The Poor Law and Philanthropy
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If we are to understand the nature and the significance of the Poor Law we must always remember that in nineteenth-century society the state played a very different role from that which it plays today. Failure to place the study of the nineteenth-century Poor Law in its own proper setting has often been responsible for serious historical misunderstanding. Because of the importance which has often been attributed to the Poor Law as an illustration of the nature of nineteenth-century social relationships, a failure to understand its proper place in that society can lead to a defective understanding of the nature of that society.
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- As for the working of the Poor Law itself, much of the evidence for nineteenth-century philanthropy has to be sought in local collections. A great deal of this evidence has not received adequate study, and this is an aspect of social history where the work of local historians can be very useful indeed. Local newspapers, with their accounts of the meeting of societies and their lists of subscribers, form a useful starting point for any local research, while many public libraries contain annual reports or similar publications from philanthropic organisations of various kinds. A multiplication of local studies of nineteenth-century philanthropy would be a valuable addition to our knowledge of the approaches to poverty in that period.Google Scholar
- One very good example of this kind of local study, on a larger scale than would be necessary in dealing with a smaller community, is M. B. Simey, Charitable Effort in Liverpool in the Nineteenth Century (1951). A discussion of early nineteenth-century philanthropy in Newcastle is included in ‘Aspects of the Relief of Poverty in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain’, an essay contributed to The Long Debate on Poverty, a volume of essays published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1972.Google Scholar
- The best general account of nineteenth-century philanthropy is in D. Owen, English Philanthropy, 1660–1960 (1965). Voluntary efforts to provide medical facilities for the poor are discussed in Ruth Hodgkinson, The Origins of the National Health Service (1967) ch. 16. A paper by Brian Harrison on ‘Philanthropy and the Victorians’, Victorian Studies, IX, provides a succinct and illuminating general discussion.Google Scholar
- Much detailed evidence about the activity of philanthropic organisations can be found in various official publications of the period. Two good examples are the Appendix to the Third Annual Report of the Local Government Board, P.P. (1873–4) especially the evidence given by the social reformer Octavia Hill and Colonel Lynedoch Gardiner, where the relationship of official and unofficial relief activities was discussed; and the evidence taken by the Select Committee on Distress from Want of Employment (1895) which includes information from a multitude of places on the organisation of unofficial relief activities to meet hard times.Google Scholar