Blue plaque helps say “cheers” to Rotherham’s oldest charity after almost 700 years

Blue plaque helps say “cheers” to Rotherham’s oldest charity after almost 700 years

By Gareth Dennison | 13/09/2021

Blue plaque helps say “cheers” to Rotherham’s oldest charity after almost 700 years


RAISE a glass to our oldest charity — formed 693 years ago, still going strong and now honoured with a blue plaque at the Bluecoat pub.

The Feoffees of the Common Lands of Rotherham was established in 1328 and given their royal charter by Elizabeth I in 1589.

Their centuries of charitable efforts saw them effectively act as a kind of prototype town council.

And these efforts included the opening of a charity school in College Street in the early years of the 18th century.

The original school was founded in 1708 in rented accommodation in College Street, with the intention of teaching and clothing poor children and helping them learn Christian values.

Thirty of Rotherham’s principal residents were listed in the first year of the accounts for their helpful subscriptions of between 5s and £2 to support the venture.

Landowner Thomas Wentworth gave £136, Rev Henry Robinson, of St John’s Church in Leeds, gave £100 specifically to purchase land — the site bought in Ecclesfield providing an annual rental income for the school.

The move to what we now know as the Bluecoat came in 1776. The new school was designed and built by mason-architect John Platt, costing £276.

Local historian Ian Hawkridge, secretary at the Rotherham District Civic Society, which arranged the blue plaque, said: “The new school became known as the Bluecoat school when the trustees decided to introduce a uniform.

“The boys wore blue jackets with a red collar and cuffs, blue breeches, and blue caps. The girls wore blue serge dresses with narrow red cuffs, linen caps and tippets.

“In 1871, another wing was added to the building at a cost of £530, by which time 40 boys and 30 girls could be accommodated.”

The blue plaque unveiling was carried out by the Feoffees’ current greave — effectively the chairman — Tony Grice.

He said: “Our motto is ‘non nobis sed omnibus’ which means ‘not for us, but for everyone’.

“The original charter was to support Rotherham’s aged, needy and infirm, and this remains the same today.

“We have a growing number of students and apprentices looking for financial support, and we have also supported education in the town.

“This is why the Feoffees set up the charity school in 1708, when the education included reading, writing, knitting, sewing and religion.

“In 1776, they constructed this building with the help of public subscription and the generosity of Rotherham folk. Running costs were met by rents from land in Ecclesfield.”

The school shut in December 1892, as the era of free state education dawned on the country.

After its closure, the building had a raft of different uses, including by the YMCA, labour institute, confectionery warehouse, private residence, dance academy, vehicle garage and workshop.

It was empty for a few years until its current use as a public house began in 1981, when it was called The Feoffees.

Tony, a retired chartered accountant, said: “We have always had a beer taster and our current one came to the unveiling to sample the Wetherspoons ale.

“We thank Wetherspoons for their sympathetic restoration and for continuing the name by which the Feoffees were able to do good for the people of Rotherham.”

Civic society treasurer Bernard Fletcher said: “This is one of Rotherham’s most important buildings.

“The original stone plaque has weathered over the years and is not very easy to read. The new blue plaque will ensure the importance of the grade II-listed building is kept in the public eye for years to come.

“We are very grateful to Wetherspoons, who are keen to protect heritage buildings all around the country, which is reassuring these days with too many important and architecturally well built buildings being demolished.

“Rotherham District Civic Society have now erected 23 blue plaques around the town and borough and are very proud of our achievement.

“We intend to continue in recognising important Rotherham people and buildings in the future.”

Eddie Gershon, spokesman for the pub chain, said: “Wetherspoon was pleased to donate £350 to the project.

“The company is proud to have the plaque at the pub, honouring the town’s Feoffees charity.

“The pub is popular and busy at all times, so the plaque is guaranteed to get plenty of attention from customers.”

* WHAT have the Feoffees ever done for us?

Aside from the charity school, there have been various buildings and practices associated with the group.

Ivy Cottage — built in 1634 and now a dental practice — was originally Rotherham’s workhouse.

At that time, the poor were helped by a mixture of outdoor and indoor relief. Those only requiring clothing or small grants could work from home.

Others with more severe circumstances — or who were homeless — had to move to the workhouse to work, with the aim of improving their situation.

The workhouse at Ivy Cottage could accommodate just over 20 people — and did so for many years.

Things changed with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which brought fundamental change to the poverty relief system.

Gone was outdoor relief and whole families were moved to the workhouse if they were too poor to continue to live without support.

It meant Rotherham needed a new, bigger workhouse. One was built with a capacity of 300, so Ivy Cottage was put up for sale in 1839 and its furniture auctioned off.

The original workhouse, at The Crofts, was listed in 1950 because it was thought that a reasonable amount of its 17th century structure probably survived.

But an inspection in October 1989 revealed that the place had suffered “extensive and damaging alterations” so it was removed from the list.

Turning towards the Wellgate area, there was also Sherwood House, at the top of Sherwood Crescent and originally known as South Villa.

This was built on land which the Feoffees owned from the 16th century, although the designer and date of construction remain unknown.

Trade directories and census returns record that John Bland, high constable, leased South Villa no later than 1837.

Iron founder George Haywood occupied the property by 1861 and Lydia Boulton ran a girls school there in the 1880s.

In 1889, the Feoffees agreed to lease the villa and adjoining land to Charles Green and George Firth for 999 years for the purpose of laying out the land for new housing.

Sherwood Crescent and the shops fronting Wellgate were erected between 1889 and 1901.

With the dawn of the borough council, the Feoffees were left to ponder their role, but decided to continue their charitable functions.

Their oldest tradition is its annual Christmas doles, and the current group is aiming to increase both the number of recipients and the cash values of the gifts given.

Scholarships and bursaries for young people are awarded each year and there is an ambition to up this number as well.

Generally, the modern support has been geared towards individuals in this way. But last year during the pandemic, the Feoffees funded 100 hours’ extra support.