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Looking for a good Christmas present for someone interested in social history?

How about Henry Smith – His Life & Legacy by Lucy Lethbridge and Tim Wales?

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Henry Smith was a London salter who died in 1628. He made his fortune by lending money to the rich and famous, and at his death left a number of charitable bequests. The Charity that bears his name today distributes some £25 million a year, largely funding initiatives and projects that address social inequality and economic disadvantage. What became his principal legacy was one of £2,000, which he instructed his executors to spend on land. They bought a market garden, which today (through the Charity’s astute development) is a large chunk of South Kensington.

The income from that £2,000 (£60 a year at first) was to be used for the relief of his poor kindred and ‘for the use of the poor Captives being slaves under the Turkish pirates’. The latter was a real problem in the early 17th century: British ships were being captured and the crews enslaved by pirates or corsairs operating from North Africa, and people were even being snatched off the beaches of Devon and Cornwall. Between 1600 and 1640 an estimated 800 British ships and 12,000 Britons were captured in this way. Henry’s bequest was for ransoms. In the 18th century, fortunately, no more such grants were needed, and Henry’s Trustees won Parliament’s approval for the use of that part of the bequest for other good causes.

Another bequest provided for the relief of poor clergy of the Church of England (originally ‘for the relief and maintenance of godly preachers’), and grants from that are still available. Another provided for annual grants to go to hundreds of named parishes, and that scheme continues today.   The original recipients were to be the aged and infirm poor, ‘married persons having more children born in lawful wedlock than their labours can maintain’, orphans, and ‘such poor people as keep themselves and families to labour and put forth their children apprentices at the age of fifteen.’ Excluded were any given to ‘excessive drinking, whoremongers, common swearers, pilferers, or otherwise notoriously scandalous’, as well as disobedient servants and vagrants who had not lived in the parish for five years. A splendid benefaction board setting out all these conditions can be seen in Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire.

In 2015 the Charity published their history, which describes in detail Henry Smith’s life and his will, and gives much interesting information about his first trustees, some of whom found themselves on opposite sides in the Civil War. The book then takes the history up to the present day, including how the Charity developed Kensington.

‘Henry Smith His Life and Legacy’ by Lucy Lethbridge (author of Servants, ‘a downstairs view of 20th-centiry Britain) & Tim Wales is available from the Church House Bookshop (online at https://chbookshop.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780993094507/henry-smith) or ordered from booksellers and other online retailers. RRP £20. ISBN: 978-0-9930945-0-7  A declaration of interest: one of the ninevoices did some of the research for the book.

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