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March 14, 2006

Working-Class Philanthropy in Britain - Frank Prochaska explores its rich heritage

Posted by Frank Prochaska

Britain has a rich heritage of working class philanthropy. Leading historian of philanthropy Frank Prochaska - Lecturer in History at Yale University and the author, most recently, of Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit - explores this neglected heritage.

Philanthropy in Britain reflects values that have come to be seen, rather misleadingly, as the preserve of the middle classes. Indeed, some scholars define the middle class by reference to these values, having first defined the values as "middle class". The extreme result of such logic suggests that working men and women have little altruism or humanity and reduces their relationships to self interest, or at best mutual aid. But charitable institutions have always given a voice to those who have been excluded, or have felt excluded, from the political nation: minorities, dissenters, women, and the working classes. As it has been argued elsewhere in these essays, charity is an elemental form of associational democracy. It has never been a form of democracy that excluded most of the population.

In any study of organized charity, the contribution of the working classes is likely to be underplayed, for so much of it is informal and unrecorded, unostentatious and uncelebrated. Given the level of immediate distress, charity has always been a necessity in poor neighbourhoods.

Working-class charity takes various forms, from assisting neighbours during an emergency to founding a voluntary agency to address local needs. As Mrs Pember Reeves noted in her classic study of the London district of Kennington before the First World War, the [Mrs Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week (London, 1914), pp. 39-40]:

respectable poor live over a morass of such intolerable poverty that they unite instinctively to save those known to them from falling into it.
In the nineteenth century, the charity of the poor to the poor was, according to various observers, startling in its extent [See, for example, William Conybeare, Charity of the Poor to the Poor (London, 1908)]. Friedrich Engels, invariably hostile to middle-class philanthropy, remarked that [Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, eds. W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner (Stanford, 1958), pp. 102, 140]:
although the workers cannot really afford to give charity on the same scale as the middle class, they are nevertheless more charitable in every way.
He did not consider that this expression of working-class solidarity might work to prevent a revolution.

As a glance at nineteenth-century working-class memoirs will attest, the poor knew the difference between "deserving" and "undeserving" behaviour, and they did not need to be reminded that charity, decency and self-help were wholesome. As a leading historian of respectable society remarks [F. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society (London, 1988), p. 353]:

independence, self-reliance, and self respect, pursued through companionship, co-operation, and voluntary collectivism, were hallmarks of the Victorian working classes.
Respectability was elastic, more an attitude of mind than a set of rules. Charitable institutions of all descriptions, whatever their size or social makeup, spoke its language. Whatever the background or social station of the giver, charity heightened status and self-esteem and offered a measure of respectability. It offered people in the most remote and deprived parts of the country opportunities to connect with their communities, to get outside themselves into wider experience. The respectable working class, often identified with church and chapel, was particularly noticeable in its charitable activity. Evangelical dissent, with its strength outside the wealthier strongholds of Anglicanism, was especially attractive to the upwardly mobile.

The relative dearth of evidence for organized working-class benevolence should not lead us to underestimate its extent. In the nineteenth century, working men and women established their own charity and Sunday schools, soup kitchens, washhouses, temperance societies, Salvation Army shelters, boot and clothing clubs, domestic missions, orphanages, sick clubs, mothers' meetings and visiting societies [See Frank Prochaska, The Voluntary Impulse (London, 1988), pp. 27-31, passim]. Servants set up their own charities to look after fellow servants in distress. Navvies established sick clubs and visiting societies complete with Navvy officials. The West Birmingham Relief Fund, established in 1892 by a group of workingmen, gave advice to the disabled and paid rent for deserving cases [Parliamentary Papers, Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, 1895, pp. 885, 888].

When the working classes cooperated with their wealthier neighbours, as in hospital provision, education, or foreign missions, their philanthropy acted as a springboard into the existing social system. When the poor contributed to unemployment funds, founded Chartist Sunday schools, or passed the hat round for the Tolpuddle martyrs, their actions may be seen as an expression of radical politics through private benevolence. Such forms of self expression were particularly important before the advent of universal suffrage.

Few charitable campaigns went without working-class support in the past. The statistical information for working-class charity, while fragmentary and patchy, is suggestive. A survey of rather more prosperous working-class families in the 1890s showed that half of them contributed funds to charity each week and about a quarter of them made donations to church or chapel [Family Budgets: Being the Income and Expenses of Twenty-Eight British Households, 1891-1894 (1896), p. 75].

The hospitals were among the charities favoured by working men and women. (In London, the French, German, Italian and Jewish communities established their own hospitals.) Well over half the income of several hospitals in the North of England came from "workmen" [B. Abel-Smith, The Hospitals, 1800-1948 (London, 1964), pp. 250-51]. Miners provided for others in South Wales [Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (London, 1976), p. 67]. The Saturday Fund, founded in 1874, merged charity with what many contributors saw as a scheme of medical insurance. In the 1890s it raised about 20,000 a year through workshop, factory and street collections [F. K. Prochaska, Philanthropy and the Hospitals of London: The King's Fund 1897-1990 (Oxford, 1992), p. 10]. The League of Mercy, founded in 1899, raised 600,000 from artisans, tradesmen and humble subscribers for the voluntary hospitals of London before they were nationalized in 1948 [Frank Prochaska, Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy (New Haven and London, 1995), p. 159].

In the nineteenth century, several working-class philanthropists, including John Pounds, the crippled founder of ragged schools, and Sarah Martin, the seamstress turned prison visitor, were much celebrated, if only to encourage others. Nor did contributions from the less well off go unnoticed. The Christian Mother's Magazine in 1845 announced [The Christian Mother's Magazine, vol. ii, October, 1845, p. 640]:

Poor contributions, whether we consider the proportion which they bear to the whole wealth of the givers, or their aggregate amount, are, in effect beyond all comparison the most important.
Along with hospitals and Sunday schools, the foreign missions were among the most successful at extracting donations from the labouring classes. The Methodist Missionary Society raised millions of pounds from humble subscribers in the nineteenth century largely through its sophisticated network of local associations [F. K. Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1980), p. 83]. The Evangelical Magazine pronounced [The Evangelical Magazine, vol. xxix, n.s. April, 1851, p. 226]:
The pecuniary offerings of the pious poor, both with respect to their aggregate amount and the sacrifices they involve, ought to be regarded as the most precious portion of the funds raised for the spread of the gospel among the heathen.
Participation in charitable causes was a passport to social status and social integration, but it was also a part of the pattern of working-class education and leisure. To many, it was as important as the training picked up in schools or mechanics' institutes. In encouraging skills and a wider social outlook, it was not unlike the education on offer in mutual aid societies, trade unions or benefit clubs, which, it should be said, often had a charitable dimension. Whether in their own charities or working for middle-class institutions, humble men and women honed a basic education and often developed skills in book-keeping, secretarial work, fund-raising and general administration. In voluntary societies, unlike the wider world over which they had little control, working-class campaigners could make decisions that had meaning for their own lives and those around them. In the context of the political transformation taking place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the view that charitable work represented a "nursery school of democracy" is especially apt [Parliamentary Papers, Cmd. 8710 (1952), par. 53].

Despite the expansion of government social services in the post-war years, a high level of self help and charity persisted in working-class communities. A student of one working-class district of Liverpool in the 1950s remarked [Madeline Kerr, The People of Ship Street (London, 1958), pp. 102-3]:

The extent of neighbourliness, especially in times of adversity, cannot be overstressed.
In Bradford in the 1960s, voluntary workers were much in evidence in the social service departments, but for every one of them there were four others providing informal, but regular, neighbourly help [Mary Morris, Voluntary Work in the Welfare State (London, 1969), p. 257]. When the Nathan Committee investigated charitable practices in the 1950s, it uncovered such a rich seam of unpublicised neighbourliness and familial kindness in poor communities that it concluded that such actions made "satisfactory relationships possible" [Parliamentary Papers, Cmd. 8710 (1952), par. 53]. If some social reformers had their way, more public money would have been spent propping up these traditions [See, for example, Eleanor Rathbone, The Disinherited Family (London, 1924)].

Most of the features of working-class self-help and philanthropy in the past are present today: its informality, its social aspirations, its institutional variety, its association with minorities and religion, and its woeful lack of public recognition. Most of today's social commentators are ignorant of the wide range of charitable institutions operating within poor neighbourhoods, which remain largely outside the purview of government and rarely make the headlines. (An exception was the wave of working-class charity in mining communities during the 1983 miners' strike.)

Community associations, which often merge charity with mutual aid, include co-ops, Salvation Army lunch clubs, play schemes, pensioners' clubs and carers groups. Locally organized neighbourhood schemes are, if anything, more numerous in working-class areas than elsewhere [Stephen Hatch, Outside the State: Voluntary Organisations in Three English Towns (London, 1980), p. 51]. Such institutions, though often financially insecure, have over two and a half million participants according to a recent estimate by The Community Development Foundation [Bob Holman, 'The Voluntaries: Another Perspective', Involuntary Action: How Voluntary is the "Voluntary" Sector, ed. Robert Whelan (London, 1999), pp. 41-2].

The number of black and Asian charitable workers in contemporary Britain is living proof of the fact that charity is not the preserve of the white middle class. Among the most rapidly expanding British charities in recent years are those for the support and defence of Islamic and Muslim communities. In the five years between November 1996 and November 2001, the Charity Commissioners registered 385 Islamic and Muslim societies and over 100 Hindu and Sikh charities [I am grateful to the Charity Commissioners for this information]. Meanwhile, surveys of black volunteers, some of whom are Muslim, carry on traditions of community involvement reminiscent of the respectable Victorian working class. According to one recent study, black volunteers had many of the same concerns and objectives as white volunteers and [David Obate, 'Black People and Volunteering', Volunteering & Society: Principles and Practice, eds. Rodney Hilton and Justin Davis Smith (NCVO, 1992), chapter 7]:

were mostly involved in neighbourhood care activities, such as shopping, babysitting and visiting the elderly.
Such mundane tasks are unglamorous and uncelebrated, though an essential part of a wider pattern of voluntary social action that keeps communities from collapse. It is ironic that such expressions of participatory democracy are paid so little attention in an era when notions of "contributory citizenship" are so high on the political agenda across the parties. On the rare occasions when the charitable work of people in poor neighbourhoods is noticed, there is usually a call for government funding. But state funding may bring in its train contracts and controls that would create enormous risks for small, local institutions dependent on volunteers. In a society that continues to assume that government is responsible for the provision of essential services, or should at least pay for them, the successors to John Pounds and Sarah Martin will remain invisible.

Dr Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History at Yale University and the author of Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit. Dr Prochaska's earlier essays on philanthropy for the Social Affairs Unit can be found here.


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