This month the trustees of the Sudbury Municipal Charities are celebrating the 352nd Christmas Day Gifts distribution. Unfortunately, as a result of the pandemic, the elderly gentlemen of Sudbury will not be meeting to receive their clothing vouchers as is the custom. This year these will be posted or delivered by hand although the bequest does state that the coats of coarse grey cloth, as they originally were, should be given to the men ‘on Christmas Day in the morning forever’. Indeed, in times of war, the ceremony still went ahead, but in the light of the issues surrounding Covid-19 it is simply not possible to invite the elderly recipients to mix with each other along with the trustees over a glass of seasonal cheer.
The Christmas Day Gifts ceremony began in the year 1668. Nathaniel King, Alderman of Sudbury, dedicated a ground rent charge at the east end of North Street, directing that the money from the charge be used to provide overcoats for elderly deserving men in the town. The trustees will continue to mark this unique bequest as best as they are able under the prevailing conditions.
The Sudbury Municipal Charities were formed from the amalgamation of several smaller charities. Bequests in the form of a distribution of clothing to the local community were one method of being remembered after death, by wealthier citizens, and we know that Nathaniel King and Martin Cole both did so for specific occasions.
Unfortunately, other men did not specify a particular occasion on which their bequests should be distributed so they are not remembered in person on a particular day. The majority directed that sums of money should be distributed to the poor of Sudbury, although, in 1591, Robert Paternoster did state that his money should be distributed equally between the three parishes ‘within one week before Christmas’.
Whilst this history is all very interesting what has it got to do with the Sudbury Common Lands? Without the past there can be no present and Sudbury’s current great good fortune in possessing a wonderful riverside environment is, most certainly, a result of the past. The above history becomes very relevant because when the various small charities were amalgamated into the Sudbury Municipal Charities, twelve trustees were appointed to oversee their various functions.
In 1897 following years of disagreement between the Freemen of Sudbury’s Commons and the Corporation, the High Court instructed that a charity to be set up to manage the riverside lands. The judge, Justice Glabon, stated that the trustees of the Sudbury Municipal Charities would, with the addition of two Freemen (now four), act as the trustees of the new Sudbury Common Lands Charity. Thus, overnight, the responsibilities of the trustees increased enormously, but they continue to exercise those with due care and attention to this day.