Monday 3 November 2008

Charity in Deptford

Deptford had a number of charities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which all worked in a similar way: they were funded by subscribers who, in return for their annual fee, became governors. Thus those who couldn't afford a grand gesture like establishing their own almshouses could nonetheless engage in charitable activity. Why, though, did they want to do so?

Helpfully, there are surviving copies of An Account of the Kent Dispensary, published in 1785 and reprinted in 1799. The eighteenth-century equivalent of a fundraising brochure, it allows us to infer some of the reasons why local ladies and gentlemen might subscribe:
  1. There was a real need for these charitable services (this was before the days of the NHS, free state education, etc).
  2. Giving the poor services, under stringent conditions, was seen as more effective than giving them money. After all, they couldn't be trusted to spend it properly: 'many apply the allowance to other purposes; and much the larger part fall a sacrifice to ignorant venders of medicines'.
  3. The deserving poor who wanted to get on and work should be assisted to do so: 'To relieve and protect the toiling hand of industry at all times, and more especially when oppressed with sickness, has ever been a principle object in all well-regulated societies'.
  4. Only the deserving poor would be assisted by a well-run charity. In the case of the Dispensary, 'who, amongst the poor, will seek medical advice without needing it, or take the preparations but from necessity.'
  5. There was a moral obligation on those benefitting from others' labour to help them when they needed assistance: 'Humanity revolts at neglecting those, from whose laborious exertions, every one in a superior situation, derives all, or the greatest part of his luxury and ease.'
  6. Keeping the poor working stopped them getting lazy: 'having felt the luxury of the [poor relief] allowance, in too many of them, the heart is compleatly altered, a general relaxation from labour ensues, and inrolled in the number of the indigent, they remain the rest of their lives a part of the annual burthen of their neighbours.'
  7. Being charitable made benefactors feel good: 'what an extensive enjoyment here presents itself, how small the subscription appears, when compared with what each benevolent subscriber has daily in his power to procure for his poor afflicted neighbours?'
  8. Donors got social status from the donation: the list of subscribers was published, each subscripton made the subscriber a governor of the charity, and they were in the company of luminaries such as Lord Romney, Earl Stanhope and John Julius Angerstein.
  9. Subscribers were able to offer patronage, since access to the charity tended to depend upon nomination by a governor.
  10. Alarmingly, the poor seem to have been seen as a sort of testing-ground for dubious drugs: 'Where, but at these public charities, can medicine have so fair a trial, and its merits be substantially enquired into.'

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