To those of means during the Regency Era, charitable causes were considered a social obligation deriving from the parishes. Churches throughout the land supported the poor and those in need.
The Voluntary Action History Society site tells us, “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.”
A poor tax was levied on owners of land and buildings. This tax funded the workhouses and other efforts to assist the poor. The churches involvement was engrained in society from medieval times forward. Giving to the church meant giving to the orphanages and to the elderly and to the poor, in general.
“Philanthropy in the 19th century was based on religious tradition that was centuries in the making. Historically, wealthy people in society gave to the poor as a Christian duty. Charity was seen as a way of saving one’s own soul while also helping those in need. Protestants, especially those with strong evangelical leanings, believed that social conscience demanded social action. They held that by coming into contact with human nature, particularly with those in need, that they were able to come in contact with Christ. Religious philanthropists believed that by helping the needy, they were helping their own kin because everyone was a child of God. Good works were, and are part of the foundation of Christianity, and pave the way to salvation. Through the 19th century, the church increasingly became the vehicle of private and public social work. However, it should be noted that though philanthropy was rooted in religious and church tradition, it also spread outside the church. Philanthropy and religion are intertwined throughout history, but are not necessarily dependent on each other.” [Philanthropy]
The middle class took on the task with “gusto.” Women, in particular, stepped up to the task, but, not always for the reasons one might expect. Certainly, charity was an admirable trait. However, “working outside the home,” even in a charitable manner, provided these women a sense of worth beyond tending to their husband’s homes. Charitable work seemed to be an extension of their “natural” maternal instincts, but it also allowed women to meet and socialize with other women of like minds and education, opening them up to new experiences and ideas. “Charity begins at home” took on a whole different meaning.
Evangelism placed service to one’s fellow man above doctrine, and its rise to “popularity” as the 19th century progressed changed the look of charities from purely the work of the church to the work of society, as a whole. Non-church organizations, such as guilds, also could be supported without one considering himself or herself “not a Christian.” Women also created other means to support their favorite charities with organizing bazaars and dinner parties and collection boxes. Men still supported the organizations with the purse strings, but it was the women who made them work.
Some years back, another Regency-based author shared a list of actual charities during the Georgian and Victorian eras. I thought including the names might provide those interested in the scope of charitable work better insights.
The Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity (aka Charity Organisation Society or COS (this one took the position that most charities were being “hoodwinked by the cunning poor,”)
Manchester and Salford District Provident Society (DPS)
Liverpool Central Relief Society
Brightelmston Provident Institution
Brighton Provident and District Society
Liverpool Provident District Society
Central Relief SocietySociety for the Relief of Distressed Travellers and Others (1814)
Oxford Charity Organisation Committee
Oxford Anti-Mendicity and Charity Organisation Association
Society for the Relief of Distress (1860)
Invalid Children’s Aid Association (1888)
Barnardo Evangelical Trustees
Manchester and Salford Provident Dispensary Association
Edgbaston Mendicity Society
Brighton, Hove and Preston Charity Organisation Society
Leamington Charity Organisation and Relief Society
Vigilance Association (noted to be unpopular)
Birkhead Provident and Benevolent Society (later became the Birkhead Association for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity)
Ladies’ Sanitary Society- goal to promote habits of cleanliness among the working classes
[City Name] Relief Fund
Toxteth Relief Society
Brighton Jubilee and Accident Fund
Provident Dispensary Association
Oxford Working Women’s Benefit Society- basically a pool, women paid a small amount weekly and could claim benefits if they became sick.
Croydon Charitable Society
Reading Destitute Children Aid Committee- provided footwear with insistence on weekly repayments
Sick Relief Fund
Penny Savings Bank
London Ethical Society
General Lying-In Hospital (also British Lying-In Hospital, Lying-In Charity, etc.)
St. Thomas’s Hospita
Asylum for Orphaned Girls (also Asylum for the Reception of Orphaned Girls at Lambeth)
Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts
Society for Improving the Comfort and Bettering the Conditions of the Poor
Ladies Society for Employing the Female Poor
London Female Penitentiary
Lambeth Refuge for the Destitute
Dorking Provident Institution
The Church of England Waifs and Strays Society
Crutch & Kindness League (for ‘cripples’)
Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants
Church Missionary Society
Society for Promoting the Religious Instruction of Youth
Female Friendly Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days
Charity events in Georgian England, or, the poor shall be with us always
The Philanthropic Society of Mile End for the Relief and Discharge of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts; and other objects
I’ve read many a Regency novel where the heroine and sometimes the hero were involved in charitable works which usually became a dramatic issue of the plot. I have a particular fondness for this plot addition. I know it’s foolish to believe I know history when I have mostly read fiction about the era. But the few actual historical bits I have picked up have led me to believe it was grim times all around. Just reading the names of the charities above make me shudder. I think you would have to be rather lucky or desperate to receive true help from these institutions.
Great article post Regina. Thank you.
Thanks, Michelle. It is difficult to find good information on these issues in the society of the day.
Excellent post! Doing research in old newspapers, one can’t help but notice the number of charitable events, benefits, and committees there were.
Old newspapers and letters and such are excellent sources, Lauren. I am glad you enjoyed the post.
And just last week I was hunting for charitable organizations for a new story. You read my mind and did such lovely research. Thanks so much!