Suffolk: Why I’m giving 12 of my cottages to charity

A Suffolk landowner is donating a dozen cottages to charity – homes built for villagers by his philanthropic ancestor about 100 years ago. Steven Russell hears about this latest step by a benevolent family

JOHN Martineau must have been a very special man. Wealth and relative material comfort didn’t stop him developing a strong concern for those less well off. He also wasn’t just one to wring his hands but in practice do nothing. Instead, he drew up plans and put his money to work. John had inherited the family estate in and around the west Suffolk village of Walsham-le-Willows when father Richard died in 1865. He’d long realised that decent housing was the key to improving health and happiness, so started turning his principles into reality.

So, in the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign, new cottages began springing up – inspired and bankrolled by the landowner.

They were quality buildings and much thought had gone into them. A block in Summer Road, for instance, included land for growing vegetables and keeping chickens. Each garden had a cooking-apple tree and walnut tree, and a pigsty. There was an earth closet, a coal shed and a shared wash- and bake-house. The brand-new cottages became homes for the type of people who kept village life reasonably comfortable, healthy and ordered: shoemakers and bricklayers, plumbers and carpenters, agricultural labourers and dressmakers, and others. There was even a nurse’s room – and a home for a resident village policeman.

Some of the new blocks included single-room accommodation, which came to be known as “widows’ rooms”.

Most of the Martineau cottages in Walsham-le-Willows bear the initials of the man who made his dream come true. Often, there’s also a carving of a bird: a martin that was on the old family crest.

Very conspicuous were little homilies inscribed on the buildings: such as Let fools go wandering far and nigh, we bide at home my dog and I, the rather non-PC (to modern eyes) Tis a good horse that doesn’t stumble and a good wife that doesn’t grumble, and the much safer East, west, home is best.

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“It was apparently the most ghastly year,” says Richard Martineau, John’s great-grandson and current keeper of the flame. “Walsham flooded and several cottages were washed away. He considered carving Afghan war, Zulu campaign, Summer floods and autumn rain, These of thee shall be the sign, Eighteen hundred seventy-nine. In the end he put East, west, home is best!”

Richard was given the cottages in his 20s, by his father, and admits the responsibility of collecting rent has never rested easily on his shoulders. In some ways it’s made him feel a bit guilty.

Now, he’s giving a dozen or so cottages to charity. They will be administered through The Suffolk Foundation, the umbrella body involved in charitable giving. Rents will flow into a trust. Surpluses – what’s left when building maintenance costs are taken out – will then be distributed to good causes around the county.

The plan is for cottages and rooms to be passed across one a year, starting now, which will take advantage of the taxman’s generosity as a welcome bonus.

“And wouldn’t John Martineau have been pleased! It is, absolutely, full circle,” says Richard.

John Martineau’s will said he wanted his property to be used not for vast profit-making so much as housing “labourers and engineers” at reasonable rents, to work in the village.

“He was quite clear he was providing what would have been in those days very necessary accommodation. And I think I always saw it as that. They were good, desirable houses for people who lived and worked in the village.”

Richard intends to improve properties before they are handed over. “Some are more modernised than others. They don’t all have central heating, for instance; but, slowly, more of them are getting it.”

Existing tenants will retain their rights and conditions – it’s just that they’ll have a new landlord. Richard has written to them and anticipates a seamless transition. “I was quite expecting the telephone to glow red hot, but nobody has come back,” he smiles.

It’s also been given the tick of approval by his three grown-up children, who think it’s a great idea. The family, if it so desires, will be able to have a major say on future grant-giving decisions via the Martineau trust. “I don’t feel I’m disinheriting the children out of everything, because they can be involved.”

His younger daughter, in particular, seems to be cut from the same cloth. She runs her own public relations/communications outfit, working in the green sector. Her firm has worked with the Sustainable United Nations team on a campaign to make the UN more sustainable.

“So it goes on . . .” chuckles her father, who thinks there must be other people with estate cottages – and not dependent on the income – for whom this kind of charitable transfer might appeal.

The mechanism was identified after Richard gave some acres of land to a charity his father John set up. It owns the ground used by the village sports club. When the club wanted to make improvements, drawing on Lottery money, it found itself stymied by complicated (“and crazy”) rules governing charities.

Richard spoke to Andrew Phillips – Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who has a legal background – to say “It’s madness!” and ask if he knew of an answer.

Happily, a path through the legal forest was eventually mapped.

Later, Richard gave the club more land for expansion – and got a pleasant shock when his accountant said gift aid could be claimed. “I suddenly had a cheque from the Inland Revenue. That made me think ‘Well, if you can do it with land, could you do it with cottages?’ And you could.”

He was also concerned about his descendants having to sell some of the estate property upon his death, to pay the dues.

“And the minute they started selling, developers would come in and these rather special, huge gardens would be threatened, it seemed to me. So the two came together.”

As well as benefiting charity, this rather happy arrangement should thus protect the character of Walsham-le-Willows in a way it might otherwise be difficult to engineer.

“I do think the village matters. If the cottages were developed, it would be sad.”

THE Martineau story begins in the 1680s, when some French Protestants left their homeland because of Louis XIV.

In the mid 1690s surgeon Gaston Martineau and his young family moved from London to Norwich. He and his descendants made their mark: the city has a road called Martineau Lane.

Three Martineau brothers were brewers in the capital. Their firm later merged with Whitbread.

Unitarian Richard Martineau – not quite 50 and a partner in Whitbread’s – established the link with Suffolk when in 1853 he bought a mansion house at Walsham-le-Willows.

It gave the family a place in the countryside and he used to commute to London from Elmswell.

The deal included farmland, and the workers’ not-so-great homes, and Richard employed an architect relative to design some better cottages.

Son John, pictured, a delicate lad, was born in 1834 and was sent to be educated by the Rev Charles Kingsley in Hampshire. Kingsley, writer of The Water Babies, had a deep social conscience that appeared to rub off on his young charge.

At 20, John gave up his position in Whitbread’s counting house and went to study at Cambridge. He met the Rev Frederick Denison Maurice, a friend of Charles Kingsley, who was a Christian socialist and would start a working man’s college in London. John helped there as a volunteer from time to time.

Non-conformists were barred from Oxford and Cambridge, but John’s conversion to Anglicanism had removed that obstacle.

Today’s Richard Martineau, his great-grandson, laughs at a memory.

“I was once discussing it with one of the Cadburys (another philanthropic dynasty), who said ‘The wonderful thing is that because all those Unitarian and Non-conformists – low Church – could never go to Oxford or Cambridge they were never corrupted by the landed gentry!’”

In 1864 John married Mabel, a cousin of painter Frederic Leighton.

John inherited the Suffolk estate in his early 30s, but did not permanently live there – instead calling London home, and then Hampshire. His mother, Lucy, stayed in the big Walsham house.

However, the estate was firmly in his thoughts, and the major improvement plan stretched from the end of the 1870s and into the 20th Century.

He also appears to have had a far-sighted view of conservation, writing in 1888: “Think what East Anglia would be like if every stick of hedgerow timber were cut down, and the keen March winds swept westward over plains as bare and more flat and featureless than those of Northern France.” And to other landowners he urged “Let the rent come down, not the trees.”

John Martineau died in 1910, just after his 76th birthday. He is buried with his wife in Hampshire – Mabel having been claimed prematurely by pneumonia in 1894, at the age of 53.

JOHN Martineau built seven blocks of houses, six of which are left. His father had built two others. Two cottages were demolished in wartime to make way for the local airfield runway, and Richard Martineau has sold some – a couple at Wrenshall and one elsewhere – because at the time it was hard to find tenants for outlying properties.

The Martineau programme included:

• The first double-cottage being built in 1866, in The Causeway, Walsham-le-Willows. It cost just over �358.

• Summer Road south block went up in 1890, costing more than �1,000 for three cottages and a single room. Inscriptions on the buildings included Our hoard is little but our hearts are great.

• Homes in The Causeway, north block, went up in 1879 at a cost of just over �1,080. They were known as New Cottages. The first inhabitants were the families of a bricklayer and a widowed ploughman.

• Summer Road north block dates from 1896 and cost �1,415. First tenants included the parish clerk. Among the inscribed homilies was The eyes of the Lord are in every place, behold the evil and the good.

• Two new cottages and a single room were built at Wrenshall Farm in 1899. Homespun philosophy included Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.

• The south block in The Causeway was called the New (Vanity) Cottages. They appeared in 1900: three cottages and two single rooms. It was the dearest project: not far off �3,000.

John Martineau also financed the cemetery lych gate and provided the Priory Room.

RICHARD Martineau appears to have inherited the philanthropic spirit running through his family line.

Like his namesake who was in brewing, “our” Richard worked for Whitbread – after training with Greene King in Bury St Edmunds.

For his last four or five years with the company he was the director responsible for community affairs – doing the kind of things that firms were not commonly thinking about at the time. Whitbread piloted initiatives like YTS (Youth Training Scheme) and trained “almost untrainable” young people from deprived areas where it had breweries.

Having seen what could be done for those teenagers, thoughts turned to doing something in schools. This was the early 1980s, when Britain witnessed riots in Brixton and Toxteth.

A successful scheme was borrowed from Boston, Massachusetts, and started in Hackney and Tower Hamlets with the Inner London Education Authority. Under the scheme, firms guaranteed jobs to school-leavers who completed their course and did work experience.

“I’m totally apolitical and I didn’t know education had anything to do with politics, and I didn’t know what I was stepping into, but it worked a dream,” Richard smiles.

He became a co-opted member of ILEA, before it was abolished.

After retiring from Whitbread after 30 years, Richard began a new chapter, mostly in the voluntary sector. He was a board member of the National Lottery Charities Board, for instance – chairing the eastern region for 10 years. He was also on the National Curriculum Council for a time.

He is involved with The Martineau Trust, which gives grants to deserving people in Suffolk who are suffering from an illness or disability and are in need. It distributes about �30,000 a year and its roots lie with John Martineau’s building of a home for nurses in Ipswich.

Richard has always been involved in farming – his degree is in agriculture – but the estate land is now contract-farmed.

Home is now the large farmhouse his namesake bought in 1853, when the Martineau relationship with Suffolk began, though it wasn’t always so. Until the 1950s it was his grandmother who lived there.

Young Richard’s family lived elsewhere and he was away at school, but holidays were frequently spent at a neighbouring farm to the big house in Suffolk. “It was oil lamps and an earth closet, after the war; and it was for all the cottages, too.”

His parents moved into the big house after his grandmother’s death.

Richard suspects that John Martineau, his great-grandfather, didn’t travel to Walsham-le-Willows more often because he didn’t get on that well with his mother. His daughter also disliked coming.

He also suspects that while his philanthropic ancestor probably was prone to melancholy – a painting certainly makes him look very dark and brooding – he must really have been a good egg.

The premature death of his wife can’t have helped his outlook, suggests Richard, who has compiled a short illustrated history about the clan. (Intriguingly, it also turns out there’s a distant family link to the Middletons – as in the Duchess of Cambridge.)

“I used to think about that awful portrait of him – ‘He must have been a ghastly man!’ – but the more I was writing this thing, the more I decided he was all right!”

There’s a picture of John with a dog, in which he appears very human, and a picture hanging in the village’s Priory Room that is more flattering. “He’s quite a benign-looking old chap, isn’t he?”

On the way out, we pass a white figurine in the hallway – of William Makepeace Thackeray, the 19th Century author of satirical works such as Vanity Fair. “My great-great-grandfather,” says Richard. “My middle name is Makepeace. That (the figure) was given to me at my christening by the daughter or granddaughter of his publisher. My mother always told me it used to belong to Charlotte Bronte and then came back to the publishers and then was passed on to me. But whether or not that’s true, I don’t know.”

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