Norfolk RCC has merged with WNVCA to form Community Action Norfolk. To contact us please call 01362 698216 or visit our new website

The Legacy of Poors Land Bookmark and Share

From Norfolk RCC

Jump to: navigation, search




Norfolk currently has around 480 historic relief charities that were derived from land enclosures or philanthropic gifts of land or money by private individuals. Whilst these charities are not peculiar to Norfolk, it is unusual for such a large number to still be active. A significant proportion of these charities are the result of parliamentary acts of enclosure (also known as inclosure), between 1760 – 1850, although some date back to the Elizabethan period and possibly earlier. Collectively they form an important part of our rural history, and this project aims to investigate the origins of these charities and how and why the land was used as a means of relieving poverty, and how charities have adapted over the years. The project also explores the issues faced by those managing charities today, and looks at rural poverty in the twenty first century.

The Legacy of Norfolk Poor’s Land Project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and has been undertaken by Norfolk Rural Community Council (Norfolk RCC), local charities and volunteers. We are also very grateful for information and assistance supplied by the University of East Anglia, Norfolk Records Office and the Norfolk Historic Environment Service.

What do we mean by Poor’s Land?
We have used the term ‘poor’s land’ to describe the charities as this is the name commonly used in Norfolk, but they may also be known as the ‘fuel allotment’ or could be named after an individual benefactor, and older charities are often called the ‘town lands’. Increasingly charities are being merged together and are called ‘united’ or ‘relief in need’ charities. What they share is that they all at least began with controlling a piece of land with the specific purpose of supporting the ‘poor’, or those in need, within the boundary of the parish.

Locally focussed events will be held in 6 communities which have existing Poor's land. (These locations are listed as the first 6 case studies below). Each will consist of an exhibition outlining the location, history and usage of Poor's Lands in the county and some information directly relating to the local Poor's Land. The exhibits will be followed by a workshop offering opportunity for discussion about the Poor in the area, how they are identified and the nature of poverty today.

This research will be collected into an information pack which will be available for local schools and other
groups in the community. The pack will provide historical information about the land and its uses and help them explore the wider issues of deprivation then and now.

At the end of the project a showcase event will bring together information and stories from across Norfolk and the information will be widely available through press and via our website and will be disseminated to Defra, UEA (who are assisting with the initial research) and other National bodies.

History of Poor's Land

The Tudor Age (Elizabethan Poor Law)

In medieval and early Tudor times most forms of charity were administered via the Church. Those who considered it their Christian duty to help others in need and hardship could leave their property to monasteries and other religious or public institutions for this purpose. This created an informal system for poverty relief, with the all-powerful Church at its heart. However, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries ended the power of the Catholic Church and confiscated its property, so putting an end to the old methods of charitable work. This was a turbulent period politically, economically and socially. Population growth, coupled with the dispossession of the peasantry lead to increasing poverty and vagrancy in both urban and rural areas.

By the reign of Elizabeth I legislation was needed to help deal with the problem of raising and administering poor relief. Between 1552 and 1601 a number of pieces of legislation were introduced such as parish registers of the poor (so there was an official record of those who fell into the category of ‘poor’); Justices of the Peace were authorised to raise compulsory funds for the relief of the poor; the poor were put into different categories depending on their ability to work; and the first poor law tax was imposed making the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility. (The ecclesiastical subdivision of the Church, known as the parish, also became the district of local civic government constituted for this purpose.) In 1601 the ‘Elizabethan Poor Law’ was passed to consolidate the previous legislation into one single law and this included:

  •  a compulsory poor rate to be levied on every parish
  •  the creation of 'Overseers' of poor relief 
  •  the 'setting the poor on work' 
  •  the collection of a poor relief rate from property owner


 As it was now the parish’s responsibility to draw upon the economic resources within their boundary to relieve poverty they would often use a combination of poor rates, parish charities and creative uses of the freehold land, commons and wastes.

Poor rates

The poor rates were a form of taxation from all ‘Occupiers of Lands’, and were not popular with the ruling land owning classes so when other forms of relief were available, they were preferable and the Elizabethan Poor Law was flexible enough to allow them to do this.  

Parish Charities

The new structure continued to attract charitable gifts (secured against the purchase and letting of land), particularly when the alternative to charity was taxation. Such charitable giving was often conditioned in order to discourage people from claiming relief, thus lowering the parish tax. For example:

In 1708 Edward Hook bequeathed £67 to the Poor of the Parish (of Beeston Regis), not collectioners. This money was afterwards given for 10 acres of land, which produced £6 9s annually vested in different Feoffees in Beeston and Runton; and

Richard Ferrer in 1730 bequeathed land, the annual produce of which £2 12s to be distributed to the widows and widowers of the parish (of Beetley) not receiving collection.

At the same time as the Poor Law, Elizabeth I introduced the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses setting out the first definition of a charity that existed in English law. It laid out the purposes for which charities could be established.

There were a huge number of parish charities in this period, and their funds usually went towards the upkeep of the church and to helping the poor. The latter benefitted by either receiving doles at set times of the year or by being supplied with fuel, food and/or clothes for their direct relief. Some benefactors bequeathed a house or cottage, or money for the purchase of accommodation for the poor, which they could live in rent free or for a low rent. Charities from this period are sometimes known as the town lands, town estate or town houses.

Commons and waste land

Allowing the poor to use the common land also meant lower poor rates for the parish, and was therefore welcomed. The poor used the land for gathering fuel or food, or possibly farming and grazing rights. In addition the Elizabethan Poor Law encouraged the use of common land for the building of pauper houses, which were also vested in the Church Wardens and Overseers of the Poor.

Research into commons shows that over 30% of Norfolk’s ancient parishes used commons to relieve the poor either directly or indirectly.

The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law continued, with further adaptation, until the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and formed the basis of poor relief throughout the country for over two centuries.

What were the ‘Commons and Wastes’? The understanding of common land, and how we use it, has changed over the years. From the mid-nineteenth century people came to consider common land as an open space to which everyone has common access. Historically the common and wastes were used as an economic necessity, with variable common rights including grazing (herbage), taking of wood for fuel (estovers), cutting of peat (turbary) and the right to take fish (piscary). The detail and timing of these rights could be complicated and they varied from one manor or parish to another. There were generally two types of common land:
  •  Cropped – common fields that produced a crop and once harvested could be used for secondary uses, such as grazing
  •  Foraged – permanent waste lands on the edges of settlements (often fens, marsh land and heaths) that were difficult to cultivate, but could be used for rough grazing, turf for the fire or reeds for cottages.
Existing commons today are more likely to come from the latter group.

Parliamentary Enclosure and the Napoleonic Wars

Before enclosure, much of the arable land in England was organised in an open field system. Enclosure was not simply the fencing of existing holdings, but led to fundamental changes in agricultural practise. As part of enclosure small strips in common fields were consolidated to create individual farms that could be managed independently of other holdings. Prior to enclosure rights to use the land were shared between land owners and villagers or ‘commoners’. In the course of enclosure the large fields and common wastes were divided and common access restricted.

Although enclosure of land had been taking place for many centuries the scale of enclosure peaked during the C18 and C19, in particular the period around the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) was unlike anything that occurred in Norfolk before or since. It has been estimated that 31% of land in Norfolk was affected by parliamentary acts, which involved the enclosure of over 400,000 acres of land. There was a further peak in the 1850s of enclosures under the 1845 General Enclosure Act.

The rationale for the extent of enclosure during this period was that some felt the existing open field system was inefficient and that there was a waste of valuable land that could be used to feed a rapidly growing population. There was a real fear of impending starvation, especially after the poor harvests of 1795, grain shortages exacerbated by war in Europe, and inflated prices for the remaining supplies. Enclosure was supported by land owners who would benefit from increased productivity and rents. In addition improved farming techniques, such as land drainage, meant the common wastes could also be farmed and enclosed, again benefitting land owners. Enclosure generally involved an act of parliament and a formal agreement, signed by all parties.

Whilst many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small holders this was not enough to offset the costs of enclosing and fencing, and they were often forced to sell their land to larger land owners. Those who did not even have a small holding, but relied on the common wastes for survival were also losers. The Elizabethan Poor Law system of using land to support the poor was no longer viable in an enclosed landscape.

Compensation for the poor

At enclosure those that used the commons were offered varying forms of compensation. The poorest of the parish were treated as one collective and were usually compensated by a single parcel of land that was vested in (entrusted to) the Lord of the Manor, vicar, churchwardens and overseers (later known as the Trustees). Sometimes the land could be used directly for the gathering of fuel, but more commonly it was let and the income raised was used to buy fuel or other goods which were distributed by the Trustees. The land allocated for the poor at enclosure was often the poorest land, yet deemed by the Enclosure Commissioners as the most appropriate form of compensation.

Extract from the Bradwell, Belton and Fritton Enclosure Act:

Whereas there are within the several parishes of Bradwell, Belton and Fritton…open fields and also certain common heaths marshes doles and waste lands containing by estimation 1000 acres or thereabouts: And whereas Thomas Anguish Esquire, a lunatic, is Lord of the Manor of Gapton Hall with Belton, and the Revd. George Anguish, Clerk, is the Committee of his estate, and the President of the College of Saint Mary Magdalene in the University of Oxford, and the Scholars of the said College are lords of the Manor of Caldecott Hall; and Elizabeth Turner Widow is lady of the Manor of Fritton; and the lords and lady of which said several manors, or some of them, are or claim to be entitled to the soil of the said Common, heaths, marshes, doles and waste lands.

In addition to dividing the 1000 acres of land between those who claimed to be entitled the Enclosure Act went on to guide the amount and value of land to be set aside for the benefit of the poor in these three parishes. In the case of Belton this was not to exceed in value 20 acres of the average of the Common heaths marshes doles and waste lands. By the time of the Enclosure Award (which usually followed up to two or three years later) the allocation made was 9 acres and 9 perches and this was vested with the Lords and Ladies of the Manor of Gapton Hall with Belton, along with the church wardens and Overseers of the poor.

In addition those that had pauper houses on the commons (as encouraged by the Elizabethan Poor Law system) were seldom compensated for their loss, as they were not owned by them, but vested in the Overseers, and there were rarely any tenancy agreements.

 Zachary Clarke’s account of Norfolk Charities, investigated in the late C18 and early C19, notes the disappearance of many pauper houses. For example in Aslacton:

"It appears by a Terrier, dated 1806, that there were formerly 3 cottages belonging to the above parish, all of which are dilapidated, and the lands on which they stood have been allotted to different persons by the Commissioners under the Aslacton Inclosure Acts, but compensation has been made to the parish by the Commissioners in two allotments from the low common… These allotments are now vested in the Lords and Ladies of the Manor, the Curate, Churchwarden and Overseers of the Parish. The poor inhabitants have the right to cut turf on such of the land that produces the same. The herbage arising from the said land is to be let, and the money to be paid out in the purchase of fuel, to be distributed to the Poor."

So it was this limited form of compensation that formed the poor land charities. Over 50% of all enclosure acts made some provision for the poor in Norfolk, and approximately 226 registered charities are still operating today.

The Victorian Period  (The New Poor Law)

Following the Napoleonic Wars the cost of poor relief (due to the price of food, unemployment, and the number of people displaced after enclosure) had risen by over 75%. As a result the attitudes to poverty and the poor were also changing. Some thought the poor relief system encouraged poverty, and that because people could claim relief they contracted into marriage earlier and had larger families. So in 1832 the government set up a Royal Commission to investigate the relief of poverty, with the view to amending the existing legislation and the result was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act – which did not amend but totally replaced the existing laws. The Act continued to rely on the parish rate, but shifted the administration onto the poor-law unions. Parishes continued to manage charities for the poor, but regional workhouses took on the statutory responsibility for relief. The Act established the importance of local administration under centralised control. It also encouraged attitudes and images of poverty which dominated public perceptions in the C19.

The main aim of the Act was to reduce the costs of poor relief, and it placed the workhouse at the centre of provision, with the guiding principle that workhouse conditions should be worse than the lowest living standards of the independent labourer. Those entering the workhouse would find life there harsh, monotonous and characterised by the intent of improving the inmate's moral character. It was felt that local resources should be used more effectively and costs would be further reduced as paupers would be deterred by the appearance of the workhouses and knowledge of the harsh treatment of their ‘inmates’.

Gressenhall Workhouse
<span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 128);" /> A local Act of 1775 established the Mitford and Launditch Hundreds incorporation. In 1776, the incorporation purchased the 62-acre Chapel Farm in Gressenhall and in the summer of that year began the building of a "house of industry".
From the 1790s, there was increasing dissatisfaction with the operation of the incorporation and its failure to produce the anticipated reductions in the poor rate for its member parishes. Pressure from ratepayers led to a revision of the local Act in 1801 under which each member parish paid a fixed contribution per year, plus an extra charge for each pauper they placed in the workhouse. As a result, use of the workhouse fell considerably.
<span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 128);" /> Following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Incorporation was replaced by the Mitford and Launditch Poor Law Union. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board, representing its 60 constituent parishes.
The new Union took over the existing Gressenhall Workhouse which was adapted to the requirements of the 1834 Act. A high boundary wall was erected together with internal dividing walls to create separate yards for the different classes of inmates.
Investigations into Gressenhall in 1894 reported it as squalid, dreary, comfortless, and crowded. There were no proper baths or running water. The sole nurse was untrained and assisted by a pauper "wardsman" who, at night, provided the only form of nursing attendance.

Charity in the Victorian period

Charitable giving continued to be popular in this period, but was often directed at those least able to help themselves, such as the elderly, children and the sick, while relief for the destitute was influenced both by the ideology of self-help and by evangelical religion. Like the poor law, charities sought to distinguish the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ poor, and sought not to undermine the work of the state.

The parish of East Tuddenham had five pauper cottages built on Wells Green sometime before 1786. Unusually the cottages survived the enclosure of 1802, and continued to exist after the New Poor Law of 1834, which had eliminated the necessity for housing at a parish level. In 1840 the East Tuddenham vestry decided to keep the cottages for the elderly, whilst giving notice to those not considered objects of charity. The latter were presumably relocated to the workhouse.

There had also been changes to enclosure and poor’s land allocation in the 1830s, with parishes being encouraged to let out land to any poor and industrious inhabitants. In 1832 an act specifically designed to encourage garden allotments was passed, which also urged parish officers to turn fuel allotments and poor lands directly to the poor under a system of regulated cultivation. By the time of the General Inclosure Act of 1845, fuel allotments were rarely awarded at enclosure, but recreation and garden allotments were.

The 20th and 21st Centuries (State Welfare)

The administration of relief or welfare changed again in the 20th Century. The first old age pension, which was means tested, was introduced at the beginning of the century for men over the age of 70. At the time average life expectancy for men was 48 years!

By the end of the 2nd World War the National Insurance, National Health and Family Allowance Acts were passed and the new welfare system established.

The parish level administrations no longer had any legal responsibility for those in poverty in the parish, but they have been left with the legacy of many small charities that have charitable objects restricted to helping the poor within the parish boundary. 

Outline of the six communities


Prior to Parliamentary Enclosure

There are records of a Town House for pauper accommodation in Ashwellthorpe from at least 1697. This was probably a tenement of three dwellings and 11 perches of land attached, which was described in later years as having been “held and possessed by the Parish from time immemorial and used as poor houses for the reception and accommodation of Paupers belonging to the said Parish”

In June 1789 a Deed of Grant from Henry William Wilson Esq. of Didlington and Ashwellthorpe, Lord of the Manor, conveyed land on which a new Town House was constructed. In addition money for enclosing ten acres of land for the poor was received by the Overseers the following year. The ten acre site is later referred to as the Workhouse land, and known today as the Parish Land.

Fundenhall and Ashwellthorpe Enclosure 1814

In January 1811 a Petition for the enclosure of ‘Field Lands, Shack Lands, Commonable Grounds, Commons and Wastes’ was submitted to Parliament by the Owners of estates within the two parishes.

Royal Assent was given in May 1811, and the following Enclosure Award of 1814, allocated a fuel allotment of ‘one piece of land (part of the said Great Common) contained one Acre One Rood and Thirty-one Perches bounded by the first described Public Road North.’ This land was adjacent to the ten acre site already used for the poor (the latter being shown on the enclosure maps as ‘the Feoffees of the Poor’).

The fuel allotment income was to benefit “the inhabitants legally settled in the parish and not occupying more than a yearly value of £8.” The Depwade Union

Following the Poor Law Amendment Act the Depwade Union was formed in 1836 covering 43 constituent parishes including Ashwellthorpe and Fundenhall. A new workhouse was erected at Pulham Market, and the old Town House in Ashwellthorpe was sold, although the ten acre site was retained by the Parish.

In 1843 the Report made by the Commissioners of Inquiring into Charities records the Ashwellthorpe fuel allotment as the only charity for the poor in the area. It is noted that the fuel allotment is ‘let with workhouse land; and out of rent, coal purchased to the value of the allotment’

Changes over 20th Century

Civil parishes in their modern sense were established afresh in 1894, by the Local Government Act. We can surmise at this point Ashwellthorpe Parish Council retained the responsibility for the old Town Land or Parish Land. The Fuel Allotment Charity continued to be managed separately and carried on distributing coal as it had since inception. In 1931 accounts submitted to the Charity Commission show coal distributed to 40 persons. The village population in 1931 was 312 people, and number of houses was only 88. If the coal distributed to 40 persons equates to 40 households this would suggest that 45% of the village were recipients.

In 1984 electricity saving stamps were given out as well as coal. The fuel allotment around this time was being let for £70 per acre.

 Letters from charity recipients and trustees:

1973, 11 July This morning I received a gift of church coal. Such a welcome sight. I want to express my most grateful thanks immediately
1980, 12 Nov Please accept my most grateful thanks to the committee and yourself (of course) for my receiving 1 hundredweight of coal which I have been told came from your Welfare Department. Many thanks to all concerned.
1983, 18 July I am writing to tell you I wish to resign from the Charity Coal Committee. I had several people who knew I was on, come to me and complain that it wasn’t done fair last year.

The Charity today

By 2000 electricity saving stamps were no longer available and, given that many recipients did not use coal, cash payments were now issued. The charity is still running with an annual income of £105 per annum received from a tenant farmer. This amount is distributed to recipients in Ashwellthorpe in December each year.


Before Enclosure

Catfield had a large heath of about 1,000 acres adjoining Hickling’s large heath. It also had about 500 acres of fens and broads. It is likely that all households in the parish were able to use this common land for collecting wood, digging peat, grazing animals, and gathering wild plants and fruit.

The parish’s Town Houses, created by Elizabethan Poor Laws, provided homes for several elderly deserving paupers. Four acres of farm land in strips in Ludham’s open fields were rented to a neighbouring farmer and the money distributed to the poor of Catfield. The poor were also helped by money from the parish rates, collected and distributed by the Overseers of the Poor, two leading rate payers.


An Act was passed in 1802 to enclose the common wastes and remaining open fields, which was carried out by the Award of 1808. The heath and fens were allotted to existing landowners to become private land, but one-seventeenth of the commons was set aside for the poor to compensate for their loss of the commons. The Trustees of the Poor were allotted 64 acres, 2 roods and 20 perches of heath and fen plus two of the parish’s three staithes. At first the poor continued to use these areas, especially for digging peat, but by the mid-nineteenth century the fens were being rented out and the money going to the poor.

Meanwhile the Town Houses were sold in 1807 and the money invested. Housing for the poor was provided by cash payments from the rates or by going into the Workhouse at Smallburgh.

Nineteenth Century

By 1840, rapidly increasing population, shortage of housing, and laxity of the Trustees caused about a dozen pauper families to squat on the Poors’ piece of heath, building themselves earth-walled cottages. Later the Trustees regained possession of the land and the squatters became tenants.

From the early 19th century until the 1960s, the staithe at the common was leased to the Riches family, who operated wherries from there.

Catfield United Charities

In 1916, the Charity Commissioners approved a scheme to merge the Poors’ Land Charity, the former Town Houses funds, and the Poors’ Allotments. By this scheme the Trustees were to be (and still are) the Rector of Catfield and four appointees of the Parish Council (created in 1894).

By the mid-20th century the cottages were abandoned, declared unfit for habitation and pulled down.

In World War Two the Air Ministry confiscated the four acres of farm land in Ludham to be part of an airfield. The Trustees were compensated with government bonds.

Present Day

The Trustees lease out the plots of land, and most of the fen areas are leased to Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Part of the Common Staithe is leased out as a boat yard. Another part of the Common Staithe and Wood End Staithe are kept in hand by the Trustees for the benefit of parishioners and the public. Part of the fen is kept in hand by the Trustees, who receive HLS payment for maintaining it and it has a permissive circular walk around it.

Parishioners in need can apply to the Trustees for financial help. Most of the Trust’s income is distributed annually in December to the widowed or over-seventies; usually about £7,000 divided among about 80 recipients.


The Early Years – Town Lands

Cromer and its neighbouring parishes were not formerly enclosed under an act of parliament and therefore many of the poor’s charities in this part of Norfolk are more likely to be the result of a charitable gift to the community by an individual, usually through a bequest.

The Cromer charities (the town lands), are referenced in the Church’s ‘glebe terriers’ in the 1700s. The glebe terrier is a document, written as a survey or inventory, which gives details of church owned land and property within a parish, but often details neighbouring land holdings too, and can include an inventory of charity land and monetary donations.

The glebe terrier from 1723 includes a record entitled “a true terrier of all the land belonging to the poor” and goes on to detail seven separate references to land and property, some made up of several “pieces”. In the list are four pieces in “Northrepps Croft belong to the poor of Cromer”. It also includes a cottage containing “two dwellers” and a free school.

In Zachary Clark’s Account of Different Charities Belonging to the County of Norfolk, which is based on data from the 1700s (a combination of the church terriers and the ‘Gilbert Returns’) and was published in 1811, he notes that in the Gilbert Returns the only charity mentioned is “Land producing 9l 7s 7d. clear to be given to the poor that are not collectioners, but by when and whom bequeathed is unknown” Clark observes that there seems to be further land detailed in the terriers, including six pieces totalling 10 acres and 20 poles, the aforementioned four pieces (in Northrepps), the cottage and the school.

In any of these accounts the information on the donor of the Northrepps land has been lost. The curious part is why land in Northrepps is specifically used to benefit the poor of Cromer, and not those in Northrepps, which appears to have no poor’s land of its own remains unanswered.

The Charity Commissioners

In the nineteenth century, amidst new interest in the utilisation of charitable funds, the Brougham Commission was appointed by parliament to examine the state of charitable trusts in England and Wales. The commission ran from 1818 to 1837, and a further permanent Charity Commission was set up in 1853.

The Commissioners went out to parishes to meet those involved in the charities (often Church Wardens and Overseers) and to take down details of the land, to whom it was rented to, how much for and where the money was spent.

In the case of the Cromer Town Lands, now only the land in Northrepps is detailed.The Charity Commissioners note that after costs the income raised is divided equally amongst the poor widows about Michaelmas. “In 1831, 16 widows received 18s 4d. each and there was left a balance of 2l. 3s. 4d. against the charity.”

It is likely that the cottage, like many pauper houses, was sold after the creation of the new workhouse under the Erpingham Union. It is possible the other pieces of land were sold around this period too.

Growth of Cromer in C19

Cromer had started off as a small fishing village, but in the Edwardian period it had become a popular holiday destination, now easily accessible by the new railway. The place was made fashionable by the likes of the Gurney family, and received visits from the future King Edward VII, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde and others.

Overstrand Poor Land

Neighbouring Overstrand also has three acres of land, the rent of which was used to by coal for the poor of the parish. Like the land in Northrepps the details of the benefactor is unknown. The land, which was in the administrative boundary of Overstrand later became part of Cromer, when in 1895 Suffield Park was added to Cromer as part of the expansion associated with the Cromer High railway station, which had opened in 1877. The trustees sold the land in 1898 and the income from the proceeds continued to be used for annual gifts of coal, and later money. By the 1990s the trustees felt the small sum served little purpose and in February 1995 they resolved that the charity’s assets be donated to Cromer Hospital Day Procedure Unit and the charity was wound up.

The role of the Urban District Council and the Town Council

The Local Government Act of 1894 created a new administration for the growing town of Cromer with the creation of the Cromer Urban District Council. Under the Act the new council was given the power to appoint Trustees in place of the Overseers and Churchwardens. The Council appointed trustees for the Town Lands in Northrepps (sometimes referred to as the Poor Widows Charity) and to another charity called the Howes Charity. The latter charity was derived under the will of John Howes in the mid-nineteen century, where an endowment had been left to provide coal and clothing for the aged poor.

In 1972 when the Cromer UDC merged to become North Norfolk District Council, the role of appointing charity trustees moved the Cromer Town Council, where is remains today.

Over the years the various administrators of the charity have considered selling the land. In 1898 Sir Samuel Hoare, who leased the land and was a significant land owner in these parts, offered to buy the land for £50 per acre, but the offer was not accepted. More recently in 2012 the Trustees again debated, but rejected the idea of selling the land.

The early 20th Century

Statement of accounts in the 1920s and 1930s show the tenant as Sir Samuel Hoare (son of the afforementioned Sir Samuel Hoare). In 1936 W E Jessop (one of the trustees) wrote to Samuel Hoare lamenting non-payment of rent due. “It is as you know land from which the poor widows of Cromer receive a sum of money each Christmas. Many of these widows are still waiting and wondering why Sir Samuel is withholding what is to them a little to give comfort for a dull time….May I add that I told one dear old lady of 90 that I had written you a personal letter and she replied: ‘He will answer. I nursed him when a baby, don’t forget.’"

Samuel John Gurney Hoare, 1st Viscount Templewood, was a significant political figure, who served in the government under both Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlin in the 1930s.

The Charity Today

The charity still gives money to widows, but with the large population if Cromer the gifts are now a small token. In 2006 the trustees looked into widening these objectives to include widowers on grounds of equality, but under the Charity Commission terms this would only be possible if the expenditure of funds were not currently effective.

The Charity Trustees have many letters and cards thanking them for payments, but as with many of these charities occasionally people feel they have been overlooked. One letter notes “while the money [is not] a matter of need in the late twentieth century, it might well make possible the purchase of that extra bottle of sherry that a widow had decided she could not afford….”


Early charities

Like most parishes Poringland had a number of charities created from bequests. In Zachary Clark’s Account of Different Charities Belonging to the County of Norfolk, published in 1811, based on data from the 1700s (a combination of the church terriers and the ‘Gilbert Returns’), he notes that in Great Porland (Great Porringland):

“ 8s given by the Will of Ezekiel Skoyles in 1661. Also 12s by that of John Skoyles, the 28th July, 1675, both arising from Land, vested in the Overseers for the time being, to be distributed amongst the Poor in bread.”

Ezekiel and John Skoyles also left money for the poor of Howe.

Clarke also notes from the church terriers of 1729 that there were “two Cottages standing on the Waste, well filled with poor people, constantly repaired at the charge of the parish.” This may be the ‘town house’ clearly shown on the later tithe map on land that became the Fuel Allotment.


Poringland was enclosed by Act of Parliament in 1800 in a joint Act that also included Framingham Earl, Framingham Pigot, Arminghall, Caister St Edmund, Stoke Holy Cross and Bixley. The area had been dominated by an extensive heath. The Enclosure Award in 1805 includes information on Poringland’s ‘fuel allotment’, as compensation for the poor who would have lost the right to use the heath. In common with other Awards the parish were also allotted public sand, gravel, and clay pits (for house and road building), as well as public watering places for cattle.

The Report by the Charity Commissioners in the late 1830s record that Poringland (Great and Little, as they now form one parish) have fuel allotments totalling 29 acres, 2 roods and 12 perches. The Report states:

“The (enclosure) Commissioners were directed to set out allotments to the several lords of the manors, rectors, churchwardens and overseers of such parishes, in trust, to let the same for any term not exceeding 21 years, at the best yearly rents, without fine, the rents and profits to be laid out in the purchasing of fuel to be distributed amongst the poor inhabitants of the said parish respectively…”

There is no mention in the Report by the Charity Commissioners of the Town House or cottages recorded in the church terriers, and it can be assumed that these were no longer used once the old parochial poor relief system was wound up in 1834, with Poringland and its neighbouring parishes becoming amalgamated into the Henstead Union. The poor would have been ‘housed’ in the Union Workhouse built in Swainsthorpe in 1835. The Workhouse was enlarged in 1858 and had room for 250 inmates.

Neighbouring Fuel Allotment Charities

The same Enclosure Award resulted in fuel allotments in Framingham Earl, Framingham Pigot, Arminghall, Caister St Edmund and Stoke Holy Cross all of which still run charities today.

Some of these charities still own land, but some have sold theirs to make way for new developments. The Framingham Earl Fuel Allotment Charity sold their land in the 1950s to the Norfolk Education Committee, and the Framlingham Earl High School was built on the land. The proceeds of the sale were invested in the Charities Official Investment Fund (COIF) and shares increased steadily over the years. Historically the Charity gave out an annual allowance of coal, where as it now gives out a monetary gift.

Charity today

In 1995/96 the Poringland Fuel Allotment Charity trustees decided to sell part of their land to Norfolk Homes and to invest the money. Budgens paid an additional amount and the charity now receives a reasonable rate of interest.

In 1996 the Charity broadened its charitable objectives allowing them to support the inhabitants of the parish, and to address education and training as part of their activities. The Charity continues to support local people and community projects.

Stow Bedon


Stow Bedon was enclosed under a parliamentary Enclosure Act in 1813. The common land prior to this date was managed by communal exploitation and regulation, namely the church wardens and overseers to the poor. The Act replaced this by a system of private land management, but also made small allowances for the needs of the poor.

At the time of the Acts construction, the churchwardens lay claim to 60 acres of land for the poor to cut fuel. In the final Award this was reduced to 30 acres. The 1813 Act set Trustees the power to regulate cutting of fuel or let grass, of which profit would from time to time be laid out by them in purchasing fuel, to be distributed amongst the poor. The first Trustees included; the Lord of the Manor, the Vicar, Churchwardens and Overseers of the poor of Stow Bedon.

The Site in 1813 and Early Management

There is very little documentation of this period, but from what there is, a reasonable picture can be deduced. Before the 1813 Act was made, the commons of the parish of Stow Bedon were regulated by the churchwardens and overseers to the Poor. A memorandum of 6th October 1773, written in the back of the overseers account book, states that “no firs shall be sold off any of the commons belonging to Stow Bedon for two years and no brakes shall be made till the day after the Hingham Fair, which happens in October”. In a further memorandum of 6th April 1775 it certifies that Mr Laveridge on consideration of a piece of common waste land, called his yard, to giving laying round to his horse, agreed to give said officers one shilling per annum.

From this and the fact that the commons to the west of the parish being known as the Great Heath at the time, a picture can be deduced. With the order not to cut firs (fuel wood) it would be presumed that the commons ability to supply was exhausted and a brake was made to allow stools of cut firs to recover. The letting of the yard to Mr Laveridge for his horse could suggest poor grass was present on the commons, this also implies that trees and shrub species were of limited abundance.

Moving on to the 1832 Charity Commissions Accounts for the Fuel Allotment, they state that “this very bad land is let for £8 a year”, what the purpose of the let was for, it does not say. From the evidence at hand it would suggest the main use was grazing, with the site being a heath land type.

The same Charities Commissions Accounts states that “the £8 rent was laid in coals which are distributed amongst the poor settled in the parish, proportional according to the number in the family. The quantities vary from 3 to 7 numbers of bushels a family”. Whites Directory show lettings of £12 a year in 1845 and 1854, increasing to £14-10s-0d in 1864. This suggests that the heath land landscape remained, the land being let for grazing and/ or shooting.

It is interesting to note that the poor were given coal in 1832, at a time before the railway had come to the parish. This would mean that all the coal would have been transported by horse and cart, probably from Thetford. With the number of households receiving reaching 20, taking an average of 5 bushels at 80lb per bushel, it is probable that three and a half tons of coal was given out in that year.

The Railway
In 1865 an Act proposed by Bury St Edmunds and Thetford Railway was finally gained, this Act included a short branch line from Roudham junction to Watton.

With this the Thetford and Watton Railway was born. The route proposed ran through the western side of the Fuel Allotment and took up approximately two acres. The land was sold to the Thetford and Watton Railway in 1868 for £63-12s-3d. The railway ran for almost 100 years before the Beeching report confirmed the closure of the line, the last passenger train from Thetford to Watton ran on 15th June 1964. In 1986 the old railway line, part of which runs through the Fuel Allotment was made a permissive public path, which now forms part of the Great Eastern Pingo Trail.

Between the Wars

The management of the Fuel Allotment during the inter war years, ran with consistency. The trustees changed from time to time and the land was let in the same way, grazing and/or shooting. Snapshots of the accounts in 1929 are as follows.

Trustees 1929

The Rev Charles Millard The Rectory Rector

Mr C W Crawford The Whews Farmer

Mr J H Dodman Church Farm Farmer

Mr J Warren Prince of Wales Public House Publican

Mr J W Watmorgh Cherry Tree House Farmer

The rent for the year was £17, the tenant being Major Henry Jones. Coal was distributed to 29 recipients at a cost of £19-5s-0d, the price of coal at the time being around £2 per ton.

It is interesting to note that parishioners would complain to the parish council at that time. From the parish council minutes book 3rd April 1923, it was proposed unanimously that; Crows Lane being a Public Bridle Path, had become so overgrown it was practically un-passable, that the tenant Major Jones be written to requesting undergrowth from hedges be trimmed back to make the way clear.

Post War to Present day

During 1946 the RAF took aerial photographs of the whole of Norfolk, they are now kept at Norfolk Arial Photographic Library Gressenhall. Looking at the photographs that include Stow Bedon Fuel Allotment, there appears very few trees compared with what there is today. Today the site is woodland with a few open areas containing a scattering of mature oaks, birch and crab apple, the vast majority of the birch which now dominates is 45 years old or less. With little management since 1946 the heath land type that was, has reverted to woodland.

So where are we today?

The land which forms Stow Bedon Fuel Allotment is now awarded Site of Special Scientific Interest status (SSSI). Throughout the site, damp and water filled depressions are found, which are known as 'pingos'. They were formed at the end of the last ice age, around 10000 years ago, and support a variety of open-water and fen communities. The ponds are also important breeding grounds for dragonflies and a population of amphibians. The site also consists of mixed secondary woodland. In the wetter places alder and birch trees are found. The drier part of the land supports a more healthy type of woodland with birch and oak occurring over acid grassland. The woodland is beginning to develop a good diverse structure, as occasional tree falls permit the growth of younger saplings. This piece of woodland helps support breeding woodcock, redstart and tawny owl and notable insects are dependant on the dead wood.

In February 2001 the trustees entered a Wildlife Enhancement Agreement with English Nature, who helps with the funding of conservation work. The work aims to; restore the open condition of some pingos to create a range of shaded and un-shaded pools, maintain the structural diversity and species variation of the secondary woodland types, maintain the bird species which breed in the woodland and maintain the notable species dependant of dead wood.

Work carried out so far includes; clearance of invading scrub and canopy from two of the pingo areas, restoration and replanting of a section of hedgerow and control of invading bracken, to allow wildflowers and grasses to re-establish. The work not only improves the wildlife diversity potential, but also improves the game conservation on the land. Early indications from an ongoing butterfly survey, which started in 2002, show that numbers are increasing. The site has shown 20 species so far, including white admiral, purple hairstreak, common blue, holly blue and ringlet. Apart from the occasional hire of a digger all the work carried out on the site is voluntary. Much of which is by young people of the Wayland community gaining their service section for the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, silver and gold.

The Stow Bedon Fuel Allotment Charity continues to help with heating fuel to this day. With modern heating systems wood and coal is generally not required, so help is given towards heating bills. With help from English Nature funding conservation work, this generally allows all the moneys raised from the rent to be paid out as fuel grants.

Information compiled by Mr P Childs (Fuel Allotment Trustee)


In common with many villages up and down the country, Thornham has had a number of small, historic charities, dating back to the time of the Enclosure Acts at the end of the 18th Century. The last few years have seen some significant changes in the organisation of Charities in Thornham. This note describes a little of the historical background and outlines the structure in 2013.

 The various Charities in Thornham were organised into two groups in the 1980’s – the first group, Thornham Charities and the second, Thornham United Charities. The objectives of Thornham Charities have always been to operate for the benefit of Thornham Parish. The objectives of TUC were formerly, for the relief of the poor, but these were changed and brought up to date in 2011, to operate for the benefit of the village and villagers of Thornham. These revised objectives were approved by and registered with the Charity Commission.

Thornham Charities

Thornham Charities originally consisted of a number of sand and gravel pits around the village, from which villagers had the right to extract building materials for houses and road upkeep. There were five pits, each of an acre or less, two down Shore Road, one near Beacon Hill, one near the present Ploughman’s Piece, and the last, adjoining other charity land on the edge of Ling Common.

The original purpose of these pits has long since disappeared and, as part of a land exchange in 2007, they were transferred to Thornham Farms Ltd, Stephen Bett’s Company, in exchange for six acres of land at the west end of the village on which the Playing Field and Village Hall now stand.

With the establishment of a new Charity, Thornham Village Hall and Playing Field Ltd (which is also a registered private limited company) in 2011, there was no longer a need for Thornham Charities, which was formally disbanded by its Trustees, the Parish Council.

Thornham Drill Hall

The Drill Hall was a registered Charity until 2012 when, with the unanimous agreement of the Trustees, all the assets were transferred to Thornham Village Hall and Playing Field Ltd and the Charity wound up.

Thornham United Charities

Thornham United Charities consists of four separate charities amalgamated under the same banner in the 1980’s – the Fuel Allotment Charity, Walter Walterson’s Charity, George Hogge's Charity and Edward Robinson’s Charity. The Trustees of Thornham United Charities are the Rector of All Saints’ Church and trustees appointed by Thornham Parish Council.

Fuel Allotment Charity

The Fuel Allotment Charity was set up by the Enclosure Act of 1797, that rapacious Act which stripped villagers up and down the country of many of their ancient common rights, under the auspices of improving farming methods. Farming methods were certainly improved, but nothing like as much as the landowners’ bank balances.

The following extract from the original Act will probably make it clear why the Trustees saw fit to update the objectives of the Charity in 2009.

“The Act directs the lord of the Manor of Thornham and the Vicar and Churchwardens and Overseers of the parish of Thornham, such parts of the commons for the necessary firing, as well of all poor persons residing in the Parish, to be burned in their houses as the Commissioners should think proper, such firing to be cut in such manner and according to such orders as the Commissioners by their award should appoint.”

Until 2007, the Charity owned 29 acres of land at Ling Common about two miles to the south of the village. The land was rented out to the Bett family for many years and the income was distributed to the poor of the parish in the form of bags of coal, which had long since replaced the “whins and furzes” which the parishioners originally gathered.

In 2007, the Trustees of the Fuel Allotment entered into an agreement with Stephen Bett's Thornham Farms Ltd to exchange the Ling Common Land for nineteen acres just off the A149 at the west end of the village adjoining the Playing Field.

The result of these two, concurrent land exchanges means that the Parish, in the form of Thornham Village Hall and Playing Field Ltd and Thornham United Charities, now has ownership of the land which runs from Thornham Deli to the Ringstead Road by Jamison’s corner.

The Charity field is now leased to Stephen Bett as part of his HLS scheme with DEFRA which is scheduled to run until at least 2023. As part of this scheme, a permissive path runs parallel to the Main Road, the A149. In 2013 a strip of wildflower seeds was planted running alongside the path. In addition, the Charity received two donations of 800 trees, 200 of which were planted along the south boundary in 2012; the remainder are due for delivery and planting in December 2013. The concept is that the villagers will, once again, have a facility they can use – this time for enjoyment, rather than the arduous collection of winter fuel, as envisaged 250 years ago.

Walter Walterson’s Charity

Walter Walterson died on 15th March 1720 and bequeathed £100 to buy land, the income from which was to be distributed two thirds to the poor of Thornham and one third to the poor of Titchwell. Walterson is buried in All Saints’ Church. His tombstone lies at the front of the nave, just before the altar and this bequest is inscribed on his tombstone.

His bequest was used to purchase thirteen acres of land just outside the village on the road to Ringstead and this land is rented out for agricultural use. The income in early days was distributed, “in the form of coals amongst all the poor belonging to the parish in quantities varying from one bushel and a half to six bushels, those who did not receive parish relief having a larger share.”

Until 2007, The Trustees distributed sums of money to all parishioners over the age of 70 on the first Sunday of Advent at the Church. Since the amendment of the Charity’s articles, and with the expressed agreement of the Charity Commission, this practice has been discontinued and the income is now used, “for the general benefit of the residents of Thornham and Titchwell.”

Edward Robinson's Charity

Of interest, mainly from a historical point of view, Edward Robinson’s will provides the princely sum of £1 per annum to the village! Robinson was a merchant of Lynn who died in 1700 and charged his house in Lath Street, King’s Lynn, which he gave to the Mayor and Burgesses of Lynn, with the payment of £1 every St. Thomas’s Day, to the minister and churchwardens of Thornham, to be distributed among twenty of the most religious poor and women in equal shares.

George Hogge's Charity

George Hogge was a wealthy Lynn business man whose family built Thornham Hall in the late 18th Century as well as the Red House in the village. Hogge left an investment of £400 to be invested in income, “to be distributed amongst such persons resident in the parish as the trustees think most deserving.” The funds are now invested in stock held by the Official Trustees of Charitable Funds, a national organisation which invests on behalf of small charities throughout the country.

Thornham Village Hall and Playing Field Ltd

Thornham Village Hall and Playing Field Ltd was established in 2011 as both a registered Charity and a private limited company.


At the end of 2013, there are two Charities currently active in village life –Thornham United Charities and Thornham Village Hall and Playing Field Ltd which, together, own the land which stretches from the Deli to Ringstead Road. The village now owns land in a prime position in the village which can be used for recreational and leisure purposes for many future generations of Thornham residents and visitosr, in a way which, hopefully, will reflect the wishes of those generous Thornham benefactors nearly three centuries ago.

Poor's Land today?

The most common things we hear from relief charities today is that there is nobody to give the money to anymore, or that they do not wish to insult people by offering them money. At the same time a range of factors suggest that there are more people in need today than there have been for many years.

So who does need help in today’s rural Norfolk villages?

The majority of charities chose to focus their funding on pensioners, some by inviting people to apply for funds and some by simply distributing funds or gifts annually to all known pensioners in the village. Whilst there are many pensioners still living in poverty they are no longer the most deprived group in today’s society, with working age adults and children both ranking higher in recent poverty statistics. It is understandable why charities choose to focus on pensioners, this may have been influenced by the Victorian period when charities favoured the elderly or the sick, historically they were once the most deprived group, rural Norfolk has an ageing population (with the retired population estimated to increase by 40% by 2026, and with a 77% increase of those over 85), and the charities do not have information at their disposal to means test beneficiaries (and do not wish to insult people by asking) so to give monies to everyone of a certain age is an easy way to decide how to distribute funds.

Where else could charities focus their funds in the future?

Collectively relief charities in Norfolk had an annual income in 2011/12 in excess of £1.25m as well as owning significant land assets. In Norfolk growing heating costs mean many are in fuel poverty, a lack of affordable housing mean that people on low and medium incomes are priced out of their villages, we have a growing number of young families having to visit food banks, and many working-age adults have been hit by multiple benefit cuts.

Fuel Poverty:

Evidence shows that rural households are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to struggle to afford to heat their homes, due to lower than average incomes and houses that are less energy efficient. Between 2002 -2012, allowing for inflation fuel prices have increased 65% for electricity, 122% for gas and 165% for oil. A lack of access to cheaper fuel supplies is also a problem and 36% of homes in rural areas are off the gas grid.

Tackling fuel poverty is important because the impact of cold homes on people’s health and well-being is significant. Many households are faced with a ‘heat or eat’ crisis where they are forced to choose between putting the heating on to get warm or buying food.

Some charities still focus their funds on fuel supply and provide their beneficiaries with annual winter fuel vouchers. Other ideas could include joining up with bulk buying syndicates so recipients can access cheaper fuel, using land for sustainable energy production, or assisting with funding for home insulation improvements.

Affordable housing:

Norfolk RCC recently undertook a consultation on key rural issues with its members, rural forum members and local community groups. 83% identified affordable housing as an important or very important issue for their community. Affordable housing is needed because there is a general shortage of available housing and local people often find themselves priced out of the market, forcing them to move away. The average house price to income ratio remains high in rural Norfolk with house prices being between 10.1 – 12.4 times the average salary.

The shortage of housing does not just affect those without a suitable property. It has negative consequences for the whole community. Critical rural services such as shops, pubs, or adult and child care often have wage rates where it would not be viable to commute long distances. Local affordable housing is, therefore vital to maintain these services in our communities.

Could more charity land be used to provide housing for the people of the village? Should charities develop and retain their own housing, keeping it for local people in perpetuity? If their land is not suitable for housing could they swap it for land that is?

Other areas of need:

The last few years have seen an alarming rise in the number of people visiting the Tressell Trust Food Banks, seven of which are in Norfolk. The Trust reported earlier in 2013 that they have seen the biggest rise in numbers given emergency food since the charity began in 2000. Across all their food banks nationally almost 350,000 people have received at least three days emergency food during the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 more than anticipated and close to triple the number helped in 2011-12. The rising cost of living, static incomes, changes to benefits, underemployment and unemployment have meant increasing numbers of people in the UK have hit a crisis that forces them to go hungry.

Could the charities work with food banks in their area? Could charity land be used to provide community allotments or farms that support families in crisis directly with access to food?

These are just some ideas for how charities could help local residents today. In addition some charities also help those suffering from short term need that may require help with the general cost of living, such as the purchase of white goods, or help with rent arrears. Others may support community activities that help with access to services, such as supporting a community transport scheme or a Good Neighbours project.

what do we mean by poverty?

This project is funded by

Image:Heritage lottery.png

and supported by


Personal tools