Sunday, 11 May 2008

Voluntary action: Philanthropy

If the development of the poor law system was an expression of the 'collectivist impulse', many groups and individuals were trying to tackle the worst evils on a voluntary basis[1]. In 1948 William Beveridge, the author of the modern welfare state, identified three distinct types of voluntary social service:

  1. Philanthropy was the movement between the social classes, from the haves to the have-nots.
  2. Mutual aid was the attempt by working men to support each other against the predictable crises in their lives: unemployment, sickness, disability, old age and to protect their dependants in the even of their early death.
  3. 'Personal thrift' was a matter of making what provision was possible for oneself.

Victorian philanthropy is a highly controversial subject. In its own day, and until recently, it was much admired. By the 1960s a reaction had set in. There was increasing awareness of the humiliation often involved in the ways recipients were offered 'charity' and of the social climbing that often went with charity dinners, charity balls and royal patronage. Derek Fraser expresses this view in mild, but pointed way[2]: 'The Victorian response to the powerlessness (or, as it was often conceived, the moral weakness) of the individual was an over-liberal dose of charity. The phenomenal variety and range of Victorian philanthropy was at once confirmation of the limitless benevolence of a generation and an implicit condemnation of the notion of self-help for all. It was small wonder that self-congratulation was so common a theme in contemporary surveys of Victorian philanthropy. So many good causes were catered for -- stray dogs, stray children, fallen women and drunken men...'

Neither the cynicism of today nor the hero-worship of the past really explain the complexities of philanthropic activity in the Victorian period. Victorian philanthropy is an umbrella term covering a wide range of different activities that took place at many different places and in almost every community by people with a variety of very mixed motives. During this period philanthropy changed both in methods and scope. There were at least four different, though overlapping phases:

  • Small-scale voluntary giving of the kind common in the eighteenth century: a landowner might look after his cottagers, a merchant might bequeath a sum of money for the relief of apprentices or indigent seamen or the aged poor of the parish.
  • Pioneer work by outstanding individuals like Florence Nightingale, Lord Shaftesbury, Dr Barnardo, General Booth of the Salvation Army, or Octavia Hill, the housing reformer, who brought particular social evils to the public notice. Who were the pioneers and what motivated them? Many of them were neither rich nor aristocratic, though they all had time to spare from the daily grind of earning a living. Lord Shaftesbury[3] was an exception among the landed classes, most of who confined their charitable activities to their own tenants. Many philanthropists came from the comfortable upper middle class. Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, was the daughter of a banker and the wife of another. William Tuke, who founded the York Retreat, a model for the humane management of asylums, was a prosperous grocer. Florence Nightingale was the daughter of a wealthy dilettante. Some has a more precarious social background. Octavia Hill was a banker's daughter but the family fell on hard times after her father's death and the girls had to support themselves by some fairly low-level teaching. General Booth was the son of a speculative builder but was apprenticed to a pawnbroker at thirteen. Dr Barnardo went to work at the age of ten as a clerk in a wine merchant's office. Most philanthropists were people of religious conviction. Shaftesbury was a leading Evangelical Churchman and his work as a reformer was a logical consequence of his faith. The Quaker contribution, by such families as the Frys, Tukes, Cadburys and Rowntrees, was particularly innovative. Roman Catholics, Anglo-Catholics and Jewish groups were to develop their own organisation for social care in the second half of the century, but the Evangelicals led the way.
  • The work of major national societies and associations often set up by the pioneers, but sometimes developing out of more widely supported local philanthropic effort. In 1861 one survey estimated that there were 640 charitable institutions in London, of which nearly half had been founded in the first half of the century and 144 in the decade after 1850. By the late 1880s, the amount of money involved was very large -- voluntary societies in London alone were handling between £5.5 and £7 million a year.

Practically every denomination had its own 'benevolent' society to cater for its own poor. Anglicans, Nonconformists and Catholics all maintained their own charitable funds and in 1859 the Jewish board of Guardians was set up. These religious societies were often the source of temporary charities in times of economic distress, either national or local. It is important to note that other types of society developed in this period.  Visiting societies attempted to bridge the gap between the so-called 'Two Nations' by personal contact. Many were denominationally based.  The Relief Association launched in 1843 was an Anglican charity led by Bishop Blomfield. These societies made a positive effort to go out and see people in their own homes, while other societies were seeking to provide a sort of refuge for the needy. Housing charities such as the Peabody Trust sought to provide cheap homes for the working classes but it was only Octavia Hill's housing experiments that really reached the destitute. Ragged schools associated with Mary Carpenter and Lord Shaftesbury.

Most of the major modern charitable societies had their origins in the Victorian period and it is important to ask what motivated such a torrent of charity raining down on the poor. It would appear that charity was a response to four types of motivation:

  1. A fear of social revolution: there is little doubt that many in the upper and middle classes had a genuine and persistent fear of social revolution and that charity could lift the masses from the depths of despair and out of the hands of radical agitators.
  2. A humanitarian concern for suffering: there was a society-wide increase in sensitivity to the suffering of others. Charity was a Christian virtue and many in the nineteenth century and many were moved to try and save souls in the belief that, as Andrew Reed with a lifelong concern with orphans and lunatics put it, 'the Divine image is stamped upon all'. Increasingly religious activity became socially oriented and religion became imbued with an essentially social conscience.
  3. A satisfaction of some psychological or social need: charity was seen as a social duty to be done and be seen to be done. Charitable activity was imbued with social snobbery and a royal patron could considerably enhance a society's prospects. Charity assumed the guise of a fashionable social imperative.
  4. Charity as a means of social control: many philanthropists preached respectable middle class values -- cleanliness, sobriety, self-improvement and responsibility. The widespread practice of visiting was in effect a cultural assault on the working class way of life. Poverty was seen by few as a function of the economic and social system. The majority assumed that it stemmed from some personal failing. Charity was a way of initiating a moral reformation, of breeding in the individual the self-help mentality that would free him from the thraldom of poverty. Philanthropy was an essentially educative tool; in the words of C.S.Loch 'Charity is a social regenerator.... We have to use charity to create the power of self-help.'

Increasingly by the 1850s doubts were expressed about the effectiveness of the multifarious charities. Two accusations were noted.  First, there was a built-in inefficiency that was an almost inevitable result of the stupendous growth in the number of charities. There was a great deal of duplication of effort and much wasteful competition between rival groups in the same cause. There was sometimes conflict between London and the provinces in national organisations, and the same Church versus Dissent antagonism that characterised Victorian politics plagues Victorian charity.  Secondly, charity was, like the Poor Law, counter-productive, helping to promote that very poverty is sought to alleviate. The radical William Lovett once remarked that 'Charity by diminishing the energies of self-dependence, creates a spirit of hypocrisy and servility.' It may be an over-generalisation to say that the whole concept of charity tended to degrade rather than uplift the recipient. The problem was not lack of effort but the unscientific nature of Victorian charity. The question of whether it reached those who needed it most was one of the main reasons for the creation of the Charity Organisation Society in 1869.

The activities of the Charity Organisation Society, founded in 1869 as the Society for the Organisation of Charitable Relief and the Repression of Mendicity. The COS attempted to place a mass of unregulated charitable activity on a more constructive basis, but earned a reputation for rigidity and harshness in its approach to poor people. Much of the criticism directed against philanthropy relates to the operation of this organisation in the late Victorian period. If any group gave charity a bad name, it was the COS. The problem was that the COS propounded its views in a manner that was punitive, moralistic and highly offensive to other charities.

  • The COS was founded at the same time as an important policy statement from the Gladstone government known as the Goschen Minute. George Goschen was President of the Poor Law Board and was concerned to tighten up the Poor Law, which he believed had become too generous, and its administration too lax. It is not clear who inspired whom but the Goschen Minute formed the basis for the activities of the COS. Many of its members were also members of their local Boards of Guardians and they applied themselves with energy their tasks. It is important to make a distinction between the social casework of COS and its social philosophy:
  • In method the COS was a pioneering body which was of great significance in the development of professional social casework in the nineteenth century.
  • The social philosophy of the COS was rigorously traditional and it became one of the main defenders of the self-help individualist ethic long after it had been challenged on all sides.
  • The COS had an essentially dualistic attitude to its work: it was professionally pioneering but ideologically reactionary.
  • The early leaders Charles Bosanquet, Edward Denision, Octavia Hill and above all Charles Loch (secretary from 1875 to 1913) all believed that the casework methods should be geared to the moral improvement of the poor and that this was the real purpose of charity. All charities had to be on their guard against fraudulent applicants and this, for the COS, was justification for indiscriminate charity being ended by the vetting of every applicant.

By 1900 there were more than forty COS district offices in London and some 75 corresponding societies in other parts of the country. Their enquiries into individual cases were detailed, severe and highly judgmental, based on the conviction that poverty was a personal failing and that the poor needed to be forced back into self-sufficiency. The COS came into conflict with Dr Barnardo and opposed the Salvation Army with particular bitterness claiming that its work actually created homelessness. Their approach was abrasive, to both potential clients and other more compassionate relief organisations, and earned much of the opprobrium that has been since directed against philanthropy in general. The dominance of the COS approach can be best seen in the Majority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor 1905-09.


[1] P.H.J.H. Gosden Self-Help: Voluntary Associations in Nineteenth Century Britain, Batsford, 1973 provides a detailed study of ways in which working people provided for themselves against poverty. It should be considered in relation to E. Hopkins Self-Help, UCL, 1995. F. Prochaska The Voluntary Impulse, Faber, 1988 is brief and pithy. O. Checkland Philanthropy in Victorian Scotland: Social Welfare and the Voluntary Principle, John Donald, 1980 extends the argument. G. Finlayson Citizens, State and Social Welfare in Britain 1830-1990, OUP, 1994 is perhaps the best book on the subject of voluntary efforts.

[2] D.Fraser The Evolution of the British Welfare State, 2nd., ed., pp.124-5.

[3] The definitive biography of Shaftesbury is by G.B.M.Finlayson.

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