I was lucky enough to have been able to spend a year in the USA on a Harkness Fellowship. I was based at the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, and visited 25 States while researching and writing a book on ‘Making Environmental Laws Work’.
In a Note on the Harkness Fellowships in that book, I tried to explain how Edward Harkness’ far-sighted generosity had made possible the life-changing opportunity that these Fellowships still represent, as well as supporting other great causes such as the Pilgrim Trust –
“Edward Harkness’ family had made a huge fortune through early investments in the Southern Pacific Railroad and in Standard Oil, backing the young Rockefeller when nobody else would, and receiving in return a major stake in the oil company that resulted. They proceeded to spend this fortune on philanthropic causes, and Edward Harkness’ endowments led to the substantial rebuilding of Yale, Harvard, Columbia Medical School and Johns Hopkins University, to take a few examples.
Edward Harkness was one of the best friends and benefactors that Britain ever had in America. In the midst of the Great Depression he founded the Pilgrim Trust with $10 million for the relief of the unemployed and for the preservation of places of cultural importance. The church of St Mary-le-Strand in London, Darwin’s house at Down, the field of the Battle of Bannockburn in Scotland, the chapter library of Westminster Abbey, St Mary’s College by St David’s Cathedral in Wales and the students’ union at Queen’s University in Belfast have all benefited as a result. Edward Harkness is in some ways comparable to the Briton, James Smithson, whose unexpected bequest to America 150 years ago led to what is now the Smithsonian Institution.”
The Pilgrim Trust began its work with an original donation worth about £125 million in today’s money, and a lofty statement of purpose drafted by the author and trustee John Buchan – “He hopes that such a gift wisely applied may assist not only in tiding over the present time of difficulty but in promoting her [UK’s] future well-being”.
Today it gives grants worth about £3 million each year, divided between UK heritage, and social welfare programmes. This is perhaps what makes its record so striking.
The Pilgrim Trust has supported the publication of the letters of Charles Dickens, worked with Sir Kenneth Clark on the recording by war artists in 1943 of life on the home front, and supported an inventory of English Medieval wall paintings. It supported the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which later became the Arts Council of Great Britain. It has helped to fund the restoration efforts which saved the roof of the Bodleian Library in Oxford from death watch beetle.
Yet the Trust with Dr Cicely Saunders also funded the establishment of the UK’s first hospice. It has worked on landmark studies of the causes of unemployment, programmes for mothers with substance misuse problems, with those in the criminal justice system, and it has worked to support programmes for young offenders and women and girls in prisons.
There are many reasons for people in Great Britain to remember and be grateful for Edward Harkness’ generosity at such a difficult time. The continued work of the Pilgrim Trust fulfils his trust in the possibility of a better future.
Below are links to the Pilgrim Trust website and their recent impact report
About the author
William Wilson is an environmental and energy lawyer and director of Wyeside Consulting Ltd, with experience of government, private practice and consulting. His Harkness Fellowship (96-97) was based in Portland, OR, and he visited 25 states with his family while writing a book on ‘Making Environmental Laws Work’, an attempt to understand what really makes such laws effective, and how public support for them is won or lost. He is currently working on materials on climate change and the Green Recovery from COVID-19 for young people attending COP conferences.
 I wrote that Edward Harkness’ original donation to the Pilgrim Trust was US$10 million. The exchange rate in 1930 made that about UK £2 million, equivalent to about UK£125 million today.