Founding mothers: Elizabeth Finn (1825-1921)

Finn was a pioneering Victorian whose legacy is still helping those in financial need, writes Simon Hopkins

Elizabeth Finn
Elizabeth Finn

It has been 120 years since poverty charity Turn2us was founded as the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Aid Association by Elizabeth Finn.

Since 1897, we have awarded over £155 million in grants to people in financial need, awarding almost £3 million in hardship grants in the last year alone.

Who was Elizabeth Finn, whose legacy of helping those in poverty continues to this day?

Born Elizabeth McCaul in1825 to missionary parents in Poland, Elizabeth spent much of her childhood with her family in Bethnal Green in East London. Although she had no formal education, Elizabeth learnt many foreign languages including Yiddish and Hebrew, becoming a polyglot from an early age.

After her marriage to James Finn, who was appointed British consul, the couple moved to Jerusalem.

Elizabeth’s work in Jerusalem was diverse and included pioneering the use of the emerging art form of photography. She helped bring the newly invented art to the region and supported indigenous photographers such as Mendel John Diness and photographed King Edward VII when he visited Jerusalem in April 1862.

A keen artist, the landscape of Palestine and Jerusalem was the focus of a lot of her sketches. Her work is marked with a painstaking level of attention as to how the landscape is charged and altered by the effects of light at different times of day.

Always eager to learn new languages, Elizabeth learnt to speak Arabic during her stay in Jerusalem.

It was also in Jerusalem that her real drive to address poverty came into full force. She organised training and employment of local men and women as carpenters, farm labourers and seamstresses as well as raising money from overseas to battle malnutrition among the poor.

In January 1854, she established the 'Sarah Society' which made home visits to poor women, providing relief in the form of rice, sugar and coffee.

The Finns left Jerusalem to return to England in 1863 and settled in Hammersmith, London. James Finn, suffering from poor health, died in 1872 aged 66. In 1882, Elizabeth launched the Society for Relief of Distressed Jews to provide support for Russian Jews facing severe persecution during violent pogroms.

Then, disturbed by the plight of neighbours who had fallen on hard times, she made a stand at a social gathering in 1897 and read accounts from people who were living in poverty. People were struggling to buy basic food provisions or pay their bills. Her friends were so moved that many volunteered to fundraise and get support from their friends, and Elizabeth with help from her daughter Constance decided to set up the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Aid Association.

The Distressed Gentlefolk's Aid Association either bestowed grants for the immediate relief of the elderly and infirm or empowered individuals capable of working to get back onto their feet and find employment through targeted support and micro-loans.

It was initially run from Elizabeth Finn’s London home but by the time she died in 1921, it was firmly established as a vital source of support for people in poverty across the UK and Ireland. Although ending her 'formal' participation with the Distressed Gentlefolk's Aid Association in 1901, Elizabeth Finn continued to closely monitor and assist the society for the rest of her life – attending her final committee meeting on 5 November 1920 two months before her death.

Her creation continues and thrives today, as Turn2us. We continue her legacy 120 years on by helping people in financial need gain access to welfare benefits, charitable grants and support services.

Simon Hopkins is chief executive of Turn2us

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