Today is Martin Luther King Day. In addition to remembering the sacrifices and goals of the Civil Rights Movement, the day has come to include a focus on service and giving back to the community. That led me to ask, “What did people do in the Regency Era?”
The answer turned out to be, more than I thought. Widespread poverty lay just below the surface of the world so often portrayed in romance novels. While we continue to have much—way too much—poverty, we have nothing like the grinding misery of the poor in the Regency period.
Just like now, some well off people ignored it; other members of the privileged classes did what they could to relieve it within the social structures and societal attitudes available to them.
The first level of activity would be giving of money, either directly or through charity balls, subscriptions or other donation campaigns. A second level, less voluntary, came from the Poor Laws. These laws, which dated to Elizabethan times, levied against the wealthy for funds to be used in a variety of ways.
Direct relief was strictly limited to locals, that is people who could show through proof of having been born, married or apprenticed to an area. Local parishes or benevolent landlords provided relief in kind: food, blankets, clothing.
A not so subtle belief that poverty was somehow the fault of poor behavior (and a push to keep costs down) underlay the development of the Workhouse, a form of ongoing relief in which the poor got food and shelter in exchange for menial work. Some were clean and benign, especially in rural parishes. Others were houses of horror and abuse.
The Regency Era also saw the rise of social reformation, not unlike we’ve known it in our time. William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and Charles Simeon are examples of the reformers, all of whom took their passion from their religious faith. Their focuses include abolition of slavery and education for the poor. Evangelical ideas permeated their activities.