Historic charities: Ancient to modern

Before the state became involved in welfare, charities bore the brunt of providing for those in need. Many have survived, and Ann Thomas asks how they have stayed up to date and what they think of the Charities Bill


"Go gentle babe... and all thy life be happiness and love." This poignant farewell from a broken-hearted mother as she handed her infant into the care of the Foundling Hospital encapsulates the spirit of Coram Family.

Thought to be England's oldest children's charity, it has worked continuously to help deprived and disadvantaged children since George II granted its Royal Charter in 1739. Captain Thomas Coram, horrified by the sight of babies left to die on London's streets, had fought for 17 years to open the Foundling Hospital as a refuge for abandoned infants. Not unlike some of today's campaigners, he gained the support of celebrities, including George Frideric Handel, who bequeathed a copy of The Messiah, and the artist William Hogarth, who gave his paintings to decorate the hospital walls. Other British artists, including Gainsborough and Reynolds, followed suit, creating the country's first public art gallery.

The Foundling Hospital was pulled down in the 1920s, but the pioneering mission of what is now Coram Family continues to nurture the spirit of its founder. The charity still develops and promotes best practice in the care of vulnerable children and their families, while remaining alive to their changing needs. It is renowned for innovative, high-quality work and research.

Current chief executive Honor Rhodes welcomes the new Charities Bill and believes it has made organisations think hard about what they do and how effective they are. "We have a moral obligation when we take money from individuals and the state to use it wisely and well," she says. This is why Coram Family has pioneered information days, when donors can discover what their money supports.

The charity plans a major governance review in the autumn and Rhodes hopes it will be challenging. "We want to get the very best return."

The charity's primary objective - the welfare of children - is as relevant today as it was in 18th century London, she says. "The original governors of the Foundling Hospital paid great attention to every detail of the children's lives," she says. "I hope and believe that this is what we do now."


As with wives, so with medics - Henry VIII brooked no delay in getting what he wanted. In this case, it was "the improvement and more orderly exercise of the art of physic, and the repression of irregular, unlearned and incompetent practitioners of that faculty" - stern words, prompted by the King, from the Roll of the Royal College of Physicians, the oldest medical institution in England. The college's account of Henry's decision to grant a Royal Charter in 1518 continues: "To the establishment of this incorporation the King was moved by the example of similar institutions in Italy and elsewhere, by the solicitations of at least one of his own physicians, Thomas Linacre, and by the advice and recommendation of his chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey."

Thomas Linacre, a physician, scholar and humanist, became the college's first president and benefactor. Today it has more than 21,000 fellows and collegiate members worldwide. Now subject to the demands of Parliament rather than the whims of a capricious king, finance director Paul Young says: "While the college has always been very open about its aims and objectives, a new Charities Act would give us an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that further and more publicly within a legal framework.

"Like similar organisations, we will also have to demonstrate how our work benefits the public. As yet there is no specific definition of public benefit in the Bill, but we are confident that our main aim - to promote the highest standards of medical practice in order to improve health and healthcare - is clearly of benefit to patients and the public."

Young believes the greater freedom for charities to spend their endowment funds will be significant too. "This is particularly helpful to historic charities like ours, which have accumulated various such funds over long periods of time."

He adds: "The social and political framework surrounding what we do has obviously completely altered since we were founded. But the principles of our charter are still directly relevant today."


Joining SPAB involves more than simply stumping up the membership fee.

Applicants must also sign their agreement to the conservation principles of the society's manifesto, drawn up by craftsman, designer and socialist William Morris and other founders in 1877. That manifesto remains the philosophical basis for the society's educational, advisory and campaigning work.

Morris and his co-founders - other notable members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - were deeply concerned about the destructive 'restoration' of mediaeval buildings by over-zealous Victorian architects. The society also enjoyed the active support of Thomas Hardy and John Betjeman, and is now the country's biggest, oldest and most technically expert national pressure group fighting to save ancient buildings from decay, demolition and damage.

Thousands of buildings have survived that would have been lost, mutilated or badly repaired without its intervention. The society's long-established training programmes and scholarships have created a core of leading conservationists - and there are courses, too, for householders.

Deputy secretary Matthew Slocombe says the society is approaching the future in a spirit of optimism. "All things in the guidance to the Charities Bill pointed to an incorporation in advance of the new Act," he says.

"That's meant a lot of work, but we hope it will have all been for the better. It's also given us the chance to review our governance, which was a very valuable exercise - when you are almost 130 years old, you can't stand still. At the moment we are producing a new development strategy, working out a fresh direction for the 21st century." Slocombe also welcomes changes that will iron out liabilities for trustees and allow them to "feel more comfortable" in performing their duties.

Slocombe believes the society's important educational role has helped the charity remain relevant, progressive and youthful over the decades.

"It means that we continuously have new generations of people coming in who carry through our principles in their working lives and then sit on SPAB committees or become trustees," he says. "This goes right back to our founders, who were practical people, working in their field."


Thought to be England's oldest charitable institution and continuously occupied almshouse, the Hospital of St Cross was founded in the 1130s by Bishop Henry de Blois for "13 poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can scarcely or not at all support themselves without other aid". The Brethren of St Cross live in a complex of mediaeval and Tudor buildings set in water meadows to the south of Winchester. Alms are still given in the form of Wayfarer's Dole, a reminder of when the hospital distributed a daily ration for up to 100 poor men. To this day, visitors who knock at the Porter's Lodge and ask for the dole will receive a beaker of beer and a morsel of bread.

Best of the rest

The forerunner to Diabetes UK, the Diabetic Association was founded in 1934 by novelist HG Wells and Dr RD Lawrence, both of whom had diabetes.

A rousing speech by Charles Dickens raised more than £3,000 for the Hospital for Sick Children soon after it opened in London's Great Ormond Street in 1852. Peter Pan has brought happy endings for many young patients treated there since author JM Barrie donated the copyright of his children's classic to the hospital in 1929. The sums raised remain secret, as stipulated in Barrie's will.

The great actor-manager Sir Henry Irving and his acting partner Ellen Terry appeared in special matinees to raise money for the Actors' Benevolent Fund, founded in 1882. WS Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) left the leasehold of the Garrick Theatre to the fund, although this was sold in 1938.

Early campaigns by The Open Spaces Society, founded in 1865, saved Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common. Said to be Britain's oldest national conservation body, its members included John Stuart Mill, Sir Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill. The last two went on in 1895 to found the National Trust with Canon Rawnsley.


What do Sir Colin Davis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and teenagers Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper (who recently climbed Everest) have in common? They're all Old Blues, former pupils of Christ's Hospital, the school founded in 1552 by Edward VI for the education of poor children, and known for its distinctive uniform.

A second Royal Charter, bestowed by Charles II in 1673, created the Royal Mathematical School. An integral part of Christ's Hospital, this trained boys in mathematics and navigation for careers in the navy. Samuel Pepys, secretary to His Majesty's Navy, made a considerable contribution to Christ's Hospital and later became the school's vice-president. The Queen continues a tradition of royal patronage and City of London livery companies have an uninterrupted record of actively supporting the school's pupils.

Preference for places is still given to academically able children from families in social, financial or other need. In this way, Christ's Hospital remains true to its founding principle of supporting disadvantaged children, says Michael Simpkin, chief executive of the school's charitable educational trust. "We are as committed to our charitable purpose as our predecessors 450 years ago, while recognising the needs of today's society." he says.

"But it's our assets of just over £300m that have allowed us to perform that function. Without the money, we would not be the last remaining public school in the true sense of the word."

He's adamant that all forward-thinking people in the third sector must welcome updated charity legislation that's fit for purpose and the 21st century. "Independent surveys tell us public confidence in charities is not that strong," he says. "But if you have a sound bedrock of legislation, you have a cracking start. Relief for trustees from personal liability has to be a great step forward, as is regulation on fundraising. As with many other parts of the Bill, it's an encouragement for the sector to be more transparent and open."


Middle Ages to Reformation Charity administered largely by the church and religious communities. Individual endowments or bequests were typically for apprenticeships, the education of poor children and the care of the sick and elderly.

1601 The Poor Law signalled progression from private charity to the state.

Parishes and towns became responsible, within a framework of national legislation. For the first time, the poor were divided into the deserving and undeserving.

1834 The Poor Law Amendment Act removed responsibility for relief of the poor from the community and put the workhouse at the centre of provision.

1835 Charity Commission founded. Poor relief declined during the 19th century and voluntary charities grew, along with self-help measures for working people such as friendly and co-operative societies and penny savings banks.

1946 The NHS Act drew hospitals, which had been charitable institutions, into the state.

1960, 1992 and 1993 New Acts to make charities more accountable and efficient.

1997 to present Labour promotes concept of state and voluntary sector co-operation to deliver services.

2006 Charities Bill on its way through Parliament.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus