Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century

Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century

by Donna T. Andrew

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In this study of voluntary charities in eighteenth-century London, Donna Andrew reconsiders the adequacy of humanitarianism as an explanation for the wave of charitable theorizing and experimentation that characterized this period. Focusing on London, the most visible area of both destitution and social experimentation, this book examines the political as well as


In this study of voluntary charities in eighteenth-century London, Donna Andrew reconsiders the adequacy of humanitarianism as an explanation for the wave of charitable theorizing and experimentation that characterized this period. Focusing on London, the most visible area of both destitution and social experimentation, this book examines the political as well as benevolent motives behind the great expansion of public institutions—nondenominational organizations seeking not only to relieve hardship, but to benefit the nation directly—funded and run by voluntary associations of citizens. The needs of police, the maintaining of civil order and the refining of society, were thought by many ordinary citizens to be central to the expansion of England's role in the world and to the upholding of the country's peace at home.

Drawing on previously unexplored and unsynthesized materials, this work reveals the interaction between charitable theorizing and practical efforts to improve the condition of the poor. The author argues that it is impossible to comprehend eighteenth-century charity without taking into account its perceived social utility, which altered as circumstances mandated. For example, the charities of the 1740s and 1750s, founded to aid in the strengthening of England's international supremacy, lost their public support as current opinions of England's most urgent needs changed. Creating and responding to new visions of what well-directed charities might accomplish, late-century philanthropists tried using charitable institutions to reknit what they believed was a badly damaged social fabric.

Originally published in 1989.

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Philanthropy and Police

London Charity in the Eighteenth Century

By Donna T. Andrew


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05557-2


"All Mankind's Concern": Religion, Commerce, and Charity, 1680–1740

Thus God and nature linked the gen'ral frame And bade self-love and social be the same

— Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733)

English men and women of the eighteenth century judged it to be a great age of benevolence. They were convinced that a new phase in England's care of the poor had been initiated, vindicating for all time the superiority of the Protestant faith, which, while not making good works the method of salvation, showed its true Christianity by its overflowing beneficence. It was said that as soon as a need was found, a charity was established to care for it. This is an interesting though not entirely accurate assessment.

Until quite recently we have known very little about the shape of eighteenth-century giving. Perhaps too easily convinced by Tawney and his followers that the mercantile spirit was a mercenary one, we have not, on the whole, despite appeals from Charles Wilson and others, really understood either the spirit or the course of charitable operations in this century. In this chapter we will attempt to trace the intellectual roots of that benevolence and understand its nature.

David Owen, the most prominent historian of the charities of modern England, has warned us of the dangers of speculating about motives. He wrote that "it would be hardly rewarding to speculate at length on the motives which inspired [Londoners] to donate or bequeath sizeable sums for public purposes." Yet, when Archbishop Seeker addressed those very Londoners who formed the many committees that made charities function, he warned them that motive was all: "To the Poor indeed it is all one from what Principle we give, but to us the Difference is Infinite. In the Heart lies all the Value." Thus, despite Owen's apt and sensible warning, we are impelled to search the treacherous and murky waters of motivation, to discern and disentangle, so far as we are able, the complex currents of the heart.

Many historians, in seeking to explain the midcentury outpouring of charitable assistance, have fallen back on the notion of tradition, in this case a "tradition of benevolence." That people gave to charities because their forebears had, and because it was expected that they too would, while undoubtedly true, does not explain why they gave in the manner they did or why such giving, over the course of the century, sought different objectives for its goals. Nor, in fact, does it help us to understand more clearly the psychology of motivation. The idea of a tradition of benevolence as an inexorable weight pressing relentlessly and constantly upon its hapless victims (or, in this case, donors), coercing them, willy-nilly, into reaching into their pocketbooks and giving to whatever comes along, explains little.

In fact, tradition is a more delicate and complex organism, responding creatively to new stimuli within a wide framework of past choices. Tradition is that living past, reinterpreted and modified by the views and needs of the present. If we think of tradition in this fluid and nondeterministic way, we can discuss the complex of traditions that fueled the charitable sentiments of this period. What I wish to do then, is to look at a series of "traditions" in order to locate and describe the concurrence of convictions that set the stage for the emergence of the charities of the midcentury.

Christianity and Charity

The first of the traditions that I would like to examine is the religious one, that is, the general role and specific views of English clerics toward poverty and charity. The question of the nature and ultimate reason for the existence of poverty has always been a central theological question. However, with few notable exceptions, historians of the eighteenth century are still laboring under the view, proposed by R. H. Tawney many years ago, that such thought either does not exist, or is not worth studying. Tawney claimed that after the Civil War "religious opinion laid less emphasis on the obligation of charity than upon the duty of work, and that the admonitions which had formerly been turned upon uncharitable covetousness were now directed against improvidence and idleness." The Puritan ideal, Tawney held, undermined the old criticisms of uncharitableness to the poor by instead stressing the need for the poor to support themselves, that alms were of less importance in salvation than that faith which manifests itself in acquisition and material attainment.

Tawney maintained that "the growing individualism of the [post–Civil War] age ... saw in misfortune, not the chastisement of love, but the punishment of sin." An examination of the religious writings of this period reveals a much more ambiguous attitude toward poverty than Tawney had led us to expect. From the eminent dissenter, Thomas Gouge, writing in the 1670s, through the bishop of Gloucester, Martin Benson, writing more than fifty years later, clerics strongly asserted (as had their medieval and early modern predecessors) that poverty was the result not of sin, but of God's providential plan for the world; that poverty was God's gracious method of allowing men to win salvation in the exercise of their mutual ties of obligation and gratitude. Thus, in a sermon entitled "The Value of Charity," the Anglican theologian Daniel Waterland, noting that "God could have provided for [the poor] in a thousand other ways," stressed the beneficial effects of almsgiving to the donor.

Charity was accorded a central role in religious life. Isaac Barrow; the bishop of Durham, William Talbot; the Jacobite bishop Francis Atterbury; the theologian Daniel Waterland; and Knightly Chetwood, dean of Gloucester, all held that charity was the main element in true Christian observance. Talbot, for example, wrote that "the excellency of this Grace [charity] is that 'tis preferable to Faith and Hope, the very bond of perfectness, the fulfilling of the Law, and that it shall cover a multitude of sins." And although Atterbury and Benjamin Hoadly disagreed about most things, Atterbury, like Hoadly, thought that "to practice 'virtue and charity under the belief in a Supreme Governor' was to be religious."

If poverty is providential, then Christians, if they wish salvation, clearly stand obliged to care for and succor the poor. However, it is at this point that difficulties and distinctions arise. What is to be the nature of this charity? What is the strength of the obligation to give to the poor? What can or should one expect from one's alms? It is to these questions that we must turn.

That charity is the heart of Christianity is merely platitudinous unless given some more substance. This, some eighteenth-century divines were prepared to do. Following medieval precedents, Chetwood argued that charity was not merely voluntary benevolence, but mandatory justice entailed on the enjoyment of any form of property. "We are apt," he noted, "to take it for granted that our Estates ... are entirely at our own Disposal, legal Debts being discharg'd; but this is a great Mistake, Charity is a principal Branch of Justice, ... we are but Stewards, not Proprietors, even when Estates are gotten by the most justifiable Means." As late as 1734, Joseph Roper could argue "that if we have not disposed of those good Things, which he hath deposited in our Hands, according to the Will and Intention of the Sovereign Proprietor, that we are guilty of gross Mis-application." This view had not yet disappeared in the 1740s, when Henry Layng characterized all wealth as "the gracious Gift of God only," or when the future bishop of Rochester, Zachariah Pearce, refuting the Lockean notion that the right to property derives from human labor, asked whether even this was not God's bounty, "for who gave the prosperous Voyage to the Vessels, which came home freighted with thy Riches? Was it not God?"

Charity was thus a natural and inevitable activity for all good Christians. Through the first five decades of the eighteenth century, contrary to Tawney's view, clerics continued to insist that almsgiving, directed by the spirit of sacrifice, was essentially a self-regarding religious act. "True Charity" said Jabez Earle in a sermon of 1728, mirroring the same sentiment expressed earlier by Waterland, "is for God's sake." Charity then was an act of devotion involving the giver and God; it was a demonstration of the sincere believer's faith in Providence. The man who gives his substance to the poor "does therefore plainly own it to be in God's power to afford him a fresh supply of all things that are necessary for him." This cheerful resignation of the goods of the world has the happy effect, not only of "covering sins" at the day of judgment, but also of insuring God's blessings on our enterprises in this life. "Liberality," said Isaac Barrow in his most famous sermon, "The Duty and Reward of Bounty to the Poor," "is the most beneficial trade that can be. ... We thereby lend our money to God, who repays with vast usury; an hundred to one is the rate he allows at present, and about a hundred million to one he will render hereafter."

In addition to this central religious motive to acts of kindness, beneficence also had important social consequences. Though Tawney remarked that railings against covetousness ceased along with the demand to be charitable, we can see the old tradition continuing unbroken from Barrow to Thomas Seeker, who saw in charity the best medicine for the sin of covetousness, preventing "the Love of Money from fixing and growing upon us." Not only was charitable donation a remedy for miserliness, but charity was also seen as springing from a sense of common humanity. For, "as we are all Children of the same Father" we cannot help being "affected with the Wants and Miseries of our Fellow-Creatures."

But to whom should the good Christian be charitable? Should he be kind only to good Christians, or to those clearly deserving? What should be hoped for as a consequence of such charity? The single most frequent, and somewhat misleading, response to the first question is that we should be charitable to all, that we should give even to those who may be wicked, or to those from whom we can expect no advantage. Furthermore, the preachers warned the charitable not to slacken their efforts under the misapprehension that misery was the just reward of vice, and thus not to be ameliorated by alms or care; Waterland called this "the drawing rash and uncharitable conclusions from greater suffering to greater sins." As to the ends of charity, clerics like Atterbury, William Lupton, and Seeker urged their hearers to exercise "a calm settled Benevolence on all fit Occasions, because we ought; without hoping to succeed very often, or to produce on the whole a remarkable Change for the better."

Despite this seeming urging to indiscriminate almsgiving, directions and limitations on charity were recognized and recommended. Seeker, for one, set out a list of priorities for benevolence that would not have been out of place in a medieval text, beginning with kindnesses to kindred and ending with those due the poor. But, in fact, priorities and expansive generosity were not mutually exclusive. "Our part," said Atterbury, "is to chuse out the most deserving Objects, and the most likely to answer the Ends of our Charity, and when that is done, all is done, that lies in our Power: the rest must be left to Providence. ... What we bestow on these Occasions is given by us, not as unto Men, but as unto God. ... And, with him, the Value of our Gift depends not on the Success of it."

In looking at the social and charitable attitudes of clerics for the decades preceding 1740, we have so far stressed the continuity of thought and admonition between these eighteenth-century churchmen and their predecessors. However, since tradition is a living thing, these opinions did not and could not remain unchanged, and were, in fact, sometimes subtly, sometimes massively, reinterpreted and renovated. Often the same cleric held two different, and contradictory views simultaneously. These contradictions illustrate the difficulties of revivifying a received tradition.

We have already noted that clerics continued to believe that poverty was a providentially arranged condition, ordained by God so that men could earn salvation through the reciprocal processes of kindness and gratitude. At the same time, clerics also began to give other explanations for this vexatious condition. Seeker, for example, thought poverty an inevitable result of the combination of natural inequality and the transmission of property. This new insight into the nature of poverty rested on a new understanding of the limits and obligations of property. Those who viewed poverty entirely as providential had seen charity as the rent annexed to the use of property, and thus judged almsgiving to be merely the workings of justice. In the new proprietary view, however, justice had become detached from the duty to charity, and attached to the promulgation of private property. "Hence it appears," noted Bishop Thomas Sherlock, "that Property is established ... by the positive Law of God; which is to us the highest Reason and Authority. ... And to this Right of his own establishing even God himself submits." How then were the poor to be cared for? "The Poor are his [God's] peculiar Charge; his Providence stands engaged for their Support: But neither does God force us to part with our Estates to the Poor, or give the Poor any Right to serve themselves out of the Abundance and Superfluity of others." They are to be maintained "by the free and voluntary Gift of such as can spare from their own subsistence some Part of what they enjoy."

With charity removed from the realm of obligation to that of voluntary action, from justice to mercy, clerics also began to reassess the amount or portion of one's property that one was bound to give away. Bishop Gilbert Burnet, interpreting Christ's command to "sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor," noted that this injunction was meant to apply only in times of "famine or persecution," but that "in ordinary cases to do it, might be rather a tempting of Providence than a trusting to it, for then a man should part with the means of his subsistence, which God has provided for him, without a necessary and pressing occasion." Burnet concluded by urging moderation even in the virtue of charity. "We should be," in the words of the prebendary of St. Paul's, Richard Grey, "merciful after our Power." Though God expects charity from all, noted Archbishop Seeker, the amount required is left to individual discretion. Even clerics like Lupton, who maintained that "God is the sole Lord, who hath intrusted us with Treasures, to be disposed of not as our own humours direct, but according to his express direction and commandment in supporting and comforting the Needy and Afflicted," felt it would be unreasonable, not to say dangerous, for the rich overzealously to dispossess themselves of their property, or even of their superfluities. It was only in the enjoyment of such property that rank and hierarchy, as well as the true church, could be maintained. Indeed, all that was required was that people of wealth "retrench unnecessary expenses at least, abridge their pleasures, shorten their diversions, cut off as much as possible from the pomp and pride of life, to spend upon the poor." And while covetousness was still decried as a sin, frugality, its near kin, was seen as a necessary virtue. The getting and enjoying of wealth, rather than making it more difficult to attain salvation, was now described as a beneficial and moral state. The good Christian, according to Thomas Lynford, "is neither any Way dishonest, nor oversolicitous in the Management of his Affairs, but yet is very careful and industrious, that so, if it be possible, he may procure to himself a comfortable subsistence in the World." In fact, clerics began to warn of the possibility of overcharitableness. "Some have carried their public spiritedness too far and piqued themselves on manifesting Good-Will to their Fellow-Creatures, by Undertakings out of their Province, and even beyond their Abilities."


Excerpted from Philanthropy and Police by Donna T. Andrew. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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