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Middle Class Philanthropy

What was the social function of philanthropy for the upper and middle classes in nineteenth-century Britain?

Philanthropy can be defined as the act of giving to improve human welfare, or simply as a ‘love of mankind’, a phrase which sounds suitably worthy. Yet, in contrast to contemporary opinion like that of Lecky, who claimed that the anti-slavery campaign was ‘perfectly virtuous’, few today would credit nineteenth-century philanthropists with purely altruistic motives. Modern historiography favours more pragmatic explanations for the rise of philanthropy; a means of advertising wealth and status, a way to assuage the collective conscience of the prosperous classes in the face of the desperate poverty of their countrymen, a means of social control, and so on. Yet were nineteenth-century philanthropists really just hypocrites, seeking to use charity as a front for their own gain? There have been some historians in recent times who have ascribed more worthy functions to nineteenth-century philanthropy; Davidoff and Hall have pointed to the way in which it enabled middle class women to break out of the confines of the domestic sphere and Haskell has argued that a growing understanding of causality led the upper and middle classes to genuinely feel for those who needed their help. This essay shall seek to prove that there was no single social function of philanthropy that can explain its existence, the picture being more complex than many analyses have given credit for. In addition it shall attempt to look at how the obvious social functions modern historians have been able to observe of nineteenth-century philanthropy may not be the ones contemporaries felt it was performing. 

Perhaps the most cold hearted social function nineteenth-century philanthropy has been credited with is advertising and bolstering social status. It was for this reason, the sceptical have argued, that the upper and middle classes were willing to devote large amounts of time and energy to philanthropic causes. These philanthropists then advertised their good works, one example of this is the vogue for wearing the Wedgwood designed cameo of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Not only did this involvement, perhaps subscribing to a society or sitting on a committee, imply economic status, in that one had sufficient funds and leisure to undertake such activities, it also advertised one’s moral status; something which was especially attractive in the face of the strict religious mores in place in the early and mid-nineteenth century. With this in mind it is unsurprising that, as Oldfield points out, many of the early philanthropists belonged to particularly charity minded religious orders, the Quakers for example had petitioned parliament to abolish slavery as early as 1783. In a society where heaven and hell were still very real concepts many saw philanthropy and charitable endeavour as the best way to safeguard their own souls as well as reform others. Yet, as logical as this social function seems to be, there are fundamental problems with such an interpretation of the role philanthropy played in the lives of the upper and middle classes. Most striking is the fact that much charity was kept anonymous; Dr. Barnardo, for example, only printed the initials of donors and in any case much charity remained informal in spite of the ever growing number of societies. Evidence of this is ample in the records of the Charity Organisation Society, founded in 1869 as a means of organising the administration of charity; COS officials despaired of ever convincing some that it was better to give money to COS than directly to the poor. Another important fact to note is that not all charity originated with the upper and middle classes. Prochaska points to the old tradition of kinship and neighbourly charity amongst what we would consider the working classes. They also contributed to formal charity; the Christian Mothers Magazine commented that the donations of the poor whether in terms of the aggregate amount, or in proportion to their total wealth, were ‘beyond all comparison the most important. Whilst, then, the display of social status, both economic and moral, was undoubtedly an important social function of philanthropy for some, the anonymity of much charity and the recognition that any status it conferred must be shared with the lower orders meant that it was not the dominant social function.

Almost as equally widespread is the belief that the main social function of nineteenth-century philanthropy was to alleviate the guilt of the wealthy over their good fortune. Even contemporaries felt this was often the driving force behind philanthropy; Engels, in his ‘Condition of the Working Classes’, claimed that the middle classes were vampiric, sucking ‘the wretched workers dry’ then afterwards throwing ‘miserable crumbs’ of charity to quieten their consciences. Certainly one of the major contemporary criticisms of philanthropy recognised by historians such as Harrison is that it was insufficient; statistics show for example that late Victorian colliery disaster-funds could provide for the families of only an eighth of the men killed in the coal-mining industry. Even when the money was forthcoming some felt it was to the detriment of the working classes, whether through the demeaning process by which the recipient had to prove they were a member of the ‘deserving’ poor, or as the Northern Star felt in 1842 that charity from employers was being funded by ‘deliberately underpaying their employees’. Such a sceptical view of the motives of the upper and middle classes of the nineteenth-century has only been encouraged by much historical research of the period; the growth of women’s history in the 1960s and 1970s drew attention to the hypocrisy of the Victorian ‘double standard’, epitomised perhaps most strikingly in the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act which states that adultery on the part of a wife is grounds for a divorce, but not on the part of a husband. It is understandable that modern historians should assume the same hypocrisy in other areas of nineteenth-century society. Yet, we should be cautious in accepting the situation as black and white; Haskell has convincingly, although with needless complexity, argued against the idea of mass self-deception during this period. This suggests, not that philanthropy was a purely altruistic undertaking but, that the motives behind philanthropy were far more complex than is often assumed. For some philanthropy was almost all consuming; Thomas Clarkson for example has been described as ‘single minded and obsessive’ over his involvement with the anti-slavery movement, driven by a sense of the unjustness of the institution. For most however philanthropy offered a complex web of social functions, of which appeasing a sense of guilt can have been only a minor thread.

If, then, the advertising of social status and alleviating the guilty burden of prosperity were not the main functions of nineteenth-century philanthropy perhaps an equally pragmatic, but less morally dubious, function was its true attraction. I allude to its fostering of a sense of community, something which, although often overlooked in the historiography of the topic, must have had increased appeal given the urban expansion witnessed in this century. Regardless of the intricacies of demographic arguments it is nevertheless safe to say that urban populations were growing; between 1750 and 1801 for example the population of Manchester alone more than quadrupled from 18,000 to 89,000. Urbanisation has often been considered for its role in creating the need for philanthropy, in eroding the close paternalistic relationship between lord and tenants, and kinship bonds between families. But it wasn’t just the working classes who were affected; the middle classes in particular were forced to carve out an identity for themselves, something which has been much documented in relation to nineteenth century class formation by historians such as Wahrman. The formal structure of philanthropic societies could provide a network of people of similar status and interests; Davidoff and Hall have drawn attention to how such societies provided communities along the gendered ‘separate spheres’ model, something which will be considered more fully later in this essay. For now it is suffice to point out that societies provided men with useful experience for the political world and influential contacts; many societies invited members of the aristocracy to act as patrons or chairmen for example. Women could use philanthropy as a front for making friends or even finding a husband; charity balls and dinners could provide opportunities for the sexes to mix as well as by more informal means, door to door fundraising for example was often an excellent method of meeting new people. Similarly criticisms levelled at nineteenth-century philanthropists, such as the advertising of their involvement in charity, may well have been more to do with advertising their belonging to the society. The women who wore anti-slavery cameos and refused to buy West Indies sugar in the 1780s, regardless of their true sympathies with the cause, were explicitly showing their involvement in a wider community. This focus on community is equally as clear in the remit of the Charity Organisation Society, set up to artificially recreate the community of older times where charity had not been from ‘strangers to strangers.’ The point here is not that philanthropy had no other social function than fostering a sense of community, but that it is undoubtedly a factor that had some bearing on contemporaries and provides evidence of the complex nature of the relationship of the nineteenth-century public to philanthropic activity.

Returning to the arguments of Davidoff and Hall there is the interesting idea that one of the major social functions of nineteenth-century philanthropy was the ways in which it reinforced the dominant gender ideology of ‘separate spheres’ in upper and middle class rhetoric. In the early nineteenth-century most philanthropic societies were strictly male only; they were seen as a new way of ‘asserting manliness’, enabling men to gain experience in the public, political, sphere which could later be put to use at municipal, or even parliamentary, level. Even when permitted into the society women often needed to be guaranteed by a man, as in the Botanical and Horticultural Society, and even in the late Victorian period most still barred women from positions of power, such as on the committees. This position may seem strange when the high levels of female involvement in philanthropic causes is remembered; the Bible Society alone had over 10,000 women agents by 1820. Yet in some ways women’s involvement resulted in little conflict with the ‘separate spheres’ ideology; it was widely believed for example that women were inherently more pious and given to charity than men. Elizabeth Fry justified her own philanthropic activities by claiming that women had a vocation in helping their own sex, similarly women volunteers were seen as essential in dealing with children (in orphanages, or the increasing number of voluntary schools) and women. It was perhaps the focus on women that tempered the shocking sight of Josephine Butler speaking publicly on the problems of prostitution and the evils of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. It cannot be ignored however that philanthropy, in many ways, was explicitly subverting the ‘separate spheres’ ideology; it provided employment, in some cases paid, for women. As already discussed these societies were providing upper and middle class women with a sense of community outside of the family; this must have been particularly gratifying for middle class women from strict religious backgrounds who were simultaneously barred from paid employment and the frivolous amusements of the upper classes. The way in which philanthropic work could provide women’s lives with a sense of purpose is shown in the case of the invalid daughter of a Birmingham banker who was allowed to oversee a day school for working class girls because, in the words of her sister, ‘she could enter into so few amusements.’ Philanthropy, then, undoubtedly played a part in the rise of first wave feminism in the late Victorian period as women put into practice the skills, such as fund-raising and propaganda, they had learnt through their involvement in philanthropic societies; but for most of the nineteenth-century the most prominent social function philanthropy fulfilled in respect to the gender divide was to provide an important outlet for educated middle and upper class women frustrated with the domestic sphere to become involved, at least on a small scale, in the public sphere.

Following on, then, from this idea of women finding a way to exert their influence through philanthropy we come to perhaps the most important, in hindsight, social function of nineteenth century philanthropy. The idea that philanthropy offered a means for the middle classes to exert social control over the lower orders has become increasingly popular in recent years, not least because it was a means of exerting power without needing access to the formal mechanisms of politics which were barred to the middle classes until 1832. Advocates of this view such as Fido point to the contemporary distinctions made between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor; the Charity Organisation Society sought to consider the applicants for charity along the lines recommended for official poor relief under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Through casework - the Society was handling 25,000 cases per annum in London alone by 1886 – those involved with COS hoped to weed out false claimants. Notoriously heavy handed, assistance was routinely refused if applicants failed to comply 100 per cent with the COS investigation into their background for example, the impact of the work of the COS and like minded philanthropists was still seen amongst themselves as worthy of the gratitude and deference of the lower orders. Certainly it created an atmosphere where members of the working classes were forced to at least be seen to emulate the dominant middle class values if they were to have any hope of receiving charity; this meant in practice that families attempted to look ‘respectable’ in the face of impoverishment and the adoption of the male breadwinner ideology. Before the nineteenth century working class men sought to work for themselves, to rely on their own labour for survival; by the mid-nineteenth century they had appropriated the concept of the ‘family wage’ earned in the employment of another. It would seem then that the middle classes in particular were using philanthropy as a means of social control, a way of imposing their values down the social scale. Yet, as Prochaska has argued, the working classes did not passively accept these values; anecdotal evidence suggests that looking respectable was something that only need matter on the day the voluntary caseworker paid their home visit. More importantly, far from creating a grateful and docile labouring class, the harsh ‘cruel to be kind’ approach of nineteenth-century philanthropists engendered a sense of class tension and resentment. The working classes were suspicious of philanthropists ‘meddling’ and suspected less than pure motives for middle class philanthropy, the Northern Star, as quoted earlier claimed employers funded their philanthropic activity by underpaying workers – in turn forcing many of them to then rely on the sympathy of those unscrupulous employers; taking us back to philanthropy as a means of social control.

Before making a decision either way as to whether philanthropy was a means of social control the question must be asked, were nineteenth century philanthropists actively seeking to use it for this purpose? Haskell has argued that philanthropy emerged as a result of a more sophisticated understanding of cause and effect; that is to say that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the expansion of the economic market enabled people to realise that their actions had profound consequences, that the two were explicitly linked and could be controlled by their restraint or lack thereof. This argument would suggest that as well as realising that by choosing not to introduce safeguards on machinery, for example, they were responsible for any accidents occurring as a result, nineteenth-century people were equally as capable of recognising the advantages of social control they could gain by closely controlling the allocation of charity to those who fulfilled their own criteria – those who had the middle class values of thrift and temperance for example. Woolman, an eighteenth-century abolitionist Quaker minister, had claimed that slaveholder’s were only immoral if they had recognised that what they were doing was wrong; I think that in this idea we might find some salvation for the memory of nineteenth-century philanthropists. That their charity was often prejudiced cannot be denied, Dickens despaired in the 1830s that the wealthy would sooner give money to those in far-flung Borrioboola-Gha than the needy on their own doorstop. But it is doubtful that the majority saw the situation in the same light; the inhabitants of Borrioboola-Gha were open to reform, could be converted to Christianity through the work of missionaries funded by the Bible Society. The domestic pauper population by comparison were regarded in many ways as being beyond redemption. The ‘undeserving’ poor, it was felt, in accordance with prevailing religious opinion could not benefit from charity; they had to learn the lessons for themselves. Philanthropy did provide a means of social control, but it was not its conscious aim; what seems harsh to modern eyes was seen as a necessary – if unfortunate – evil, at least until the later years of the nineteenth-century. 

In conclusion then there was no one single social function of philanthropy for the upper and middle classes of nineteenth-century Britain. Doubtlessly it provided a means of advertising wealth and status although, as I have argued, this was its primary function for only a very small minority. Similarly whilst it may well have fulfilled a need for some prosperous members of society to lighten their conscious over the disproportionate spread of wealth in nineteenth-century Britain, philanthropy provided a wide range of other functions which were more significant to its growth. It provided a sense of community in an ever expanding world and a means for both men and women to achieve a sense of purpose. For women it provided an outlet for expression in the public sphere which might otherwise have been entirely closed to them. The most striking social function of nineteenth-century philanthropy in retrospect is the way it provided a means of social control; as the traditional social structure based on paternalistic landlords and dependent tenants broke down philanthropy secured a way in which it remained in the interests of the lower orders to be deferent to the upper and middle classes. By appropriating elements of the middle class value system the working classes were able to first engage the sympathies of the philanthropists and later to acquire power in their own right, respectability being one of the pivotal factors in the fight for working class suffrage. However this essay has sought to show that this was not a function contemporaries saw clearly; what to modern eyes is ‘social control’ was to these upper and middle class philanthropists a way of improving the lives of the lower orders. The social functions of philanthropy were many and complex but were underpinned by the idea that they were doing some good for society, that the working classes could be reformed and so a more perfect society achieved.


  • F. K. Prochaska, ‘Philanthropy’, in F.M.L. Thompson (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain (1990), vol.3. 
  • T.L. Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the origins of humanitarian sensibility’, parts I and II, American Historical Review 90 (1985). 
  • R. J. Morris, ‘Voluntary societies and British urban elites 1780-1850: an analysis’, in P. Borsay (ed.), The Eighteenth-Century Town (1990) or in Historical Journal 26 (1983). 
  • B. Harrison, ‘Philanthropy and the Victorians’, in his Peaceable Kingdom: Stability and Change in Modern Britain (1982). 
  • J. Fido, ‘The charity organisation society and social casework in London 1869-1900’, in A. P. Donajgrodzki (ed.), Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1977). 
  • T. W. Laqueur, ‘Bodies, details, and the humanitarian narrative’, in L. Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History (1989). 
  • L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (1987), chapter 10. 
  • J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade 1787-1807 (1995).


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