Outside the village, Ewelme has a certain renown, particularly in architectural circles, as the home of a remarkable charitable foundation. This is the almshouse charity God's House in Ewelme, established in 1437 by Alice, first Duchess of Suffolk and the granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
The full title of the charity is The Two Chaplains and Thirteen Poor Men of Ewelme in the County of Oxford. The thirteen poor men were the almsmen, who lived in the almshouses to be found around the cloister at the foot of the stairs from the west door of the church. One chaplain officiated at services in the church, and was predecessor of the present Rector. The other was grammar master, responsible for teaching at the school which is the second building of the endowment. It remains in use to this day, although the income originally intended to fund the school is, in this age of state education, now applied to assist individual pupils with school fees. The third building of the endowment is St John's Chapel on the south side of the church, where can be found the remarkable tomb of the Duchess. This is a very rare example of a cadaver tomb, where she can be seen not only attired in splendour on the top, but also in skeletal form below at ground level - a reminder of the humility of us all as we meet our Maker. And to remember the Duchess, and intercede with Him on her behalf, all early almsmen were required to pray for her in this chapel several times each day.
It is interesting to note that Alice’s annual income in those days was some £2400 – a sizeable fortune –only a few hundred pounds less than the King’s!
Today the original almshouses have been modernised, and the introduction of bathrooms around 1970 meant that the 13 almshouses became just 8, although the original external appearance was retained. To maintain the number of almspeople, 5 new almshouses were built at Suffolk House beside the stream a short distance away. And in 1987 10 further almshouses were built at Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire. This was an acknowledgement of the contribution made by that village to the charity's income, since a major part of the estates is situated there. The charity's income derives principally from farms, public houses and cottages owned by it in Marsh Gibbon and also on the Ramridge estate situated to the west of Andover in Hampshire, in addition to a few properties at Conock in Wiltshire and in Ewelme itself.
The Ewelme Trust, after centuries of conducting its own affairs, is formally registered with the Charity Commission as Charity # 200581 “Its income to be applied to the cost of maintaining the property of the charity and meeting the cost of maintaining the almshouses of the charity and the residents therein and subject to the aforesaid the trustees shall apply the sum of £1000 or such other sum as the commissioners think fit to the charity called the Ewelme Elementary Education Foundation.” In the year ended December 2003, the gross income was £625,155 and the expenditure £507,949.
One third of the annual income after costs is applied to a second charity – the Ewelme Exhibition Endowment – Charity # 309240. Its objects are:
In the year ended December 2003, the gross income was £125176 and the expenditure £98170.
The Ewelme Elementary Education Foundation – Charity # 309281 – is for the purposes of an elementary school, and the support thereof. In the year ended December 2003, the gross income was £5402 and the expenditure £6462.
These charities are, of course, rigorously overseen by the Charity Commissioners to whom the respective Governors are accountable for the correct application of funds for the purposes declared. Historically the Governors have been appointed from the parishes and surrounding areas – people with local knowledge, interest and expertise.
The Trust is simply the custodian of generous, centuries-old endowments. The beneficiaries in each generation are the embodiment of its spirit in their daily lives of the community.
Further present-day information about the Ewelme Trust can be found in the Charity Commission Register.http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/registeredcharities/