Celebrating charity’s great achievements

Front, from left, Mark Brown of builders WW Brown & Sons, hands over the Old Grammar School key to chairman of Market Harborough and Bowdens Charity Ian Wells last autumn to mark completion of the building's refurbishment. NNL-150316-135355001
Front, from left, Mark Brown of builders WW Brown & Sons, hands over the Old Grammar School key to chairman of Market Harborough and Bowdens Charity Ian Wells last autumn to mark completion of the building's refurbishment. NNL-150316-135355001

If it was a man, it would probably be the richest man in Market Harborough. It has assets of about£18 million, including £5 million worth of property, and acres of valuable land around the town which could be worth millions more in years to come.

But the good news is that this Market Harborough multi-millionaire isn’t a man, it’s a charity; the Market Harborough and the Bowdens Charity.

Front, chairman Ian Wells, ex-chairman Marjorie Adcock and steward Jim Jacobs during the official opening of the Market Harborough and The Bowdens Charity office in Fairfield Road, Harborough, last May. NNL-150316-135334001

Front, chairman Ian Wells, ex-chairman Marjorie Adcock and steward Jim Jacobs during the official opening of the Market Harborough and The Bowdens Charity office in Fairfield Road, Harborough, last May. NNL-150316-135334001

So the interest on these substantial assets is all being given away – to you, if you live in Market Harborough, Great Bowden or Little Bowden.

Any individual or organisation in those three places can make a request for cash from this remarkable charity. And it has got up to half a million pounds a year to give away.

The charity’s steward Jim Jacobs smiles at the “richest man in Market Harborough” idea, but he doesn’t disagree.

“There are similar charities around in other towns,” he explained.

“But in terms of the ratio – the size of the charity compared to the size of the town – Market Harborough is exceptionally fortunate.”

Let’s just make it clear: the charity’s rulebook says its money can only be given to people or organisations based in Market Harborough, Little Bowden and Great Bowden. It’s a pretty small catchment area.

And it means there’s enough money every year to buy a £21 restaurant meal for every man, woman and child in the town and two villages.

Not that the Mail is suggesting for a moment that would be a good use of the money!

In reality, recent projects have included the stunning £400,000 restoration of the Old Grammar School in the centre of town – and a big loan to Harborough District Council to help keep the town’s museum open.

“If they don’t keep the museum open for 21 years, we get our money back,” explained Mr Jacobs.

But you don’t have to be an organisation to ask for a grant.

If you are an individual from the area with a request, the charity’s virtual door is always open.

Go to www.mhbcharity.co.uk and you’ll find forms from “relief in need” to a university undergraduate grant scheme.

Everything about this charity is surprising, including its amazing history.

The roots of the charity probably go back more than 500 years to 1503, when someone called John Janen transferred his estate to trustees when he died, for the use of the town of Market Harborough.

Unfortunately, Mr Janen doesn’t seem to have told his children about his plans.

The court case about who really owned Mr Janen’s former estate rumbled on for 41 years.

Yes, 41 years.

Eventually the town bought off the Janen descendants for £160 – a huge sum of money for the 16th century – and the charity was born.

Meanwhile, charities were also starting in Little Bowden (before 1639) and Great Bowden (prior to 1624).

More parcels of land were given to the three charities at regular intervals for the best part of 200 years.

Remarkably, through all those centuries, there were no crippling financial disasters, despite mismanagement claims in 1713, and a court case that lasted another 16 years.

By the mid-1980s the Market Harborough charity was worth about £200,000, and making useful little contributions all over town.

And then came the Alvington Way windfall.

It was in the 1994, under Jim Jacobs’ stewardship, that the Market Harborough charity joined up with the other two smaller village charities.

The new, combined charity then secured a multi-million pound price for land which had once been well outside the town, but was now suddenly in great demand for new homes.

The Alvington Way deals took the charity’s assets from the hundreds of thousands into the multiple millions.

It turned the combined Market Harborough and the Bowdens Charity into a very big influence on the quality of local life and on the wellbeing of local people.

“Yes, we realise that, and it’s a responsibility we take very seriously,” said Mr Jacobs.

These days there’s hardly a project in Market Harborough or the Bowdens that the charity hasn’t contributed to.

Recent schemes include a grant to Market Harborough Rugby Club for a clubhouse extension; to Robert Smyth Academy to help it buy media studies equipment; to Little Bowden Primary School for improvements to the school library and to the Great Bowden and District Garden Society to help the group buy a shed.

There were also contributions to Great Bowden’s cricket pavilion, the Scout Hut in Coventry Road and the spire of St Dionysius’ Church.

“But we also give help to individuals,” said Mr Jacobs. “Anything from fares to visit sick relations to assistance in starting a career, from helping children go on school trips to respite care.

“We give grants for any form of further education or training.

“And we just funded a chap who wanted to start a vehicle-wrapping business – applying signs and graphics to vehicles.

“Walk down any street in the town and you’ll pass work that we’ve done, even if it’s not always obvious, ” he said.

Now the challenge for Mr Jacobs and the charity’s 18 trustees – officially known as feoffees – is to make sure they invest wisely and at least outpace inflation.

“Our principal aim is to husband the assets that we have, and pass them on to the next generation intact,” said Mr Jacobs.

“The demands on the charity are increasing as the squeeze continues and people fully understand what we can do.

“We’re particularly challenged by the emergence of academies in education, and their seemingly increasing reliance on third-party funding.

“And we have to look at specific sectors, such as the growth of the aged population.

“We have the funds to support all sorts of ventures.

“It’s giving the money away, and giving it away in a manner that engenders sustainability, which is the biggest challenge.”