Lady Hewley Trust

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The Lady Hewley Trust, now a charity,[1] began as a significant benefaction to support English Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist ministers, at the beginning of the eighteenth century.[2] The trust was later at the centre of a 12-year legal suit in the nineteenth century, noted in Unitarian history, and turning on the current beliefs of ministers who were supported by its funds. While the legal judgement went against the Unitarians, the introduction of the Dissenters' Chapels Act (1844), which followed on the case, improved their position.

Lady Sarah Hewley[edit]

Lady Sarah Hewley (1627–1710) was the only daughter and heiress of Robert Wolrych (died 11 December 1661), bencher of Gray's Inn. Her mother, whose maiden name was Mott, had a fortune from her first husband, whose name was Tichborne. Sarah Wolrych married John Hewley (1619-1697), son of John Hewley of Wistow, near Selby. As his widow, Sarah spent large sums in works of charity.[2]

In 1700 she built and endowed an almshouse at York for ten poor women of her own religious views. In 1705 she contributed to charity schools founded at York by Archbishop John Sharp. She died on 23 August 1710, and was buried with her husband. Portraits of Sir John Hewley and his wife are preserved in the vestry of St. Saviourgate Chapel. Their two children, Wolrych and John, died in infancy.[2]

The Trust[edit]

On 13 January 1704–5 Lady Sarah Hewley conveyed to trustees a landed estate, of which the income was, after her death, to be devoted to benevolent objects, including the support of ‘poor and godly preachers for the time being of Christ's holy gospel.’ The benefactions were increased by a further deed (26 April 1707) and by her will (9 July 1707, codicil 21 August 1710). The will was contested without result. Though the trustees were all Presbyterian, grants were made to ministers of the ‘three denominations;’ in other words Congregationalists and Baptists were included.[2]

Unitarian influence[edit]

By the end of the eighteenth century all the trustees and a majority of the Presbyterian recipients were Unitarian.[2] Independents from Manchester objected to this controlling influence, and they brought a lawsuit concerned with the enforcement of the terms of Lady Hewley's will in 1830;[3] one of the topics in contention was the funding of Manchester Academy.[4] The initial legal ruling sustained the view that a Trinitarian commitment was necessary, from those with benefits from the endowments. This judgement was then twice appealed, but was upheld by the Lord Chancellor in 1836; and again by the House of Lords in 1842.[3]

The outcome was that by a judgment of the House of Lords (5 August 1842) three Congregationalists, three orthodox Presbyterians, and one Baptist were appointed trustees. The income of the trust was then £2,830.[2]

Dissenters' Chapels Act 1844[edit]

As a direct consequence of the legal ruling, a group including Edwin Wilkins Field pressed for legislation. The immediate purpose was to have a retrospective element attached to the date (1813) on which Unitarianism obtained legal tolerance as a belief. (See Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813.) This aim was achieved through Parliament, rather than the courts, with the Dissenters’ Chapels Act 1844.[5] The government supported legislation, which did not reverse the original decision, in order to head off a predicted rush of litigation in hundreds of cases affected by the precedent. A figure of 25 years was established, after which the right of possession of a chapel could not be challenged on doctrinal grounds. Baron Cottenham added a clause to protect two chapels in Dublin over which litigation was already active. Despite extensive opposition from religious groups the bill passed.[6]


  1. ^ "Lady Hewley Trust". The Association of Charity Officers. Archived from the original on 24 July 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Hewley, Sarah" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  3. ^ a b Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church I: 1829-1859 (1971), p. 393.
  4. ^ A History of the County of York: the City of York. Victoria County History, London. 1961. Schools and colleges.
  5. ^ Pease-Watkin, Catherine. "Field, Edwin Wilkins". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9382. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Chadwick, p. 394.

Further reading[edit]

  • Thomas Smith James (1867), The History of the Litigation and Legislation Respecting Presbyterian Chapels and Charities in England and Ireland between 1816 and 1849, from p. 120. Google Books
  • Richard Potts (2005), Dame Sarah's Legacy: A History of the Lady Hewley Trust. Chester: Lady Hewley Trust