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The Story Of Thomas Harley and The Harley Trust


Thomas Harley was born in 1613. That was the year in which London's Globe Theatre burned to the ground during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII; mathematician John Napier finished twenty-five years of research perfecting Logarithms; Puritan concern was increasing over the growth of 'alehouses' as social centres, with dancing, 'mummers' and sundry celebrations; and people shuddered at the recent revelations about the evil activities of the 'Witches of Pendle' - and at all witchcraft tales.

The Harley Trust - witches



Thomas was born to Francis and Ruth Harley of Osgathorpe, Leicestershire, the second child in a family of four boys and two girls. It seems likely that the Harley's were the typical small landowning family that was the backbone of rural life, the local worthies who organised the village community, dispensed poor relief, set a good example, and might aspire to becoming Lord of the Manor one day. Francis, the eldest son who would inherit the majority share of any estate, stayed at home. The others needed to seek their fortunes elsewhere – Thomas went to London, as did youngest son Nicholas, but William only went as far as Leicester. Ellen married at Breedon-On-The-Hill, and Anne at Bagworth.


Camden's Britannia described him simply as: "Thomas Harley, citizen of London". Whether he was in business, and if so what type, is unknown, but he did marry and survive two wives, Joan and Mary. had been widows of 'citizens of London'.

Widows were subject to being recycled, due to the average low male age at death, and their acquired property often made them a more attractive proposition than a single young woman with a dowry. One can only speculate how much of a London gentleman's wealth came from shrewd marriages. Whatever Thomas Harley's affairs were, they were carried on during a very turbulent and dangerous period in English history - the Civil Wars between Parliamentary and Royalist forces and their ideals - now over simplified to 'Roundheads versus Cavaliers'. He may even have seen King Charles I on trial and later beheaded at Whitehall. Then followed the disturbances of the Commonwealth period, then repression under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.


London was a Parliamentary stronghold and virtually under martial law and so was Leicester, but Ashby, just five miles from Osgathorpe, was in a pocket that was staunchly Royalist - and paid the price. It must have created difficulties in communication and travel but Thomas Harley undoubtedly kept close ties with his parents, elder brother Francis and family in Osgathorpe. This may be inferred by much of his accrued holdings in land and property being in and around the area Snibston, Hugglescote, Walton, Belton, Whitwick, etc.


Francis Harley Senior died about 1658, followed by Francis Harley Junior about a year later, leaving widow Sarah and children Francis, William and Ruth. Thomas Harley was now the senior member of the family and approaching fifty years of age. Good reasons, perhaps, that by the early 1660's he was resident in Osgathorpe, possibly at Osgathorpe Hall. The timing was fortuitous, London became very unhealthy in 1665, and very warm in 1666. Charles Il had also returned to his childhood roots with the restoration of the Monarchy.


Thomas Harley married for the third time, to yet another Mary, and yet another widow, of Samuel Blount, Rector of Walton.

Perhaps because he had no children of his own, Thomas Harley assigned some of his holdings to a fund in order to eventually found a free school in the village for local children. The intention was ultimately to send Divinity students to Cambridge.


Unexpectedly, it was said, early in 1668 Mary found that she was pregnant, and understandably Thomas wanted to drop the school plans to make provision for his new heir. Mary not only persuaded him to continue with the project, but, as she had been the widow of a Rector, must have been instrumental in adding a home for 'clergymen’s widows' to the scheme, greatly increasing the expense. Mary must have counted herself fortunate in her remarriage, most clergyman's widows immediately lost the family home, which went to the new cleric, of course, and could find themselves in dire straits, especially when left with young children.



Thomas Harley


Daughter Mary was born in August 1668 and survived. She proved to be Thomas Harley's only heir as he died in January 1670, at the advanced age of fifty-six years. Mary was widowed for a second time, which was not unusual in those days, and with a sixteen month old child that would never know her father, but would live to the same age.

Recent work in May 2017 replacing the wooden flooring on the north side of the church aisle has revealed the memorial stone to Mary recording her death on 24th June 1724. The stone is in too poor a condition to contemplate removal but its position under the rear most pew is recognised by a brass plaque.

Thomas Harley was buried at St. Mary's and later a plaque incorporating his Arms and a fulsome testament to his life and generosity was erected on the South chancel wall by his trustees.  This has now been relocated onto the North wall.

 The Harley Trust


Harley's will appointed Francis Harley, his nephew (aged thirty), and John Smith, nephew-in-law, as principal executors to carry out his instructions. To them, and their heirs, was conveyed most of his properties upon trust. He directed them to use the rents and profits to build two houses of three bays each, one for a school room and schoolmaster's house, the other as a dwelling for six poor ministers widows. These to be constructed on the strip of land opposite St. Mary's church with the curious name of 'Brewettts Hempleck'.


Upon completion eight persons • would manage the investments to create an annual income of £100 - £40 for the Schoolmaster's salary and £10 per widow. Francis Harley and John Smith would nominate schoolmasters and widows until Mary Harley reached the age of eighteen, when she and her legal heirs would assume that responsibility. If she died, or her legally born heirs died, the function would pass to Francis Harley and his heirs. The Churchwardens would intervene if the responsible person lapsed in duty.


For the £40 salary the schoolmaster was required to teach basic education, reading, writing, and arithmetic, to a maximum of fifty pupils, also the classics and mathematics if required. And keep the school room and house in good repair.


Thirteen years later, in 1683, an 'Indenture of Lease and Release' was made between Francis Harley and John Smith and six other persons. It stated that they had, in pursuance of the Will, built the six bays of buildings, plus outbuildings, on 'Brewett's Hempleck', made as a school room and schoolmaster's house and the other for six poor ministers widows.


It went onto detail the transfer of holdings to the trustees, with a long list of the properties, many named, such as: 'Tweene Town' s Close', or 'Hornebuckles Orlesbreach' and 'Donnington Cow Pasture'. The list ended with a small piece called 'North Orchard', purchased to enlarge the rear of the schoolmaster's house.




This 'Indenture' document states categorically that the buildings existed and were finished in October 1683. They may have been functioning earlier, of course, but this appears to be the earliest provable date at which the Harley Charity proper commenced operations.


Did it really take thirteen years to raise the cost of construction and get the annual income to £100? There was a sequel: in that same year, inspired perhaps by seeing the buildings finally finished, the Will of the Reverend John Allsopp bequeathed £160 to the Harley Charity to house one widow. It took sixteen years, and a law suit, to finally build a cottage "on the hospital grounds."


Mary Harley married John Bainbrigge of Locking-ton and produced three sons and three daughters.




The Charity ran into 'widow' problems right from the start, due to the living arrangements being devised by a man. A report by the Charity Commissioners, quoting old documents, spelled it out:


"The building used as the Almshouses consists of three distinct tenements containing three rooms, one on the ground floor, and another above, with an attic. It was originally intended, as directed by the Founder, that each tenement should be inhabited by two women, living together, and occupying the same apartments; but in consequence of the disagreements that took place under this arrangement, it was found necessary to allot to each woman a separate room."  Given Thomas Harley's extensive experience with widows he should have known better!


The report continued: "There is a small garden attached to each room in consequence, however, of the limited accommodation in the Hospital, the Charity is not much sought after, and the Trustees have frequently had considerable difficulty in filling up vacancies. " That was to be the story for the entire life of the almshouses, compounded by the small annuity offered, and finally led to the building being physically divided into just two dwellings. Allsopp's Gift cottage suffered the same problems, often being uninhabited for long periods.




The Will had not stipulated the usage of surplus monies above the specified income of £100 per annum. Seventy years after commencement one person was very unhappy with what was happening and took action. The Master of the Rolls, in a suit against Philip Harley Bainbrigge and Harley Vaughan, decreed that new trustees would be appointed by the court, he also proposed a scheme for the future application of surplus income. An Order of July 1761 decreed that all profits, after building repairs, etc., should be divided into eight equal parts - one part to each widow, and the remaining two parts to the schoolmaster. Accordingly, more of those 'Indentures of Lease and Release’ documents transferred all the Charity properties to eight new trustees in April 1762. The names of the new trustees are not known, and may well have included Harley relatives, but the true descent of the Charity's officers from either Mary or Francis intended by Thomas Harley was broken by the dismissal of his grandson, Philip Harley Bainbridge, and his nephew’s grandson, Harley Vaughan.


Various 'Acts of Enclosure' changed the face - and the life - of the countryside by ending inefficient 'strip farming', and enclosing waste, common and forest land. Harley's Charity gained by being awarded several acres, including four acres of Charnwood Forest. The poorest country people lost - deprived of their subsistence they drifted to the towns. Land values rose rapidly, and land owners got richer. The Charity Commissioners Report of 1837 recorded that the Charity owned some 230 acres, rented at £280 per annum. Part of the money invested in these properties had come from a windfall - literally, timber felled by a storm in 1805 was sold for £984, twelve shillings. About £200 worth of timber remained.




The report stated that the custom was to appoint a clergyman to the post of schoolmaster, the appointment considered to be for life. The Reverend Doctor Theophilus Henry Hastings Kelk (a large name for a small school room) was appointed in 1833 (and was still there in the Census of 1851). It had become the custom to charge an entrance fee of two shillings and sixpence (13p) per boy, although there was nothing in the Will to authorise it - and it was certainly against the spirit of the foundation. Custom and usage prevailed, the practice probably dated back to the 'fixed salary' period. No boy was admitted under eight years of age, or if unable to read. Very few stayed beyond fourteen years. There were forty-two scholars registered, and an average attendance of thirty five. There were only two full paying scholars. "They are all the children of small farmers, trades people and the labouring classes, and do not require to be instructed in the Classics and Mathematics", declared the Reverend Doctor Theophilus Henry Hastings Kelk. All books and stationery were provided by the pupils.




The profit sharing scheme had improved the payments considerably. The 1835 figures were: Schoolmaster = £107; six widows at £43. 10 shillings each (£43.50p) = £261; Insurance = 210 shillings. Total = £370. 10 shillings, leaving an annual balance of £8.16 shillings and 10 pence (£8.84p) for repairs and incidental expenses. There was a balance of £26.5 shillings 9 pence with the treasurer (£26.29p).


The trustees appointed in 1832 were: The Marquis of Hastings, Charles March Phillips, Ambrose Lisle Phillips, Edward Dawson, John Bainbrigge Story, James Sutton, Reverend Samuel Dashwood and Reverend John Dalby.




The two Harley buildings were built of uncoursed Charnwood stone with dressed stone quoins. The Widows house, variously described as 'almshouses' or 'hospital', is aligned at 90 degrees to the road, being the slightly plainer of the two. The Census of 1841 included the widows for the first time and the census enumerator used the local name 'The Residence', the name it still bears today.


The description quoted in the Charity Commissioners report of three room vertical units "one on the ground floor, and another above, with an attic" fits the odd shaped building depicted in an engraving in Nichol's 'History and Antiquities

Almshouses of the Harley Trust

of Leicestershire' (1802), i.e. a two storey building plus attic. If that picture was accurate then the roof has since been raised by some five feet to create the present three floors proper. This was probably done at the same time that the windows were replaced with cast iron 'diamond pane' frames. The positions of the two exterior doors were also slightly altered, and it seems likely that originally there were matching exterior doors on the East side, opening on to what was later the Rectory garden. Cast iron fronts 'modernised' the stone fireplaces and extra chimneys were constructed.


The Commissioners report states that the buildings were in very good condition, a considerable sum having been expended on them of late years", perhaps indicative of major works. The Ordnance Survey map of 1883, scale: 25 inches to one mile, clearly shows The Residence' as being divided into two dwellings, the format it retained for the rest of it's 'almshouses' life. The schoolroom and 'Harley House (schoolmaster's house) face the road and have some classical decoration. The distinctive mullioned windows that flank the school room entrance, and the house extension to the rear, probably date from the same period as 'The Residence' alterations. The study is said to have fine oak panelling, but age is unknown.  The School Room is used as the Village Hall.



Finally, a bit of a mystery.


Three 'Coats of Arms' incorporating the 'Harley shield' (plain background with 'Bend cottised t - a broad stripe) are displayed on the buildings. The arms in a small relief on The 'Residence' is with a 'Beacon Tower' as a crest; the same design is depicted in a small stained glass window over the door of 'Harley House'; the large arms relief displayed over the school room door has lost it's crest. Nichol's book states that the school room arms are Thomas Harley's - arms which have a Lion 's Head crest, see illustration below. Two Harley crests? The date of the school room arms, 1716, provides a clue. The 'Beacon Tower' version may be those of Francis Harley. Francis had laboured for thirteen years to bring his uncle's charity to fruition and may well have viewed the result as a Harley family project. Thomas had donated the means to the funds after his death, but it was the living who had done, and would continue to do, all the work. It would be understandable if Francis chose to display the Arms of his grandfather, and Thomas' father, Francis Harley. Francis, the nephew, finally died in 1715, aged seventy five years, having been a senior trustee and associated with the Charity for forty five years. Shortly after, Mary's husband, John Bainbrigge, erected the over large and decorative Thomas Harley Arms relief and inscription panel that dominates the school room frontage. He died the next year.  Why did he feel the need after forty five years, to make such a public, and no doubt expensive, statement? Perhaps as a gesture to Mary, restating her father's generosity and 'reclaiming the Charity in his name. Or simply taking the opportunity to be named and associated with it in a permanent manner - after all, the inscription has survived.


But, if the last suggestion was accurate then he has failed miserably - foiled by the weather and careless workmanship.

Thomas Harley Trust Coat of Arms

The inscription, now displayed inside the school room for protection, was carved on rather soft slate. Due to weathering the inscription has had to be re-cut on more than one occasion during its two hundred and seventy nine years life. This has led to errors of transcription - and has created a myth.

The Latin inscription today, born out by a framed translation, states that "John Bambridge Armit, the husband of his only daughter, raised this graven stone - 1716'. The 'I' and 'N' has been merged, making 'BAIN' into 'BAM'. It is a matter of record, including a plaque in nearby St. Mary's church, that Mary Harley married BAINBRIGGE, so it's a strange mistake to make. Even stranger is that the word 'ARMIGER (meaning entitled to bear heraldic arms) has become 'ARMIT, so 'John Bainbrigget, real person, has turned into "John Bambrigge Armit tt, fictional person.


Brian Brooks


Sources: 'History and Antiquities of

Leicestershire'; Leicestershire County

Record Office, 1837 Charity

Commissioners Report on Harley's Charity; 'Chronicle of Britain'; 'The Life & Times of Charles Il', Camden 's 'Britannia' 'Victoria County History' and 'The I-Spy Book'.

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