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The Uniting Church owes USyd 856 peppercorns

A forgotten 999-year lease entitles the University to $1.77 worth of peppercorns by 2877.

The forgotten terms of a 999-year lease entitle the University of Sydney to 856 peppercorns in rent from the Uniting Church in Australia, by the year 2877.

The University is the owner of Big Hill Uniting Church on ‘Arthursleigh’, a University-owned farm used for agricultural teaching and research, 30 kilometres northeast of Goulburn.

In August 1878, Arthursleigh’s then-owner, Legislative Councillor Thomas Holt, signed a 999-year lease with trustees of what would later become part of the Uniting Church for the establishment of Big Hill Church. Holt set the rent at “one peppercorn per annum if demanded.”

Holt’s great-grandson bequeathed Arthursleigh to the University in 1979, bringing with it Big Hill Church and the unorthodox terms of its lease, which is due to expire in August 2877.

However, in the four decades since taking ownership of Arthursleigh, the University appears to have all but forgotten the spicy riches to which it is entitled. The University holds few records relating to the church at Arthursleigh, and none that concern its rent. The lease is no longer registered on the title to the property and the University’s Office of General Counsel was “unable to locate any evidence to suggest whether or not there is a lease in effect”.

As yet, the University has never demanded its one peppercorn per annum. The combined value of the next eight centuries worth of peppercorns would be approximately $1.77 at Woolworths today.

In a statement, a University spokesperson told Honi: “We are not aware the University ever demanded annual rent of a peppercorn… and can’t conceive we’d ever be likely to do so in the future.” Whether this stance changes over the next 855 years remains to be seen.

‘Peppercorn rents’ are a legal tool used to lease out a property effectively rent-free. Today, they typically refer to nominal sums of money, but actual payment of peppercorns or other items (such as “one crab if demanded”) is not unheard of. For the last 200 years, a Masonic lodge in Bermuda has presented its single peppercorn rent on a velvet cushion in a popular annual ceremony. Similarly, the University of Bath famously rents its main campus for an annual peppercorn.

Big Hill Church has held an important place in the local community for over a century, having hosted countless services, weddings and funerals since its establishment 144 years ago. Services continue to be held on the second Sunday of the month. The grounds also hold a time capsule due to be opened in September 2078, some 800 years before the Church lease expires. Time will tell whether it contains the outstanding rent.