Philanthropy Old: Setting the Boundary Posts

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Philanthropy has always been a feature of public life from faith and good works in medieval times to charitable giving today. This symposium looks at philanthropy in its historical context, reviews the work of the great philanthropists of the nineteenth century in particular, and asks what it has to offer in the world today.

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8 November 2012   Philanthropy Old: Setting the Boundary Posts   Professor Hugh S C Cunningham   Philanthropy has a surprisingly short history. It dates back no further than the late eighteenth century. Standing here in Gresham College, founded through the generosity of Sir Thomas Gresham in the sixteenth century, that may sound an absurd claim. But Gresham was a ‘benefactor’. The first person to be called a ‘philanthropist’ was the prison reformer John Howard in the 1780s. It was in that decade, too, that there was founded the Philanthropic Society. Philanthropy was born in and out of the Enlightenment.   In this talk I want to consider the first century or so of philanthropy, up to the point in the early twentieth century where it had begun to take on recognisably modern characteristics. Our normal take on nineteenth-century philanthropy, particularly if we think of it as ‘Victorian philanthropy’, is to see it as a golden age. There is certainly much to celebrate, much too that is still embedded in our society. Think of the RSPCA, the RNLI, the NSPCC, Barnardos, all founded in the nineteenth century, all familiar to us today. Think of any town you like, and you’ll find a library, a museum, an art gallery or a public park founded by a nineteenth-century philanthropist. Or think of individuals, the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, or George Peabody, or of the chocolate philanthropists, the Rowntrees, the Cadburys, the Frys. I could go on. Like most historians, however, I’m wary of golden ages – they’re normally invented long after the events they describe. When I started looking at nineteenth-century philanthropy what struck me was the amount of criticism of it. My argument is that the force of these criticisms set up boundary posts for the role that philanthropy could play in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: philanthropy was in many ways hemmed in. I also want to trace the changes which philanthropy itself underwent. In its origins it had little or nothing to do with the giving of money.   The first criticism came from political economists. The birth of philanthropy coincided with the birth and rise to prominence of political economy. Political economists preached market solutions to social problems. They were above all concerned that wages should be determined by the market. Earning a living through wages was fundamental both to a successful economy and to personal morality. In 1824 one writer reflected on the impact that political economy had made:   ‘To convince the public, twenty or thirty years ago, of the goodness of a charity, it was sufficient to show that the objects relieved were in a state of real distress…. But now, that the circumstances are more generally known, on which the condition of the labouring classes depends, all former reasoning on the subject of charity … are invalidated…. The condition of the labouring classes with regard to the necessaries and comforts of life, is evidently determined by the rate of wages.’   Start giving to beggars or to the poor, it was said, and you begin to create dependency. Existing charitable practices came under heavy fire. As a preacher at Addenbrooke’s Hospital put it in 1797, ‘Indiscriminate donations … are not found infrequently to defeat the purposes of industry, and in a commercial kingdom may do as much harm as the most unfeeling parsimony.’ Britain was undoubtedly ‘a commercial kingdom’, and the time for indiscriminate giving was over. Nothing did more harm, it was said in 1815, than ‘the misplaced benevolence of the charitable and humane’.   This was an attack on charity and on that much-heralded eighteenth-century virtue, ‘benevolence’. By the 1820s claims were being made for ‘philanthropy’ as the means by which political economy could set bounds to unlimited charity. Teaching the poor ‘the knowledge of the laws which regulate wages’ it was said ‘… depends in a great measure upon the exertions of enlightened philanthropists’. Thirty years later, in an article tellingly entitled ‘Charity, noxious and beneficent’, the message was still being drummed home: ‘The profession of philanthropy, like every other, can be safely and serviceably practised only by those who have mastered its principles and graduated in its soundest schools. It is as dangerous to practise charity, as to practise physic without a diploma’. However, once the principles of political economy were firmly established, ‘our kindly impulses … will cast off the lazy shape of charity, and rise into the attitude and assume the garb of true philanthropy’.   Philanthropy, however, never clearly separated itself from ‘the lazy shape of charity’. By the 1860s there were mutterings about ‘a misguided and sanguine philanthropy’, about ‘Misdirected Philanthropy’. Philanthropy seemed to be no better than the charity or benevolence from which it was trying to emancipate itself. In 1877 the Liberal George Goschen complained in the House of Commons that political economy had been dethroned ‘and philanthropy had been allowed to take its place. Political economy was the bugbear of the working classes, and philanthropy, he was sorry to say, was their idol’.   Reading such warnings could reduce well-intentioned people to a state of paralyzing uncertainty.  In the mid-1840s Mary Carpenter, at the outset of a famous career working with street children, wrote for advice on the matter and her mentor, James Martineau, replied, ‘I can discover no satisfactory guiding principle to determine the conflict between Christian compassion and Christian economy, so that I never give, and never withhold without compunction.’ The ‘Christian economy’ that Martineau referred to was fundamentally political economy, a fact brought home by the response of Brooke Lambert, a vicar in London’s East End, in the face of the tide of indiscriminate West End money that had poured into the East End in a bad year. Preaching before the University of Oxford in 1868, ‘The marvel of Christ’s life’, said Lambert, ‘is his repression of his powers of benevolence’. It was a new take on the gospel: Christians, like Christ, should repress their ‘powers of benevolence’. Giving became a hazardous enterprise. It was said of John Ruskin, that ‘he never dares to give anything in the streets without looking on all sides to see whether there is a political economist coming.’ Even a clergyman, like Brooke Lambert, could well be a political economist in disguise.   The assumption of this discourse that I have been putting before you was that the fundamental task of charity and philanthropy was to provide relief to the poor. And within that overall mission the even more fundamental task was to do that without demoralising the poor, without creating a dependency class. At an institutional level the foundation of the Charity Organisation Society in the late 1860s was the most concerted effort to put political economy into practice in the charitable world. The COS normally doesn’t feature in testimonials to the golden age of Victorian philanthropy – though it has had some recent defenders. It set out to conduct a vigorous investigation of every claimant and to direct them to an appropriate source of help – the Poor Law for those ‘undeserving’ or ‘unhelpable’, some suitable charity for those who came through the investigation more positively. The COS was much better at setting out its ideal agenda than at finding the resources to put it into practice. Outside London its presence was often sketchy, its presuppositions challenged. But no one can doubt that the COS, up to the First World War, was a leading participant in discussions of poverty and how to deal with it.   The people who wrote for the COS did not think of themselves as ‘philanthropists’, nor did others label them as such. They were an increasingly professionalised class of social scientists and policy-makers whose ideas were put into effect by people who began to be called ‘social workers’. Faced with dire warnings of the evils they could cause by misplaced benevolence, would-be philanthropists turned their attention elsewhere. Philanthropy and the relief of poverty became disconnected. Through the twentieth century and continuing to the present there seems to me to have been a tense and uneasy relationship between ‘the voluntary sector’ and the charitable organisations that it consists of, and philanthropy, the more so as the voluntary sector turned to the state as a source of finance. The voluntary sector sees itself as playing the leading role in dealing with poverty, philanthropy an occasional piece of icing on the cake.   The second criticism of philanthropy came from those who saw it as failing to provide adequate solutions to the social problems of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The state, it was argued, must play a bigger role. If philanthropy in the nineteenth century had to pitch itself in relation to political economy, by the twentieth century it was doing so also in relation to the state. Philanthropy, it was argued, was patchy in its coverage, condescending in its attitudes and with insufficient resources for the scale of the problems thrown up by urban and industrial society. Many rejected it on democratic and socialist grounds. A second boundary post was being erected. If the political economists who had so scared philanthropists can be seen as on the right of the political spectrum, the Fabians and others who championed the role of the state were on the left. A pincer movement was strangling philanthropy, or at least many forms of it.   Third, philanthropy was also being questioned by feminists. Women had always found it difficult to break into the masculine world of philanthropy except on the margins where they were welcome as fund-raisers and district visitors. Men planned big schemes of philanthropy, women dealt with the problems of individuals. Josephine Butler put it this way in 1869: ‘We have had experience of what we may call the feminine form of philanthropy, and independent individual ministering, of too medieval a type to suit the present day. It has failed. We are now about to try the masculine form of philanthropy – large and comprehensive measures, organizations and systems planned by men and sanctioned by Parliament.’ Perhaps, she hoped, the two forms could be harmonised into one. It was a hope that was hardly fulfilled.   The male/female divide was very much to the fore at this time. Consider George Eliot’s distinctly acerbic view of male philanthropy in Middlemarch, written in the early 1870s but set in the years leading up to the First Reform Act of 1832. Eliot presents us with two male philanthropists. Neither is in any way a flattering portrait. Mr Brooke, Dorothea’s uncle and guardian, talks about getting into Parliament, sitting as an independent, and working ‘at philanthropy’. But he is rambling in his thoughts and speech, and his conclusions are difficult to predict or fathom: ‘It was only safe to say’, we hear from the narrator, ‘that he would act with benevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out’. Eliot’s second target was Mr Bulstrode, ‘the philanthropic banker’, an evangelical, the projector of a new hospital and a man whose considerable power stemmed from his knowledge of people’s financial secrets. But Bulstrode himself turns out to have a secret to hide and is disgraced. So much for male philanthropy in either its secular or Christian guises.   Dorothea, by contrast, has an instinct to help others, always looking for ways in which she can do so. Inheriting a fortune on the death of her husband, she sits herself down ‘before her particular little heap of books on political economy’, but she can’t concentrate. A much better guide is her own heart. There is no hint that her charitable impulses are anything other than natural and likely to be of benefit. Philanthropy, Eliot seems to be saying, is a masculine world, full of grandiose schemes, their outward appearances often masking inner ambitions and vanity on the part of the progenitor. Women have no place in it. The third boundary post made philanthropy dominantly a male avocation.   Political economists, Fabians, women, they were formidable critics of philanthropy. From a quite different angle, so were the fourth body of critics, the recipients of philanthropy. Their problem was that what they wanted - money- was what the philanthropists wouldn’t give. What the poor were given, it’s true, could sometimes be converted into money. Well-meaning people who collected and donated clothing for schoolchildren noticed that they never saw the children wearing the clothes – they had been pawned or sold. Without the money that they wanted, recipients used charity and charitable organisations for their own purposes, often at some distance from the aims of the charitable. ‘Orphanages’, for example, rarely had many orphans – they were a place of often temporary deposit for children whom parents couldn’t care for. There is also striking evidence of the unintended consequences of philanthropy from Barnardos. After Barnardo was banned from gaining publicity through his staged before and after photos, he still continued to take a photograph of every entrant to a Barnardo home. Far from being clad in rags, many were well-dressed, taken to Barnardos because their parents saw time there as likely to lead to a steady job – it’s difficult to imagine anything further distant from the street Arabs that featured in Barnardo’s propaganda. A further problem was that recipients were not always sufficiently grateful. A report on the ‘State of the Peasantry in the county of Kent’ in 1839 claimed that the peasants received any charity ‘with ingratitude and sulleness’. Donors erected barriers to keep the poor at a distance. To get into a hospital, for example, you needed letters of recommendation. W. H. Davies, in his The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, gives an account, at once hilarious and tragic, of his expenditure on paper and stamps writing to anyone who might give him the appropriate recommendation. The charity of the poor to the poor, by contrast, was, many observers claimed, of much more importance than that of the rich to the poor, and given with no strings attached beyond some notion of reciprocity.    Scared away from trying to deal with poverty, the secret or not so secret millionaires of the nineteenth century turned to less controversial ways of giving, and, it has to be said, ones which might better preserve their names to posterity. Hospitals, dispensaries, schools, asylums, public parks, libraries, museums and art galleries, perhaps that 5 per cent philanthropy that might improve housing, these became the characteristic forms of nineteenth-century philanthropy. Although similar in form across the country, these kinds of giving were rooted in a sense of locality and of civic bourgeois culture. By the end of the century that culture was breaking up: the sons of self-made businessmen, educated at public schools, began to think and act nationally, not locally. Creating the civic infrastructure was the achievement of the nineteenth century, and was running out of steam by 1900. Another boundary post was being established.   These boundary posts I have described constrained the role that philanthropy could play in the twentieth century. And there was yet another post, perhaps bigger than all the rest. Philanthropy by the end of the nineteenth century was measured in cash terms. This would have astonished John Howard a century earlier. He was called a philanthropist because of his love of humankind. A meticulous man, he carefully counted up the miles he had travelled inspecting prisons (42,033), but made no mention of any money he might have given. If philanthropy as a word was born in the late eighteenth century, for many years it had no clear and fixed meaning. Especially on the left of the political spectrum, it was common to make a claim to be a ‘lover of humankind’. When the land reformer Thomas Spence died in 1814 his disciples set themselves up as the ‘Society of Spencean Philanthropists’, and were involved in the Spa Field riots and the Cato Street conspiracy. In 1818 the first attempt to form a General Union of all trades was called the ‘Philanthropic Hercules’. Perhaps more relevant for us, mutualist organisations adopted the philanthropic label. The Philanthropic Society of House Carpenters and Joiners in Newcastle in 1812, for example, was a mutual aid society, dedicated ‘upon all just occasions to assist and support each other’. Blackburn in 1839 was home to a Philanthropic Burial Society, with over 130,000 members by 1872. In ways which are not entirely clear these alternative left-wing and mutualist versions of philanthropy died away, and philanthropy became, as it remains, a preserve of the rich. In the government’s White Paper on Giving the section on philanthropy dealt exclusively with ‘high net-worth individuals’.   I could give a more upbeat account of nineteenth-century philanthropy. But equally relevant, I think, are the boundary posts which were established by the early twentieth century which set limits to the territory in which philanthropy could operate. Political economy had made direct intervention to relieve poverty hazardous in the extreme, possibly more harmful than beneficial. From a different angle, the state was about to take over many of the functions which previously had belonged to voluntary organisations, the latter deemed inadequate to cope with the scale of the problem. When people talked about the ‘new philanthropy’ in the inter-war years, they thought of it working in harmony with the state, filling in the gaps, experimenting, but not the lead actor. Only with the critique of the welfare state since the 1980s has philanthropy been able to escape from that restriction. In terms of gender, there was inherited a sense, still, I think, discernible, whereby men initiated and ran the big projects, women were more drawn to or felt themselves confined to more personal interactions and roles. As to the recipients of philanthropy, they have always had a different perspective to that of the donors. But perhaps the most unexpected boundary post, and one still very much with us, is that which inextricably bound philanthropy with the giving of money. Through what processes and with what consequences, we may ask, did philanthropy, a love of humankind, come to be expressed through what the nineteenth century called ‘the cash nexus’?                                                                                                                       © Professor Hugh S C Cunningham 2012

Professor Hugh Cunningham

Emeritus Professor of Social History, University of Kent. Professor Cunningham is the author of books including the following: The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood...

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