Plaque erected at 31 St Saviourgate, 26th July 2019
Lady Sarah Hewley was the only daughter and heiress of Robert Wolrych, a wealthy landowner and bencher of Gray’s Inn, London. Her mother, née Mott, had inherited a fortune from her first husband whose name was Tichborne. About 1649 Sarah Wolrych married John Hewley, born 1619, son of John Hewley of Wistow near Selby. Sarah’s husband was admitted to Gray’s Inn on 4 February 1638 and became recorder for Doncaster. He was MP for Pontefract from 1658-60 and was knighted in 1663. Subsequently, he was elected MP for York in 1678, 1679 and 1681.
Following the English Reformation in the 16th century, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Quakers became separatists or dissenters. They refused to accept the Anglican communion and to accept the tenets of the Church of England. The Hewleys were dissenters and, around 1692, they contributed towards the building of a plain brick Unitarian chapel in St Saviourgate, the street in which the family lived. The chapel is still in use today.
They also gave financial assistance for the production of Sir William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, or, The History of the Ancient Abbies, and other Monasteries, Hospitals, Cathedral and Collegiate Churches in England and Wales. With divers French, Irish, Scotch Monasteries formerly relating to England which was published in three volumes between 1655 and1673. The Hewleys also funded Matthew Poole’s Synopsis criticorum biblicorum which was published in Latin in five volumes over a period of 10 years. Poole’s summary of the writings of 150 biblical critics proved so controversial that, whilst living in London, he feared for his life and fled to Amsterdam where he died in 1679.
Hewley trust fund
On the death of Lady Sarah’s second husband in 1697, she inherited another vast estate. With some of the money she financed the construction of a set of almshouses on Tanner Row to house nine elderly widows of dissenter ministers and one poor man to act as chaplain. In her will, she made provision for the setting up of a trust to provide financial assistance for:
- Poor and Godly Preachers of Christ’s Holy Gospel;
- Poor and Godly Widows of such Preachers;
- Godly Persons in Distress ‘being fit objects of charity’;
- Encouraging and Promoting the Preaching of Christ’s Holy Gospel in such Poor Places as the Trustees deem Necessitous;
- Exhibitions towards the Education of up to five Young Men (at any one time) designed for the Ministry of Christ’s Holy Gospel.
She died on 23 August 1710 and her estate was put into the hands of trustees most of whom were Unitarians. The trust was very wealthy but the other dissenting orders were concerned that the income was not being distributed fairly, so the matter was taken to court in 1830 and the lengthy legal proceedings ended in the House of Lords in 1849. The result was that the Statue of Charitable Uses 1601 was replaced with the Charitable Trusts Act 1853 now known as The Charity Commission. Thus Lady Hewley’s beneficence became a charity, administered by trustees even today.
St Saviourgate almshouses
About 1835 George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’, was granted powers under an act of Parliament to compulsorily purchase the Tanner Row almshouses for £5,105, in order to drive two railway tracks through the city walls and build a railway terminus. The leading architect, James Pigott Prichett was engaged to design a new set of almshouses on a site next to St Saviour’s Church in St Saviourgate and they were constructed for the sum of £1,711. In 1840, the occupants from Turner Row were transferred to the new building, which are still in use to this day having been updated several times in the past centuries.
The estates that the trustees inherited from Lady Hewley were vast, and their incomes considerable. The manor of West Ayton, five miles west of Scarborough, was originally purchased by her father and by 1877 comprised 1,095 acres of farmland. Haya Park, a mile east of Knaresborough was originally purchased in 1652 by her father, but through the purchase of neighbouring lands of Braycroft, Killinghall, Coneythorpe, Brearton, Sussacres and Arkendale the estate had grown to 1,780 acres by 1873. The trustees also acquired the two estates of Eston near Middlesborough and Margrave Park close to Guisborough, which had iron ore deposits from which the trustees received substantial royalties. The Whixley Estate of 45 acres was bought in 1840 with the surplus funds of about £2,000 from the sale of the Tanner Row almshouse site.
In spite of Lady Sarah’s Trust being formed more than 300 years ago, it still runs the almshouses in St Saviourgate which are maintained by a group of trustees who meet regularly to administer the various other charitable works.
Richard Potts, Dame Sarah’s Legacy, A History of the The Lady Hewley Trust (Chester, 2005)
P.J. Withington, ‘Hewley, Sarah, Lady Hewley (1627-1710)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, 2004)
© Geoffrey Geddes