Michael Wheeler, Chairman of the Sudbury Freemen’s Trust
In the 18th century, Sudbury was a small market town – far less important than Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds but Sudbury still sent two MPs to the House of Commons. They were elected by the Borough Freemen – who sometimes profited from bribery by the candidates at election time.
The Sudbury Freemen realised that their vote had a cash value and no doubt rejoiced when news of an election reached the town because life was hard, and any extra source of income was welcome.
Sudbury Freemen would probably have welcomed a general election every year. Imagine the disappointment in the town when an election was uncontested.
The high cost of living today is constantly in the news as people struggle to heat their homes and buy food but in 18th century Sudbury, life was even more precarious. The author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, visited Sudbury in 1722 and remarked that “I know of nothing for which this town is remarkable, except for being very populous and very poor – the numbers of the poor is almost ready to eat up the rich.”
It was during a period of 13 years without a contested election that a churchwarden at All Saints decided to sort out any confusion about the nature of charitable bequests set up by wealthy Sudburians in the past who had seen the need in the town and left some money, freehold property or interestingly, ground rents on freehold property to help relieve suffering.
John Voyce, churchwarden of All Saints, therefore, did something very simple but extremely effective – he made a list of twelve charities associated with the parish and made sure that the details of each charity were clearly outlined so everyone knew what was available to help alleviate poverty in the parish. His document contained extracts from wills, the source of the funds to be distributed and amounts to be paid. The list was displayed in All Saints Church for everyone in the parish who could read.
Such was the success of John Voyce’s Abstract of Charities that the churchwardens at St. Gregory’s Church copied his idea two years later. Their Abstract of Charities was even more impressive as it was written on four parchments and included more charities.
However, the All Saints Abstract of Charities is unique because it has remained in the parish for which it was written for 287 years. The St. Gregory’s parchments were sent to the Bury St Edmunds branch of the Suffolk Archives, many years ago, for safe keeping.
Eventually, some of the charities on the All Saints list lapsed or disappeared but the remainder were brought together, along with others, into, what is now, the Sudbury Municipal Charities. During the 19th century the Trustees were zealous in collecting the ground rents on properties bequeathed to the town. Sometimes people only discovered that there was an annual ‘rent charge’ (a ground rent in modern terminology) on their property after it was purchased. Mr Winch of Winch and Blatch fame, for example, was very annoyed with his vendors when they did not disclose that he owed the Trustees 16 shillings a year ground rent from the William Alston bequest which dated back to the 16th century. Mr. Winch refused to pay, had some of his goods seized in 1873 and lost a court case. His family were still paying sixteen shillings a year to the Municipal Charities when their shop burnt down in 1922.
Mrs Fulcher, wife of the famous poet, and one Joseph Wheeler – the brother of James, my four times great grandfather – also refused to pay charitable rent charges but a stern word from the Chairman of the Municipal Charities caused them to pay their dues without any more complaints.
Today, the Municipal Charities and other charities associated with Sudbury churches are still providing financial support to people in the town.
It is important to remember the names of the donors of the gifts although they have been dead for many years – most of them were Sudbury Freemen who lived in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. They would like to know that the gifts they left for their fellow townspeople were and are still very much needed and appreciated. We should remember the churchwarden John Voyce whose family tomb is still standing in the churchyard at All Saints. By creating the All Saints Abstract of Charities, he provided a reference point which helped to relieve poverty and hardship in the parish.
We must also thank David Webb and Jane Penson of All Saints for their role in ensuring that this ancient document was not forgotten and left to decay. David has known about the All Saints Abstract of Charities since he was a child and has seen how the effects of damp has damaged it over the years. Both David and Jane were determined that it should preserved for future generations in Sudbury and therefore contacted the Sudbury Freemen’s Trust for help with funding the re-framing and photographing of the Abstract. We are also grateful for the expert services of Market Hill Photography and Sudbury Art and Framing Centre.