Charity and Food and Clothing- Amelia Turner

Throughout the nineteenth century, a small minority of the middle classes began to participate in the act of philanthropy within slum areas of Britain. Charitable organisations that were set up within the Victorian period that concentrated on creating a notion of cultural betterment within the poverty stricken areas, providing the slum dwellers with a means of support to help bring them out of destitution. Many charities and associations were created around the industrial cities of the North (i.e. Manchester and Liverpool) and within the East End of London to help create a better way of living for the poorest of the working class.

The Victorian period saw a time in which employment for the working class was hard to come by and therefore many relied on the generosity of others to provide a daily meal for them. Thus, looking at the relationship of philanthropy with food and clothing a significant selection of organisations are important to examine. These include the Salvation Army, which was predominately based in London was founded by husband and wife William and Catherine Booth, with the belief that they would bring salvation to the poor catering for both their spiritual and physical needs. Their influence of charity spread across the country leading to the opening of many mission centres and semi-successful campaigns such as ‘Food for the Million’. The Wood Street Mission, set up in the heart of Manchester to provide food and clothing to the working classes, opened soup kitchens and night shelters for the homeless and distributed thousands of clogs and items of clothing to the poor each year.[1] Finally, the League of Welldoers was a noteworthy Liverpool based charity, which became prolific in bettering the childhood of many children within the slum areas of Liverpool.

Boys queuing outside the Wood Street Mission building c1900

Formally known as the ‘Liverpool Food Association’, the League of Welldoers was founded by Herbert Lee Jackson Jones (however he was commonly known as Lee Jones) in 1893. Jones founded the charity having been appalled by the poverty and under nourishment of the poor within the slum areas, yet his main focus was on the necessity of supporting and bettering children, making it his mission to feed and clothe the children who were in need of help the most. During his years as the head of the League, Jones became a keen photographer, taking photographs of the areas in which his charity work took place. He would go on to use these images within both his own newspaper, the Welldoer, and the regional press. Julie-Marie Strange argues that Jones was ‘adept at using the waif genre in fundraising literature, stressing the Leagues work with children and using familiar images of the blameless waif… while deploying a language of society’s responsibility to “our children”‘.[2] Images of the atrocious conditions of slum life were also used by other charitable organisations as they were ‘intended to appeal to the conscience of the middle class giver’.[3]  Jones believed that his depiction of children as innocent helped to gain support and donations from the middle classes. Roddy, Strange and Taithe explain that the League was a ‘large and relatively successful outfit by regional standards’ and was ‘constantly expanding its remit in the first decade of the twentieth century’.[4]

liverpool slum
Children waiting for food c1902

The source to the left was photographed by Jones between the years of 1902-1921. From this image we can see that there are a group of children standing collectively holding a form of crockery, most likely to be waiting to be fed, highlighting the League’s philanthropic aim of providing children with a good sized meal. Jones set out to make this available for children within twenty two schools around the Liverpool and Wirral area. The meal would include a bowl of hot soup and either a slice of currant bread or bread and jam, at the small cost of halfpenny. As well as setting out to combat the malnourishment of the poor working-class child, the League also created soup kitchens which would cater for working-class adults in need of nourishment if they could not afford to provide food for themselves. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, when the League was still known as the ‘Liverpool Food Association’, although food was being provided by the organisation, many slum dwellers still had to pay for their dinners at the fair price of ½ d each, with free dinners being supplied for only the ‘poorest of the poor’. [5] Yet many of these people depended on the League (and the other charities previously mentioned) as a lifeline and without the assistance of the League and similar charities many people would have died due to starvation.

By 1904, the League had provided over 12,000 meals within the regional area of Liverpool,[6] becoming a notable success due to the Liverpool charity market being ‘crowded and highly competitive’.[7] As well as administrating food with schools and on their own premises, the League hired voluntary women, known as ‘lady attendants’, to distribute food to the sick poor, who were too ill to collect food from the charity themselves; provide food for dockers, who were sat waiting for casual work to come along; and dispersed Christmas dinners to rag pickers and sandwich board men, who worked during the holiday.

soup kitchen 1924
Unemployed men queue for food c1924

When it came to gender roles and philanthropy, Victorian society had many concerns. The use of charity as a means of support by men within the slum areas was particularly important within the nineteenth century. Due to the lack of money being earned by the slum dwellers, it became difficult for a head of house to afford to feed their large families. The use of aid given by charities by working class men was seen as a taboo subject within society, especially men who were labelled as a ‘tramp’ or were ‘tramping’. This term was often given to men who had lost their means of work and were searching for a job and they were degraded by many in society as they lost their title as the breadwinner of their family. If a family was seen to be depending on aid from charities, the male of the household was seen to be a failure as they were challenging the working- and middle-class notions of independent masculinity.[8] Yet the blurred line between the tramping man and the tramp was critical to sentimental depictions of the homeless and legitimating claims for assistance.[9]

These acts of philanthropy have allowed us to understand the treatment of gender, class and identity within both Victorian and early twentieth-century society. With help from the sources above, the relationship between charity and food and clothing is highlighted to show how the help of charitable organisations bettered the lives of many men, women and children who inhabited the slums and their surrounding areas, creating the aid they needed to help survive their days living within the impoverished areas.

Amelia Turner


[1] Kidd, A., Manchester (Keele: Keele University Press, 1996), p. 152.

[2] Strange, J-M. ‘Tramp: Sentiment and the Homeless Man in the Late-Victorian and Edwardian City’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 16:2 (2011). p. 249.

[3] Kidd, Manchester, p. 152.

[4] Roddy, S., Strange, J-M. and Taithe, B., ‘The Charity-Mongers of Modern Babylon: Bureaucracy, Scandal, and the Transformation of the Philanthropic Marketplace, c.1870–1912’, Journal of British Studies, 54 (2015), p. 128

[5] Strange, ‘Tramp’, p. 246.

[6] Strange, ‘Tramp’, p. 252.

[7] Roddy et al, ‘The Charity-Mongers of Modern Babylon’, p. 131.

[8] Strange, ‘Tramp’, p. 244.

[9] Strange, ‘Tramp’,  p. 257.

Images used

Available at: Date Accessed: 10th November 2015 Date Accessed: 3rd December 2015 Date Accessed 3rd December