The plaque on the outside of Thomas Oken Tea Rooms reads,
“Here lived Thomas Oken, a great benefactor to Warwick.
He died here on the 29th July 1573“
Thomas Oken came from a humble family, but became the richest man in Warwick, making his fortune dealing in wool and woven fabrics. He lived during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, during a period of great religious change and social upheaval.
Thomas Oken was a public-spirited man, and was very involved in local politics. He was the Master of the Guild of Holy Trinity and Saint George (which was housed in the now Lord Leycester Hospital) in 1545, when Warwick was granted its town charter. This was at the time when Henry VIII dissolved the guilds in order to seize their assets for the crown; and Thomas conducted difficult negotiations with the King’s Commissioners in order to secure a substantial part of the Church and Guild endowments for the local corporation and charitable funds. He went on to become Bailiff of the Corporation in 1557.
A chest belonging to Thomas Oken still exists, and stands in the corner of the Council Chamber at the Court House (the building that houses the Visitor Information Centre on the corner of Castle Street and Jury Street). The chest was restored in 1851 and painted with the town’s arms and Thomas Oken’s initials.
The five plate locks and hasps and staples for four padlocks meant that the chest could only be opened in the presence of all the key holders – all members of the Corporation. It would have contained a lot of money and confidential documents.
Thomas Oken was married (to Joan) but died childless, and left his personal fortune to the town. His will arranged – amongst other things – for the payment of the salary of the schoolmaster, annual payments to ‘the poor’, the paving of certain streets, the repairing of the bridge, the wages of the herdsmen and the beadle, the repairing of the wells and the provision of a number of almshouses. The Thomas Oken Charity is still in existence today – and still owns this building, the rent for which goes towards good causes for the benefit of Warwick people.
In his will, Thomas Oken also provided for the spending of £1 annually on a feast, preceded by a service at St. Mary’s. The annual feast still goes on to this day, during which a toast is always given to Thomas Oken’s memory!