The Seckford story
PUBLISHED: 11:49 25 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:49 25 August 2015
Woodbridge is celebrating the legacy of Thomas Seckford, an Elizabethan with a vision that is still improving the lives of young and old five centuries later
Visitors to the market town of Woodbridge are unlikely to miss the legacy of Thomas Seckford. The Shire Hall on Market Square, the Seckford Almshouses in Seckford Street, the Abbey School at the top of Church Street and the town pump, also on Market Square, are all reminders of Woodbridge’s most famous benefactor, born 500 years ago in 1515.
Perhaps not surprisingly Woodbridge has been making quite a fuss about the ‘Seckford 500’. Events so far include a royal visit in June from the Duchess of Gloucester and an evening of music and narrative in St Mary’s Church where Seckford built a family chapel and where the great man’s tomb now rests.
When he died in 1587, Thomas Seckford, a wealthy Elizabethan lawyer, land owner and parliamentarian, set up a charity, with the permission of his queen, to look after 13 poor men of the parish. The resulting Seckford’s Almshouse has grown and prospered over the years, but it is only part of the story. Schools, apprenticeships and other forms of individual support, as well as care for elderly, are all playing their part in a still dynamic Seckford legacy. Today’s charity is represented by the Seckford Foundation, which now runs four schools, the almshouses for 79 elderly residents and a number of individual projects, including apprenticeships, academic awards and support for local charities.
“It’s all about the care and education of both the young and the elderly,” says foundation director Graham Watson. “Thomas Seckford was a man of great vision and we have to consider the type of project he might have responded to if he was alive today.”
To this end, the foundation recently commissioned University College Suffolk to look at the effects of rural deprivation in Suffolk and the barriers young people face in trying to access employment and education. By actually going out and talking to young people about their needs and concerns the foundation expects to shape and develop a new generation of Seckford projects.
The man himself rose to fame and fortune as a prominent lawyer and courtier in the reign of Elizabeth I. After a Cambridge University education, and what can only be described as a stellar early career in law, he became a master of the influential and lucrative Court of Requests in 1558, a post which involved looking after the pleas of poor men and travelling around the country with the monarch. Seckford was well rewarded for his work. As his wealth grew, he built a reputation locally and nationally and became a Member of Parliament for Ipswich in 1559. Branching out from the family seat at Seckford Hall he made his home at what is now the Abbey School in Woodbridge, which still bears the Seckford coat of arms.
In 1575 he built the imposing Shire Hall overlooking the Market Square, a symbolic move which saw local justice move from Melton to Woodbridge, and led to Woodbridge replacing Melton as the pre-eminent local centre of power. Fen Meadow – originally part of the Abbey grounds – the almshouses in aptly named Seckford Street, the town pump on Market Hill and Woodbridge School are all derived from the original Seckford legacy.
Further afield Seckford built property in Ipswich and in Clerkenwell, London, the latter providing the funding for the great man’s bequest to his beloved Woodbridge. As London grew so did the value of the property in Clerkenwell, which in turn has underwritten the charity’s growing portfolio of good works over the years.Bound by good behaviour and regular church attendance, the first almsmen received a pension of £5 a year, plus their accommodation, built on the site of today’s almshouses in Seckford Street. Over the years, the almshouses have been extended, refurbished and modernised to provide a home for 79 residents.
As the value of the Clerkenwell property grew so too did the ambition of the charity. This included the completion of a hospital in 1842 and the endowment of an existing Free Grammar School which became Woodbridge School, opening on its present site in 1864. The result was an amalgamated Seckford charity now supporting young and old in Woodbridge.
More spending followed, including a dispensary, a Seckford Lending Library and the sheer practicality of a town pump, completed on Market Hill in 1876.
Thanks to careful management and a regular income from school and care home fees, the Seckford Foundation continues to be as active today as it was in the 1860s.
As for Thomas Seckford, he would surely be pleased that his original legacy to the almsmen lives on and has been extended so dramatically.