Philanthropy in the Slums- Caroline Otu

The Distress in Coventry, Distribution of Soup for Distressed Weavers in the Kitchen of St Mary's Hall
Figure 1: The Distress In Coventry: Distribution of soup for distressed weavers in the kitchen of St. Mary’s Hall, illustration from “The Illustrated London News”, 9th Feb 1861  [1]
Figure 1 depicts a group of distressed ribbon weavers waiting to be served soup in a grand, but dreary, St Mary’s Hall, Coventry, in 1861. It is clear that it is daytime from the bright light coming through the windows, however, the dreary scene of misfortune makes the space appear dark and cramped. In the foreground, women prepare vegetables for soup, and these women were not necessarily in a better financial position than the weavers they were serving. This was common in soup kitchens and other forms of charity in Victorian Britain. Prochaska has claimed, for example, that “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century families at almost every level of the social scale commonly tithed their incomes to charitable causes.”[2] This perhaps the reason why the servers do not look particularly pleasant or enthusiastic to be active participants in this act of charity. As Prochaska again noted: “A survey of working-class and artisan families in the same decade showed that half of them subscribed weekly to charity and about a quarter of them also made donations to church or chapel. Even at the beginning of this [19th] century the sums contributed each year, not including church and chapel collections and unremembered alms, far exceeded government expenditure on poor relief.”[3]

A lot of money and charity which the lower working classes could have used towards better living standards had to be given to charity and church and chapel collections. If the poor were spending more than the actual government on poor relief, this may have caused widespread feeling of discontent amongst the working class and this feeling of discontent which is displayed by the manner of the women preparing vegetables for the distressed weavers.

Figure 2: Article from The Illustrated London News, setting the “Distressed Ribbon Weavers Of Coventry” engraving into context.[4]
The image formed part of  a double-sided spread in the Illustrated London News, shown in figure 2. This article relating to the engraving emphasises the extent to which the British population engaged in philanthropy. The source suggests that the maintenance of charity by working class and artisan families was justified by their Christianity, primarily Catholicism and Protestantism which were the main dominant religions in Britain from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The second source identifies a “relief fund” contributed by the “public”, which raised a very “large” sum. This also highlights the way in which struggling communities were pressured into contributing to charities that were not necessarily sufficiently less fortunate than they were. “Critics, on the other hand, judge philanthropy to be largely insensitive to the genuine needs of the poor and see it as a thinly disguised form of self-interest.”[5] This supports the notion that there was a sense of resentment due to the fact that regardless of your financial position, if you were a member of British society, you had to contribute to charities and most individuals’ financial income contributed to many different forms of charity.

“It is becoming clear to the public that there is a right and a wrong, a wise and an unwise charity. Those who have the interests of the poor at heart are learning, more and more, to consult experienced people before taking any direct steps towards trying to help those who apply to them for aid; those who wish to give money are beginning to entrust it to enlightened committees, instead of endeavouring to distribute it themselves.”

Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Homes of the London Poor, by Octavia Hill, 1883, IV. THE WORK OF VOLUNTEERS IN THE ORGANISATION OF CHARITY. (first published in Macmillan’s Magazine, October, 1872)[6]

This source supports the notion that individuals had different motives for various forms of charity.  This source suggests that the general feeling towards philanthropy at the time was that instead of working alongside committees who conducted these forms of charity, philanthropy should be democratically controlled by the public across the classes, rather than by the government and parishes. Along with these changes came the creation and development of charities with more direct aims: “The missionary and Bible societies, the RSPCA and the NSPCC, the temperance movement and other causes, their donations, channelled through domestic meetings, Sunday schools and juvenile associations, became an important, in some cases an indispensable, source of funds.”[7]

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The two sources displayed in the gallery above are very similar to the first source shown on this page. The first source, entitled “Institution for the Houseless Poor Admissions Room”[8]by shows a room in an institution for the homeless. It is evident that the space is extremely cramped and that many individuals in Britain were in need of charity, however there were plenty of goods and resources in place for the individuals in need of such charity. There were many different locations for London’s homeless in this programme: “For men at 6 Banner Street, E.C, and 55, Warner Place, Hackney Road, N.E. and for women at 21 Nutford Place W., at 3 Queen Street Edgware Road, and at 39, Horner Street W.” This suggests that there were many people claiming that they were suffering from poverty, but some may have been suffering more than others. This is also shown in “The Terrible Sights of London”[9], where Thomas Archer states “It will perhaps be denied that all the cases reported are genuine, or that the circumstances are not capable of some more favourable explanation”. However, the philanthropic impulse in the nineteenth century allowed many struggling individuals to find relief in a large range of locations.

Caroline Otu


1. The Distress in Coventry: distribution of soup for distressed weavers in the kitchen of St. Mary’s Hall, illustration from ‘The Illustrated London News’, 9th Feb 1861

2. F. Prochaska, ‘Philanthropy’ in Thompson, F. M. L, The Cambridge social history of Britain 1750-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University)

3. Prochaska, Philanthropy

4.Figure 2:

5.Workhouse, The Story of An Institution:            

6. Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Homes of the London Poor, by Octavia Hill, 1883:

7. NSPCC Annual Report (1979), pp. 12, ii.

8. LSE Digital Library, The Labour of Unrest.  

9. Victorian London, Publications, Social Investigation/Journalism- The Terrible Sights of London, by Thomas Archer, 1870, Chapter III (Pt.1). Our Neighbour via: (Yale University Press, 2014)