Sheffield Town Trust: our oldest institution

I am certain that most Sheffielders have never heard of Sheffield Town Trust. But it is the oldest institution in the city, and one of the oldest institutions in Britain, dating to 1297, when Thomas de Furnival, Lord of the Manor of Hallam, granted it a charter.

Lord de Furnival, who married a niece of Simon de Montford, held his lands direct from the Crown. In those days it was custom for the body of tenants to have common lands reserved for their use, for which they paid rent in hard-cash.

In return, for this sum Lord de Furnival undertook that the lands should be freehold, that he would provide a court of justice every three weeks, that fines and punishments should be proportionate to the offence, that there should be trial by jury, and that the tenants had the right to move freely without toll or hindrance, throughout the whole of Hallamshire.

The original Charter is still in existence, luckily as it happens. Once it was lent for an exhibition, and, afterwards, when the stalls were being cleared, it got swept away with lots of brown paper. Fortunately, one of the cleaners, feeling something hard in the waste-paper, pulled it out and found that it was the Charter with the Seal attached.

The Town Trust should be recognised as the body that made Sheffield, not incorporated until 1843 (by which time it had a considerable population), so it was evident that somebody must have done something during the centuries from 1297 to develop it and keep it habitable. This work was done principally by the Town Trust, acting first under the Charter of 1297, then under decree of the Commission of Charitable Uses (1681) and finally under the Sheffield Town Trust Act of 1873.

In return for a considerable amount of independence from manorial control, the Sheffield Town Trust was given responsibility for maintaining the town’s water supply and the roads and bridges. The early accounts of the Trust reveal regular payments for repairs to the town’s wells and bridges, particularly the large well known as Barker’s Pool and to the Lady’s Bridge. They also paid for a ‘scavenger’ to keep the roads clear of manure and other rubbish.

As the town grew, the Town Trust invested in companies that piped water in from the surrounding countryside; that built and maintained the major roads in and out of the town, including the Snake Pass; and in the company that made the River Don navigable so that goods could be brought in and out of the town by river.

The first Town Hall was built by the Trust, and so was the second in 1808, and when the present Town Hall was built it became known as the Court House, let to the city by the Trust, and now famous for its dilapidated state.

Many of the streets in Sheffield, West Bar Green, for example, were given to the city by the Trust, which also helped in the building and widening of many other thoroughfares, such as Leopold Street. The Trust also paid for the lighting of Sheffield streets by oil lamps in 1734, when most of the streets of the towns of Britain were still unlit.

Naturally, when Sheffield was incorporated, the Corporation took over the main activities of the Trust, and this enabled the funds to be used for other purposes. The decree of 1681 laid down as one of the objects of the Trust as being ‘charitable and public uses for the benefit of Sheffield as a whole and its inhabitants.’ It is on this that the Trust now concentrates.

In 1898, the Trust purchased the Botanical Gardens saving them from closure (the Gardens are now leased to Sheffield City Council) and, in 1927, they contributed to the purchase of Ecclesall Woods by the Council.

In the twentieth century it gave vast amounts of money to Sheffield University, local hospitals, and many thousands of pounds to boys’ and girls’ clubs. Many scholarships and fellowships were founded, a large contribution was made to the cost of the City Hall, and many famous pictures were bought and loaned to Sheffield’s art galleries.

Sheffield Town Trust started with an income of less than £10 a year. The value of the original land, assisted by wise road development, increased enormously, and there was capital appreciation in other ways, due to far-seeing and wise management. The Trust also received many generous legacies and properties from Sheffielders. Yet none of this could have amounted for much had it not been for the wisdom of its Trustees over the centuries.

It has been fortunate in having many benefactors and now uses the income from a portfolio of property and investments to support on average 140 local charities, groups, and organisations each year, either on an annual basis or with a one-off grant. 

We know the names of every Town Trustee since 1681, and they include lawyers, merchants, doctors, bankers, shop keepers, inn keepers, accountants, and, unsurprisingly, silversmiths, cutlers and tool and steel manufacturers. Today, it has thirteen Trustees headed by the Town Collector, the historical name for its Chairman, with the administration being overseen by the Law Clerk. 

Over seven centuries, the Town Trust has, of course, evolved – if it had not done so, it would not have survived. But from a body whose principal responsibility was the maintenance of the town’s water supply and roads to one that now distributes charitable donations in excess of £250,000 a year, it has always striven to improve the lives of the people of Sheffield – and it will continue to do so for centuries to come.