Look at Rochester and you will see Foord’s memorial

Right by Rochester Bridge lived an extraordinary man. He succeeded to the family’s lucrative shipbuilding and building business, then let it all decline to nothing. And then he gave all his money away to good causes in Rochester.

His name was Thomas Hellyar Foord – founder of Foord’s almshouses, builder of the cathedral’s spire, and the man who bought and gave Eastgate House to the city. The family home was Acorn House, part of their business, Acorn Shipbuilding. It stood near Rochester Bridge.

Now it’s a neat wasteland, waiting for the Rochester Riverside development. Work has at last started on the 74-acre brownfield site and plans include up to 2,000 homes, two hotels, cafes, bars and a 1.5-mile river walk.

Site of the Foords’ Acorn House, taken about 2005

Thomas Hellyar Foord’s wealth came from his father John. He was born in Chatham in 1796 and married well. At 23, he wed Rebekah, daughter of Charles and Mary Ross, shipbuilders at Acorn Wharf. Mother-in-law still lived at Acorn House.

John took over the firm, expanded into building contracting, and prospered. He became city mayor in 1859. This wealthy city elder had four sons and three daughters, all of whom worked for the firm.

Thomas Hellyar Foord, the city’s great benefactor

By the time John died in 1868, John Foord and Sons owned all the land from the bridge to Furrells Wharf, except a small plot used by the city’s gas company. And the building business was growing: The firm had gained a number of government contracts and undertook work for the Admiralty, the War Department and the Church. Foord’s firm renovated forts, built St Mary’s Church, Strood, the offices’ quarters at the Royal Marines’ barracks and the Bridge Wardens’ offices on Rochester Esplanade.

Business was so brisk that Foord and Sons acquired its own manufactory of materials: Upnor Brickfields and the stone quarries at Allington, particularly useful for its contact to build the dockyard basins.

John Foord and Sons was becoming cash-rich. Thomas Hellyar Foord, the third son, was 45 when his father died. That same year he could afford to buy the 100-acre estate of Botley Grange in Hedge End, Hampshire.

Thomas ran the firm’s London office and added considerably to the firm’s funds. His office won contracts for government departments, including the House of Lords and Commons, the British Museum and all the London police courts.

Revenue must have been pouring in. But where was it going? Hardly on the family. Of the eight children, only two had married. Most of the brothers went into politics. Some were fiery and influential. Thomas, however, preferred good works and to begin to give back to the city of his birth. In 1896, three of the children died within six months, leaving only Thomas and his eldest brother John Ross Foord. He died in 1902.

The superb Foord’s Almshouses, not long after they were built in 1927

Nobody was left to run the firm and it began to fall into disuse. Thomas started to give away his money. First, he donated £5,860 to build a nurses’ home for St Bart’s Hospital. He gave another £500 for general use.

Then he paid £6,319 to rebuild the cathedral tower into a spire. He paid another £730 for repairs to the chapter room and £2,000 for other repairs. The spire was dedicated on the 1300th anniversary of the founding of the diocese and the cathedral church, on November 30, 1904. He also paid for the cathedral’s clock.

These were immense bequests. But more were to come in Thomas’s will. He died on 12 March, 1917, without a descendant. He left £10,000 to St Bart’s, £2,000 to the cathedral, £2,000 to the council to repay the debt for buying Eastgate House (later the museum and Dickens Centre) and another £7,000 for an extension to Eastgate House to keep the many treasures he accumulated at Botley Grange and Acorn House.

The residue of the estate went to found the almshouses at Priestfields, Rochester, which opened in 1927. They are magnificent if you get a chance to view them on an open day, don’t miss that chance.

This modest man is buried in an understated tomb in St Nicholas’s Cemetery, Rochester – his name appended to his father’s memorial. His great memorial, however, is what he did for his beloved city.

 

7 Responses to Look at Rochester and you will see Foord’s memorial

  1. Lynn Clarke Ahrens says:

    Was born in Gillingham but spent my childhood living at 6 Borstal Street in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was fascinating to read a history of the Foord family when the Almshouses feature so strongly in my memories of that area. I would travel on a bus past them on the way to the shops in Chatham with my Mother and also to visit a school friend who lived in a grand house just past the almshouses. The photo published in Britain form the Air shows the almshouses when just built in open land but by the 1960s there were some large, well-established detatched houses surrounding!

    • SteveR says:

      Hello Lynn. Thanks for writing. There was a Lynn Clarke in my class at St Matthew’s. Is that you?

      • j collins says:

        I have traced my roots and the Foords were my maternal family.
        Due to death of my mother I was not aware of how many Foords there have been, but to read of such charitable deeds makes me feel proud – though none of this wealth reached my pockets.
        Thank you

  2. Sam Thomas says:

    My maiden name is Foord and I was born in Rochester, my father John is distantly related to Thomas Foord.
    The tale we were told from my grandfather was he lost the Foord almshouse in a card game ! Not sure how true this is?

  3. Maureen Adcock says:

    I have been researching my family ancestry (maiden name Maureen Canham) and in doing so have come across William Canham who, I read in a newspaper article (Evening Telegraph 5 July, 1939, Angus, Scotland) was a Zulu War veteran who lived in the Foord’s Almshouses, Rochester, at the time the article was written.
    I am interested in finding more background about William – what is the history of how he came to live at Foord’s Almshouses, how long did he live there, did he die while living there, if so what year and where would he have been buried?

    Any information about William would be of help to me in discovering more of his life. I suspect he had been a very courageous man in the face of war with the Zulus and would like to record more about him in my family tree.

    Hopefully you may be able to help with my request.

    My appreciation, Maureen Adcock

  4. Paul Elliott says:

    Nice write-up. No mention of ‘The New Medway steam packet company’ which famously owned the Medway Queen. Edwin Henry Elliott, my great-great grandfather, was the right hand man of the Foords. Eltoft Elliott, his daughter, was nicknamed ‘Queenie’ due to her strict demeanour of the Medway Queen. The Foord’s Almshouses was administered and presented to the King in 1927 by him. If you look at the plaque of the Almshouses it mentions it there. He resided in Acorn house after the Foords died out. Eastgate House also has his name on the plaque and there was an Elliott room in it. I think the Foords also owned Bourne and Hillier the milk company but not certain of that.

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