Feature: Charity in the Georgian Era: Lessons for Today?

Andrew Rudd is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter and has previously worked as the Parliamentary Manager at the Charity Commission. In this blog, he reflects on the lessons learned by researching the history of 18th-century charity.

What can the history of charity in the eighteenth century teach us today? This was the question I asked myself when I started working on my latest research project, a cultural history of charity as it is depicted in the literature and art of the Georgian period (1714–1830). And it was a personal question, because before I became a lecturer at the University of Exeter I worked as Parliamentary Manager at the Charity Commission, which oversaw the activities of the 160,000 charities in England and Wales day in, day out.

Looking at the mass of visual and printed material produced on the subject of charity during the 1700s, there were clearly resemblances between what people were concerned about then and what we are still debating today. To be sure, there were important differences. For instance, the Georgians had inherited the medieval tradition of almsgiving which the Henrician Reformation and subsequent Elizabethan legislation had effectively secularised.

The ‘New Poor Law’ (officially the Poor Law Amendment Act) of 1834 was designed to make provision for the poor fairer for society as a whole, although it was regularly accused of inflicting inhuman cruelty, as the novels of Charles Dickens and others were at pains to show. This system, which was intended to clear away the detritus of ages and which arguably paved the way for the modern welfare state, has caused us to forget the Georgian idea of charity which was much more ad hoc and more dependent on the generosity of private individuals.

With recent attempts to put charities back at the heart of service delivery and questions being asked once again about unevenness of provision and even the whims of individual benefactors, it is timely to revisit the Georgian system and establish exactly what characterised it and what lessons we can learn from it. The Voluntary Action History Society kindly invited me to present some of my early findings in December 2015 and the presentation benefitted from a thought-provoking discussion afterwards.

The gist of the presentation was as follows. I was struck by figures showing that charity plays more of a role in people’s lives today than ten years ago (40% of people in 2014 said that they, a friend or family member had had contact with a charity, compared to 10% in 2005) and that debates over the pros and cons of charity have reignited.

In the eighteenth century, people were divided about whether the upsurge of charitable activity was evidence of nationwide benevolence or the social fabric coming apart. The novelist Samuel Jackson Pratt regarded Britain’s charitable institutions such as the Foundling Hospital in London as the glory of the age. Dorothy and William Wordsworth, on the other hand, lamented the growing numbers of injured soldiers and sailors who were victims of the period’s almost continuous foreign wars.

The question of the psychology that lay behind acts of charity was also at the fore. Eighteenth-century novelists were fascinated by characters who performed good deeds because they wished to be seen doing so (Georgian virtue-signalling). Secret acts of charity, on the other hand, were a sign of incontestable virtue.George_Morland_-_The_Squire's_Door_-_Google_Art_Project

Writing in 1797, the reformer Joseph Townsend wrote ‘it is generally found, that modest worth stands at a distance, or draws nigh with faltering tongue and broken accents to tell an artless tale; whilst the most worthless are the most unreasonable in their expectations, and the most importunate in their solicitation for relief’. This reminds us that self-representation of those seeking charity is often regarded as suspect and givers are prone to be on guard against possible fraud.

William Wordsworth agonised over the difficulty of writing about personal deeds that, by their very nature, ought not to be displayed in public. In one of his best-known poems, ‘Lines written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1798), he described the ‘best portion of a good man’s life’ as ‘his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love’. Publicly feted acts of charity, such as those celebrated by Pratt, were from a moral perspective a contradiction in terms.

And yet, did any of that matter if money was raised and good work done as a result? One of the most compelling recurring features of the debate is the claim that charities somehow become less charitable the larger and more vocal they become. We see this in newspaper reports today about charities being too large or using aggressive fundraising techniques. Equally, charities that receive public money are accused of being too close to the state, an echo of Wordsworth’s view that true charity ought to be a wholly personal and not an official matter.

The Georgian era teaches us, finally, that despite repeated warnings not to give money to beggars in the street, for many the face-to-face, individual encounter remains at the mystical heart of what true charity means. Charity publicity tries to reproduce the effect in posters showing the faces of needy recipients whom the giver can imagine they are helping personally. The age of sensibility when the mental dynamics of sympathy and compassion were forged lies at the root at this enduring aspect of modern charity.

As my project progresses I hope to share more of my work with VAHS, but you can listen to the seminar from 14 December 2015 here.

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Celebrating 25 years of studying the history of voluntary action: VAHS’s Conference 2016

Colin Rochester first published the following blog detailing next year’s conference on HistPhil.org, a web publication  on the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, with a particular emphasis on how history can shed light on contemporary philanthropic issues and practice.

In the summer of 1991 three people who conducted research on the UK voluntary sector and volunteering as well as working in voluntary organisations met at the Coach and Horses, a well-known public house in London’s Soho. After spending months complaining among themselves about the ignorance and lack of interest of people who worked in the sector when it came to the history of the organisations for which they worked – let alone of voluntary action more generally – they decided to do something about. What they did was what many people had done before them and many others would do after them; they set up a voluntary organisation to address the issue.

The need was summarised by one of the founders:

People who work in and with voluntary organisations and those who study them are remarkably insouciant about the history of voluntary action. Individual organisations are careless of their archives consigning their records to damp cellars or carting them off to land fill in skips. If they do show some interest in their past this takes the form of ‘cherry-picking’ their history to provide selected images, incidents and personalities with which to add sparkle to their promotional and fund-raising materials rather than a serious attempt to understand the concerns and the external forces that shaped both their founding mission and the ways in which it has been adapted to changing circumstances. From a wider perspective, the debates about social and public policy and the growing role to be played in it by voluntary agencies have been curiously deracinated. As a result the discussion has been largely uninformed by any understanding of the historical experience which has formed today’s institutions and relationships while any lessons from the past have been left unlearned. (Rochester, 2013; 15)

In its attempts to challenge the sector’s indifference to its own history the Voluntary Action History Society (or VAHS) has run a great many seminars, organised five international conferences and published two books of essays in an attempt to ensure that the activities of those making policy that impinges on voluntary action and those working in and with voluntary organisations are informed by what has gone before.

Today, nearly twenty-five years since its foundation, VAHS continues to promote the study of the history of charity, philanthropy, mutual aid, volunteering and voluntary organisations and has a healthy membership which combines academics and voluntary sector practitioners. In July 2016 it plans to celebrate its silver jubilee year by organising its 6th international conference on the history of voluntary action. This will take place at the University of Liverpool from 13th-15th July.

The theme of the conference is THINKING ABOUT THE PAST, THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE It will feature papers which are accessible to a broad audience of practitioners, activists, amateurs and academics and provide insights into the development of voluntary action history in the past twenty-five years and address the challenges it faces in the future.

Within that framework there will be a great deal of diversity. We are looking for papers that:

  • approach voluntary action history from a variety of perspectives – local, national and international or transnational;
  • explore subjects in a range of time periods, from the Middle Ages (or earlier) to the near-history of the twenty-first century; and
  • are based on different methodologies, both traditional and innovative.

And we expect to receive proposals that focus on very different topics. These may include new research on time-honoured themes like philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help; the moving frontier between state and voluntary action; social justice and social change; and organisational development and management. Or they will address comparatively neglected areas of voluntary action history such as bad behaviour and the dark side of volunteering and voluntary organisation or the historical role of voluntary action in leisure activities and expressive behaviours. And we also expect contributions on teaching voluntary action history and issues of preservation and access associated with archival research.

We also welcome contributions from ‘new researchers’ – graduate students, postdoctoral researchers (within 3 years of degree) or unpublished independent researchers – and will be offering a prize for the best paper submitted by people in this category.

This rich and varied diet of papers will provide the main core of the conference activities but it will be supplemented by other activities. These include a plenary session addressed by a prominent speaker (details yet to be confirmed); visits and tours to local places of interest to the history of voluntarism; a conference dinner; a quiz; and other opportunities for social and convivial interaction. We will even have the Society’s house band – Home Brew – to provide its own brand of good time jazz.

If you are interested in taking part in the conference or want further information about it please contact the VAHS Chair, Meta Zimmeck at meta@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk

If you would like to propose a paper, please submit an abstract of around 300 words and a brief biography by e-mail to Meta no later than 31 December 2015.

We will be happy to consider proposals for panels of up to four papers on a similar subject, although if this is your intention, please submit an abstract for each of the proposed papers.

If you have any queries or if you wish to discuss a proposed paper’s suitability, please e-mail Meta Zimmeck at meta@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk

Booking will open once the programme is finalised. Please note that all speakers must register for the conference.

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Second Canadian Workshop on the History of Humanitarian Aid

Aid practitioners, archivists, and academics recently came together in Canada to explore how the history of humanitarian aid is researched, collected, and taught.  Will Tait, a PhD candidate at the University of Carleton, shares his thoughts on the event and its outcomes.

The Second Canadian Workshop on the History of Humanitarian Aid took place on 30 May 2015 at Carleton University in Ottawa.  The event built on a workshop held last year where historians  from across Canada, archivists from Library and Archives Canada and Carleton University Archives, a well as humanitarian practitioners from Partnership Africa Canada, Oxfam, and MATCH International Women’s Fund met to welcome Dr Kevin O’Sullivan from the National University of Ireland.  Kevin was a catalyst for the first workshop in 2014 when he travelled to Canada to conduct research.  In his latest book O’Sullivan has likened Irish and Canadian use of soft power through aid and development1.  Under the organisation of Dominique Marshall, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Carleton and former President of the Canadian Historical Association, a website was created after the 2014 meeting to link a growing online collaboration of aid practitioners, archivists, and academics interested in preserving the history of humanitarian action both in Canada and elsewhere.  O’Sullivan returned to Carleton this year to brief the workshop and members of the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History (CNHH) on developments in the field and to continue to expand collaboration with European partners.

Aid practitioners from MATCH, Oxfam, and Africa Canada Partnership engage with Library and Archives archivist (right) and historians Ruth Compton-Brouwer (centre) and Kevin O’Sullivan (foreground)

Aid practitioners from MATCH, Oxfam, and Africa Canada Partnership engage with Library and Archives archivist (right) and historians Ruth Compton-Brouwer (centre) and Kevin O’Sullivan (foreground)

The themes of the 2015 workshop concentrated on approaches to researching, collecting, and teaching the history of humanitarian aid.  The event coincided with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2015 which was held at the University of Ottawa.  The number of humanitarian historians presenting at Congress was indicative of the growing interest in the field.  Several members of the network spoke about their research at Congress.  Sarah Glassford, Shirley Tillotson, and I took part in the ‘Public, Private, Political: Charitable Organizations and Citizen Engagement’ Roundtable, while Stephanie Bangarth and Jill Campbell-Miller headed the roundtable on ‘Capitals and Peripheries: Historical Perspectives on International Development’.  Dominique Marshall gave her Presidential Address on the ‘Dessins d’enfants et aide humanitaire: expressions et expositions transnationales’.  See here for for more information about the presentations.

CNHH founder Dr Dominique Marshall

CNHH founder Dr Dominique Marshall

A key theme of the workshop was developing a framework for pairing researchers and graduate students with interested NGOs such as Oxfam Canada, MATCH, and the African Canada Partnership to examine their own histories.  Sarah Glassford of the University of Price Edward Island reported on her longstanding relationship with the Canadian Red Cross and her role as a professional historian in her own right and volunteer archivist for the organisation.  Sarah’s work with the Red Cross encouraged discussion about the need for trust to be established between researchers and NGOs, while at the same time preserving critical analysis of aid practices and institutions.  This discussion prompted us to consider developing a  ‘toolkit’ to guide researchers and NGOs in building collaborative relationships.  This toolkit will focus on respect between researchers and their partnered aid organisations and methods for NGOs to archive and collect their histories in order to empower these groups.  The toolkit will also show how NGOs can create a space for students and academics to access material and showcase research.

Historian Kevin O'Sullivan

Historian Kevin O’Sullivan

This final component of the proposed toolkit was an element in plans for the new website for the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History which was launched in July 2015.  The website is a platform for knowledge mobilisation, displaying the value of humanitarian histories for both researchers and aid agencies.  The site encourages sharing of methodologies and information for syllabi, teaching resources, and material for workshops.  The hope is to develop modules for the sharing of ideas for university courses and to cultivate discussion between academia, archives, and practitioners of aid.

For more information on the Canadian Network for Humanitarian History please join us here or contact Dominique Marshall at dominique_marshall@carleton.ca.

1. Kevin O’Sullivan, Ireland, Africa and the End of Empire: Small State Identity in the Cold War 1955-75 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).
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Critical Thinking About Voluntary Action and Its History

In this month’s blog post, Colin Rochester introduces a journal which will take the study of voluntary action in a new direction.

A group of academics and practitioners –and some who combine both roles– have decided to do something about their growing dissatisfaction with the current state of voluntary sector studies.  In the hope of developing ‘a different narrative of voluntary action’ they have launched a new journal to be called Critical Studies in Voluntary Action.  The journal will be published online twice a year and the first issue is planned for the Autumn of 2015.

The ‘Mainstream’ View of Voluntary Sector Studies

Our discontent with the way voluntary action is studied and presented has three main components:

  • In the first place most current research tends to focus unduly on just one type of voluntary organisation –the bureaucratically organised and professionally managed agencies which concentrate on delivering various kinds of social welfare services.  The challenges of governance and management they encounter are not fundamentally different from those experienced by public sector agencies and for-profit businesses and the standard wisdom of mainstream organisational theory and the management techniques taught in business schools can be used to address them.  Very little attention is given to non-bureaucratic organisational models and to other functions such as campaigning and advocacy, self-help, or community action.
  • Secondly, volunteering is also studied from a similarly restricted perspective.  Volunteers are viewed as unpaid workers who provide additional human resources for professionally run service delivery organisations.  They need to be managed in ways which are very similar to the standard approach to managing paid employees.  There is hardly any serious interest in the much larger numbers of ‘unmanaged’ volunteers and the variety of roles they play.
  • And, finally, scholars of voluntary sector studies work within a set of assumptions about the object of their area of study and the place voluntary action has in the wider social and political environment.  While lip service is given to the huge variety of organisations and activities involved in the field, the idea of a voluntary (or third) sector complete with an ‘infrastructure’ and ‘leaders’ is taken as read and more often than not equated with the organisations that employ staff to provide services.  And the relationship of this sector with government is seen in terms of partnership –the underlying assumption is that working with government is inevitable and that government’s aims and aspirations are compatible with those of voluntary organisations.

Towards a Different Narrative of Voluntary Action

Critical Studies in Voluntary Action will encourage and help to develop an alternative account of voluntary action that: 

  • embraces a much wider range of voluntary and community activity than the work of professionally-led and bureaucratically organised voluntary agencies whose main function is to work with government on the delivery of public services.  We are just as interested in mutual aid groups; advocacy and campaigning organisations; informal and non-bureaucratic collective action, and other kinds of civil society organisations.  And the journal will feature research on activities in the worlds of leisure, recreation and the arts, community development, and the natural and built environments.
  • involves a more critical approach to discussing the role and significance of voluntary organisations and volunteering in our society and, more specifically, questions the twin assumptions of much current research and writing that voluntary organisations are natural partners of government and that the key questions are about how they can make themselves more efficient in the delivery of services; and
  • challenges the infiltration of the culture and behaviours of the market into the non-market parts of our society and reasserts the idea that voluntary action embodies/expresses important and distinctive values that are not compatible with a market society.

A Call to Historians

One explanation for the widespread acceptance of the assumptions underpinning the ‘mainstream’ view of voluntary sector studies is the ignorance of those who work in voluntary organisations and those who study them of their history.  The Voluntary Action History Society was founded more then twenty years ago with the express aim of addressing a widespread lack of interest and understanding of the roots and historical development of voluntary organisations and volunteering.  As I commented in a paper given to a VAHS seminar a year ago ‘discussion of the growing role to be played by voluntary agencies in the public and social policy arena has been largely uninformed by any understanding of the historical experience which has shaped today’s institutions and relationships and any lessons from the past have been left unlearned’.

In that paper I argued that the accounts we had of the history of voluntary action were incomplete and only provided part of the story and that we needed to develop a more inclusive and comprehensive view of the roots of voluntary action and the development of its activities, institutions, and role in the wider society.  Critical Studies in Voluntary Action will provide a home for contributions to that development and I hope very much that we will receive proposals for articles that will, among other things, explore the history of voluntary action as the pursuit of social change and social justice –often in opposition to governments– and as the vehicle for conviviality and expressive behaviour rather than as the practice of philanthropy and mutual aid.

Contributions and Further Information

We are looking for contributions written in clear, accessible English of two kinds:

  •  Full-length articles based on research and making a contribution to the development of critical theory of up to 8000 words.  These will be subject to peer review before publication.
  • Shorter articles of up to 2-3000 words in the form of ‘think-pieces’ or ‘research notes’.  These will be published at the discretion of the editorial board.

We are also looking for volunteers to act as peer reviewers.

Contributions, proposals for articles, offers to review submissions, and requests for further information should be sent to the Editorial Board’s convenor, Colin Rochester, at colin@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk.



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Feature: Philanthropy and the City of London

Rhodri Davies leads the Giving Thought policy programme at the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).  He has just finished writing a book on the role of philanthropy in UK society from a historical and modern perspective, which is due to be published next year.  In this blog post he uncovers the historical trends behind the present culture of philanthropy in the City of London.

I recently completed research for a book on the role of philanthropy in UK society and also gave a couple of talks focusing on the history of philanthropy in the City of London, which has led me to think about the factors that shape philanthropy in our country and the particular role the City has played.  This made me realise that the City offers a fascinating microcosm within the broader history of philanthropy and can tell us a great deal about how philanthropy has evolved.

One of the key themes underpinning philanthropy is wealth.  The nature of wealth and attitudes toward it within society play a vital role in determining the scale and scope of philanthropy at any given point in time.  An important aspect of this is the balance between inherited and created wealth.  There has been a long-term shift in this country from the latter to the former, which has accelerated during periods of significant wealth creation (such as the rise of the Tudor merchant class or the Victorian age of the great industrialists).  The last two decades have seen a particularly marked shift towards created wealth.  When the Sunday Times Rich List was first published in 1989, over half of the people on it came from inherited wealth, but in the 2014 list the pendulum had swung the other way and more that eighty percent of those on the list were now self-made wealthy.

The City is obviously all about creating wealth, and is immensely successful at doing so.  But we should not assume that this automatically translates into a thriving culture of philanthropy.  The rise in profile and influence of the City since ‘Big Bang’ deregulation in 1986 has not been accompanied by the sort of blossoming of philanthropy that accompanied previous periods of major growth in the City.  Wealth creation, then, is at best a necessary condition for philanthropy rather than a sufficient one, which means that there must be additional factors which determine whether wealth creation leads to widespread giving.

Religion and social status played large roles in the history of philanthropy in the City. The London Charity-School Children in St. Paul's Cathedral (1789).

Religion and social status played large roles in the history of philanthropy in the City. The London Charity-School Children in St. Paul’s Cathedral (1789).

What are these factors?  There are a number we can identify, which although not exhaustive, give a good idea of why the present culture of philanthropy might have failed to live up to its historical precedents.  One obvious factor is religion.  This has always played an important role in philanthropy, not only in terms of direct giving to religious causes but also as a broader motivating force for giving to secular causes.  This remains true today; according to CAF’s UK Giving annual survey, religion is still the cause that receives the highest proportion of donations by value in the UK (although it is not the actually the most popular in terms of number of donations).  However, even if religion remains an important factor, its prevalence in society is nothing like it was in Tudor or Victorian times, when the charitable culture of the City was arguably at its strongest.  There is not the same universal compulsion to give that was felt by those who lived in times when religion was a backdrop to every aspect of life.

Another factor is social status.  In both the Tudor and Victorian eras, philanthropy was an important tool to cement status for those who had created wealth in a society that was still largely dominated by inherited wealth.  Although many would argue that a desire for social status is still a major part of philanthropy, the changing nature of class structures in the UK and the availability of other means for climbing the social ladder has undoubtedly lessened the importance of giving as a way of purchasing social standing.

But perhaps the most interesting factor affecting philanthropy when it comes to the City is awareness of need.  Whilst financial success creates a supply side for philanthropy, there is only a demand side if people have a reason to think about giving.  And in the past the most important pull factor (in London at least) was simply that the grinding poverty in which many of the capital’s inhabitants lived was inescapable.  Even the very wealthy could not fail to be aware of the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves, because the sheer scale of poverty and deprivation was right there in front of them every time they walked out their front door.

This acute awareness of suffering is a key factor in the origin stories of many of our most famous City philanthropists.  The former sea captain Thomas Coram, for instance, who latterly worked in the City and became famous for his role in the founding of the Foundling Hospital, was reportedly driven to act when he was on his way to work one day and he saw a young mother literally in the act of abandoning her child in the street.  He decided then that he could no longer ignore the problem and dedicated the rest of his life to helping abandoned children.

Thomas Coram reportedly established the Foundling Hospital after witnessing the abandonment of an infant

Thomas Coram reportedly established the Foundling Hospital after witnessing the abandonment of an infant

Of course, if most City workers today saw the same thing I don’t doubt for a second that their response would be similar to that of Coram.  The difference is that they are often never faced with this kind of evidence of the suffering of others.  City workers usually live in wealthy areas of London, or in commuter suburbs; they travel to work, work long hours, and travel back again, all without ever seeing the other side of life in London  that is the reality for many people living in the capital.  Evidence from the United States clearly shows that when wealthy people live in areas that are not economically diverse, they are less likely to give to charity.  Intriguingly, all that it takes to overcome this problem under experimental conditions is to show these wealthy people a short video on child poverty.  And in a real world setting, as Professor Paul Piff of the University of California at Berkeley explains, ‘simply seeing someone in need at the grocery storeor looking down the street at a neighbor’s modest housecan serve as basic psychological reminders of the needs of other people… Absent that, wealth will have these egregious effects insulating you more and more1.

People who are trying to nurture a culture of philanthropy in the City are well aware of this ‘seeing is believing’ phenomenon.  Many corporate programmes that seek to engage employees with charitable giving start by taking them to visit the work of charities or community groups in the local area to understand the problems they are addressing and the challenges they face.  This is often very successful at establishing the initial link with a cause that is the prerequisite of long-term giving.

I don’t hold much truck with those who yearn after the ‘golden ages’ of philanthropy of the Victorian and Tudor eras.  There are many factors that drove their philanthropy that we cannot replicate today, and many that we would not want to even if we could.  However, the example of the City shows that there is plenty we can learn from looking at the history of philanthropy, both in terms of things we can do to encourage giving and the pitfalls to avoid, as long as we interpret them from a modern context.  There are many aspects of philanthropy policy and practice that would benefit greatly from such a dose of historical perspective.

1.  Ben Gose and Emily Gipple, ‘Rich Enclaves Are Not as Generous as the Wealthy Living Elsewhere’, Chronicle of Philanthropy, 19 August 2012.
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