A Grocer's Tale

Henry Box was born in 1585, the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Box, a wealthy Witney farming family. Like so many young men of the time, he was sent to London to make his way in the world. Henry had the advantage of coming from a family that had relatives who were members of the Grocers’ Company (a relation, William Box, was Master in 1566, and William’s son, Thomas, a Warden in 1597).


Henry became a Freeman of the company in 1612. Rising through the ranks of the company, he was chosen to serve the office of Master in 1640, but was unwilling to do so “on account of his many infirmities”. He secured his discharge upon payment of a fine of 100 marks. (He was not alone as several other Court members declined to serve as Master that year, with each being fined 100 marks).


This was not the only time Henry paid a fine to avoid office. In 1639 he paid rather than serve as one of the Sheriffs for London and Middlesex and in 1649/50 he refused to accept office as a City Alderman, and was committed to Newgate prison. In the end he submitted and was sworn in, but the very same day he secured his release from serving by the payment of £500. Each time he refused office, he pleaded his “many infirmities”, which suggests a prudent man anxious to avoid public responsibilities in time of revolution.


His success in promoting his business is attested by his Will, which was drawn up in 1661, and shows him holding property in Witney, at Longworth in Berkshire, in Norwich, in King’s Lynn and its neighbourhood, at Hammersmith and in the City of London. Like so many men at this period in history, who had gone to London and prospered, Henry decided to endow a grammar school in his home town. In the period 1560 to 1660 the middle classes poured their wealth into education – in Oxfordshire alone 9 grammar schools were founded or re-founded during that time.


Henry lived long enough to see the birth of his school. In 1660, he purchased a site in Witney adjoining the rectory (which is used today by the headteacher and other administrative offices) and erected a schoolhouse (now known as The Mary Box Building). Two years later he died, before the arrangement for the school’s endowment and government had been completed. He left provisions in his Will that his ‘loving wife’, Mary, complete the project. A rent charge of £50 p.a. was left to Mary upon trust and confidence that she would carry out his declared intention of vesting the same in the four Wardens of the Grocers’ Company.


Through a series of private Acts of Parliament, Mary Box established the school, and increased the endowment “out of her sincere affection to soe good and publique a worke … and according to the intention of her said late deare Husbande”. Together with the site and the rent charge all were vested in the four Wardens of the Grocers’ Company, incorporated as “Governors of the Free Grammar School of Witney of the Foundation of Henry Box”. During her lifetime, Mary had full control of the school and its endowment. In accordance with her husband’s wishes, it was to her that the task of framing the statutes for the school’s detailed regulation was entrusted. (But that and the story of the Henry Box Library are tales for future newsletters).


Today the company has restored a close link with the school, providing a governor from amongst the Livery, and giving financial support from time to time. Henry and Mary Box would be very proud of how their school has evolved, and the part it plays in providing a first-class education to the boys and girls of Witney and environs.