I have travelled and do, travel quite bit around the country visiting, experiencing and photographing old, curious and unique customs and ceremonies. I am sure if you are a follower – you’ve noticed and enjoyed!
Yet what I did not realise until recently that being enacted every year not far from my home town was a custom just as curious and old – the Nepton Distribution, a charity organised by the Poulters, a London Livery company.
The only way is Essex
Essex has had a bad press in recent years – and often it is portrayed as vacuous, lacking any finesse or class – but scrape beneath the surface and proper pomp and circumstance can be found. Each year St. Margaret’s Church is visited by the Poulters and local dignitaries to visit the Tomb of a local worthy, Nepton and provide local people with the proceeds of his endowment.
I was informed that the custom is the longest unbroken monetary charity in the country after the Maundy Money, which if it is correct makes its lack of notice even more surprising. The money was provided by the Will of Ann Nepton, who in January 1728 set up a trust using a property in Dunning’s Alley , which after the death of her son, passed to the Company of Poulters’ who would pay forever £40 per annum to the poor people of Barking in the county of Essex those that;
“shall be the most industrious and that do not receive Alms or reliefe of the said parish”.
The property was finally acquired by the North London Railway Company and was the Great Eastern terminus site in 1865.
In Barking on a journey
In 1890 when Ilford split from Barking it was decided that the Master and Clerk would visit both and distribute £20. This money is now topped up by the Charity fund of the Poulter’s company. It was ordered that the Master and Clerk should wear their gowns and announce:
“A Committee representing the Court of the Worshipful Company of Poulters London appears here for the purpose of paying to the Poor of this Parish the sum of £40 under the will of Ann Nepton.”
After an introduction and welcome by the town’s Mayor and then the Master of the Poulters, a local dignitary, a Mr. Glenny read out the names. Hands were raised and voices heard and a small envelope with money was hand delivered. Every now and then no one answered – absent – and the distribution went on. Records show how these distributions have fluctuated in line with the profit made on the endowment and changes in inflation:
The irony of this custom being enacted in my home town was that I have been generally unable to attend and having thought it would be of interest to spread the knowledge of this little known custom further, I sent a reporter – my father. However, I had forgotten, he had forgotten..and had fell asleep – only to be woken by a piece of paper which had the details of the custom. Noting it had yet occurred he speeded off to it. He made it and thanks to him for the photos and details. He was warmly welcomed by the Poulters and was the only person not part of the distribution.
Once the distribution was over there was a more solemn task, The second part of the custom involved paying respects to the benefactor. In the churchyard is a notable table tomb, the burial place of the Barking benefactor, Thomas Nepton
“Beneath this Tomb are deposited the Remains of Mr. Thomas Nepton. Formerly of this Parish, who departed this life On the 26th day of September 1724 in the 49th year of his age. Also of Mrs. Ann Nepton Wife of the above, who departed this life On the 2nd day of May 1728 in the 64th year of her age. This tomb was repaired & beautified in the year 1825 by an order of the Court of Assistants of the Worshipful Company of Poulterers, London made on the 31st day of March in the same year to which Company the above named
Thomas and Ann Nepton gave & devised considerable Estates in Trust for Charitable purposes.”
The beneficiaries, led by the clergy, Master of Poulters and other dignitaries made their way to the tomb where prayers were said and a wreath laid. A solemn thanks. Although the upkeep of the tomb was the responsibility of the company, the wreath laying only begun in 1975. The third part as stipulated by the will was a supper – I did not get my father a ticket for that, but he appeared to enjoyed it and he too was surprised it had gone on without his knowledge.
Indeed the custom is perhaps now unique. There were many similar charities and doles. Many survive. Yet few appear to have a real impact. Here where 160 local people are the beneficiaries – 60 from Barking and 60 from neighbouring Ilford – there’s a real feeling that the people attend out of need. Certainly the attendees were well known to the distributors. Perhaps in the 21st century that is a bitter pill to take, but the people were good humoured and appeared to enjoy the ceremony of it – as well as the Nepton’s continuing generosity.
When is it on? It’s not on calendar customs yet but it’s usually in the first week of June.