Friday, 28 September 2012

Held to account

St Botolph Aldgate has a very fine memorial for Robert Dow, who died aged 90 in 1612. He was a member of one of the London livery companies, the Merchant Tailors; the inscription also records his charitable giving, penny by penny. The careful accounting shows that he gave £2,958, 10 shillings and 8 pence to the Merchant Tailors for their poor members; £320 to Christ Hospital; £50 to St Sepulchre's parish, £100 to St John's College, Oxford, and £100 to Queen Elizabeth's Hospital in Bristol - a total of £3,528, 10 shillings and 8 pence. Other charitable gifts are not enumerated but included donations to prisons and pensions to parishioners. 

Dow's charity came with conditions. For example, sixty poor people in Aldgate received three shillings and fourpence each, handed out annually. On the death of a recipient, the replacement was chosen with the aid of four 'ancient and discreet' neighbours. This procedure was apparently necessary to avoid the wardens being overwhelmed by petitioners since 'the Poor in these Days are given unto too much Idleness and little Labour to get, and much seeking after Alms, how little soever it be'.

The recipients went through a procedure described in John Strype's Survey of London. They had to be at the church before 9am on the appointed day (although if they were too ill to attend, they could send a neighbour to collect the money for them). They answered to their names and were then shut in the north or south aisles; the church was emptied of other people and locked. The pensioners received the money in turn, their name was crossed off the list, and they went into the body of the church. 

Before they could leave, they were exhorted by the minister using words Dow had written:
GOOD PEOPLE, mark what I say to you, the Giver of this Charity, with the Advice of the Church Wardens, and other good Men of the Parish, have thought you most worthy of the same, where a great many other have need of it. You are, therefore, to give God Thanks, and to behave your selves in this manner, that is to say, you shall upon the Sundays come to Church to Morning and Evening Prayer, without you have great Let, and upon other Holidays appointed for Prayer; and there you shall, with all Reverence and Devotion, give your selves to hear the holy Prayers and Commandments of God, with other the divine Scriptures read unto you; and likewise to the holy Word of God, when it is preached there. You shall live in all charitable and christian sort with your Neighbours, and be Peace and Love-makers to your power. Considering with your selves that you be aged, and therefore most meet for you to give good Example, and be ready prepared to go hence when God shall call you. If you observe and follow this good Counsel, you shall all have this Pension so long as you live, and have need of it. But if you be found in any Default, this Charity, and any other Charity given you in this Parish, shall be taken from you for ever, and shall be bestowed upon more worthy Persons.
Next, they had 'humbly' to kneel and join in the Lord's Prayer before saying 'God reward all good Benefactors, and bless the worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors'. The church doors were then finally opened and they could leave in threes, clutching their charity money. The minister and churchwardens were paid eight pence each for their part in the proceedings.

The parish of St Botolph's had a significant population of poor people in the seventeenth century, making Dow's charity all the more important - and he gave the equivalent of millions of pounds today. At the same time, the conditions attached to it not only limited the pool of potential 'deserving' recipients but also seem designed to reinforce a social structure which required the lower classes to be humble and grateful when they received support necessary for their survival.


Anonymous said...

I suppose if a philanthropist today were to give money to, say, ex-convicts, and, in addition, make them listen to a sermon exhorting them to turn away from their criminal ways, we woud not be too shocked. Our surprise comes from the fact that it is religion that is being promoted here, but we have to remember that even up to the Victorian era it was considered meritorious to do good in order to persuade the recipients to be dutiful to church and God.

Ever and anon when we discover some picturesque almshouses somewhere, if the conditions of residence are still extant, they always impose upon residents the duty to attend services in the chapel twice on Sunday, the chapel often being the most notable part of the building. (This regulation is still visible in the Geffrye Museum, for example.)

CarolineLD said...

It's less the expectation of attending services that struck me - as you say, that was pretty standard - than the tone of the various exhortations. These recipients were repeatedly and explicitly told to be humble, grateful, and well-behaved; yet they had only been chosen because of their suitability. It's equivalent to accompanying every payment of the state pension with a little moral lecture. I don't imagine that would be popular!