are accountants, jewellers, solicitors and doctors who all bring a breadth of different attributes and abilities. There are also now female Feoffees, with Jane Collier and Hazel Yarlett being the first two women accepted to be elected; Jane also served as Greave in 2016.

Some, such as one of the longest standing members Chris Badger, have been involved for over 40 years. His father and grandfather before him were also Feoffees. Some past members were well known names within Rotherham such as Earl Fitzwilliam, the Walkers, Dickinson, Muntus and Beatson Clark.

And they are always on the lookout for prospective Feoffees, as well as local businesses who would like to support Rotherham’s oldest charity. Find out more about the Feoffees’ history and how to get involved here.