Charity and Poor Relief: The Modern Period

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Timothy B. Smith

In the late twentieth century, massive national welfare states consumed up to 40 percent of the gross national product (GNP) in several western European nations. Charities performed vital services, but they were shadows of their former selves. Their total spending paled in comparison to state social welfare spending. The accident of charity has been replaced by the guarantee of social insurance. Cradle-to-grave welfare states, providing insurance against illness, disability, unemployment, and above all old age poverty, shelter Europeans from life's major risks.

The welfare state is young. In Europe prior to the 1920s charity and poor relief predominated over social insurance. These were by definition concerned with providing the minimum necessary for survival. Charities often were as concerned with providing moral and religious guidance as they were with providing financial assistance. The welfare state is concerned with ensuring a basic level of material comfort and in Europe generally does not mix morals with money.

State-provided social welfare matched private charity in strength in the 1920s in France and Britain. In Germany this occurred a little earlier, and in other European nations, such as Italy, it was a little later. But everywhere charity was the bedrock of poor relief throughout the nineteenth century. London had over seven hundred charities in the 1880s, and Paris had several hundred. Spending by charities overshadowed spending by public authorities. In Lyon, France, private charities spent over 18 million francs in 1906, whereas public social welfare cost only 1.34 million francs. Giving and receiving private charity was a crucial part of the urban experience in nineteeth-century Europe, figuring at the center of civic life, where the state did not. In Russia the almost complete absence of public assistance in the early nineteenth century meant that mutual aid within estates and private charity were indispensable. Charity flourished even in places notorious for their poorly developed civil society and their tiny middle class, such as Russia.

As late as 1900 most European states extracted only 3 percent of the GNP through taxes. By the end of the twentieth century that figure averaged 45 to 50 percent. The states did not have enough public money to redistribute before the 1930s to 1950s. Private charity and local poor relief helped keep the European social order intact but little else. It set its sights low and promised even less. Ultimately, as Western Europe moved toward an open, prosperous, and egalitarian society in the 1950s, private charity diminished. Although it still flourished in Britain and to a lesser extent in some continental countries, charity was displaced entirely by the welfare state in many nations. In Germany and Scandinavia the state so dominated the social service scene that it squeezed charity to the margins of civil society.

Until the 1960s charity was by definition an asymmetrical exchange between unequal partners. Presuming that social inequality, while possibly regrettable, was nevertheless inevitable, it has dealt with the symptoms rather than the roots of poverty. Throughout history charity has been what Enlightenment critics like Paul-Henri-Dietrich d'Holbach called an "accidental virtue." Charity might be well established in one city but weak or nonexistent in another. Critics on the left, especially in France and Germany, charged that charity was necessarily antidemocratic. Charity and the poor law tended to stigmatize recipients, so many British politicians, among them Aneurin Bevan, worked to create the universal welfare programs of the 1940s. Considerations of dignity thus combined with the inadequacy of private charity to spur the establishment of state-sponsored welfare.


Although they date from much earlier in European history, charity and poor relief in the nineteenth century exhibited some special features. First, churches, the traditional providers of charity, came under recurrent attack by secular reformers. Where the churches weakened, as in France, serious questions arose regarding the institutional base of charity. Even there, however, churches remained fundamental to the charitable effort. Second, industrialization and urbanization made poverty more visible. Population increases also had an effect, for example, enlarging the number of abandoned children. Third, middle-class beliefs challenged the validity of charity. Strict economic liberals urged that charity harmed the recipient, making him or her dependent rather than self-sufficient. Many cities tried to ban begging because it contradicted a proper work ethic. Similar beliefs lay behind efforts in England to tighten poor law provisions and to force recipients into unpleasant workhouses. Benevolent institutions attempted to distinguish the worthy poor, who simply could not work because of illness or old age, from the lazy, who should be prodded into the active labor force. Charity continued nevertheless, but on less secure cultural foundations.

Regional differences were important. Orthodox Christianity had always heavily emphasized charity, and in countries like Russia that emphasis continued unchanged. Some have argued that the emphasis on charity there delayed political measures to aid the poor. The debate over religion as the basis for charity in France was not replicated in England, where concerns about charity's demoralizing effects were more prominent.

Outside of England and parts of Germany, where the poor law was tax-financed and a major annual expense, publicly funded social assistance, even at the local level, was relatively undeveloped. In the vast majority of French, Spanish, and Italian towns and villages, private charities and the church provided the lion's share of poor relief throughout the nineteenth century. In many towns publicly funded assistance simply was not available. In many French departments, the ninety county-sized administrative units that make up the country, lay charities did not exist in 1900. But charity was heavily concentrated in the wealthier regions of France and Europe, and was almost nonexistent in some of the poor, remote areas. Between 1800 and 1845, six of ninety French departments, Seine, Rhône, Nord, Seine-et-Oise, Haute-Garonne, and Bouches-du-Rhône, received one-quarter of all charitable bequests. In western and central France the church was still heavily involved in charitable activity, to the point of monopolizing it. Typical was the city of Angers, which in 1890 had sixty charities, all private and Catholic. The Seine department was home to no less than 3,227 charitable institutions in 1897. At the end of the century Lyon had at least 245 private charities, and when multiple branches are included the figure is over 1,000.

In France and other parts of Europe the Catholic Church expanded its charitable activities in the nineteenth century. From the 1830s, for example, the Société de St.-Vincent-de-Paul (Society of Saint Vincent de Paul) spread its roots across Europe and North America. By 1860 it had over 1,500 chapters and 100,000 members in France alone. Religious orders, particularly the female ones, multiplied at an incredible rate in the 1820s and 1830s. In Lyon, the first to be officially reconstituted in 1825 were the Ursulines, the Carmelites, and the Soeurs de Saint-Joseph et Saint-Charles (Sisters of St. Joseph and St. Charles). The Jesuit Congrégation des Messieurs (Brotherhood of Gentlemen) was one of the most active male orders on the charitable scene. With the support of the church, these orders devoted their energies to teaching the catechism to the working classes and to charitable works. Dozens of providences for orphans and young children, such as the Providence de Saint-Bruno and the Providence de Saint-Pierre, were established between 1815 and 1825. In the early stages of industrialization, the church's charities were crucial to coping with social problems.

Until the 1890s the church generally took a fatalistic view toward poverty, reminding workers that the poor would always be here. Church and bourgeois politicians alike viewed religion as the last rampart between civilization and proletarian barbarians, yet the church was generally opposed to official state social reform. It devoted its energies to supporting voluntary charity, whether directly, through the parish system, or indirectly, through lay but religiously inspired institutions, such as the Association catholique de la jeunesse française, (Catholic association of French youths) which had sixty thousand members by 1905.

Despite its shortcomings, private charity kept the social world from falling apart, especially in France, Italy, and Spain, which had no poor law. Even in areas where public assistance was unusually well developed, such as the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France, 73 percent of the families of agricultural laborers in 1913 received some form of charity. In Saint-Chamond, France, 60 percent of the population of one parish, 2,200 of 3,600 inhabitants, received assistance in 1844. In times of trouble private citizens organized ad hoc charities.


The predominance of private charity in nineteenth-century Europe shaped relations between employers and workers. Employers wrote letters recommending admission of their laid-off workers to charity, poor relief, or the local hospice. Local elites pulled strings for "their" protected poor, usually the poor of their quartier or neighborhood. Those who donated to hospitals and charities had a say in who received assistance. Political clout helped too. One family might control all the major relief institutions in a small town of France. In some small villages, like Sommieres in Gard southern France, one person ran both the hospital and the welfare bureau for twenty years. Clearly in such a setting a bad reputation would immediately disqualify a person from relief. In many small, remote towns during the first half of the nineteenth century, the bureau de bienfaisance (poor relief bureau) was merely a revived maison de charité (house of charity) of the Ancien Régime, run by the same people, usually the Sisters of Charity. Many were in fact located next to convents, such as in Châtillon-sur-Seine.

Charities determined the so-called "poverty line" on a daily and individual basis. A reputation for unusual generosity earned Charles Neyrand, a nineteenth-century French industrialist, the nickname of "father of the poor." Charity and work could become inseparable in small cities, where the same people provided or denied both. "The provision of aid by local notables and wealthy bourgeois defined the nature of their relations with workers almost as much as wages did" (Accampo, 1989, p. 147). The leaders in smaller cities and towns "alternate[d] roles of benefactor and [boss]" and assured that charity was a face-to-face affair. The degree of power a person gained over another through the provision of charity was viewed in the twentieth century as antidemocratic and a violation of citizenship rights.

The downside to this state of affairs was an erosion of families' self-sufficiency. Charity, after all, was needed due to insufficient wages and unstable jobs. For every centime (cent) gained, some small degree of self-sufficiency and self-respect was lost. Many workers could live with this bargain, but others found it a bitter pill to swallow. England's great tradition of workers' self-help or mutualism, as revealed in the proliferation of its tens of thousands of friendly societies, was also based to a certain extent on fierce pride of independence from charity. Seeking charity admitted a lack of self-sufficiency. The hallmark of respectability was independence.


Charity formed a significant component of local elites' self-conception. The religious view of charity was by definition a localized, parish-based one. Charity solidified the loyalty of the populace and often tolerated no outside state interference, that is, no outside authority that might compete with local elites for the sympathies of the poor. The hand that gave liked to remind recipients of just who had given. "Charity," wrote the philosopher Victor Cousin during the debates on the right to assistance in 1848, "knows no rule, no limit; it surpasses all obligations. Its beauty is precisely in its liberty" (Smith, 1997). The existence of charity justified a certain degree of inequality.

In poor regions, such as the hinterland of Toulouse, France, southern Italy, southern Spain, and much of the Massif Central, that relied on sharecropping and were largely unaffected by economic change, poverty was pervasive. Rural notables capitalized on this poverty by distributing charity to cement the loyalty of the peasants. In much of western France traditional noble-peasant patronage relationships survived until the mid-nineteenth century. In some parts of western France, châteaus were still the principal source of poor relief as late as the 1880s. At that time the key source of relief in small rural communes in Aube, Doubs, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Corsica, Savoie, Ardèche, Hautes-Alpes, and several other deparments was private alms. Seasonal migration and door-to-door soliciting of alms was a way of life for many French in 1900. In some areas, like Brittany and Aveyron, hospitality for vagrants was still a widespread custom, provided for the most part out of fear, as late as 1900. This type of charitable activity was not unique to France. In parts of southern Italy and Spain, traditional patron-client relations, in the context of highly inegalitarian and agriculturally backward societies, were fixed with the seal of charity. It was a small price to pay for the elites, who owned up to 95 percent of the wealth and almost all the land in these regions.

Charity in nineteenth-century Europe was practiced out of civic pride. It brought prestige to the city, as in eighteenth-century Hamburg, and those who administered it acquired considerable social and political capital. The same was true if not more true in smaller cities and in medium-sized towns, where the hospital might be the largest and most imposing building other than the church or the city hall. Baron de Verna, president of the Lyon hospital board, noted in 1828 that for some families serving the poor was their raison d'être. "As in the time of our fathers," de Verna said, "municipal honors [and offices] almost always become the recompense for he who has devoted himself au service des pauvres" (to the service of the poor).

Local charities and hospitals were powerful sources of elite identity. A seat on the board at the famous hospitals in Berlin or Vienna was a plum position. London's high society ran the city's voluntary hospitals. In France hospitals from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier to Lyon to Beaune figured at the core of provincial identities. The burghers of Amsterdam, immortalized by artists for centuries, commonly struck poses as civic leaders and as philanthropists. In English cities like Manchester, elite men built substantial public reputations by serving on charity boards. The rich and the respectable vied with each other in good works, and no noblewoman was without "her" poor. Indeed the wives of nobles and the bourgeois often framed their entire social lives around the practice of charity.

Membership on hospital boards or on the administrative boards of longstanding charities came with privileges. Early in the nineteenth century, in Lyon for example, it was a badge of social preeminence and also "the required passage to arrive at the high magistrature." Those who accepted the call to service had come, to use their words, to "ennoble themselves" through administering "the sublime work of charity, the most noble of virtues." In 1900 the Abbé Vachet observed that the call to office retained the same prestige: "The title of hospital administrator is, in Lyon, a veritable title of nobility, it is the highest rank a man can strive for." Henri Boissieu sounded the same note in 1902: "The hospital administrators are today what they were in 1600: notables. The title 'hospital administrator' remains a consecration of notability."

Charity grew in tandem with the rise of the middle class. In Lyon, France, for example, the wealth of the middle class increased over fourfold between the 1840s and the 1860s. The number of charities doubled during this period, the fastest rate of growth in the city's history to that date. At best this was a sign that the middling ranks were more compassionate towards the poor. At worst, it was a sign that they were laundering their new riches and cleansing their consciences through charitable works. Charities across Europe relied on the largely unpaid charitable forces in most large cities: including bourgeois women who served as administrators and visited the poor, Sisters of Charity who staffed hospitals and refuges for the elderly, middle-class men of the merchant class who organized charity concerts to support the workforce of their troubled industry.

In their function as dames de charité (ladies of charity), middle-class French women maintained important links to the public sphere, and they played no small role in upholding it. Women, usually married, middle-aged women and especially dames religieuses (nuns) were indispensable in running the system. In 1841 and 1874 the directors of Lyon's welfare bureau admitted that it was powerless without women: "To each his mission: the members of the bureau de bienfaisance [relief committee] can administer and supervise very well; but absorbed with their family duties and business affairs, they cannot visit and assist the needy as well as the sisters, who have devoted their entire lives to this saintly task." Indeed in 1893, twenty thousand women worked on a full-time, paid basis in philanthropic institutions in Britain. In addition 500,000 women worked full-time without pay in charities. After domestic service, philanthropy was the primary occupier of women's time. Perhaps 1 million women and children attended mothers' meetings each week. By the late nineteenth century several of Britain's most important philanthropists and social reformers were women such as Octavia Hill, Beatrice Webb, Helen Bosanquet, Josephine Butler, and Clara Collet.

Bonnie Smith wrote of the women of the Nord department, near the French border with Belgium who visited neighbors in distress and held monthly "days" (journées) on which the poor could come knocking to receive money, clothing, or food. As Smith showed, female charity was geared toward needy mothers and their children, providing day care centers, crèches, and maternal aid societies. Male charity favored unemployed male workers, housing cooperative societies, and retirement or accident insurance through mutual aid societies.

When national social welfare legislation was in the works, some elites were reminded what they might lose. Throughout the century opponents of public assistance argued that legal charity or publicly financed social assistance would deprive the philanthropist of this opportunity. F. M. L. Naville warned in his influential treatise, De la charité légale:

in making this duty [private charity] a legal obligation . . . [a national poor tax] imposes upon the individual, by force, sacrifices which, when they are made voluntarily, are a source of the most sweet and noble pleasures. [The tax] threatens his wish that he may have a happy future beyond the grave. Whereas he hopes to acquire the approval of God and forgiveness for his faults by practising charity, it [legal charity] interposes itself between him and the supreme judge, and deprives him of this source of hope and consolation.

Many French and other Europeans believed that the charitable impulse must remain just that, an impulse, and not a legally mandated responsibility. As the guidebook used by relief administrators and volunteers in Paris, Manuel des Commissaires et dames de charité de Paris (1830) reveals: "charity ...isthecalling of the well-to-do. Charity is tender and affectionate; [but] it examines before its acts; it surveilles . . . it attaches to its relief consolations, advice and even paternal reprimands. . . . It allows [the giver] to become rich in good works."

One of the century's most influential works on the social question, the Baron de Gérando's Le visiteur du pauvre (1832), went through several editions during the 1830s and found a space in the libraries of most of France's charities. A veritable bible for philanthropists and welfare bureau administrators, this pocket-size, 480-page book speaks to the European elite's desire to be actively involved in the lives of the poor. Gérando toed a familiar line on the sublime virtues of personal charity, its healing effects on class relations, and its ability to rejuvenate society. The key to understanding the social question, he argued, was to picture society as a family that includes those who owe care and protection, as a father owes his children, and those who owe others their obedience and gratitude, as children owe their parents.

The Hospitaliers-Veilleurs of Lyon, like countless other Catholic charities in nineteenth-century Europe, were quite frank about their intentions. The charity's director instructed the volunteers in 1897: "As well as tending to your patients' corporal needs, you will seek to save their souls, to develop within them religious sentiments and practice, to prepare them for a saintly death, and, in that, to work for your own sanctification." The secretary of the Société de Patronage des Jeunes Filles (Society of Protection of Girls) reminded her colleagues, "Your reward is the sweet certainty of knowing that you are working for your own eternal happiness." As with so many others who engaged in the charitable exchange, these administrators were as concerned about their own futures as those of their charges.


The essentially local and voluntary nature of most poor relief and charitable activity distinguish it from modern welfare states. In most Western countries in the twentieth century, social solidarity was a national sentiment. The well-off of Paris or Berlin generally accept the idea that the poor of Provence or Bavaria are just as worthy of government assistance as the poor of their own cities. But prior to the twentieth century many elites' sense of social solidarity stopped at the parish or city boundary, and outside of Germany no welfare state to speak of existed. Prior to the 1880s, when Germany pioneered the welfare state, private charity and local poor relief systems were the norm across Europe. In addition outside of England, where the poor law provided in theory a legal right to assistance, few Europeans had a right to assistance before the twentieth century.

When notables died, their wills often included bequests to the poor of their particular parish or street. Well into the nineteenth century it was common for notables to have permanent patron-client relations with the local poor. The parish remained the moral anchor of the notables, and only the parish poor were owed charity.

The pauvres honteux, or shame-faced, locally known poor, were assisted. In several French and German towns, the locally known "humble" poor were even granted a regular spot in annual processions. Thus marginals were often fully integrated, symbolically as well as materially, into society. Charity was a civic event, a unifying force, a way to bring the local community together to affirm reciprocal bonds. In processions, parades, and even in the annual Lord Mayor's Day parade in London in the 1880s, the common people were reminded of the beneficence of the rich.

But, in the end, the poor generally had no right to make a claim. In an age of limited resources, elites drew the line to ward off excessive claims with moral and religious litmus tests and residency requirements. One of the primary functions of the Lyon hospital administrative board, which met every week, was to determine which of the vieillard (elderly indigent) applications to accept. It helped to have friends in high places or at least to live near a rich or influential member of the community. In 1840, to pick a random year, three of the first four names on the vieillard admission list had social connections. Marguerite Plailly had been sponsored by the widow of a former accountant at the Hôpital de la Charité (Charity Hospital); Jeanne Binet was recommended by the family of Marguerite Berthon-Fromental, who had bequeathed over 200,000 francs to the Hospices Civils a few years earlier; and Jean-François Gautier was sponsored by the Comte de Bussy.

Traditional charity involved an entirely different set of authority relations from those of the 1920s or later. No universally valid, impartial criteria determined who would or would not receive aid. Charity, assistance, medical care—all forms of philanthropic activity—were grounded in inegalitarian social relations between the donor and the recipient. Gaining admission to the hospitals for the local poor was a sign of the persistence of local notables' social power, which they frequently exercised in both life and death. Bequests often contained clauses spelling out what type of person would be eligible for assistance.

Significantly, the men and women who administered and dispensed public assistance went to great lengths to determine the merit of each individual case. To understand why this was so requires a conscious leap in the historical imagination to a time when the indigent had no legal claim to relief, when the needy had to prove their moral and religious worthiness, when no clear idea of what constituted "poverty" or "need" existed, and when no rigid conception of a "poverty line" had developed. Since no clear criteria for establishing need existed, many needy were refused assistance for no good reason or for political or religious reasons. As a result poor relief systems in the nineteenth century were often quite arbitrary.

However, some guidebooks were published. In his influential 1847 pamphlet Du paupérisme en France, François Marbeau defined the worthy poor: "The good indigent is honest, respectful, appreciative, and resigned. . . . [He] is grateful for the services we provide to him, and he is always ready to devote himself to his benefactors. . . . He is humble: he suffers with patience the ills he cannot avoid. Resignation [is] the virtue of the poor" (Marbeau, 1847, pp. 25–26). This pocket-size guide to public policy, like the Baron de Gérando's Le visiteur du pauvre, served as a sort of policy bible.

The French, of course, had no monopoly on this sort of face-to-face approach to the charitable vocation. The famous German "Elberfeld system," named for the town, became a model for Europe late in the century. It was ostensibly a rigorous, "scientific" approach to charity with thorough screening processes. It relied on the existence of a vibrant voluntary sector and required elites with time on their hands. By the late twentieth century the upper middle class generally worked and had little time for charity.

The Elberfeld system suggests that Europe's elite was still confident in its ability to cope with the social question with rudimentary local poor relief systems and purely private, personalized, and local charities. At least this was their wish. Significantly, many European charities emphasized the re-creation of the family in their works. This is important because the family was the dominant paradigm of the age. It was only natural that the civic elite should turn to its most familiar and trusted institutions, family and church, to help keep the social fabric intact. The state was not trusted by most people. It was distant yet intrusive, a threat to local liberties and pretensions. A sense that private and local interests were powerless to solve the social question had not yet emerged, and most Europeans were not yet ready to jettison the two sturdy pillars of society, family and church, and turn to the state to solve the social question. This would require an intellectual breakthrough, the likes of which do not occur overnight. It happened only in the 1880s to the 1920s, depending on the nation. Private charity was given six or seven decades to prove its capacities to cope with the urban social question that emerged, in the eyes of elites, in the 1830s.


Debates over the poor law provided part of the context for English charity. Originally established in 1601 to deal with growing poverty associated with a more commercial economy, the poor laws provided meager aid, mostly in kind, to the poor and unemployed. Poor law reform in 1834 instituted more middle-class or liberal principles—greater encouragement to work, less local variance, and lower taxes. Greater centralization was combined with lower funding and more rigorous tests for applicants. Able-bodied people were supposed to be forced to work, and unpleasant workhouses sheltered those who received aid. Workers attacked the system—in fact, a critique of the poor law was one components of the Chartist movement—but it survived until the twentieth century.

At the same time Great Britain was home to the world's most developed charitable sector in the nineteenth century. Religious pluralism begat philanthropic and educational pluralism. The annual revenues of the more than seven hundred charities in London were greater than the entire budgets of several small European states in the 1890s. Charitable giving was an ingrained part of British middle-class households. One study in the 1890s calculated that on average middle-class households spent a larger share of their income on charity than on any other item in their budget except food. A survey of artisans and working-class families in the same decade revealed similar results. Half of them made weekly donations to charity, and a quarter also gave to a church. This invisible welfare state, the charity of the poor toward the poor, was crucial to the survival of working-class families. As Ellen Ross demonstrated, in late nineteenth century working-class London, women's informal support networks kept people going when the going got tough. This of intraclass charity was ubiquitous but left fewer traces in the historical record than official, elite-sponsored charity.

It is common to portray charitable activity as a means of social control. The middle class used charity as an entry point into the lives of the poor. Ladies visited working-class mothers and peddled their "domestic imperialism" with one hand while giving with the other. Historians such as Gareth Stedman Jones have portrayed charity as a bourgeois ploy to placate the poor. Others, such as Jane Lewis and Ross have emphasized the moral gaze of middle-class female visitors and school attendance officers.

It is too easy to dismiss this historical school as overly hostile toward the middle class. Much commends this school of thought, and it of course applies to the rest of Europe. Philanthropic societies, usually with some sort of religious inspiration, bombarded the poor with advice. They lectured the poor, demanded to see proof of good morals, and asked intrusive questions. This was done at British Sunday schools, charity schools across Europe, day care centers (salles d'asile in France), apprentice schools affiliated with the poor law in Britain, hospitals, mutual aid societies, reading societies, and cercles (clubs) in France.

The multitude of charitable organizations operating in the nineteenth century boggles the mind. In addition to those just listed orphanages; old age refuges; agricultural colonies for young wayward youth; Magdelan asylums for prostitutes; and charities for the deaf, the blind, the deaf-mute, to teach marriage, and to construct working-class homes functioned. Religious minorities, such as Jews and Protestants in France, and foreigners, such as the Swiss in Lyon, ran reading societies, workers' garden societies, and charities.

The wealth of charitable institutions, many of which peddled morality, attests to charity's central role in society. But charity was instrusive. The conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote, "The Victorians, taking values seriously, also took seriously the need for social sanctions that would stigmatize and censure violations of those values" (Himmelfarb, 1994, p. 142). It was only natural that they would demand adherence to some sort of moral code while they dispensed their charity.

Every cause had its champion, and every denomination had its cause. Evangelicalism was a call to action on almost every conceivable public issue, including the abolition of slavery, child labor, child prostitution, child poverty, the prevention of cruelty to animals and children, and of course the suppression of vice. For the British, humanitarianism became a sort of surrogate religion during the nineteenth century. As Webb noted in 1884, "social questions are the vital questions of today: they take the place of religion". Most nineteenth-century charities, whether British, French, German, lay, church, or officially secular, aimed at the moral improvement of the poor. As Himmelfarb argued, the late-twentieth-century language of morality, when applied to social issues, is usually assumed to be the language of conservatives. The nineteenth century was obsessed with the issue of "character" and "respectability." Charity shared the obsessions of responsibility, restraint, decency, decorum, industriousness, foresight, religiosity, and temperance. In the nineteenth century charity asked questions and preached solutions before it dispensed relief.

Despite what many people would regard as an outdated concern with mixing morals and money, by 1900 European philanthropy was in fact moving with the times. Charities and social policy organizations, such as the Charity Organisation Society and the Office Central des Oeuvres de Bienfaisance (Central Office of Institutions of Charity), were becoming national in scope, bureaucratic, and professionalized, although both attempted to rationalize and limit charity. In Britain the Salvation Army had 100,000 members in 1906. In addition the Church Army, Dr. Barnardo's, the Jewish Board of Guardians, the Catholic Federation, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul were formidable actors on the national political scene, advocating causes as well as dispensing relief. Some leaders of charities tried to defend their turf against the growing powers of the national state. Others, especially those run by female advocates of maternal and child welfare, used their charitable mission as a vehicle to advance the national welfare state.


By the late nineteenth century in many countries the veneer of self-help and laissez-faire was wearing thin. Charities abounded, but poverty persisted. In 1899 in London, for instance, charities spent over 6 million pounds, more than the budgets of some small European countries and more than the French national public assistance budget. Despite this, as Charles Booth's social survey Life and Labour of the People of London (1885–1905) demonstrated, some 30 percent of Londoners were, by his widely accepted calculations, poor.

State assistance expanded because it had to. The second industrial revolution, associated with heavy industry, steel, shipbuilding, and metalworks, began in the 1870s. The insufficient capacity of the older collective forces, such as localized charity and the church, to bear the consequences of these new economic forces and to cope with urban ghettos and cyclical, industrywide depressions required greater state intervention. New industrial suburbs sprouted in England, France, and Germany, and the church could not keep up. The old parish system of charity began to break down. Germany began the process of building a welfare state in the 1880s, and France, Britain, and Scandinavia followed in the 1890s and 1900s.

Between the two world wars cities across Europe, from London to Paris to Vienna, constructed miniwelfare states. Private charity was finally eclipsed, at least in a few large cities. Cities across Europe raised their taxes but also delivered more goods to their residents between the wars. The most famous example of this is Vienna, where a socialist municipal council created the world's most advanced miniwelfare state during the 1920s. As municipal social services expanded, charity was displaced, but not erased, from the civic landscape.

England experienced a fivefold increase in central state expenditures on social welfare services between 1918 and 1938. In 1918, 2.4 percent of the GNP was spent on the social services, and by 1938, 11.3 percent of the GNP was devoted to them. By the 1930s between 40 and 50 percent of British working-class families received some form of government contribution to their income. By the mid-1930s public welfare spending amounted to at least ten times the sum spent by private charity in Great Britain. In Germany the state provided more social services. Social welfare was now conceived as a sort of civic right and the antithesis of private charity dispensed by the bourgeoisie on their terms.

Everywhere in Europe the old spirit of noblesse oblige and the institutions that grew out of it were ill equipped to deal with the social problems born of total war. By the end of World War I inflation had taken its toll on charity and hospital endowments, and in the 1920s the balance finally tipped toward public funding. As new medical technologies sent expenses on an upward spiral, small charitable hospitals, largely funded by small private bequests, could not keep up. The state had to step in. Traditional charity simply could not cope with higher medical costs or the generally higher public expectations after the war.

Between 1920 and 1940, as the state grew in strength, wealth, and influence, the financial backbone of private, local charity withered away. In France by 1944 hospitals' endowments provided only 7 percent of their revenues, down from 12 percent in 1932. Annual donations distinct from a long-term endowment, accounted for between 1.2 and 2.4 percent of revenues in the 1930s, but they were down to 0.8 percent in the 1940s.

After World War II the shift from traditional charitable medicine to state-sponsored or provided medicine was dramatic. In France, for example, by the 1950s most hospitals received over 90 percent and in some cases 98 percent of their revenues from frais de séjour (patient-day expenses), which were reimbursed by public authorities and by the social security system. In Britain the process was even more direct. Voluntary, that is, private or charitable, hospitals simply were taken over by the new National Health Service funded by general taxation.

As Europe became prosperous and as expectations of the state increased, the accident of charity was replaced or, as historians such as Lewis would argue, complemented by the guarantee of social security. As Europeans reformulated the idea of citizenship to include all men, regardless of birth or property, and as of 1918 all women, they moved away from the old moral strictures that guided charitable efforts in the past. As of 1918 receipt of poor law assistance in Britain no longer disqualified a person from voting rights and full citizenship rights. The right to social welfare was enshrined in the new German constitution of 1919. Privately operated charity seemed at odds with an expanding notion of citizenship rights. Private charity was crushed under the Bolsheviks, who argued that the socialist state had no need of bourgeois charity.

In Western Europe charity was quietly surpassed by state insurance. Citizenship rights came to mean a constant set of rights available to all on equal terms in all parts of any given country. Charity guaranteed none of this. Above all charity was tainted by its association with inegalitarian values. Charity discriminated and implied inequality among the classes. Charity did not disappear overnight, certainly not in Britain, where at least 110,000 charitable trusts existed in 1950. But it was overshadowed by the state's expanding services. Charity survived and in some nations, Britain in particular, retained its long-standing, quasi-public status, helping to pick up the slack when state resources were squeezed. Nevertheless, the old spirit of voluntary charity, of noblesse oblige or of moralizing toward the poor, is in most places extinct.

"I do not like mixing up moralities and mathematics," claimed a young Winston Churchill in 1909. As Europe moved away from charity and toward social insurance, it effected a divorce between morality and social policy that came to define the essence of the European welfare state. In many ways modern European welfare states became the very negation of nineteenth-century charity. Perhaps this is charity's greatest legacy.

See alsoThe Welfare State (volume 2); and other articles in this section.


Accampo, Elinor. Industrialization, Family Life, and Class Relations: Saint Chamond, 1815–1914. Berkeley, Calif., 1989. Good chapter on charity and rich-poor relations.

Andrew, Donna T. Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1989. A local history on the earlier period.

Barry, Jonathan, and Colin Jones, eds. Medicine and Charity before the Welfare State. London, 1991. Several important essays.

Beaudoin, Steven. "'Without Belonging to the Public Sphere': Charities, the State, and Civil Society in Third Republic Bordeaux." Journal of Social History 31 (Spring 1998): 671–699. An important article that attempts to revise the revisionists.

Bremner, Robert H. Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History. New Brunswick, N.J., 1994.

Brenton, Maria. The Voluntary Sector in British Social Services. London, 1985. Discusses how important charity is in the United Kingdom.

CEDIAS Musée social et al. Le social aux prises avec l'histoire. Vol. 3: La question sociale. Paris, 1991. A special journal edition of Vie sociale and other collaborators with short essays on French and Belgian philanthropy.

Duprat, Catherine. Le temps des philanthropes. 2 vols. Paris, 1993. Massive.

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1987. First published in 1844. Contains a classic indictment of British charity.

Fraser, Derek. The Evolution of the British Welfare State. 2d ed. Basingstoke, U.K., 1984. Good chapter on self-help ideology and voluntary charity.

Fuchs, Rachel Ginnis. Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in theNineteenth-Century. New Brunswick, N.J., 1992.

Gibson, Ralph. A Social History of French Catholicism, 1789–1914. New York, 1989.

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Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty. London, 1985.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the LateVictorians. New York, 1991. A lament for the good old days of charity and morality.

Jones, Colin. Charity and Bienfaisance: The Treatment of the Poor in the MontpellierRegion, 1740–1815. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. An important study that sets the stage for the nineteenth century.

Kidd, Alan J. State, Society, and the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England. Basingstoke, U.K., 1999. Useful for students, with a good chapter on private charity.

Koven, Seth, and Sonya Michel, eds. Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States. New York, 1993.

Lees, Lynn Hollen. The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People,1700–1948. New York, 1998. Possibly the best book on poor relief.

Lewis, Jane. The Voluntary Sector, the State, and Social Work in Britain: The CharityOrganisation Society/Family Welfare Association since 1869. Aldershot, U.K., 1995. One of many important studies in this field by Lewis.

Lindemann, Mary. Patriots and Paupers: Hamburg, 1712–1830. New York, 1990.

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Luddy, Maria. Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

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Mandler, Peter, ed. The Uses of Charity: The Poor on Relief in the Nineteenth-CenturyMetropolis. Philadelphia, 1990. Several good essays.

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Penslar, Derek J. "The Origins of Modern Jewish Philanthropy." In Philanthropy in the World's Traditions. Edited by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz, and Edward L. Queen II. Bloomington, Ind., 1998. Pages 197–214. An addition to the series "Philanthropic Studies."

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Price, Roger. A Social History of Nineteenth-Century France. London, 1987. Several good sections on charity and rich-poor relations.

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Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1984. The social control theory of charity.

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Vincent, David. Poor Citizens: The State and the Poor in Twentieth-Century Britain. London, 1991. A lament for the days of mutual aid, the charity of the poor toward the poor, before the intrusive middle-class welfare state.

Weissbach, Lee Shai. "Oeuvre Industrielle, Oeuvre Morale: The Sociétés de patronage of Nineteenth-Century France." French Historical Studies 25 (Spring, 1987): 99–120.

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Charity and Poor Relief: The Modern Period

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