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Mystery benefactor

24 April 2015

William Whyte on the man behind millions

"Flinty": Henry Smith's memorial in All Saints', Wandsworth

"Flinty": Henry Smith's memorial in All Saints', Wandsworth

Henry Smith: His life and legacy

Lucy Lethbridge and Tim Wales

The Henry Smith Charity £20


Church Times Bookshop £18

EVERY year, just as they have since 1629 when it was founded, the trustees of Henry Smith's charity sit down to distribute its wealth. Every year, just as Smith intended, a variegated collection of recipients receives support: be they his own "poor kin", impecunious clergy, needy inhabitants of various parishes, or a range of other deserving causes.

To pay for all this, the trustees also oversee the estates that have been held continuously since the early 17th century.

There is, then, something reassuringly traditional about the Henry Smith Charity. But both it and the world around it have changed radically since the founder drew up his will and appointed trustees.

Provisions for "the redemption of the captives of Barbary pirates" seem simply anachronistic. Surrey, where the bulk of Smith's parishes lay, is self-evidently no longer the "backward" and rather desolate spot that contemporaries found it to be. The "poor kin" - once just the children of Smith's sister - now number no fewer than 6000.

More important still, the funds that the charity can draw on have also grown and grown. In particular, the trustees' purchase of land in the parish of Brompton - now smart and sophisticated South Kensington - has produced a huge legacy. Today, the charity grants something like £27 million a year.

This book, written in an accessible style and beautifully illustrated, tells a story of continuity and change. It even shows that the money for the redemption of captives is still needed - being used to help women who have been trafficked in London and Leeds.

At its heart, however, lies a mystery: the founder himself. Smith's life has accreted many legends, but his beliefs remain opaque.

What motivated an avaricious, flinty usurer to found this charity? Was it faith, or guilt, or just a desire to control people from beyond the grave?

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John's College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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