Friday, November 03, 2006

Eighteenth-century philanthropy

Although the eighteenth century has a reputation for lax morals (and this may be true when it is compared with the Victorian period) it was also an age of profound moral earnestness and of burgeoning philanthropy. One of the key moral values was ‘benevolence’. Both the aristocracy and the middling sort founded and contributed to numerous and varied charities, which acted as a sort of proto-welfare state.

Besides ‘benevolence’ there were other motives for charity. One was ‘social control’ – fears of a moral collapse among the ‘common people’ and the desire for trustworthy servants. Another was the fear that the population was declining and the consequent need to save lives – especially young lives.

The most modern forms of charity were subscription charities. The first efflorescence of these charities occurred in the 1690s alongside other forms of subscription association such as the Reformation of Manners societies and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. Certain features marked the new charities out:
(a) They were not linked by any formal ties to the apparatus of local government and they drew no revenue from any form of taxation.
(b) They devoted considerable care and energy to wooing subscribers, often publishing annual reports and subscribers’ names.
(c) They commonly gave subscribers a voice, even outright control over management.
Below are a series of posts relating to various eighteenth-century charities.