How a local businessman has helped people in North Dorset for over 400 years.


Thousands have been helped by the William Williams Trust – and yet very few seem to even know it exists to help them. Rachael Rowe spoke to the Trustees of the 400 year old charitable Trust.

The Trust was originally to be used to fund annual apprenticeships for two boys. These were chosen annually, in rotation from the three towns. They were given maritime apprenticeships and two sets of clothing. They were either apprenticed to a seafaring vessel or to a shipwright

“I wonder what William Williams would have thought if he had known his trust fund would still be around 400 years later.” Helen Lacey is a trustee of the Charity of William Williams, and explained how the actions of one Blackmore Vale businessman have supported thousands of people in Shaftesbury, Blandford Forum and Sturminster Newton. And yet, how many of us have heard of the Charity of William Williams?

Who Was William Williams?

We actually know very little about William Williams. He lived in the 16th and early 17th centuries, but all records were destroyed in the 1731 Great Fire of Blandford. The loose knowledge we have is that William Williams was a businessman who traded in cloth between the three towns of Blandford, Sturminster Newton and Shaftesbury (these three towns are linked to the charitable Trust and funding allocations). All we really know about him is what is in his will. He died sometime between 1621 and 1623, during the reign of James I. Helen poignantly added: “We don’t even know where he is buried.” Another trustee who has researched the history, Joe Rose, tells me: “William Williams built up a fortune by trading cloth with America. He was one of the first to do so. His will shows he gave four trustees instructions to use £750 and invest it in property and land. One of the trustees was the MP, Sir Thomas Freke, indicating William Williams was well connected.”

How the Trust was Formed

William William’s Will stipulated that money in the Trust was to be used to fund annual apprenticeships for two boys. These were chosen annually, in rotation from the three towns. They were given maritime apprenticeships and two sets of clothing. They were either apprenticed to a seafaring vessel or to a shipwright. After two years, the Trust paid for the apprentices to work within the three towns for a further two years.

What does the charity fund do today?

The Charity of William Williams operates on the same 1621 footprint today, using the ancient geographical boundaries of Shaftesbury, Sturminster Newton, and Blandford Forum of 400 years ago (if you plan to apply and aren’t sure whether you live within the boundary, there’s a checklist on the Trust website).

Today, boys are no longer sent up the rigging. Instead, the Charity of William Williams awards grants to support further education, such as assistance with university fees, apprenticeships, or transport costs to places like Kingston Maurward for agricultural courses. They also provide funding for tools for apprenticeships and training. As Joe explained: “If you are an apprentice mechanic, your tools are going to be very expensive.”

Mature students are also eligible to apply for funding. Trustees work closely with local schools; during the pandemic, the Charity of William Williams supplied schools with laptops.

Another clause in the Will of William Williams enables the trustees to help in incidences of hardship. Jo outlined an example where a local family had been able to get an oven replaced.

When William Williams created his Trust, James I sat on the throne of England

A multi-million fund

In 1621, £3000 was invested (roughly £867,000 in 2021), which returned an annual income of £140. Today, the charity has assets worth around £9million, producing income used to award grants – that’s a significant reason you won’t see major fundraising campaigns locally.
The charity manages the property and investments used to award grants. Chair of the Trustees, Robert Cowley, outlined recent spending:

“We made a total of 173 grants last year. That included 85 educational grants worth £121,500. However, educational and general ‘relief of need’ grants were down 25% from previous years. We have to assume this is because of the pandemic, but how that will have impacted on our grant-giving is complex.” Robert also explained the role of trustees: “The trustees feel privileged to have the care of such a power for good in the three old parishes. Our assets still include some of the properties given by William Williams nearly 400 years ago, and they are still providing a resource for those in need of the assistance he offered.”
I’m wondering what led this local businessman to create this opportunity in the first place. Joe has a view: “I like to think that someone gave him a chance in life to achieve something. And I think that’s what made him feel morally obliged to repay the debt.”

The trustees believe many local people could be eligible for a grant and want to raise awareness of the opportunity. If you plan to find out more about the William Williams Trust and see whether you could be eligible for funding details are on the website.

“The object of the Charity is to apply income received to relieve either generally, or individually, persons resident in the area of benefit (being the ancient parishes of Blandford, Shaftesbury and Sturminster Newton) who are in conditions of need, hardship or distress. In addition, to assist persons in or entering any trade or profession.”

by: Rachael Rowe


  1. […] serge-makers, linen weavers and felt-makers’, continues to fund students 400 years later (see BV March issue here)Sturminster High School students are furthering their studies with visits to the mill, museum and […]


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