John Sharp’s 18th-century charitable trust at Bamburgh Castle is often dubbed a ‘welfare state’ today, but that is misleading. There were no laws or taxes, no inflated public sector salaries or party politics, just spontaneous generosity and the freedom to get the job done.
BAMBURGH Castle was the property of the Crown until 1610, when its guardians, the Fosters, were granted ownership in recognition of long service. But it was a shadow of its former glory, and to make matters worse, Tom Foster made the two-fold error of getting into debt and backing the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715.
The castle was forfeited to his uncle, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, who in 1721 left it in his Will to a Trust overseen by John Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland.*
In the castle’s Keep, Sharp founded a school, later attended by Grace Darling, and hosted a magistrates’ court for settling disputes.
He set up a ‘cheap shop’ for local residents, selling fuel and groceries. There was a hospital and pharmacy, a midwife, and a surgeon.
Sharp is also credited with organising the world’s first coastguard service in 1786, providing a lifeboat, rescue equipment and lifeboatmen on call during storms, and accommodation in the castle for shipwrecked sailors.
* He was a brother of Granville Sharp, the anti-slavery campaigner.