It is remarkable that the life of one man, living in the turbulent Tudor era, should have had such an enduring impact on the town of Woodbridge and the surrounding area of Suffolk: an impact that is as powerful today as it has been down the centuries.
Thomas Seckford was born in 1515 at Seckford Hall, the family seat outside Woodbridge which is now a luxury hotel. His name is synonymous with Woodbridge: his country house was the Abbey, now the junior school for Woodbridge School; he built for the town the Shire Hall to serve as the local court, which it continued to do until the late 20th century and now houses the Council Chamber and the Foundation’s archives; and for a time he owned the iconic Tide Mill, one of only two working tide mills remaining in the United Kingdom.
Seckford was a prominent lawyer who served Queen Elizabeth I in a number of important judicial roles. He amassed a considerable fortune and when he died in 1587 he left his estate in Clerkenwell, then comprising pasture land just to the north of the City of London, to endow an almshouse for thirteen poor men of Woodbridge. The annual income at that time was a little more than £100.
The First 250 Years
Although Seckford had made generous provision in his will for his brothers and their offspring – he himself had no children – much of the first one hundred years was occupied by challenges to the endowment made by various members of the Seckford family, but one consequence of these legal wrangles was that the Master of the Rolls and the Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas were appointed to be the governors of the charity, with administration being delegated to the churchwardens of St Mary’s parish church. As income from the estate grew, surplus funds were used to teach, clothe and care for poor children and the pensions paid to residents of the almshouse were increased and as London expanded and finally engulfed Clerkenwell, so the rental value of the endowment increased significantly, facilitating the construction in the mid 19th century of a magnificent new almshouse, the Seckford Hospital, not far from the centre of town, which today remains the centre of the Foundation’s care activities.
Woodbridge Free School
In 1662 Dorothy Seckford, the widow of Seckford’s nephew Henry, last of the Seckford family, joined with a number of other eminent locals to found a free school which was housed in a property in Seckford Street, just off the town’s Market Hill, donated by Robert Marryott, after whom one of the current school’s buildings, now housing the Foundation’s administrative headquarters, is named. The school was to teach ten “sons of the meaner sort” of Woodbridge residents, along with others who were to be charged £1 a year. They were to be taught Latin and Greek to prepare them for university; or, if not capable of mastering these subjects, arithmetic and writing as preparation “for trades or to go to sea”. Over the first two centuries of its existence the school had its ups and downs, including a headmaster disappearing in order to escape from his creditors, and despite educating an increasing number of boys, a number of whom went on to build eminent careers, its fortunes had dramatically declined by the mid nineteenth century and its premises had fallen into disrepair; in contrast to the increasing fortunes of the almshouse charity
Creation of the Foundation
In 1861 it was therefore agreed that the Almshouse charity should merge with the Free School charity. As a result of the merger, the Seckford Foundation was created, facilitating the move of the School to a spacious new site on the edge of the town which still houses Woodbridge School as well as the administrative offices of the Foundation. As well as providing funds for more bursaries, the merger freed up the original school building in Seckford Street for use as a dispensary and a lending library and reading room, both funded by the Foundation. The merger scheme of 1861 also made provision for educational grants and the provision of apprenticeships, which in the first year included a decorator, a miller, a shoemaker, a plumber and a boat builder.
Up to the Present Day
But the Foundation has not stood still since then: the past 150 years have seen continuous development of the activities of the Foundation and its facilities, and since the turn of the century alone the Foundation has entirely remodelled the Almshouses, providing exceptional accommodation for its residents; constructed a 350 seat theatre, the Seckford Theatre, for the benefit of the School and the local community; has substantially upgraded the teaching facilities of Woodbridge School, to include a new classroom block, sixth form centre and technology centre; opened three new Free Schools, in Beccles, Ixworth and Saxmundham, providing educational choice in those areas; launched Seckford Springboard to help young people under 25 to access education, employment and training; and led on an initiative called ‘Flourish’ to help tackle the issue of rural poverty within Suffolk.
Despite being proud of its history, the Seckford Foundation does not live in the past; on the contrary the trustees regularly revisit its aims and aspirations to make sure they remain relevant and achieve maximum impact for its beneficiaries in today’s world.
For further information on the history of the Foundation, see The Seckford Foundation: Four Hundred Years of a Tudor Charity by Mike and Carol Weaver (1987).