yeovil charities scandal

the yeovil charities scandal

Abuse of Charitable Funds? Where did all the money go?






At the beginning of the nineteenth century something of a notorious scandal hit Yeovil, followed in the national press, concerning alleged misuse of charitable funds, including the Yeovil Charity School, the Woborn Almshouse and the Portreeve's Almshouse, that resulted in law suits spanning many years. The issue was, to say the least, complex and the following is pieced together from (incomplete) newspaper reports, snippets from the report of the inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee (over 900 pages long), and other sources. 

Go to top


Background - Yeovil Charity School


It is almost certain that a choir school existed in the fourteenth century, associated with the parish church and in 1671 a Somerset parson, Henry Hartwell, born in Yeovil Marsh, bequeathed land to the school which was entrusted to the Phelips family. In 1707 Martin Strong, the vicar of Yeovil, began a public subscription in order to endow the Yeovil Charity School which brought in an annual income of £37 3s 6d (around £80,000 at today's value). The Trustees of 1708 were William Phelips, John Prowse, George Cox, John Clarke, John Mourie, John Old, Edward Boucher, Thomas Freke, W Waddon, John Darley and Richard Freke.

In 1718 John Nowes bequeathed his manor of Lee in Romsey, Hampshire, in part to benefit the school (as well as two other schools) and ten boys were to be educated at Yeovil, and clothed under the Romsey charity. Various other bequests (listed here) were also made for the upkeep of the school and its pupils.

During the Yeovil Charities Scandal (ongoing since 1802) hearings he trustees of the Yeovil Charity School in 1812 were listed by George Bullock Watts to the Select Committee) were John Hooper, William Philips (Vicar of Yeovil), John Goodford, John Hitchings, Thomas Tomkins (Curate), William Hilyar, J Newmans, Sir William Heathcott, Sir Richard Figes (manager of the Romsey estates), Sir Thomas Heathcott and Sir Charles Mills. Sir William Heathcott,  Sir Thomas Heathcott and Sir Charles Mills were the three trustees of the Nowes Charity. Richard Figes was actually not a trustee, but Receiver to the Nowes' trustees.

Go to top


Background - Woborn Almshouse


The Woborn Almshouse or hospital was founded in Yeovil under letters patent granted by King Edward IV in 1476 by John Woborn and Richard Huett, chaplains and benefactors, for the salvation of the soul of William Woborn, a minor canon of St Paul's Cathedral, London, and brother of John, though what connection they had with Yeovil is not known. It was to be for the support of six poor men and six poor women who were “single and chaste, and untainted by leprosy“.

The almshouse was under the control of a Custos, or master, and two Wardens, who were  elected annually and, as with the Charity School, various benefactors bequeathed monies and lands, the interest of which was to be used for the almshouse which was often remembered in the wills of local testators. Various orders and regulations were laid down for the government of the Almshouse and among the weekly doles specified were 12d for the vicar, 4d for the clerk, singing boys 1d each and 6d for the ringers. The priest of St John’s church was to have 1s 6d for reciting the names of the benefactors in the pulpit every Sunday and 1d for the crier for reciting their names in the town.

Indeed mismanagement of almshouse resources was nothing new and as early as 1619 "a suit in chancery was commenced by the poor of Yeovil against Francis Sutton and others, for demising and selling sundry parcels of land belonging to the almshouse, considerably under their known real value, to the injury of the said charity." The Lord Chancellor ordered a commission to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and Dr Hussey, one of the masters in chancery, who passed a decree that the negligence was inexcusable and that the tenants and Custos should pay £10 to the poor of the almshouse and that tenants who had taken leases on almshouse properties for longer terms than statute allowed should surrender them.

In 1856 Daniel Vickery wrote of the almsmen and women “The weekly allowance is 4s each; 1s each at the Custos entering upon office; 1d each on St Mary Magdalene’s day; 4d each at Whitsuntide; 6d each on all Saints' Day and 2s 0d each at Christmas. They receive also some articles of clothing, and coals are found. The oldest almsman acts as chaplain and receives a salary of 20s a year; the bell ringer has 10s."

Go to top


Background - the Portreeve's Almshouse


The almshouse was originally established by, and later mentioned in the 1416 will of, John Stone, Rector of Tintinhull. In his will he stated "to each poor person now in the almshouse of Yevele 6s 8d" with any residue after other bequests had been honoured intended for "the maintenance of the poor in the almshouse of Yevele lately founded".

Vickery, using the House of Commons inquiry (see below) as a source, wrote in 1856 “The sum of £2 18s has been annually paid out of the town rents, since the year 1733, to the inmates of this Almshouse" and it is recorded that the building was repaired in 1773 but, to meet the expense, no annual ‘feast’ was held that year. The corporation paid 4d a week to each of the four poor women and on New Year's Day, Good Friday, Whitsunday, and Christmas Day they received an extra 4d each. Also at Christmas they shared four loaves of bread, twelve pounds of beef, and one shilling for beer.

Go to top


The Yeovil Charities Law Suits


In 1802 Churchwardens George Watts, a butcher by trade, and William Wilmington were instructed by the Bishop of Bath and Wells to investigate the charities in Yeovil, to enumerate donations and list them on boards to be placed in St John's church before 25 March 1803. When later (in 1818) questioned by the Select Committee of the House of Commons as to what happened next, the three Churchwardens (Henry Collins, a glove manufacturer, replaced William Wilmington in 1804) answered ".... a person of Romsey (Hampshire) wrote us a letter, directed to the churchwardens, to know if there were any charity school in the town; that for years past he had paid the master an annual sum, but had not for some time past received any account whatever; and our answer was, that there had been a school there, but we knew but little or nothing about it."

At a Vestry meeting held on 24 April 1804 the Churchwardens (Watts and Collins) were instructed ".... to call upon the occupiers of the church lands.... and on non-payment to sue any person or persons for the said rents and arrears thereof; and also to request the trustees of the church lands, or any other person, to produce to them all deeds and writings relative thereto for their information: and further, to prosecute any suits to the maintaining and re-establishing the charity and rights of this town." This was as a result of William Phelips, the vicar, avoiding meeting the Vestry but sending a note by his curate, Thomas Tomkins, saying ".... the gentlemen that had any books, deeds, or writings relative to the charities, were to withhold them: and if the town and churchwardens were not satisfied, there was a court to apply to."

The court was, indeed, applied to and Daniel Vickery wrote in 1856 "At Michaelmas 1805, an information in the Court of Chancery was filed by the Attorney General, at the relation of H Collins, J Ryall, Samuel Rodber and Thomas Bullock, inhabitants of Yeovil, the object of which appears to have been to set aside certain leases as improperly granted, and to hear a complaint of timber having been cut down, and the money received by the trustees having been misapplied; also to obtain larger allowances for the poor persons in the Almshouse."

In fact there was no love lost between the Vestry and the vicar, William Phelips, who had appointed his own churchwarden contrary to tradition and much to the chagrin of the Vestry. The Vestry Minutes of 16 April 1805 recorded "We do nominate and appoint Mr Henry Collins and George Watts to be churchwardens for the year ensuing And we hereby protest against the Appointment made by the Rev Wm Phelips the 3rd day of April 1804, And we declare the same to be null and void, and that he had no right whatever to Choose any Churchwarden for himself it being contrary to the Custom of this Parish time immemorial And we still Authorise the Churchwardens to look into the rights of this Town and to prosecute any suit or suits as they may think proper for the maintaining and re-establishing them..."

The following year the Vestry Minutes recorded "At a Vestry duly called and held this 8th Day of April 1806... And we hereby appoint the said George Watts and Henry Collins for the year ensuing Churchwardens for the Town and we hereby authorize them to continue the suits in Chancery commenced for establishing the rights of the Church and Charities of this Town and do protest against any appointment of any Churchwarden unless it be at a Vestry duly called and by the Majority of Inhabitants then present."

Between 1802 and 1813 George Watts was repeatedly re-elected by the Vestry as Churchwarden because of his leading role in the Chancery suit against the abuse of power by the trustees. He finally relinquished the role in 1813. His co-Churchwardens were William Wilmington (1802-3), Henry Collins (1804-7), Henry Penny (1808), John Newman (1809-10), John Neal (1811-12) and Thomas Andrews (1813).

According to Vickery “On the 17th January, 1814, a petition, under the 52 Geo. III, c. 101, in the names of several of the poor women inhabiting the Almshouse against the Portreeve and Burgesses, was presented to the Lord Chancellor, by the direction of Mr George Watts and others, complaining of the misapplication of the trust property. The petition was heard by the Master of the Rolls, on the 16th Feb, 1814, and by him referred to a Master in Chancery. In May 1815, all the deeds and documents belonging to the Corporation were left at the Master's office; but in May, 1817, upon application, they were received back from London. No further steps towards the enforcement of this petition have ever been taken. No document has ever been discovered tending to show the origin or foundation of this Almshouse”.

In its edition of 29 October 1818 the Worcester Journal reported a summation of the case so far under the headings "Abuse of Charitable Funds - The Yeovil Charities" as follows - "In the parish of Yeovil it appears by the evidence taken before the Committee, there is a school founded by John Nowes, who gave it a manor in Lee, near Romsey, Hants., comprising 213 acres, which are now worth £532 a year (in excess of £640,000 at today's value). The mansion house and some timber were sold in 1808 for £1,285, the interest of which money, with the rent of the land above mentioned, and of other smaller estates which have been left from time to time to the said charity, make the income, applicable to the purposes of it, about £700 a year. In 1802, there were no boys that the witness before the Committee, a Churchwarden of Yeovil knew of; in 1813 there were about seven or eight; and how the income of the school was appropriated the witnesses examined could give no account.

In the same place there are two almshouses: the Woburn almshouse and the Poor almshouse. The revenue of the Woburn is about £506 a year; on this foundation there are twelve poor people (at one time there were only four) on whose maintenance not £200 is expended; how the rest of the money is spent, is best known to the trustees. The revenue of the poor almshouse is about £642, and in this house there are only four people, old women, who are so insufficiently provided for from the funds of the charity, that they receive two or three shillings a week, each of them, as parish relief.

There is another endowed foundation in the same town, possessed of property worth £150 a year, intended to be appropriated to the repairing and beautifying the church. It is so managed that the property produces little more than £2 a year.

The Trustees of the different charities have in some instances leased out the lands to one another. In this one town of Yeovil there are thus charitable foundations possessing property to the amount of near £2,000 a year for which nothing is done. This sum, it is to be remarked, is sufficient to educate five or six thousand children, or to provide 100 parishes with schoolmasters, on the plan which prevails in Scotland.

Application has been made to Chancery for the redress of these abuses - but the only effect this application has yet produced is - that the applicants have been nearly ruined by the expenses."

By this time, 1818, the Churchwardens had been in Chancery since 1805 and George Watts told the Commission "It is complete ruination; it is worse now than ever it was, as the attorney employed is dead." By this time he was in debt by over £520 (the proceedings having cost him some £1,200 thus far) but, sadly, the membership of the Vestry had changed and had ousted him from his position as Churchwarden in 1813, refusing to reimburse him by levying a parish rate. Watts explained to the Commission "In  1813, owing to the dispute that had arisen, and a law suit that had commenced in Chancery, representing these charities, the trustees of the charity, as they call themselves, made a party, and bid defiance to us: the vicar of the town told me to tell the bishop that we knew nothing of any charities, and we were not to place any upon the boards in the church.... Our party was almost deserted except by us three; in consequence of that the other party got so strong, they bid us defiance, and they took the books from me which cost me more that £50 in Wells court." When asked which charities he thought had been abused in Yeovil, Watts replied "The whole; the church charity, the two almshouses and the school."

The next occasion the suit is mentioned is in the Churchwardens' Accounts Book for 1837 in which is recorded "... Mr White's Bills for defending the Feoffees in several suits against them in the Court of Chancery by the Attorney General in the relation of Mr George Watts and others. The first bill commencing in 1805 and ending in 1823 and amounting to £148 9s 2d." (in excess of £121,000 in 2017's value).  

Of course, in the end, the original decision to fight the charity boards being placed in the church came to nothing and the four boards may be seen hanging in the church tower to this day.

Go to top


Summation (in favour of the rich)


In its edition of 15 March 1821 the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette reported (rather biased in my opinion) the following summation of the case - "When abuses of Public charities first became a Parliamentary question, Yeovil was represented as a very Nineveh of fraud and injustice. Denounced by vestry meetings and Chancery suits, reports were prevalent of papers destroyed, alms-houses robbed, the rich increasing their wealth at the expense of the poor, and certain individuals in their hatred of oppression impoverishing themselves in the cause of justice. To what extent these statements gained credence we are not aware, but we think it due to those gentlemen against whom they were levied to notice the complete falsification of them, contained in the Reports of the Commissioners for enquiring into Public Charities.

The Report on the Church Trust expressly states ".... that there is no reason to suppose that any part of the property of this trust is lost." The durations of the suits in Chancery are said to be "attributable to the relators, or those employed by them;" and that the reference to Mr Justice Dampier was broken off "by the insulting language, accompanied with charges of partiality" used by the relator's attorney. (George Watts' brother Joseph Watts, a Yeovil solicitor, had acted for him in his law suit but had so insulted the arbitrator appointed by the Court of Chancery in London that the latter walked off, leaving the case unsettled.) It also refutes the charge of the burning of papers relating to this trust; and declares "there is no reason to suppose that any document relating to the Charities of the town was by this means lost."

With regard to Woborne's Almshouse, the Report of the Commissioners is of an equally favourable description. A trifling deviation is stated from the original mode of choosing the officers and the alms-people, but by no means such as can interfere with the proper administration of the funds. A loss conjectured to have been sustained at 8s per annum, about forty years since, but the nature of the property thus alienated could not be ascertained, and as it was previous to the interference of the present wardens in the management of the alms-house, the slightest blame cannot rest on them. The intentions of the donor appear to be in every respect fulfilled; and it is stated in conclusion "that as the premises on lease fall into hand, the benefits of the charity may further be extended;" and that the Commissioners have no doubt of "the readiness of those gentlemen who have the management of the affairs of this charity to use every proper exertion for that purpose."

The Chancery suit respecting the School is stated to have been commenced on very slight grounds. The incapacity of the late master had occasioned it to fall into neglect; and while the trustees were doing their utmost to restore it, according to the intentions of the various benefactors, they found themselves parties to this Chancery suit, with which, however, the relators have not proceeded. The Report details the present mode of school instruction, which the Commissioners appear to consider as perfectly satisfactory.

On grounds still slighter was the Petition filed against the Portreeve and Burgesses, complaining of the misapplication of the funds arising from certain messuages, which it was asserted ought to be applied wholly  to the maintenance of the Back-street Almshouse. The Report declares there are no documents to sanction the opinion that any part of the Corporation property ought to be so applied; and further that the inmates of that alms-house have no other claim upon its funds than the presumption arising from long-continued payment. The Commissioners also state, that they thought it inconsistent with their duties to enter into a detail of the possessions of the Portreeve and Burgesses, though there was no unwillingness on their parts to enter into such an investigation.

On the inferior charities no evidence appears, but the Report states them to be properly and regularly applied.

This sketch of the Reports, slight as it is, will be sufficient to show, that so far from any blame being attributed to the various managers and trustees, the highest praise is due to them for the time and attention they have bestowed on the affairs of the various charities. We must express our regret that those individuals, with whom the reports of misapplication and neglect originated, did not examine well the grounds on which they were proceeding, before they impugned the characters of honest and honourable men."

Go to top


Summation (in favour of the poor)


The following is a letter to the Charity Commissioners by George Mitchell and published in 1878.

"Gentlemen, On behalf of the agricultural labourers and other poor folk of the neighbourhood of Yeovil, I beg to thank you for having sent an inspector to that town to investigate the state of the charities there. That there has been a wholesale malversation (corrupt behaviour) of the Yeovil charities, and that large estates belonging thereto are in the hands of the local gentry and other personages, and are enriching private families at the present time, I know and can prove from the "Reports of the Commissioners on Charity and Education - Somerset, Part 1, Vol 28." Permit me to refer you to page 161, in which you will find mention of a house and lands at Shaftesbury belonging to the Yeovil charities, which was leased to one Richard Messiter Esq., but finally became in some unaccountable manner attached to the property of Earl Grosvenor. At Romsey there were 207 acres of Yeovil charity land. Whose is it now? In this report there are several properties mentioned, including 500 acres of land at Stourpaine, and sundry estates round Yeovil, which appear to have lapsed into private hands. On page 166, I find that Mr Justice Dampier is sent to Yeovil to investigate the charity robberies in 1810, but after examining witnesses for one day, declined to proceed any further. It happened that the parties complained of were mostly relatives and friends of Mr Justice Dampier, and he consequently refused to do duty, which, at that time would have consisted in hanging the whole of those said relatives and friends. But, unfortunately, the descendants of these culprits are now in possession of charity property, and what is to be done with this property?

I call your attention to page 872, where Mr George Watts, churchwarden, of Yeovil, undertakes to investigate the state of the charities. It seems that the Rural Dean ordered this to be done. Mr Watts says "We applied to the Vicar, the Rev. Wm. Phelips, who told us not to trouble ourselves about any of the charities, but to say we know nothing about them." We applied to Mr John Hooper, a trustee of three charities, and he could give no information: also to Mr John Greenham, trustee of the Almshouses, who refused us any information, and treated us insultingly. We went to Mr John Newman's, at Barwick, near Yeovil, after a lease of premises. His father was a solicitor, and acted as vestry clerk. We understood he had several deeds. He said he had burnt a great many which might have been useful to the town. He sent a servant with us to the granary, who told us that he had brought from Yeovil two or three cartloads of old writings, some of which had large seals attached to them, and that Nathaniel Ricketts had helped his master to burn the writings, and said it was a pity. I found the conveyances of four acres of land belonging to the Almshouse." How are the lands and tenements to which these deeds referred to be restored to the public?

Anyhow, it appears to me that a further inquiry as to what has become of the charity lands of Yeovil will be of great service to the inhabitants of the town and the poor especially. In the 'Black Book of Corruption unmarked', written by Cobbett, I find the following :- "At Yeovil, in Somersetshire, there are estates possessed by trustees of four different charities, all four of which are equally abused. One estate, worth £700 a year, only educates seven or eight boys, lands valued at £1,100 or £1,200 a year only afford a wretched pittance for 16 paupers, and land worth £150 a year is let for £2 1s 4d, chiefly to trustees.

I particularly wish to know in the interests of the public, who are the rightful owners of some ornamental property called "Nine Springs" at Yeovil. The public were shut out of this very pleasant place of public resort many years ago by a local attorney. This is shrewdly suspected to be charity property.

What, I think, the inhabitants, and especially the poor ones, of this town and neighbourhood of Yeovil want to know, is who are the parties now in possession of charity lands and tenements belonging to Yeovil?

I think it would be quite consistent with justice and common sense to make an enquiry into the tithes of the property of all those gentlemen whose ancestors were mentioned in the "Blue Book" as having to do with the charity property of this town - namely, Messrs Newman, Batten, Hooper, Phelips, Harbin, Messiter, Donne, Greenham, Tompkins, Helyar, Rodber, and others whom I may have overlooked.

I am not surprised that after the late enquiry Mr Bullock should have spoken as follows in the presence of Mr Good, your inspector, as per report in the local papers :- "Mr Bullock, as custos of the charities, said, when he came into the room he was afraid something unpleasant would occur, and he never felt more grateful and delighted that he did now that the meeting had ended." &c.

I hope that this will not be the last enquiry into the Yeovil charities, as I am quite sure that there is property enough to feed, clothe, and educate all the poor about there, without one penny of educational or poors' rates; and I may say the same of Sherborne, Bruton, Evercreech, Shepton Mallet, Frome, Glastonbury, Ilchester, Wells, Crewkerne, Langport, and many other places in Somersetshire: and I trust that after one of the worst cases in the kingdom for charity malversation - namely, Yeovil - has been thoroughly investigated, that these other charities will also be inspected."


It makes you wonder....

Go to top


As a footnote, one of the sadder outcomes of this whole sorry saga is what befell its main character throughout - George Watts. George suffered both financially and psychologically as a direct result of the years of stress brought on by this protracted case. He was declared a lunatic in 1826 and died in 1837.