Signpost - Ellingham and Kirby Cane


Local charities for the poor

I’ve been involved with Kirby Cane’s charities since 1997. The Chairman and secretary of these died in the late 1990’s and so the charities were administered (temporarily) by a solicitor. The parish council was approached to supply three trustees, along with two from the Church. Margaret Gillies became the chairperson and I the secretary. There were some ancient and fascinating documents held by the charity, some on parchment dating back to the mid 17th century (now with the Norfolk Record Office). These intrigued me: all our lives we’ve had the wonderful safety-net of Attlee’s welfare state (1946 onwards) supporting us when times get tough, could these very old documents give a clue to what went on before that?


During the reign of Elizabeth I the population rose dramatically from 3,000,000 to 4,000,000. In some ways this was good, because it meant the death rate was falling, but this population boom had the effect of stretching the country’s resources, prices rose too. To make things worse there were several poor harvests in the 1590s. All this lead to starvation and hardship for many. And it was difficult to find land to grow your own food – from the 12th century onwards a process known as Enclosure (aka Inclosure) was being adopted by the rich and powerful – former communal lands were being fenced off or deeded to a few owners – this fuelled some of the revolts in our region, such as Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. There was no significant national system of support for the poor.


Lord Burghley became concerned that large numbers of poor and homeless would lead to civil unrest, so from 1563 onwards introduced a series of laws to help the needy and ‘deserving’. In 1601 the Poor Law Act made parishes responsible for administering a system of relief for the poor. Overseers were appointed by each parish and had the power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work, such as the old and the disabled, were provided for and work was found for the able-bodied poor. 


Problems arose, however. Another famine in 1623 and the Civil War (1642 to 1646) disrupted charitable relief. Parishes had to do something themselves. That is where local benefactors stepped in, creating local charities, typically administered by representatives of the church and/or people of local power and importance. One such benefactor was Henry Bonfellow. When be died in 1649, he bequeathed his lands to be rented out and the yearly profits to be bestowed upon the poor people of Ellingham and Kirby Cane. Similarly, Thomas Potts, the rector of Kirby Cane from 1619 to 1646, left five acres to be administered for the poor.


Over time, the number of charities increased. By 1879 there were five charities in Kirby Cane:

Poors Allotment Charity

Trustees: Lord of the Manor of Kirby Hall, members of Hales Hall, Rector, Churchwarden and overseers of the poor in Kirby Cane.

Comprised 5 acres of land.

Payments made to:

  • dispensaries, infirmaries or hospitals
  • clubs or societies in Kirby Cane for heating, clothing or other necessities
  • costs of an outfit to anyone entering a trade or profession, under the age of 21 years
  • any aid in sickness
  • temporary relief in money in cases of unexpected loss, urgent distress or destitution.


Henry Bonfellow’s Charity

Donated £813 1/10, plus £3 annunities.


John Hardwar’s Catechism Money

Donated £33 6/8, plus £3 annunities.


Thomas Pott’s Charity

Donated land comprising:

  • Lease Land (formerly Lee’s Close or Hedge Close)
  • Stockton Pightle (Mud Hall)
  • unnamed (meadow land).

Trustees: Rector and Churchwarden.

Payments made:

  • prize money to children attending a Sunday school for religious knowledge (Church of England)
  • maintenance of Kirby Cane Church
  • books for pupils at Kirby Cane school
  • £10pa for any night school in Kirby Cane
  • residue funds applied as described by Poors Allottment Charity.


Many villages still have Poor’s Charities – there are thought to be 480 in Norfolk alone. Locally, there are the Ellingham United Charities, Poors Allotment charity in Geldeston and Kirby Cane Charities. They still strive to help those in need in their parishes.


Iain Wright
Secretary of Kirby Cane Charities



Ellingham United Charities (CC no. 255749)

Grants are available towards heating costs, medical care, school/further education equipment costs, or towards projects for the benefit of the community.  These, of course, are not exclusive categories and people are invited to inform Trustees of their special needs.
Applicants must have resided in the Parish of Ellingham  for 5 years before applying .Advertisements for applicants are placed periodically in the “Tidings“, the church porch of St Mary's Church, Ellingham and the Post Office.


Kirby Cane Charities (CC no. 1079345)


  • The relief of Kirby Cane parishioners who are in need, hardship or distress

  • To promote the education of Kirby Cane people under the age of 25 and in financial need

  • To further the religious and other charitable work of the Church of England in Kirby Cane.

Please contact the secretary if you know of a deserving person or cause. Details can be found on their web site:
Kirby Cane Charities


Kirby Cane Memorial Hall (CC no. 213794)

See Memorial Hall.