The Pilgrim Trust – with thanks to the Fellowship

Sue Bowers

Sue Bowers, Director, Pilgrim Trust

I have kindly been invited by the Chair of the Association to contribute a short piece on the Pilgrim Trust  in response to the feature in the last newsletter by William Wilson during which he commended the generosity of Edward Harkness in setting up the Trust, and its continued work supporting social and heritage causes.  His article prompted me to pay a visit to the London Metrop London Metropolitan Archives, the home of the Pilgrim Trust’s archives, to explore further connections between our two bodies.  The archives revealed that the Pilgrim Trust owes a reciprocal debt of thanks to the Harkness Fellowship for brokering a relationship that led to its foundation in 1930.

It was through the development of the Fellowship (at that time called the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship) that Edward Harkness came into contact with Sir James Irvine (then Principal and Vice-Chancellor of St Andrews University) who was Vice-Chairman of the British Committee of the awards.  In his memoir, Lord Macmillan (who was to become a founding Trustee of the Pilgrim Trust alongside Irvine) recalls ‘a warm friendship ensued and during visits which Irvine paid to Harkness in 1928 and 1929 at Long Island and the Harkness estate at Eolia the idea which ultimately took shape in the Pilgrim Trust was discussed in all its aspects’.

1930 – Edward Stephen Harkness, Portrait – Credit – Pilgrim Trust

Edward Harkness came over to London in the spring of 1930, and hosted a dinner at Claridge’s on 5 May with Irvine, John Buchan (who later penned the Trust Deed) and Macmillan. ‘An eventful evening’ ensued and two months later the first meeting of the Trust was held at the House of Commons on 3 July 1930 with Stanley Baldwin as Chairman, and the first grants awarded at its third meeting in December. The speed with which the formalities were put into place is impressive, and a good indication of the vigour with which the early Trustees went about Trust business.

The purpose of the Pilgrim Trust was prescribed in a single sentence, ‘for such charitable purposes within Great Britain and Northern Ireland as the Trustees may from time to time determine’. Its breadth simultaneously liberating and challenging. Since its foundation, the Trust has supported both conservation and social welfare. They might appear odd bedfellows now but at the time, the Trustees explained that conservation of the heritage ‘meant not only its material heritage of institutions and buildings and places of beauty and historical association, but also the nation’s spiritual and intellectual heritage in the character and wellbeing of the people’.

William Wilson references some of the remarkable projects that the Pilgrim Trust has supported over the ensuing decades since its foundation.  Today, the Trust’s main areas of operation are:

  • Young women’s mental health – in particular increasing access to high quality age and gender specific mental health services. Over a quarter of young women experience a common mental disorder – almost three times more than young men – but the majority of mental health services are gender blind.
  • Preservation and conservation of outstanding historic buildings – focusing on those at risk, and helping find long-term sustainable futures;
  • Conservation of objects and collections of heritage importance, often helping small museums access conservation expertise for the first time;
  • Research and advocacy – making strategic interventions in our areas of interest where they may bring about systemic change, drive forward policy and practice or strengthen the sector. Current examples include improving access to the countryside, and exploring practical solutions to light pollution.

Simplicity, so important to Edward Harkness when he set up the Trust, continues to be an underlying tenet of our operation, as does flexibility and an openness to respond to interesting ideas.

As both our founding organisations approach their centenaries in the latter half of this decade, it feels timely to explore how we might collaborate to mark the remarkable foresight shown by Edward Harkness and his mother Anna. If you would like to explore this further, please contact me at

Sue Bowers, Director of the Pilgrim Trust