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In 1843, Sheffield, a town famous, throughout the world, for its cutlery, tool, plating and rapidly expanding steel industries was incorporated as a borough and elected its first Mayor, William Jeffcock. At that time, it had a population of almost 70,000 – a hundred years earlier the population had been slightly over 10,000 and a hundred years before that, around 2,000. One consequence of this rapid growth had been the breakdown of the old system of local government, hence the need for a town council and councillors who were answerable to the people. For over five hundred years prior to 1843, much of the responsibility for managing the town had lain in the hands of the Burgery of Sheffield, more commonly known as the Town Trust.


On August 10th 1297, Thomas de Furnival, Lord of the Manor of Hallam, granted his free tenants of Sheffield, their heirs and assignees, the right to administer all of the land and property which they held for him in return for payment of a Chief Rent of £3 8s 9¼d per annum. He further agreed that his bailiffs would continue to hold a manor court in the town every three weeks, that penalties would be fair and proportionate, that the fines would be assessed by a jury, and that his tenants would not have to pay tolls (taxes) on goods traded within the boundaries of Hallamshire. What did this mean? In essence, in return for a guaranteed annual income, the Lord of the Manor gave his free tenants – the Burgery – a substantial degree of independence, but they also acquired responsibility for collecting the rents and for maintaining the infrastructure of the town, most importantly the water supply and the roads and bridges.


What was Sheffield like in 1297? It was a small town with probably no more than one thousand inhabitants. It was dominated by a large castle, set in about 4 acres of land, that had been built by Thomas de Furnival sometime after 1270. He had also re-built the Parish Church around the same time. In 1296, Thomas de Furnival obtained a Royal Warrant confirming the lord of the manor’s long-established right to hold a market in the town every Tuesday and a 3-day fair around the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Beyond the town stretched the lord’s hunting park which covered an area in excess of 2,400 acres. Sheffield was not a wealthy town – a Poll Tax return of 1297 shows that only a handful of residents were liable for the tax, although, interestingly, of those who were, four were cutlers indicating that the trade for which the town became famous was already well established.

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Street flushing near Barkers Pool in the 18th century

Unfortunately, little is known about the activities of the Burgery of Sheffield for the first 270 years of its existence because the earliest surviving records only date from 1565. However, a series of deeds now in the archives of the Sheffield Church Burgesses indicate that the authority and position of the Burgery was well accepted amongst the townspeople of Sheffield because it was gifted, or more often bequeathed, land and properties, often in return for the provision of requiem masses and the maintenance of the Parish Church and its priests. By the 1540s, the Burgery’s property was yielding an income of about £27 a year, of which £17 9s 4d had to be used for religious purposes. In 1548, this latter element of their property portfolio was seized by the Crown under the provisions of the Act for the Suppression of Chantries. Six years later, in 1554, the properties were returned to local control. However, thanks to the support of the Earl of Shrewsbury and a carefully worded petition to Queen Mary, they were returned not to the Burgery but to a newly incorporated body - “The Twelve Capital Burgesses and the Commonalty of the Town and Parish of Sheffield”, more commonly known as the Church Burgesses.  In return, the Church Burgesses, were given responsibility for keeping the Parish Church in good repair, maintaining and improving the streets and bridges closest to the church and paying the salaries of its vicar’s three assistant ministers. At a stroke, the Burgery had lost over 60% of its annual property income, so it is perhaps not surprising that this ‘loss’ remained a source of irritation until well into the twentieth century!


Lady's Bridge

The first surviving record of the Burgery is an account book that begins with the accounts submitted by Thomas Braye, the first known Collector of the Rents (Town Collector), on October 20th 1565. He collected rents totalling £7 7s. These ranged from 15s paid by William Scargell for his houses to 2d paid by Thomas Robinson for a ‘myden stede’ (outside toilet). There are no records of expenditure until the following year when Thomas Scargell spent £4 2s 7d, mainly on repairs to Lady’s Bridge which was then the main entrance into the town from the north. Expenses relating to Lady’s Bridge were a regular feature of the accounts until the nineteenth century, as were repairs to Barker’s Pool, the principal source of freshwater in the town.


The Burgery also incurred expenses maintaining law and order – in 1571, for example, they paid for a pillory to be built, in 1576 for repairs to the stocks, and, in 1580, for making a ‘cuck stool’ with chains and locks. The Town Collector also appears to have been responsible for providing a dinner for the twelve jurymen who presided over the twice yearly ‘Sembly Quest’ (Court Leet). The Burgery paid for the maintenance of the town’s archery butts and there were regular payments for the purchase of and repairs to arms and armour, including equipping the town’s allocated levy of soldiers at times of national crisis. In June 1642, in anticipation of the civil strife that was to tear the country apart (and which led to the destruction of Sheffield Castle), they bought 22 muskets, adding a further 3 the following year. Their responsibility for maintaining order extended to the care or, more often, control of the poor. The early accounts record regular payments to the poor and sick, to widows, for apprenticing poor or orphaned children and to the constables for removing beggars to the next parish. In 1629, they paid for the construction of a workhouse and there are regular payments for its maintenance thereafter.

Amidst the regular, humdrum expenses in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century accounts, there are also occasional payments for celebrations – the Burgery not only paid for pipers and singers to perform every Christmas, for example, but they also paid for their decorated coats and, from 1607, there are regular payments for the church bells to be rung on special occasions. There are also some poignant entries – for example

  • 1590 Paid to the Coroner for the fee of 3 persons that were slain with the fall of 2 Trees that were burned down at my Lord’s funeral

  • 1595 Paid to the Coroner for his fee for the death of that man who feloniously killed himself by cutting of his own throat at Jo. Creswicke’s

  • 1598 Paid to the Coroner at the death of Adam Mylne’s wife, who was drowned 6s; and to George Bate, Thomas Odgson, and one Sytwell watching her in the well the 16 and 17 of February 2s 2d.

By the late 1620s, income from the Burgery’s properties was yielding more than was absorbed by the annual expenses and the Trustees began to make secured loans. This proved to be a profitable venture - in 1663, loans of £110 yielded interest payments of £13 8s; by 1670, the loans totalled £340 yielding an income of £28 4s. And these were not small loans – John Nodder and Robert Bright, for example, each borrowed £100.​

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In 1681, a Decree issued by the Commissioners of Charitable Uses ordered that the Burgery’s properties and income should be administered by a body of thirteen persons who were to be elected by a majority of the town’s inhabitants - this was described as being an arrangement ‘of immemorial usage’, in other words, this was exactly the way that the Burgery had operated for as long as could be remembered. The group was to be known as the Town Trust and the principal trustee as the Town Collector, although again it seems likely that these names had been in common usage for some time. The objects of the Town Trust were to be

  1. The repair of Lady’s Bridge

  2. The repair of Barker’s Pool and the rest of the town’s water supply

  3. The repair of causeways and highways

  4. Other charitable and public purposes for the benefit of Sheffield and its inhabitants.

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At first, very little changed. The same freeholders were involved and monies continued to be expended on Lady’s Bridge, Barker’s Pool, street repairs, the workhouse and on public celebrations – for example £32 14s 10d was spent celebrating the Coronation Day of James II in 1685 but only £15 4s 11½d in 1688 when William and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen. In 1702, when Queen Anne was proclaimed, they treated the townspeople to 127 gallons of ale, bought new ribbons for the singers’ coats, paid for drummers to perform and for the church bells to be rung. And when the Archbishop of York visited the town in 1711, they held a banquet for him for which they purchased, amongst other things, 61 pounds of beef, 4 tongues, 17 chickens, 6 geese, 11 pounds of salmon, a pike, 3 lobsters, 2 crabs, 2 pigs, 12 pigeons and ‘sparagrasse from Doncaster’. However, by 1747, there must have been general agreement amongst the Trustees that the expenses incurred at these public events were becoming excessive.


At a public meeting of the Freeholders at the Town Hall on Friday the 12th day of February 1747, pursuant to the notice given by the Bellman for considering and regulating the affairs of the Town. It was unanimously agreed that the sum of Twenty shillings and no more shall be hereafter allowed to and expended by the Town Collector for the Time being in Treating the Freeholders on any of the several public days hereafter mentioned viz: The King’s Restoration, the King’s Accession, the King’s Coronation, and on the Fifth day of November in every year. And that the Town Collector for the time being shall not treat the Freeholders at the Towns expense on any other public Days in the year than those aforementioned.

Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Town Trust fulfilled (or at least tried to fulfil) its responsibility to repair Lady’s Bridge and the causeways and highways. In 1787 and again in 1866, Lady’s Bridge was widened and, in 1829, the Trust contributed towards the construction of a new bridge over the Don near Blonk Street. In 1818, under the provisions of the Sheffield Improvement Act, the responsibility for cleansing, lighting and watching the town was transferred to commissioners who were empowered to levy an annual rate and to impose fines. This left the Trust free to devote more of its income to improving the town’s medieval and wholly inadequate streets. From 1820, they purchased property and land in order to widen and improve existing streets and, in some instances, to construct new ones. Gradually, these responsibilities were transferred to Sheffield Corporation but even as late as 1876, the Trust incurred considerable expense widening Church Street from St James’s Row to Townhead Street.


The Trust was also diligent in its attempts to maintain the town’s water supply – Barker’s Pool was constantly being repaired and, in 1696, a new public well was dug close to the Parish Church gates. During the late eighteenth century, private companies began to construct reservoirs on the outskirts of the town, piping water in through wooden pipes. In 1793, Barker’s Pool was filled in (though a well remained) and, in 1830, an Act of Parliament created the Sheffield Water Works Company which was given responsibility for the town’s water supply.

The fourth stipulation of the 1681 decree was that the Town Trust should use its income for charitable and public purposes for the benefit of Sheffield and its inhabitants. Traditionally, public benefit appears to have been more important than what would now be termed charitable giving. There are two schemes that the Trust undertook that are of particular note – the building of a town hall and the navigation of the river Don.

Unfortunately, we do not know where the Burgery held their meetings although, after 1638, there are occasional references to meetings held in the Cutlers’ Hall. In 1700, with a substantial contribution from the Duke of Norfolk, the Town Trust built a Town Hall, near to the Parish Church gates. This was a small building with a gaol on the ground floor and a meeting room, accessed by an external staircase, on the first floor. This upper room was regularly used by the magistrates for their fortnightly courts. In 1802, following a series of complaints from the magistrates, the Town Trustees resolved to build a new combined Town Hall, Court House and prison. Initially, they committed £1,000 to the project although, unsurprisingly, more was spent. Contributions were also made by the magistrates, the Duke of Norfolk and other interested parties. The building was completed in 1808 and continued to be used by the Town Trust and as a Court House until the 1990s.

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Old Sheffield Town Hall

The scheme to make the River Don navigable was one of eighteenth-century Sheffield’s most ambitious and transformative civil engineering projects. For centuries, the main export route for Sheffield goods had been via Hull and to reach there they had first to be transported about twenty miles by road to Bawtry, the nearest river port. Proposals to alter the course of the River Don and to drain the surrounding marshes had been discussed for decades but it was not until the early 1720s that the Town Trust, the Cutlers’ Company and Doncaster Corporation joined together to lobby Parliament for an enabling Act. This was eventually passed in 1726. By the time the River Don Navigation was completed in 1751, goods could be brought by river from Hull to Tinsley, just three miles from Sheffield’s town centre. The Trust invested heavily in the scheme (£1,850 in 1727 alone, mainly from loans) but the impact that this new trade route had on the town’s trades and, consequently, on the town’s prosperity cannot be overestimated.

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Public benefit was also served by the Town Trust’s investment in numerous late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries schemes to turnpike the key road routes into and out of the town – the Sheffield to Chesterfield turnpike (1795), for example; the road to Baslow via Abbeydale (1812); and, perhaps the most locally well-known turnpike, the road to Glossop, commonly called the Snake Pass (1818). And, in 1830, the Trustees signed a petition urging the Government to approve the construction of a railroad from Manchester to Whaley Bridge ‘as likely at some future period to be of importance to the Town of Sheffield by opening a communication with the mineral districts of Derbyshire and the port of Liverpool by means of a railway’.

Paradise Square

Under the provisions of the Town Trust Act of 1827, the Trust was required to publish annual accounts. By this time, its income was derived from the rents from 26,000 square yards of property in the town, 78 acres of property elsewhere in Hallam (mainly in Fulwood) and investments (mainly shares in the Don Navigation Company). For much of the early nineteenth century, income remained fairly static averaging about £1,500 a year.

Things changed dramatically in 1870 when Samuel Bailey, a former Trustee, bequeathed the Trust property with a capital value of £101,526 10s 1d with instructions that the income was to be used for public benefit or other charitable purposes in Sheffield. The Trust had received some small donations before but this bequest was transformative – and the Trustees quickly set about ensuring that the people of Sheffield did benefit. In 1873, the subscription list (the list of local charities and organisations that received a fixed annual donation) was revised and increased from £115 to £340 a year. In the same year, the Sheffield Town Trustees Act saw the Trust became a charity in fact as well as principle.

For over 700 years, Sheffield Town Trust has been committed to using its income for the benefit of the people of Sheffield – and since 1873, this has taken the form of grants to charities and organisations large and small. The grants themselves have ranged from tens of pounds to thousands of pounds - in 1879, for example, £1000 was given to the General Endowment Fund of Firth College, the forerunner of the University of Sheffield and, two years later, £40 towards the £76 cost of building a cabmen’s shelter on the Wicker. In 1927, £100 was given to the Schools Clothing Guild and £126 to provide clothing for ‘lads going to sea’ and, in the same year, £10,000 was given towards the purchase of Ecclesall Woods.

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The Trustees even continued to give out grants in the midst of war - £500 to the Sheffield Boys’ Clubs in 1942, for example, and a similar amount to the Girls’ Clubs the following year. In more recent years, grants have been given to youth clubs, tenant’s associations, friends’ groups, music groups and countless organisations that work with the disabled and disadvantaged. Substantial grants have been made to St Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield Children’s Hospital, the Samaritans, Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice, Sheffield Mencap and Gateway, Fareshare South Yorkshire and Voluntary Action Sheffield, to name but a few.

The Sheffield Town Trust has also continued its efforts to improve the lives of Sheffield residents by supporting organisations that work to ensure public access to green spaces and to arts and culture. As has been seen above, the Trust contributed towards the purchase of Ecclesall Woods and, in 1944, a grant was given to Sheffield Corporation to help them buy an estate at Whirlow which the Corporation wanted to include in the Green Belt. In more recent times, substantial grants have been made to the Friends of the General Cemetery and to the development of the Five Weirs Walk. However, one of the Trust’s most significant and impactful actions was the purchase of the Botanical Gardens.

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The Gardens had been built in the early nineteenth century but, by the end of the century, the trust that owned them was in severe financial difficulties and was faced with two options – to close the Gardens or to find a new owner. They approached the Town Trust who, in 1898, agreed a purchase price of £5,000. In 1951, the Botanical Gardens were leased to Sheffield Corporation on a 99-year peppercorn rent.

Samuel Bailey, whose generous bequest made such a difference to the Town Trust’s charitable giving, also bequeathed the Trust his library and his substantial silver collection. The approximately 2,000 books were given to Sheffield Free Library; his silver collection is on loan to Sheffield Museums and Galleries Trust.

Sheffield  Botanical Gardens

In 1939, Charles Henry Maleham left the Trust property on Pinstone Street on condition that income from the property be used to purchase paintings which were to be put on public exhibition. To date, twenty-six paintings have been purchased including two by J M W Turner and one each by Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Peter Lely and Augustus John; two are on loan to the Cutlers’ Company, the others to Sheffield Museums and Galleries Trust. Over the last century, numerous grants have been given to the city’s museums and galleries including £6,500 to purchase a set of cast bells that are currently displayed in the Millennium Galleries and £30,000 towards the restoration of the Kelham Island Industrial Museum following the devastation of the 2007 floods.

Thanks to the excellent record keeping of the Town Trust’s clerks, we know the names of every Town Trustee since 1681. They include lawyers, merchants, doctors, bankers, shop keepers, inn keepers, accountants, and, unsurprisingly, silversmiths, cutlers and tool and steel manufacturers. Forty-six have also served as Master Cutler; fourteen were Mayor of Sheffield and another fourteen Lord Mayor of Sheffield; twenty-seven were also Church Burgesses; fourteen have held the office of High Sheriff; and two were appointed as Lord-Lieutenant of South Yorkshire. In 1996, the Trustees broke with tradition and elected a woman, Jennifer Ann (Annifer) Lee, to their ranks. There are now five female Trustees and, in 2014, Penny Jewitt became the first female Town Collector.

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Over seven centuries, the Town Trust has, of course, evolved – if it had not done so, it would not have survived. But from a body whose principal responsibility was the maintenance of the town’s water supply and roads to one that now distributes charitable donations in excess of £250,000 a year, it has always striven to improve the lives of the people of Sheffield – and it will continue to do so for centuries to come.


Authored by Dr Julie MacDonald DL

Pictures by kind permission of and Sheffield Library and Archives.    

Registered Charity  Number 223760

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