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.
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.
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.
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.