Richmond Church Charity Estates (RCCE) is a charity that plays an important role within the Richmond Team Ministry. A registered charity, with an endowment fund worth about £15M at 31 December 2016, its principal purpose is to provide long-term financial support for the religious purposes of St Mary Magdalene, including repairs, improvements or additions to the Church. Income distributions in the last ten years have been in excess of £1M.
The charity has a long and fascinating history which lay hidden until unravelled about 20 years ago by John Cloake, the distinguished historian of Richmond. What follows is synopsis of the article he wrote, ‘The Curious Story of the Church Estate’, which was published in Richmond History, the journal of the Richmond Local History Society, in issue No 13, May 1992 (a copy of which can be seen at the Local Studies Room at Richmond Reference Library).
The Thomas Denys saga
The constitution of RCCE is now set out in a Scheme sealed by the Charity Commission in May 2004. But prior to that, it was contained in a Court Order of 1945 which, in turn, referred to a local Act of Parliament of 1828. The 1828 Act cannot be described as a light read (approximately 7,000 words with five apparently random full stops) but careful study of this document yields the information that RCCE was created in August 1558 by Thomas Denys. Denys had owned land in Richmond which he had settled upon trust “to the use of the poore of the said parish, and the repairing and susteyning of the parish church” (now St Mary Magdalene).
Based on that information alone, RCCE would be a charity with a long and distinguished history. But the meticulous research of John Cloake demonstrated that the charity never received the land purportedly given to it by Thomas Denys. The Vestry (the seventeenth century equivalent of the PCC) commenced legal proceedings in 1620 to recover the land which, by then, had passed in to the ownership of one Mary Croome. They met with some initial success, in that a decree was issued, ordering Mary Croome to “deliver up unto the Churchwardens” the land she had wrongly acquired. However, it is abundantly clear that the land in question was never subsequently conveyed to the Churchwardens. The Charity Commission have suggested that the Denys bequest may have been a sham from the outset, being a Tudor version of death duty planning.
The True Founder
So, given that the Denys bequest never reached the charity, who was the founder? It is clear that at the time of the 1620 action RCCE already had substantial holdings of land in Richmond – 6 ¾ acres, mostly in the area lying between Friars Stile Road and Paradise Road. Unfortunately the records for land ownership in earlier centuries are incomplete – there is a break in the fifteenth century – so it is not possible to say with absolute certainty from where the RCCE land derived. However, in John Cloake’s view it almost certainly derived from an endowment made by Merton Priory in 1375. It is known that Merton Priory provided an endowment then, specifically “for the maintenance of the chapel of Shene “ (ie Richmond Parish Church) “and its manse”. This was linked with the first appointment of a resident chaplain for Richmond in 1375 which, hitherto, had been reliant upon the Vicar of Kingston. The lands held by RCCE in 1620 conformed to what would have been expected to have arisen from the 1375 endowment. Indeed, if the Merton Priory endowment was not the source of that land, than what had become of it?
There is a further compelling reason for assuming that the lands derived from the 1375 endowment. Until radical changes were introduced by the 1828 Act of Parliament, the purposes of the charity had been to provide “£2.2s.6d per annum to the Clerk keeping the accounts and the remainder for the most necessary use of the parish church, for the augmentation of the maintenance of the Minister and for no other purpose whatsoever”. Those were exactly the trusts one would expect for a charity evolved from the Merton Priory endowment.
The erroneous Act of Parliament
Why, therefore, were the terms of the charity changed by Act of Parliament, in 1828? What had happened was that someone had come across documents relating to the 1620 proceedings concerning the Thomas Denys endowment. Unfortunately, without properly researching the matter, all the wrong conclusions were drawn – namely, that the lands then owned by the charity were derived from Denys, but that the trusts made by him were not being observed. This “mistake” was therefore rectified by the 1828 Act so that, instead of being a charity wholly for the benefit of the Parish Church – as originally intended by the Merton Priory bequest – it became a charity for the poor of Richmond and the Parish Church. Following on from this, the charity built the lovely almshouses in Sheen Road in 1843. Initially for five men and five women they have been added to over the years. And thereafter, until quite recently, the terms of the charity were to apply one half of the income on the almshouses and half on the Parish Church.
All’s well that end well.
In 2004 the Charity Commission approved a Scheme, whereby the almshouses, together with some investment properties, were transferred to another Richmond Charity, Richmond Charities Almshouses. This made sense, since it finally brought under one management all the almshouses in Richmond. RCCE, with its remaining assets, continued as a charity for the benefit of the Parish Church. Thus, by this roundabout route, RCCE ends up where it started with terms that would be recognisable to those who, it is thought, created it in 1375.
RCCE’s place in history
Assuming that the charity was founded in 1375, this makes it one of the oldest surviving charities in England. The Charity Commission think it may be the tenth oldest. Presently the oldest is thought to be The King’s School, Canterbury which, it is claimed, was founded by St Augustine in 597, and a number of others in the top ten are public schools. Should such schools ever lose their charitable status, RCCE would race up the league to become perhaps the third oldest, behind St Bartholomew’s Hospital London (c. 1122).