History of the Dartmouth Trust

Dartmouth Trust has existed in much its current form for over a hundred years. Further back the history book shows controversy and drama.

The Trust’s wealth comes from assets forfeited by the then Roman Catholic St Saviour’s Church during the reformation in the middle of the sixteenth century. In those distant days the church was exceptionally wealthy benefitting mainly from tithes collected from the population. The respective roles of state and church were very different to now.

Nationally these forfeited assets were split between the Dioceses of the renamed Church of England and the Crown. However, in Dartmouth, and only in relation to St Saviour’s, the Town Corporation somehow managed to secure control of this wealth. The form of this wealth 500 years ago is unknown – when collected in tithes it would have been held as gold, perhaps then being partly invested in Church Property.

A Trust was established by the Corporation in 1571 and revised in 1599, requiring the income to be used for “the relief of the poor, the repairing of the church, the provision of a curate, and various (specified) public works”.

Over the following centuries the Corporation merged both the acquired wealth and the spending commitment with its general activities. The original wealth was progressively re-invested in newly built property. The original obligations similarly became lost in the mists of time – and the income for the church became trivial compared to its former riches.

Some 300 years later in 1871 a young Reverend Foster was appointed vicar of St Saviour’s. He was concerned about the modest income of the parish, chose to delve into the history, and soon came across the long-disregarded Trust Deed of 1599.

Rather than tackle the matter head on, he wrote to the Town Corporation in subtle terms, asking them to comment on the origin of their ownership of the numerous “town properties”. The unspoken goal was to require the corporation to re-connect with the long-forgotten Trust,increasing the income for the church. Reverend Foster also sought to make changes to other church practices.

Both these initiatives pitted the young clergyman against the might of the Dartmouth establishment. This unequal struggle was further hindered by the church warden and the town clerk being one and the same person, who advised the Town Corporation to ignore the clergyman’s request.

These public squabbles amused the town for some 6 years. The young clergyman made little progress, eventually choosing to move elsewhere. However Reverend Foster passed over his researches to the Charity Commission, a more formidable adversary for the Town Corporation.

The commissioners dispatched a similar request to demonstrate the title of the town property, and the Town Clerk had little option but to comply. The task was far from simple as most of the “town properties” were of much more recent origin than 1599. The Charity Commission concluded that materially all of the Town Corporation’s property purchases since 1599 derived from monies that should have been retained in the Trust.

The matter was passed to the Attorney General to be corrected. The Town Corporation resisted strongly, embarking on high court litigation to prevent the properties being transferred out of their control. The court proceedings cost approaching half a million pounds in modern day terms.

In 1883 Justice Chitty ruled “that 350 years of fraudulent action gave the Corporation no title” – the relevant property was to be turned over to a Charitable Trust separate from Dartmouth Corporation. Fortunately for the Corporation, lands reclaimed from the Sea were excluded,

and the base date was set at 1599 rather than the earlier Trust of 1571 – the use of the earlier date would have additionally required the Quay to be passed over.

The sorting out of the property deeds and establishment of the new Trust took a further 6 years, with “The Dartmouth Charities” being established in 1889.

The new Trust was required to apply two-thirds of its income to St Saviours, one sixth to Public works and one sixth to relief of the poor. These proportions were to become equal on income in excess of a stated threshold, more than 10 times higher than the then current income.

These dramatic events brought the Dartmouth Charities into existence – the charity later being renamed as Dartmouth Trust.

The property transferred from the Corporation to the new charity is an impressive list with 93 entries totalling 114 properties, including some 95 houses mostly on Crowthers Hill, Above Town and Southford Road. One might think that such a large property portfolio would generate a substantial income – but things were more complicated.

The Town Corporation was in no way providing social housing – only one of the properties was offered for rent. Lengthy leases – mostly 79 years – had been granted on the other 114 properties. The set-up was similar to present day sales of leaseholds, with the leaseholder paying a substantial sum upfront for the benefit of the lease, with a relatively trivial annual ground rent. The money raised by the sale of the leases had been spent by the Corporation rather than retained as endowment funds.

Thus Dartmouth Trust instead of enjoying a substantial market rental received ground rents that totalled some £76 per annum. After costs this reduced to a very modest £36. The beneficiaries enjoyed a greater income than previously, but it was still very modest. Furthermore, the charity had to take out a mortgage to pay the court fees from the protracted litigation.

The task for the charity for the next 70 years or so was to increase the income for the beneficiaries as the 79-year leases expired, taking advantage of any earlier opportunities that might arise. The Charity Commission provided strict advice on the action to be taken at lease expiry – suggestions that disposals should be guided by the best interests of the town or by the convenience to leaseholders were refuted – the Trustees should be guided by the best interest of the charity.

It’s normal today to think of property as both a home and a long-term investment – either steadily increasing in value or generating a steady income. This has not always been the case, and definitely was not the case in the early decades of the 20th century. In those times most houses were rented, and the value reflected the achievable rents. The economy suffered some tough times, and wages, rents and house values all fell. Some of the older property was described as dilapidated.

The outlook was further clouded by rent controls introduced in 1915 and persisting in one form or another for nearly 70 years. In those difficult years many landlords found that their outgoings fully consumed their income particularly if the maintenance requirements were high, making residential property ownership a burden rather than an asset.

As the leases moved towards expiry Dartmouth Trust needed to consider the best way forward. As a charity with a permanent endowment, only income can be distributed to beneficiaries – capital gains cannot. The prospect of good income after maintenance and other costs was probably low for the residential properties, and more encouraging for the commercial. As leases expired the Trust chose to retain and re-invest in the commercial properties, and to sell the houses. The houses were sold at a steady pace, with roughly 10 sold each decade as leases expired.

When the commercial leases expired the Trust rather than granting a new lengthy lease for a capital sum, instead offered a realistic rental with no upfront capital sum.

Through these measures the Trust progressively increased the income for the beneficiaries. The gross rental grew from £36 in 1889 to £623 in 1925, then to £1,600 by 1955 and £7,000 by 1972.

There were still those enjoying very low rents from previous eras; these anomalies have since been resolved. One prime commercial rent on the Quay in 1972 was less than a 500th of its 2018 market rent.

The trust now generates some half a million pounds for the beneficiaries, ultimately feeding back into the Dartmouth economy. In the main the income derives from Dartmouth commercial property, with a lesser contribution from residential units above the shops. Income from investments outside Dartmouth has played an increasing part. In 1956 about a third of the net income derived from government bonds. Today the proportion of the net income from financial investments is a similar proportion.

The important issue is the charitable purpose – the good things that are done with the money.

Back in 1898 the Trust was required to remit two-thirds of its income to St Saviour’s, one sixth to the council to be spent on conduits and water supply, and one sixth to be applied for the poor, principally directed to widows, children in need and the infirm. These proportions became one third to each party once the income had risen.

Remitting money to the Church and to the Council was a simple activity. The Trustees’ time was taken up more with managing the endowment and meeting the obligations to the disadvantaged.

In 1909, by order of the Charity Commission, the responsibility for meeting the obligations to the disadvantaged was split off into a separate charity, at the time called “the Eleemesynary share of the Dartmouth Charities”. As from this date Dartmouth Trust’s only responsibility was the management of the endowment for the benefit of the beneficiaries. There is no documentary evidence as to why the roles were split. The thinking presumably was that the beneficiaries would gain from the money- raising activity being separate from money-disbursing – the thought processes required being different. Historically those who had previously had responsibility for both had not always conducted themselves well.

For over a century Dartmouth Trust’s only responsibility has been the management of the endowment to ensure the benefits are sustained over the indefinite future.

Although it’s not Dartmouth Trust’s responsibility, any history must also give insight into the spending of the money – which requires an insight into “the Eleemesynary share of the Dartmouth Charities” later morphing into Dartmouth United Charities, or DUC.

This morphing took place in 1953, when the “Eleemesynary share” was merged with 17 other Dartmouth charities to become Dartmouth United Charities. The Eleemensynary share dominated. It provided some £415 per annum, more than twice the other charities’ combined income. However the other charities contributed the Ford Almshouses and nearly £10,000 in capital, mainly invested in government stock.

The history of these small charities perhaps illustrates why the Charity Commission mandated the separation of managing the endowment – the role of Dartmouth Trust - from proper spending of the income – the role of Dartmouth United Charities. Generally over the centuries the management of both aspects of the small charities became somewhat casual. This was evident in the pre-1835 period when the Town Corporation was generally in charge, and also after this date when the Municipal Reform Act required that such activities be under the control of separate Trustees.

The seventeen merging charities had mainly been established in the 16th or 17th centuries, some involving parcels of land to be used for specified categories of the needy, others starting with large cash sums. Fourteen of these charities had been managed collectively as the Parochial Charities for some years. Despite this apparently efficient common approach the administration was sometimes less than timely - in 1879 the Charity Commission stepped in when it realised that a majority of the Trustees were dead!

Further details of the merging Charities are contained as an Appendix.

The Charity Commission altered the division of Dartmouth Trust’s income in 1955, increasing that going to the DUC from a third to a half, and reducing the public purposes element from a third to a sixth. This may have reflected the Commission’s view on how both assets and responsibilities had over the centuries been transferred in and out of the Town Corporation.

The Charity Commission “Scheme” that prescribes what Dartmouth Trust can and cannot do is updated every few decades. At each update the language is modernised, and there can be new clauses - either reflecting changes to the law or to ensure proper practice in the eyes of the Charity Commission.

The main change in the last half century is an explicit requirement that property rents are set at the best rent achievable. The Charity Commission’s objective here is to protect the beneficiaries – preventing their benefits being eroded by a subsidy to tenants. This goes back to the reason the Trust was established in the first place in 1890 – to ensure the proper parties receive the benefit.

Other than changes required by the Commission, all changes must be agreed by all 3 beneficiary charities and the Commission – this again is to protect the beneficiaries.

In summary, Dartmouth Trust is the custodian of substantial wealth, originally acquired by the then Roman Catholic St Saviour’s Church in the mid 1500s or earlier. The Town Corporation gained control of this wealth until the combination of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 and the energies of the Reverend Foster. Custodianship passed to the newly formed Trust in 1889, enabling the benefits for the worthy causes to be protected and progressively increased.

Almost £3.5million has benefitted the town over the past decade. Residents have been supported through the generous funding of services provided by organisations including Dartmouth Caring, Citizen’s Advice, Dartmouth Food Bank, Dartmouth Pre-School and Youth provision in the Town. Buildings have been maintained and refurbished including St Saviour’s Church, the market square, the Guildhall and the Butterwalk. Numerous residents have also benefitted from individual grants to alleviated hardship and distress; and many more benefit from the provision of low cost accommodation at the DUC’s almshouses.

Dartmouth owes a lot to the actions of the stubborn young Reverend Foster nearly 150 years ago.


  • Dartmouth Trust Schemes 1889 & subsequent
  • Dartmouth History – Percy Russell
  • Dartmouth History – Ray Freeman
  • Charity Commission Deeds 1879 & 1853 relating to several Dartmouth charities Charity Commission report on Devon charities 1831
  • House of Commons report on Dartmouth Endowed charities 1907

This summary is produced by Dartmouth Trust June 2018

Appendix – historic charities merging into Dartmouth United Charities in 1953

John Plumleigh 1646

Assets in 1953: Government stock £2,960 plus ground rents of £16 annually. Original gift: A field known as Town Close to be used for the drying of clothes.

In between: The charity commission commented in 1828 of uncertainties over the rights to a house built on part of the land, the corporation having sold the house on a 79 year lease, and stated that “neither the accounts of the corporation , or of the parishes, appear to have been kept with sufficient accuracy to enable us to ascertain the true state of the account.”

John Shapleigh 1627

Assets in 1953: Government stock £1,560.

Original gift: A dock together with a £100 legacy, with £6 to be payable annually to the poor.

In between: The charity commission commented in 1828 that the £100 legacy had never been applied as prescribed. They stated that: “the future administration can only be satisfactorily settled under the directions of a court of equity”.

Forder Estate 1673

Assets in 1953: Government stock £2,170.

Original gift: An estate acquired for £600. Income disbursed on schoolmasters, clergy, and the poor.

In between: The charity commission commented in 1828 that the regular account of this charity ceased in 1785 and the last remaining Trustee died in 1807.

Richard Langdon 1707

Assets in 1953: Government stock £670.

Original gift: A legacy of £6 per annum, payable to the poor, secured on his property.

In between: The charged property appears to have been sold and another substituted. The substituted house then burnt down and was rebuilt. In 1820 disbursements were much delayed, with 8 years being distributed to catch up.

Sir John Acland 1620

Assets in 1953: Government stock £104.

Original gift: Distribution of bread to the poor, to the value of £2 annually.

In between: Apparently operating as intended in 1820.

Awdyan’s gift 1548

Assets in 1953: None, but income of £2 per annum.

Original gift: Annual payments to the poor, administered by the Major, with income derived from a charged property.

In between: Payments made until 1772, irregularly thereafter, and in 1821 was 16 years in arrears.

Ley’s Gift 1599

Assets in 1953: Ford Gift Houses, Victoria Road.

Original gift: £40 towards the building of an almshouse.

In between: Original property was on the road to the Castle, when it fell into disrepair the Victoria Road property was substituted.

Kelly’s gift 1630

Assets in 1953: None.

Original gift: Annual income of £2 from other Kelly charities to support almshouses. In between: Monies used for upkeep of Ley’s gift.

Widows Houses c1630

Assets in 1953: £153 in government stock.

Original gift: An almshouse in Higher Street, possibly under lease, for widows of Seamen.

In between: In operation in 1821, with some rooms let out commercially supporting the almshouse.

George Prestwood 1671

Assets in 1953: £45 in government stock.

Original gift: £50, the interest to be used to gift bread and meat to the poor.

In between: In operation in 1821, with annual gifting by the major following election.

John Lovering 1671

Assets in 1953: £147 in government stock

Original gift: A house in Ford Lane plus £500, to be used for retired seamen and their widows.

In between: The House was extended to some 21 rooms, but burnt down in 1794. The Corporation leased out the vacant site, the Charity Commission “suggesting to the Corporation the propriety of applying the rent to seamen and their widows”.

Thomas Boone 1677

Assets in 1953: None.

Original gift: An annuity of £10 per annum, secured on property, payable to the poor.

In between: The annuity was in payment in 1821, notwithstanding the fact that the heirs to the donor and the Trustees were not accurately known.

Others, with limited details

Henry Blondett 1885 Assets in 1953: £850 government stock, originally £850.
Mrs Rabbidge Dyer 1601 Assets in 1953: £113 government stock, originally £125.
Thomas Paige 1630 Assets in 1953: £36 government stock, originally £40.
Joan Rounsevall 1654 Assets in 1953: £9 government stock, originally £10.