It owns many of Bury St Edmunds’s most famous landmarks, cares for elderly residents at sheltered housing sites around the town and manages a host of smaller charities – but to many, the work of the Guildhall Feoffment goes unnoticed.
The medieval organisation was set up in 1481 after Jankyn Smyth left funds in his will intended for citizens of the town to pay the new Abbot of Bury St Edmunds on his election.
In later years, other benefactors added to this pot of money to meet other needs of the town – covered by the banner ‘common profit and benefit of the inhabitants of Bury St Edmunds’.
Guildhall Feoffment owns the town’s Guildhall, Moyse’s Hall and the Guildhall Feoffment School site, as well as sheltered accommodation sites across the town.
The organisation’s commemoration service, in which it celebrates its long list of benefactors, is believed to be the oldest endowed charity service in the country.
Chairman Henry Saltmarsh said: “The feoffees operate sites of almshouses throughout Bury.
“We have one in College square, one in Southgate Street and one in Northgate Street.
“We have also taken administration of the Kytson Trust which runs three almshouses in Hengrave and we took over administration of the Fennel Trust, which owns four more sheltered accommodation sites.
“There’s an inclination that using the term almshouse is a little demeaning these days so we prefer to refer to it as sheltered accommodation.
“But as it is an almshouse the deal with our residents is slightly different from other sheltered accommodation.
“The other key buildings we own are the Moyses Hall, the Guildhall, No Mans Meadow and the Guildhall Feoffment School site. However, it is important to stress we don’t own the school itself, just the buildings.
“We also have no role in management of Moyses Hall or the Guildhall, because those are operated by the borough. They take all the income and deal with the expenses.”
But, Henry said, the most important and rewarding work of the trust was in looking after elderly residents of Bury St Edmunds.
“We have 37 properties and currently have 36 residents we take care of, aged between 60 and 101,” he said.
“We don’t actively look after our residents, we just provide sheltered accommodation for them. We are not a care home or a nursing home as such – the residents are required to look after themselves.
“We also administer four other smaller charities in the town.
“A problem with many smaller charities is some tend to become redundant as society changes and the like.
“But our almshouses are anything but redundant.
“That is where most of our activity lies.
“For me the greatest thing is knowing our residents are well cared for, happy as far as their accommodation is concerned and being part of a community. “And I think we fulfil those objectives.”
Clerk Dave Merriot said: “What we offer over and beyond is membership of a rather special community.
“I don’t think any one of our residents is lonely, which is a major problem with elderly people.
“I like to think we take away some of the worries that sometimes come with getting older.
“The Guildhall Feoffment is an organisation that people have heard of, have heard about, but just don’t know what we do.
“But if we decided we were going to pack it all in and close down there would be a complete uproar.”
Scheme manager Lynda Mills, who has worked for the Feoffment for seven years, said residents were offered a range of activities to take part in, but if they don’t want to take part, they don’t have to.
She said: “We try to promote independent living here but there is always someone about if our residents need them.
“We visit the residents who want to be visited – not all of them want to be checked up on, there’s no pressure.
“We also hold coffee mornings, outings to the coast and the beach, we have guest speakers come in to give talks, we have Chinese food nights, barbecues, strawberry teas – it’s great.
“Our residents can join in if they want, but are free to leave it.
“It is such a rewarding job – it is different every day. “I feel very proud to work for the Guildhall Feoffment and provide a safe and secure environment for the residents.”