Any town with a sense of history and civic pride likes to celebrate its favourite sons with a statue or two. In Aylesbury, Benjamin Disraeli and radical MP John Hampden look out over the heads of shoppers in the market square, immortalised for their achievements. There are no statues of William Harding because, frankly, while he was alive he didn't do much to deserve one, and besides, nobody knows what he looks like. But in the past 300 years he has probably done more for the people of Buckinghamshire's county town than its more illustrious sons.
Born in about 1643, William Harding was the eldest of six children, a yeoman who led a life of modest public service until his death in 1719. But ever since then his name has acquired a peculiar kind of fame. There's a memorial plaque inside St Mary's church in the town, a restaurant at the FE college, a hall at the high school, a cul-de-sac and even a whole school named after him. And the reason for these accolades is a simple act of philanthropy that has changed the lives of generations of Aylesbury schoolchildren.
William Harding died a bachelor, leaving his personal estate and land as endowments to a charity. The modest income - about pound;20 a year - was enough to pay for the apprenticeship of around 10 children a year in the early 18th century. It was not unusual for a yeoman, or landowner farmer, in his position to set up a charity. But while others have foundered, the William Harding charity has prospered through good fortune and careful management. This year it will donate around pound;1 million to Aylesbury's schools and their pupils.
The Mandeville school recognises the charity's contribution to its success.
A mixed comprehensive on the Southcroft estate, an area with high levels of deprivation on the outskirts of town, it was in trouble five years ago, undersubscribed and battling to get out of special measures.
It has since doubled its pupil numbers and exam pass rates, becoming in the process the most improved school in Buckinghamshire. Headteacher Peter Patchett, who arrived in 1998, must take much of the credit for turning it around. But he is the first to acknowledge that without Mr Harding's posthumous help, the school might still be struggling.
Walking round Mandeville, he points with pride to equipment in virtually every department of the school paid for by the charity, from the rows of electronic keyboards in the music room to sewing machines and food mixers.
The IT suites are smart and well equipped, but it wasn't always this way.
"When I arrived they were on their last legs," says Mr Patchett. A successful bid to the Harding charity paid for 120 workstations. "The majority of these students have no PC at home. Now when they go on work placements they have the confidence to use PowerPoint or produce their own spreadsheets."
Vanessa Zeitlin, head of sixth form and business studies, agrees. "Without the Harding Trust we would never have had the success we have had," she says. "It gave us the springboard and it has been pivotal in removing us from special measures." Technology is changing at such a rate that the school has just bid for another pound;200,000 to upgrade its computer network, part of ambitious plans to build new facilities in support of its application for sports college status. Mr Patchett is hopeful but, with education funding tighter than ever, nearly every one of Aylesbury's 50-odd schools is competing for a slice of Mr Harding's millions.
William Harding originally set up his charity for "children of poor parents in Aylesbury and Walton to be apprenticed to persons who were honest and of good morals and well skilled in their trades". As the apprenticeship system died out - and boosted by the sale of a large tract of undeveloped land in the town in 1972 - it expanded its remit to cover all kinds of educational provision. "It has been able to be very generous to the people of Aylesbury," says Sue Spinks, who works for the solicitors that act on behalf of the trustees. "It's fair to say the local authority is grateful."
In 2001 the charity distributed just over pound;1 million, including pound;250,000 to help the town's schools hook up to the National Grid for Learning. In recent years it has helped to pay for a new music centre in the town, libraries, improvements to playgrounds and disabled access.
One school with a special reason to be grateful is the Park school for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties. In the 1970s when special needs pupils were referred to as backward or worse, unenlightened planners built the school next door to the town's psychiatric hospital.
Headteacher Ruth Cutler found the association offensive and five years ago built a wall between the two sites. Despite the difficulties her pupils faced, she wanted to find ways of including them in the life of the town.
Then, a few years ago, the perfect opportunity arose when an old and elegant double-fronted farmhouse came up for sale. Overlooking a duck pond and green in the old village of Walton, it had long since been swallowed up by urban development and was just a short walk from the town centre. It also happened to be William Harding's old house.
"When we found this building it just seemed right," says Ms Cutler. "There were dead birds in it and bits of ivy growing through the wall, but it had a good feeling."
Bought and restored by the local authority - with total costs of pound;400,000 substantially offset by the Harding Trust - the house now serves as a centre for Park school's sixth-formers, where they gain a taste of independence. "It's their springboard into learning in the community in an inclusive way," says Ms Cutler. "It's a step towards adulthood."
A patch of exposed brickwork and beams on the staircase is all that remains of the original, but it is fitting that after 300 years, during which it has been a children's home and company headquarters, it has finally found a use of which its one-time occupant would have approved. "It's a prestigious building and makes a statement for how we feel about our young people," says Ms Cutler. "William Harding must have been a nice guy, because he left a good buzz behind."
GIVING IT ALL AWAY
William Harding's is one of 1,600 similar charitable trusts listed in the Educational Grants Directory, which distributed pound;56 million between them last year. Besides well-known national bodies such as the Prince's Trust and the Rotary Foundation, there are hundreds of parochial or unusual foundations with origins dating back hundreds of years.
The directory reads like an inventory of the random acts of kindness of generations past in pledging assistance to neighbours, kinfolk or those who share their trade or profession.
The children of servicemen and the clergy are well represented, and the offspring of everyone from airline pilots to coal miners have a trust dedicated to their advancement. The Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys donated pound;6.5 million in 2001 to about 2,000 children while the Society of Licensed Victuallers gave bursaries worth pound;5.9 million to children attending its two schools in Ascot and Ilkley, making them the two biggest charitable donors in 2001.
Place of birth or residence can also mean unexpected bonuses. London has 92 dedicated charitable trusts, while the Isle of Man has just one, the Manx Marine Society, which gives grants to young people planning a career at sea. But whether you are a woman from Salford wishing to pursue a career in medicine, a Warwickshire-based Quaker or a blind or partially sighted person living in Dundee, somewhere there is a charity dedicated to helping you.
But before you fire off a salvo of speculative letters, remember to check the small print. "A lot of them are inundated with applications from ineligible people who don't read the criteria," says Tom Traynor, the directory's co-author. "That really annoys them."
The Educational Grants Directory 2002-2003 is published by the Directory of Social Change, price pound;20.95. Tel: 020 7209 5151; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The directory is published every two years; the 2004-2005 edition will be out late next year. For information about grants, including those available from government departments, go to www.dsc.org.uk