Private charity and the Great Slums

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Highlighting the facts behind Historical Romance with Jude Knight and her Children of the Mountain King.

In Regency Britain, one in ten families lived below the ‘breadline’, and at times as many as two in five. Many people were precariously balanced on a knife edge where illness, accidents or old age could tumble them into starvation. Nowhere were the differences between rich and poor greater than in London, where the most wretched of slums existed just streets away from the most opulent of mansions, and where the upper classes wagered fortunes on the turn of a dice cheek by jowl with the haunts of beggars, prostitutes and itinerant workers.

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The Poor Law and parish-based support

The Poor Law was meant to make sure such unfortunates had the help they needed. Wealthy households paid a levy to the parish, and local overseers apportioned financial hand-outs, clothing and fuel, and bread to those who could prove they belonged to the parish and therefore had a right to its support.


Those who could not prove such a link could expect no help, and might even be arrested if they tried to survive by begging or selling sexual services.

And those who were accepted into the orphanages and workhouses that were the channel for parish poor relief were not a great deal better off. The idea that poverty is a character fault is not a 21st Century invention. Strident voices wanted the poor to suffer for their charity handout.

By the beginning of the 19th century, more than 100,000 people lived under the stringent and dire control of the workhouses. The sexes were segregated, and the able-bodied set to work, with strict rules and routines. Some were no better than prisons, and many of the poor preferred to starve rather than be put in the workhouse.

Epidemics tore through them, and the death rate for people of every age, and particularly for newborns, was brutal.

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The Foundling Hospital, Holborn

Private charities

The parish levy wasn’t the only funding for the poor, though. Many landowners (and particularly their wives) kept to the age-old tradition of providing food and other items to those who lived on or near their estates, and some continued this one-on-one help in town. They also joined groups to provide help for those who needed it.

Private charities collected money for initiatives such as the Foundling Hospital in London, which cared for children whose mothers could not support them, the Marine Society, which trained poor boys for a life at sea, the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes, various hospitals and clinics to provide free medical care, and educational initiatives.

Schools for the poor

The so-called ragged schools got that name after about 1840: the first in a new movement of linked ragged schools was Field Lane, opened by the London City Mission, and sponsored by Lord Ashley the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury. By 1861, there were 176 schools in the Ragged School Union.

It wasn’t a new idea. Close to London, Thomas Cranfield established a day school as early as 1798, to which he admitted poor children without payment. Universal compulsory schooling had to wait until after the 1870 Education Act.In 1818, John Pounds, a Portsmouth shoemaker, taught, fed, and gave place to as many poor boys as he could.

To raise money, these charitable groups used the time-honoured idea of offering tickets to an entertainment: balls, musical concerts, art exhibitions. Some charged a weekly subscription to support their work. Some solicited donations through pamphlets and direct approaches to possible donors. (Some people have suggested balls were a Victorian contrivance, but British newspapers contain advertisements for charity balls and assemblies, or reports on them, going back to the middle of the previous century.)

Groups would also get together to raise money for a friend in need; perhaps someone who had been injured or widowed. In the British Newspapers Online archive, I found a number of advertisements for events ‘for the benefit of Mr. Xxx’, which is, of course, where we get our term Benefit, to mean a charity event.

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A woman’s work

While men ran many of the great philanthropic institutions, charity was “the proper public expression of a gentlewoman’s religious energy”. [Vickery, 254] Many women joined benevolent societies (where members agreed to provide support for any of their number who fell on hard times) and a huge number of women founded or joined charitable groups that supported what they themselves would have called ‘good works’.

At times, philanthropic work must have felt like a drop in the bucket but, it is a bit like the man said when interrupted on the foreshore, in the act of throwing stranded starfish back into the sea. “What difference does it make?” said the interrupter. “It makes a difference to this one,” said the man, holding up yet another starfish and hurling it safely back into the waves.

The great legal changes that would usher in a more equitable distribution of health and education, and that would provide a safety net for the poorest of the poor were still to come, and are still patchy in many places. But it was a start.


Porter, Roy: English Society in the 18th Century. Penguin, 1982

Uglow, Jenny: In These Times, Faber & Faber 2014

Vickers, Amanda: The Gentleman’s Daughter, Yale, 1998

White, Matthew: Poverty in Britain.

The Children of the Mountain King

The wealthy and titled ladies of my leading families in the series The Children of the Mountain King are all philanthropists with a hands-on approach to charitable giving.

Lady Sophia Belvoir (To Wed a Proper Lady) sits on the board of a number of groups, but her abiding interest is the education of girls. She meets the hero outside of an orphanage, and finally kisses him at a house party she has helped to organise to raise money for scholarships.

Lady Ruth Winderfield (To Mend the Broken-Hearted) is a doctor, trained in Iranian and Arabic medicine. She founds a medical clinic for the treatment of the poor in the slums of London.

Matilda Grenford (Melting Matildacoming this month) is heavily involved in the Frost Fair fundraising projects of The Ladies’ Society for the Care of the Widows and Orphans of Fallen Heroes and the Children of Wounded Veterans. (We based the length and detail of the name of real charitable foundations.)

Lady Sarah Winderfield (To Claim the Long-Lost Lover) has thrown her energies into saving women from abusive and neglectful men, providing a refuge and employment. This book is nearly finished and will be out in July.

Her twin, Lady Charlotte Winderfield (To Tame the Wild Rake) teaches at and supports a ragged school in the slums. That’ll be out about four weeks after To Claim the Long-Lost Lover.

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About the Book

Melting-Matilda Historical Romance Sparks flew a year ago when the Granite Earl kissed the Ice Princess. In the depths of another winter, fire still smoulders under the frost between them

Can the Ice Maiden Soften the Granite Earl?

Her scandalous birth prevents Matilda Grenford from being fully acceptable to Society, even though she has been a ward of the Duchess of Haverford since she was a few weeks old. Matilda does not expect to be wooed by a worthy gentleman. The only man who has ever interested her gave her an outrageous kiss a year ago and has avoided her ever since.

Can the Granite Earl Melt the Ice Maiden?

Charles, the Earl of Hamner is honour bound to ignore his attraction to Matilda Grenford. She is an innocent and a lady, and in every way worthy of his respect—but she is base-born. His ancestors would rise screaming from their graves if he made her his countess. But he cannot forget the kiss they once shared.

When his mother and her guardian begin collaborating on Her Grace’s annual charity fundraiser, neither Charles nor Matilda sees a way to avoid working together. And neither expect the bond they build.

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Caroline Warfield, Author

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