The Giving Spirit –Charity & Philanthropy in the Regency

Charity to the BlindI have a “wish list’ of charities I’d like to support if I ever won the lottery. Do you? What kinds of causes do you like to support? I’m gearing up to host a fund-raising event (on Facebook) for a friend who is on the national kidney transplant waiting list (more about that later), and it made me think about subscriptions and charitable associations and fund-raising events the way they worked in the Regency. The concept of computers, the Internet, and a place called Facebook where people from all over the country –the world– could gather “virtually” for a pretend party would really blow the mind of someone from our favorite era!

Naturally, as soon as I started to delve into this topic, I realized how huge it was. So many different threads, so much information. Where even to start the conversation? So I thought about our stories, the ones we love to read and write. How often have you read (or written) characters who were engaged in supporting or championing some charitable cause? Have you come across, or written, characters who are attending events for charity as part of their London season? Or attending meetings of a philanthropical association? I certainly have read books where this is the case, but I don’t feel as though I see it often.

I think in very general terms modern society has shifted away from the kind of “giving” mindset that prevailed in Regency times, and that philanthropy is not as fundamental to our daily lives as it was then. We have higher expectations of what our tax dollars should accomplish through the government, we have “lost the religious underpinnings of society”, as one scholar put it, that helped make charity a priority, and we have a society now where a majority of women work at jobs outside the home, which robs them of the time to be actively involved in charitable works. Does that make it harder for us to imagine a world where this was not the case? Charity-Covereth-A-Multitude-Of-Sins,-Published-By-Hannah-Humphrey-In-1781

I’m talking in broad generalities, of course. But in the Regency, supporting charitable causes was much more personal, more “hands-on”, if you will. The mail was too expensive to be used to send out appeals, and of course there weren’t any telemarketers badgering people to give. (Hmm, think of that!) But there were a variety of other ways one’s generosity would be solicited.

Your local church (or I assume, the synagogues as well) would present you with causes and solicit your support. I’ve been reading Woodforde’s Diary of a Country Parson and was impressed, as he was, by the generosity of even his poor parishioners who dutifully would contribute pence whenever he put forward a need during the Sunday sermon. You might be accosted on the streets by beggars, although by the Regency there were more institutions in place to help or relocate them. And of course, your friends might beg you to support whatever cause had caught their attention, through a subscription or attendance at an event. (Getting back onto more familiar ground!)

RolwandsonSelectVestryBesides these types of what is called “casual charity”, there was organized giving. This includes giving of alms, paying the poor rate tax (set up by the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, administered by the parishes and based on land and buildings, it funded the workhouses –“indoor charity”—and “outdoor charity” such as the dole, clothing, and food, among other things), or supporting any number of philanthropic organizations and associations. Bequest charities administered by parishes and guilds had a long history, but “associational charity” began to grow in the middle of the 18th century after it became illegal to establish charitable trusts through a will at death.

Foundling_HospitalThe famous Foundling Hospital was the first of these new kinds of socially active charitable foundations. The Marine Society (which placed poor adolescent boys into careers at sea), and The Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes soon followed, and then many more, focused on particular social problems, and dependent on public support. Annual subscriptions, publicity campaigns through pamphleteering, and charity events including concerts and balls were all employed. Some societies levied a weekly fee on members to support their work. Medical charity took on a new approach, too, with the establishment of charity hospitals, dispensaries, and asylums. As we see so often, these changes were the beginning of a more modern way of thinking and doing, well established by the Regency period. There’s a great article here.

I tackled this topic because on October 30 I am hosting a “virtual” Halloween Party on Facebook, and any of you who are reading this (and are Facebook members) are invited! It’s going to run 4pm-midnight (Eastern) so you can drop in at any time. It is a fund-raising event, so I am asking people to donate $15 –or whatever amount they wish – to my friend’s fund at the Help Hope Live Foundation. (Her name is Joyce Bourque). If you would like to come to the party, you can send me a “friend” request (Gail Eastwood-Author) or drop me an email, or I think you can just find the event page I will be setting up and ask to be invited in. (I think we’re calling it “Virtual Halloween Party for Joyce Bourque’s Kidney Fund” and I hope to have it set up this weekend!) I am also going to set up a dedicated email address where non-FB folks can leave Joyce a message of support or Halloween wishes. As you may –or may not—know, people who are on transplant waiting lists are required to do fund-raising while they wait, every year. These folks have to show that they can cover their part of the cost to save their lives, or be dropped from the list. Foundations like Help Hope Live are designed to hold and manage the funds until they are needed. Here’s a link to the foundation: and here’s a link to Joyce’s page there, if you’d like to “meet” her! If you like, you can pretend her page is a handbill that I passed to you when I stopped in for tea! J

Meanwhile, let’s chat about whether charity giving belongs in Regency romances or not. What do you think? Please comment below.

About Gail Eastwood

Gail Eastwood is the author of seven Regencies that were originally published by Signet/Penguin. After taking ten years off for family matters, she has wobbled between contemporary romantic suspense and more Regency stories, wondering what century she's really in and trying to work the rust off her writing skills. Her backlist is gradually coming out in ebook format, and some are now available in new print editions as well. She is working on the start of a Regency-set series and other new projects. Stay tuned!
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11 Responses to The Giving Spirit –Charity & Philanthropy in the Regency

  1. One of the things I particularly like about the writer communities, especially the London communities, of the 1830s upwards is the fact they would do all kinds of fundraisers when one of them was in serious trouble. This was particularly true of writers for newspapers and magazines – the PUNCH guys took part in several amateur theatre productions in order to raise funds for a seriously ill colleague or for the widow of a colleague.

    • Sandra, thanks for adding this! Very interesting. It certainly fits the tone of the times –one of the many aspects I didn’t get into was the emergence of mutual aid societies at all economic levels, but especially among artists and craftsmen, and the lower working classes, who often were their own best hope for help, especially moving into the Victorian era. Now my consciousness has been raised, I find I’m looking for parallels in all our modern giving patterns!

  2. Susan Ashton says:

    George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” was first performed in Dublin to support 3 charities. It later was performed annually to benefit the Foundling Hospital in London, of which he was made a governor, and to which he left a full score of the piece. He supported other charities and remembered them in his will. Just one example.

    • Thanks for mentioning Handel’s Messiah, Susan! I left it out because of the length of the post, but it really is a great example, and he was a famous supporter of the Foundling Hospital. I also left out a whole thread about people supporting particular charities because of who else was doing it or the cachet it gave them… This blog topic could be a book with -many- chapters!

  3. Elena Greene says:

    Well, as I’ve made charity an important theme in several of my books, I obviously think it’s fine and I think many readers do, too. London’s Foundling Hospital is almost like a secondary character in Lady Dearing’s Masquerade and it is my highest selling book.

    Coming back to the present, I don’t think charity has become outmoded. Sometimes it comes in a different form–as in the Facebook event you are planning. Also, I know a lot of people who are working for non-profits that align with their values. Unlike the typical Regency Lady Bountiful, they need to earn a living, but they have chosen to take a modest salary considering their level of education, because the work is meaningful.

  4. I would then, as I do now! I have written about characters who are philanthropic within the novels “Venetian Encounter” and “The Reluctant Duchess. I’ve also compiled anthologies for a specific charity, and the majority of royalties from my novels go to charities, that’s why it’s so heartbreaking when people seek to downgrade my novels with snarky 1-2 star reviews.

    • Francine, I should have thought of your books and your charitable support when I was doing this post. I apologize! As I said to Elena, it was very late (3am) when I was finishing this, and the old brain cells failed me. Thanks for visiting the blog and adding to it!

  5. Elena, thanks for popping in! I loved that your characters in Lady Dearing’s Masquerade were so involved with the Foundling Hospital, and almost mentioned it as an example of successful blending of charity causes with romance, but it seemed too biased on my part if I did so without mentioning examples by anyone else, and as late as it was when I was finishing this up last night, I couldn’t think of any other authors to mention! Nearly all of your books touch on the social problems of the times, which gives your stories good grounding. And again, I was trying not to make the post longer than anyone would want to read…. 🙂 I ‘m hoping someone might offer some additional examples in these comments! I obviously think it’s fine to do –I just wonder why we don’t see more of it? It was a very integral part of life in those times.

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  7. nancy says:

    The newspapers carried many ads about meetings of the boards of governors of charities, or of lectures or concerts to be given for a charity.
    Why isn’t giving to charity mentioned mire in novels? Charity doesn’t much fit into a plot concerning spies, or a mystery, or planning and or avoiding a seduction. Also, it is easier to depict a person helping a single chimneysweep child or a legless veteran than to show charity by mentioning the causes to which a person subscribes,. Not surprising, most subscribers to the period charities were men. Most young ladies didn’t have unlimited funds for all their needs and would likely visit the poor near their estate or do something for an individual.

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