Charity events in Georgian England or the poor shall be with us always
Our view of Georgian life is often coloured by fictional accounts of high society, where ladies spent vast amounts on bonnets and gentlemen gambled away entire estates on an evening’s card game. Which is a fair reflection of a small part of society, come to that. But one in ten families lived below the ‘breadline’, and at times as many as two in five. Many people were precariously balanced on a knife edge where illness, accidents or old age could tumble them into starvation.
The Poor Law and parish-based support
The Poor Law was meant to make sure such unfortunates had the help they needed. Wealthy households paid a levy to the parish, and local overseers apportioned financial hand-outs, clothing and fuel, and bread to those who could prove they belonged to the parish and therefore had a right to its support.
Where the parish authorities were genuinely charitable, poor relief might tide a family through a bad patch so they could get back on their feet. But the idea that poverty was a character fault is not a 21st Century invention. Strident voices wanted the poor to suffer for their charity handout.
Workhouse to discourage the poor from seeking help
IN 1722, the first legislation passed allowing parishes to provide poor relief in specially built workhouses. By the end of the century, more than 100,000 people lived under their stringent and often dire regime.
The sexes were segregated, and the able-bodied set to work, with strict rules and routines. Some workhouses were pleasant enough. Others were no better than prisons, and many of the poor preferred to starve rather than be put in the workhouse.
They were overcrowded, and the people in them often overworked and underfed. Epidemics tore through them, and the deathrate for people of every age, and particularly for newborns, was brutal. Nearly 2,400 children were received into London workhouses in 1750. Fewer than 170 of those children were still alive in 1755.
The parish levy wasn’t the only funding for the poor, though. Many landowners (and particularly their wives) kept to the age-old tradition of providing food and other items to those who lived on or near their estates, and some continued this one-on-one help in town. They also joined groups to provide help for those who needed it.
Private charities collected money for initiatives such as the Foundling Hospital in London, which cared for children whose mothers could not support them, the Marine Society, which trained poor boys for a life at sea, the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitues, various hospitals to provide free medical care, and educational initiatives. I particularly like the name of the Female Friendly Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows and Single Women of Good Character Who Have Seen Better Days. The days of 140 character tweets were well in the future.
Benefits with friends
To raise money, these charitable groups used the time honoured idea of offering tickets to an entertainment: balls, musical concerts, art exhibitions. Some charged a weekly subscription to support their work. Some solicited donations through pamphlets and direct approaches to possible donors. (Some people have suggested balls were a Victorian contrivance, but British newspapers contain advertisements for charity balls and assemblies, or reports on them, going back to the middle of the previous century.)
Groups would also get together to raise money for a friend in need; perhaps someone who had been injured or widowed. In the British Newspapers Online archive, I found a number of advertisements for events ‘for the benefit of Mr. Xxx’, which is, of course, where we get our term Benefit, to mean a charity event.
Women and charity
While men ran many of the great philanthropic institutions, charity was “the proper public expression of a gentlewoman’s religious energy”. [Vickery, 254] Many women joined benevolent societies (where members agreed to provide support for any of their number who fell on hard times) and a huge number of women founded or joined charitable groups that supported what they themselves would have called ‘good works’.
Porter, Roy: English Society in the 18th Century. Penguin, 1982
Uglow, Jenny: In These Times, Faber & Faber 2014
Vickers, Amanda: The Gentleman’s Daughter, Yale, 1998
White, Matthew: Poverty in Britain. https://www.bl.uk/georgian-britain/articles/poverty-in-georgian-britain
When the Duchess of Haverford sends out invitations to a Yuletide house party and a New Year’s Eve ball at her country estate, Hollystone Hall, those who respond know that Her Grace intends to raise money for her favourite cause and promote whatever marriages she can. Eight assorted heroes and heroines set out with their pocketbooks firmly clutched and hearts in protective custody. Or are they?
A Suitable Husband, by Jude Knight
As the Duchess of Haverford’s companion, Cedrica Grenford is not treated as a poor relation and is encouraged to mingle with Her Grace’s guests. Surely she can find a suitable husband amongst the gentlemen gathered for the duchess’s house party. Above stairs or possibly below.
Valuing Vanessa, by Susana Ellis
Facing a dim future as a spinster under her mother’s thumb, Vanessa Sedgely makes a practical decision to attach an amiable gentleman who will not try to rule her life.
A Kiss for Charity, by Sherry Ewing
Young widow Grace, Lady de Courtenay, has no idea how a close encounter with a rake at a masquerade ball would make her yearn for love again. Can she learn to forgive Lord Nicholas Lacey and set aside their differences to let love into her heart?
Artemis, by Jessica Cale
Actress Charlotte Halfpenny is in trouble. Pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and out of a job, Charlotte faces eviction two weeks before Christmas. When the reclusive Earl of Somerton makes her an outrageous offer, she has no choice but to accept. Could he be the man of her dreams, or is the nightmare just beginning?
The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, by Jude Knight
James must marry to please his grandfather, the duke, and to win social acceptance for himself and his father’s other foreign-born children. But only Lady Sophia Belvoir makes his heart sing, and to win her he must invite himself to spend Christmas at the home of his father’s greatest enemy.
Christmas Kisses, by Nicole Zoltack
Louisa Wycliff, Dowager Countess of Exeter wants only for her darling daughter, Anna, to find a man she can love and marry. Appallingly, Anna has her sights on a scoundrel of a duke who chases after every skirt he sees. Anna truly thinks the dashing duke cares for her, but her mother has her doubts.
An Open Heart, by Caroline Warfield
Esther Baumann longs for a loving husband who will help her create a home where they will teach their children to value the traditions of their people, but she wants a man who is also open to new ideas and happy to make friends outside their narrow circle. Is it so unreasonable to ask for toe curling passion as well?
Dashing Through the Snow, by Amy Rose Bennett
Headstrong bluestocking, Miss Kate Woodville, never thought her Christmas would be spent racing across England with a viscount hell-bent on vengeance. She certainly never expected to find love...
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The Bluestocking Belles
The Bluestocking Belles, the “BellesInBlue”, are seven very different writers united by a love of history and a history of writing about love. From sweet to steamy, from light-hearted fun to dark tortured tales full of angst, from London ballrooms to country cottages to the sultan’s seraglio, one or more of us will have a tale to suit all tastes and mood.