Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


5 October 2017

(This post is based on chapter 4 of our report Giving a Sense of Place. You can download the full report here).

Philanthropy played an important role in the growth and development of many UK towns and cities, but what, if anything, can we learn from history that is actually useful in terms of looking to the future? This is not the place to attempt a potted history of the whole of UK philanthropy.[1] However, it is worth looking at some of the broader trends that can be discerned - as well as some individual examples of philanthropists and the impact they had on particular places - in order to get a sense of the ways in which they helped to shape the towns and cities of today. This will help us to understand how we can reconnect with the history of philanthropy in our cities without simply harking back to the past for its own sake.


Philanthropy in its modern sense can be traced back to Tudor times, and the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism following the decision of Henry VIII to leave the Church of Rome. This led to a new approach to giving that was distinct from the almsgiving of mediaeval times. Whereas Catholic doctrine had focused on the act of giving itself and the role it played in securing the donor’s immortal soul, Protestant teaching focussed far more on what was actually achieved with donations. This meant a new focus on understanding the actual issues of the day and trying to address their underlying causes. This eventually paved the way for a secular conception of philanthropy as a way of addressing social problem such as poverty that is not wholly based in religious doctrine (although might still be motivated by religious belief). This was to prove crucial in the subsequent development of urban philanthropy, as we shall see.


A key milestone in the development of modern philanthropy was the introduction in 1601 of the Statute of Charitable Uses, which enumerated for the first time a list of purposes which could acceptably be deemed as ‘charitable’ in law. This strengthened the notion of philanthropy as something that was concerned with secular problem solving, and laid the foundations for the definition of charity that we still use in the UK to this day (and, indeed, in many other places whose common law has followed our own).

It is important to note that whilst the practice of philanthropy gradually took on a new, secular form following the Reformation, the motivation behind giving remained a religious one for the vast majority of donors. People were still being told by religious leaders that doctrine compelled them to give to charity, but, “the advice… was increasingly pragmatic in nature, and thought still concerned bout benefits in the hereafter, was more worldly and present-minded in its demands for an active, discerning, and effective charitable community.[2] The constant reminder from the bully pulpit of the charitable obligation played an incredibly important role in driving the culture of philanthropy in Britain for many hundreds of years. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the great philanthropic “booms” of the Tudor and Victorian eras would have happened without this backdrop. Some religious groups ─ most notably the “Dissenting” groups of protestants (such as the Quakers) – put special emphasis on the importance of giving, and as a result came to play a particularly prominent role in the story of UK philanthropy.


From the end of the mediaeval period growing numbers of people left rural areas - and a life of subsistence farming - and moved to the rapidly-expanding towns and cities: drawn by the prospect of jobs, wealth and a better life. This phenomenon increased exponentially in the 18th and 19th centuries, driven first by the Agricultural and then the Industrial Revolution. New technologies and farming methods reduced the need for human labour and thus drove even more workers and their families out of the countryside and into the cities, where a huge range of new industries created vast demand for labour.

This shift had major implications for the development of philanthropy. The scale and nature of social problems changed dramatically: whilst there had always been rural poverty, those in the countryside were usually able to find work and had access to land on which to grow their own crops. In the cities, however, entire industries were often subject to massive fluctuations in demand so employment levels could drop to virtually zero, thus creating an entire new underclass of the unemployed. These people also no longer had the means to provide for their own subsistence, and the vastly increased population density meant that ill-health and disease were rife. These living conditions also had a dehumanising effect, and led to many knock-on effects in terms of increased crime and vice. Surrounded by squalor and degradation, human life often came to be seen as cheap and problems like alcoholism and prostitution reached epidemic proportions. Many of the structures that had provided help to the poor in the traditional rural setting (such as the local church or landowner) had also been responsible for maintaining moral and behavioural standards (often in a highly patrician manner, it has to be said), so the absence of these structures in the urban setting meant that there were few checks on the descent into vice and criminality of those at the bottom of society. Describing the impact of the influx of huge numbers of migrant workers from Ireland, Wales and mainland Europe into Liverpool in the 19th century, Margaret Simey paints a vivid picture of the problem:

“Such codes of social or moral decency as they might previously have known hardly survived transplanting, and the restraints normally exercised by regard for public opinion did not exist in that polyglot community. The lack of employment for the young or for women… resulted in idleness which poverty and ignorance directed into habits of delinquency and brawling… Meanwhile, the whole burden of cementing into a social entity this medley of people fell upon the religious bodies, who were no more familiar than anyone else with the technique of building and urban industrial community…[BUT] the churches and chapels were not able to repeat outside their own four walls the success which marked their work amongst their immediate membership. The old parochial system centring on an established church was not applicable to the masses of a raw town.”[3]

Slum in Gray's Inn Lane

The traditional methods and approaches of philanthropy were not suited to this urban environment. Philanthropy (and the almsgiving that preceded it) had been something that took place at a highly localised, parish level and, as David Owen argued, “to translate the person-to-person charity from the village or the small town to an urban slum seemed, and indeed was, an impossible hope.”[4] It had been possible previously to make decisions about where and how to give on the basis of seeing the problems and meeting those in need, to assess whether they were genuinely worthy of assistance. However, in an urban setting, this was no longer possible as there were simply far too many people in need for a philanthropist to interact with them all individually.

The secularisation of philanthropy outlined above proved hugely important when it came to adapting philanthropy for an urban environment. In mediaeval times, religious doctrine had taught that poverty was merely a part of the natural order, and that its role in God’s plan was to provide an opportunity for those with wealth to demonstrate their benevolence and thus secure passage to heaven. There was thus no real notion of trying to “address” or “solve” problems of poverty at a systemic level; merely of dealing with individual instances of them. However, philanthropists in the towns and cities could no longer deal with the volume of needy individuals, as no one person would have the capacity to assess all the applications for assistance or distribute the funds to those deemed worthy of help. This made it clear that the only way of dealing with urban poverty was to try and find solutions to some of its underlying causes, and that philanthropy would have to change in order to do this.

This was one of the driving forces behind the development of “associational philanthropy”, which began in the mid 17th century. This period saw the birth of the ‘joint stock corporation’: a new structure allowing individuals to come together and pursue business interests collectively. At the same time, individuals also started to came together to pursue their philanthropic interests by pooling donations into an intermediary organisation, which would then distribute them according to agreed criteria. According to Owen, “it was out of the question for the philanthropist, however well disposed, to seek out the cases of greatest need and to become familiar with them. The consequence was, of course, to stimulate the growth of charitable societies serving as intermediaries between individual philanthropist and beneficiary… [Thus] the nineteenth century saw the charitable organisation come to full, indeed almost rankly luxuriant, bloom.”[5] These intermediary organisations were staffed by people who might not themselves be wealthy, but had expertise and understanding of social problems and were thus able to direct the resources of the wealthy more effectively. This is essentially the start of the modern notion of a charity or voluntary organisation, which has proven to be an extremely enduring model.[6]


The traditional means of understanding need for philanthropists was essentially visual: they would literally be able to see for themselves the problems of poverty and ill-health in their local area. Physical proximity was therefore a key driver of giving. In urban areas the dynamic changed, as the poor became segregated into over-populated ghettos of low-quality housing (often in the shadow of the factories in which they worked), and those with wealth gravitated towards their own enclaves elsewhere. As long as there were still things bringing the two worlds into contact, this would not necessarily undermine the philanthropic urge. For instance, the famous London philanthropist Thomas Coram often attributed his dedication to the cause of abandoned children (or “foundlings”) to his experiences of walking from his home to work in the City of London through a less salubrious area and seeing many deserted children but the roadside, both alive and dead.[7]

However, if the wealthy were effectively able to insulate themselves from the poverty around them in urban areas, then it could have a hugely detrimental effect on their willingness to do anything about it. Friedrich Engels (the future co-author of the Communist Manifesto) produced a report in 1845 on The Condition of the Working Class in Manchester, in which he identified the dislocation of rich from poor as one of the city’s major problems. The historian and former Labour MP Tristram Hunt recounts Engels perception of the situation:[8]

“One of the most telling aspects of Manchester life was that the other half, the bourgeoisie, rarely had to come face to face with the horrors of proletariat existence. The divide between the two nations was more than financial. It was physical. The prosperous middle classes made their way to and from the city centre as the demands of their business necessitated. And on their way, according to Engels, ‘the members of this money aristocracy’ take a route which avoids them having to see ‘The grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left’… Engels believed he had never seen ‘so systematic a shutting out of the working-class from the thoroughfares, so tender a concealment of everything which might affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeousie’.”

We should probably be careful of taking Engels account entirely at face value, given that he was partly engaged in producing propaganda designed to support his nascent views on the need for a Communist revolution; but even if he was guilty of overstating the extent of this problem for his own ends, he was right in his analysis of how damaging the phenomenon of physical segregation of rich and poor can be in terms of attitudes to poverty. Modern research in the US has shown that those living in areas that are economically homogenous are less likely to give to charity than those in economically diverse areas, and that this effect can be reversed simply by giving people a prompt (e.g. a short video on child poverty). As one of researchers explains it, “Simply seeing someone in need at the grocery store—or looking down the street at a neighbour’s modest house—can serve as basic psychological reminders of the needs of other people… Absent that, wealth will have these egregious effects insulating you more and more.”[9]

Ensuring that those with money were still aware of the need around them was only half the battle, however. There still remained the problem of what to do about it in an urban setting, where individual face-to-face interaction was impractical given the scale of the poverty. In response to this challenge, the introduction of professional charitable organisations brought with it a greater emphasis on using research and evidence - particularly the new methods of social science - in order to try to understand the nature and underlying causes of the challenges facing cities. Figures like Charles Booth, the Rowntrees (Joseph and his son Seebohm), and the Webbs (Beatrice and Sidney) dedicated their lives to social research on the lives of the poor. This had a huge impact on the understanding of poverty at the time, and led to many changes in policy and practice that we can still recognise today, including the introduction of old-age pensions and the eventual establishment of the welfare state.

Charles Booth Poverty map

The drive to make philanthropy more evidence-based had a more controversial side too. A whole movement of “scientific philanthropy” sprang up (most famously in the form of the Charity Organisation Society in London), which railed against the ‘evil of indiscriminate charity’ and sought to impose a more rigorous approach to decisions about where and how to give. This did bring some benefit in terms of driving greater efficiency in the charitable sector, but it also drew strong criticism because the views of many advocates of scientific philanthropy were based on a moralistic view of poverty and a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor. [10]

This moralistic view of poverty is an important theme throughout the history of urban philanthropy, particularly in the 19th century. Although there were a growing number of people seeking to address the problems of the poor in Victorian cities, and keen to employ more rigorous methods in order to do so, they often brought with them many preconceptions about what the underlying causes actually were. Hence the proliferation of temperance charities, charities looking to rescue “fallen women”, religious missions and so on; all of which honed in on some perceived moral failing of the poor themselves as the key issue and sought to “rescue them from themselves”. Those who held such views often went about their philanthropy with a religious or quasi-religious zeal, and employed methods that from a modern perspective seem incredibly obtrusive. For instance, there was a particular fashion for middle-class philanthropists (often women) to make house visits to the homes of the poor in order to see for themselves the problems and to offer well-meaning advice and support. In this context, the power imbalance that is inherent in philanthropy- between those who have wealth and those they are trying to help – was particularly pronounced. It is little wonder, therefore, that some came to be highly critical of philanthropy and to see it as a patronising and dehumanising way of addressing poverty.[11]


We should not be naïve, and assume that all philanthropic concern about poverty is always motivated purely by altruism. Often in the past there was a significant element of “enlightened self-interest”, as the donors realised that failure to address social problems associated with poverty would harm the wider fabric of society and perhaps lead to unrest and even revolt. The historian David Owen argues that this was a key motivating factor in the enthusiasm that was shown for philanthropy during the Tudor era:

“[The Tudors] steady concern with the eroding poverty of their age proceeded not from any sentimental concern for the poor but rather from an astute understanding that unrelieved, uncontrolled want constituted a grave threat to the stability of the realm. It is not too much to say that the Tudors viewed charity as a necessary aspect of public policy rather than as a requirement of Christian morality”[12]

 Fear of unrest as a motivation for philanthropy has been a constant theme throughout the ages. At times of particular poverty or hardship it has particularly come to the fore. During the late 18th century for instance, there was widespread concern that the radicalism that had led to the French Revolution would cross the channel and cause similar unrest in England. Figures like the philanthropist Jonas Hanway argued that “the role of charity was central [because] only charity could mediate between rich and poor and act as a counterbalance to ‘all the evil passions of envy, covetousness, revenge, so frequent, so pernicious”.[13]

Later, during the Victorian era, the plight of Irish labourers (so-called “navvies”) became something of a philanthropic cause celebre, and it has been suggested that this was not entirely altruistic. The historian Geoffrey Finlayson argues that while philanthropic concern about this issue was “partly influenced by a genuine religious or humanitarian solicitude that men should have to live in such circumstances’, it was also driven by ‘the widespread fear that bands of navvies– whose style of life was, to say the least, robust – might constitute a threat to public order and to property as they move around the countryside’.[14]

At the start of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill argued that inequality, urban poverty and the unrest it foments was still a source of great concern:

“The greatest danger to the British Empire and to the British people is not to be found among the enormous fleets and armies of the European Continent, nor in the solemn problems of Hindustan . . . nor any danger in the wide circuit of colonial and foreign affairs. No, it is here in our midst, close at home, close at hand in the vast growing cities of England and Scotland, and in the dwindling and cramped villages of our denuded countryside. It is there you will find the seeds of Imperial ruin and national decay – the unnatural gap between rich and poor . . . the awful jumbles of an obsolete Poor Law, the constant insecurity in the means of subsistence and employment which breaks the heart of many a sober, hardworking man, the absence of any established minimum standard of life and comfort among the workers, and, at the other end, the swift increase of vulgar, joy less luxury here are the enemies of Britain. Beware lest they shatter the foundations of her power.”[15]

The striking thing about this quote is that (apart from a bit of old-fashioned terminology) it could quite easily have been made today. Inequality and its consequences are once again at the top of the political agenda. Much of the analysis of the political events of recent times, such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or the wave of right-wing populism sweeping Europe and the US, has focused on the emergence of a disenfranchised and disaffected working underclass ─ often living in former industrial towns, cities and regions ─ and the extent to which their sense of being left behind by globalisation and liberalisation is a factor. In the UK and the US this dissent has, so far, been channelled through the ballot box. However, in other countries existing democratic systems have not proved sufficient, and the disgruntlement has spilled over into civil unrest and even violence.

The question of what role philanthropy can play in this context is a tricky one. Philanthropy's relationship with inequality is an inherently difficult one:[16] the very notion of philanthropy seems to require that there be haves and have-nots, and thus inequality is arguably a precondition of philanthropy. Can it, therefore, be effectively used as a tool to address inequality? Put another way, can philanthropy be part of the solution to inequality, or is it always part of the problem? This has a huge bearing on the extent to which philanthropy can successfully help to staunch unrest, too.  Historically, many philanthropists motivated by fear of unrest had a rather naive view that their giving would solve the problem because the poor would be so grateful for what they received that they would abandon ideas of revolution and be content with their lot. As the historian Frank Prochaska puts it, “the ruling classes largely took it for granted that deference would flow from their philanthropy’.[17] Views of this kind would be seen as highly impolitic nowadays, however. Thus, if philanthropy is to have a role in addressing the underlying causes of unrest in our towns and cities, we need to have a far more sophisticated idea of how this would actually work.


One of the central elements in the story of philanthropy in the UK is the shifting nature of expectation about where the responsibility for welfare provision lies: with the state or with philanthropy? In broad brush terms, the arc goes something like this:

  • Starting point: state took no responsibility for welfare (seeing it as the role of the church or the individual and their family),
  • Gradually increasing state provision via the Poor Laws; which was seen as a divisive and punitive system.
  • Backlash leading to the Victorian era, which can be viewed as a “grand experiment” of trying to provide a universal system of welfare through philanthropy
  • Realisation that philanthropy unable to deliver such a system leads to calls for greater state involvement and eventual formation of full-blown welfare state after WWII.
  • Initial assumptions that welfare state would spell the end of philanthropy proved unfounded. Some philanthropic organisations continue to deliver key welfare services; others recast their role, focusing on addressing deficiencies in state provision and using campaigning voice to drive improvements and wider social change.
  • 1980s see the start of public sector outsourcing, and eventually lead to modern environment where many welfare services are commissioned by the state and delivered by charities, social enterprises and private sector organisations.
To confuse things further, during much of this time the line between philanthropy and state provision was at best blurry. This was particularly true at a local level, where the overlapping activities of multiple actors including charities, parish authorities, the NHS, local authorities and other civic institutions often made it virtually impossible to determine who was responsible for doing what. In many cases, individuals who were noted for the civic philanthropy also had many other roles that were relevant when it came to addressing the needs of the local area. And it was often not clear (and perhaps not actually deemed important) which hat they were wearing in a given instance. We can see occasional echoes of this nowadays although it is less common. For instance, one of the defining characteristics of billionaire Michael Bloomberg's tenure as Mayor of New York was his willingness to use his own (considerable) wealth to address via philanthropy, many of the same problems that he was concerned with in his mayoral role. (For more on this see our previous discussion paper Chain Links: The role of mayors in building a culture of philanthropy).[18]

Given the extent to which the balance of expectation between state and philanthropic welfare provision has shifted over time, it is unsurprising that we have arrived at a point where there is often little clarity (and many competing views) about what the appropriate role of philanthropy actually is. This is often identified as a key stumbling block to developing a deeper culture of philanthropy in the UK. It is also cited by philanthropists themselves as one of the hurdles they face when they do want to give at a local level, because determining their role within the myriad of competing agencies and organisations operating within a given local area is often extremely difficult.


Over recent decades the economy of the UK has become heavily skewed towards London. But the capital has long been a centre of wealth creation and, consequently, of philanthropy. In Tudor London, figures like Thomas Gresham and Thomas Sutton became famed for their generosity.[19] Philanthropy also became competitive, as Tudor merchants were keen to secure for themselves the most effusive eulogy when they died, and noteworthy charitable deeds were one of the most effective ways of achieving this. This had a knock-on effect on philanthropy outside London, as merchants in other regions read these eulogies and, keen to secure similar praise for themselves, followed the charitable example of these famed London philanthropists (often by literally copying their donations).[20]

But UK philanthropy has not always been about London leading and the rest following. At certain times in the past, particularly during the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era, cities outside London became centres of huge wealth and power in their own right, and developed their own unique cultures of philanthropy and their own iconic philanthropists, as we shall see.


The 19th century saw many towns and cities around the UK expand rapidly. Their growth was usually driven by a particular industry or handful of industries, and as a result many cities came to be synonymous with particular industries not just within Britain, but on the world stage. Gardiner, Martin and Tyler highlight the case of the North-West, where this phenomenon was particularly pronounced:

“Different regional and subregional groups of towns and cities become dependent on and propelled by particular types of industry. The most prominent such grouping was that of the Lancashire towns and cities. Lancashire had pioneered the factory production of textiles, helped by the combination of local coal to provide power, soft water, a damp climate, and the nearby ports of Liverpool and Manchester. By the mid-19thC the towns and cities of the region - especially Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Oldham, Blackburn, Preston and Burnley - accounted for two-thirds of world trade in cotton goods, the source of more than a quarter of the nation’s overseas earnings. Liverpool played a key role in this trade; indeed, in the early-19th century it claimed to be the second trading city of the Empire, after London. Meanwhile in West Yorkshire, a vibrant woollen industry was expanding, concentrated in centres such as Leeds, Wakefield, Halifax and Huddersfield.”[21]

GB natural resources historic map

Many of these towns and cities also developed a strong sense of philanthropic identity, driven by prominent individuals and companies who had benefitted from the boom in local industry. (Some of these are highlighted in the case studies dotted throughout this chapter.)  We have already explored a number of factors that led this rise in civic philanthropy, But there were also more practical, physical factors.

One such factor was simply that limitations of transport and communications meant that people’s lives were far more focussed on their local area. New inventions like the train, the telephone and the radio were beginning to expand the sphere of experience for some, but it remained limited.  The working classes, in particular - who had neither the means nor the time to undertake long journeys - would usually be born, grow up, find work, get married, have a family and die all within a very small radius by today’s standards.

In terms of philanthropy retaining a local focus, the limitations of transport and communication had a two-fold impact. Firstly, philanthropists themselves were subject to these limitations (although almost certainly to a lesser extent than those lower down the social scale). Secondly, most of these philanthropists were also local business owners. Given that long-distance commuting was not really feasible, their workforce would almost invariably be drawn from those who lived in close proximity to the business itself. This meant that there was a particularly strong rationale of enlightened self-interest when it came to philanthropy: apart from the desire to cater to the needs of the local working populace in order to prevent any danger of unrest (as highlighted above), there was also a positive incentive to ensure that they were healthy and happy because that would make for a more productive workforce.

This commercially-minded philanthropic concern for a local populace that primarily consisted of one’s own employees gave rise to some of the best known examples of philanthropy linked to industry. Figures like George Cadbury, Joseph Rowntree and William Hesketh Lever became famous for their progressive attitudes towards employee welfare, and introduced many innovations that are still with us even today. (Such as the employee suggestion box pictured below).[22] Each of these men went so far as to construct purpose-built communities for their workers.[23] These initiatives were obviously motivated by the desire of the individuals involved to improve their own businesses, and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their employees, but they were also philanthropic in the sense that they were clearly intended to provide a template for others to follow.

A suggestion box from Cadbury's Bournville factory.


Exploring the history of philanthropy and the role it has played in the development of our cities is fascinating in its own right. However, if we are to make it relevant to modern policymaking and practice we need to draw out some themes and conclusions that bear relevance to this context. Some of those that can be identified from the evidence we have considered are:

  • The importance of physical interaction between those from different levels of wealth and different walks of life, because these human interactions are often fundamental to motivating philanthropy in the first place. This has implications for the ways in which we plan our cities, as it shows that we need to create public spaces where residents from different backgrounds and social groups can interact and have shared experiences. It also highlights the role that philanthropic organisations can play in bringing disparate groups together.
  • The value of research and evidence in understanding urban problems. The pioneering work of social researchers like Charles Booth, John Howard or the Rowntrees played a crucial role on shaping philanthropy and making it more effective in an urban context. This remains true today, as it is still vital that we try to understand the underlying causes of the challenges facing our cities so that we can identify the best possible ways of addressing them.
  • The danger of moralistic approaches to poverty. Poverty has always been a hugely complex issue, and one that elicits many different views. However, history shows us that approaches to addressing poverty that are seen to be overly judgmental or punitive more often than not do as much damage as good by crating resent and ill-feeling.
  • Fear of unrest as a motivating factor. Concern about urban poverty and division not just for its own sake, but because of the eventual impact it may have in terms of civil unrest and even violence, can be seen as a motivating factor for philanthropy throughout history. This need not be a negative thing; a degree of enlightened self-interest on the part of donors is entirely rational, but using philanthropy to address inequality is challenging, as we have seen, so efforts to do so must be carefully calibrated.
  • The power imbalance in philanthropy. There is an inherent power imbalance in philanthropy when it concerns those with wealth seeking to give it away to help those less fortunate than themselves. This imbalance can often be felt particularly acutely in the context of a local area because the donor and recipient may live side by side and be part of the same community, and this may bring challenges for policy makers who want to encourage integration and community cohesion.
  • The need for clarity over role of the state vs philanthropy. The relationship between philanthropy and state provision is a long and complex one, and perhaps as a result there is often little clarity in a modern context about where the role of the state ends and that of philanthropy begins. If we are to develop a thriving culture of civic philanthropy, it will be vital to develop a clear narrative about what role philanthropy is to play in our towns and cities and where it fits within the wider context of the state and the market.
  • Ease of travel and communication may have eroded our sense of place. In the past, limitations on travel and communication for all but the richest members of society meant that most people’s sense of place and community was straightforwardly determined by their local surroundings (which in many cases would be where they were born and spent their lives). When it came to philanthropy, this meant that there was often a clear link to a particular place on the part of the donor (and for philanthropists who combined corporate and individual philanthropy, on the part of their workforce too). In today’s world, however, people are far more mobile and developments in technology have lowered or removed barriers to communication to an enormous degree. As a result, people’s sense of community need no longer be tied to geography in the same way and this impacts on their desire to give to a specific area
  • Many UK Cities historically had a strong sense of their own philanthropic identity. Often this was tied to the industries on which the city’s economy was based, and through which its philanthropists had created their wealth. Despite the fact that many of these industries have subsequently declined, this history provides a rich source of context for efforts to build a modern culture of civic philanthropy.
  • The importance of philanthropic leadership. It is clear from the history of philanthropy in our towns and cities that prominent local leaders such as mayors, local businesspeople, community and faith leaders, and so on can play an important role in driving a culture of civic philanthropy. If we are to do the same in a modern context, we will once again need to harness the leadership role of these and other figures.


For ideas on how we can turn these insights into practical recommendations, and for more exploration of the challenges and opportunities of civic philanthropy, why not check out our Giving for the City project? We will be looking at many more aspects of this fascinating topic over the coming months.

[1] If you are interested in a broader look at the history of philanthropy in the UK and its relevance to the modern role of philanthropy, read Davies, R. (2016) Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain. London: Alliance Publishing Trust.

[2] Andrew, D. (1989) Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Princeton University Press. p22.

[3] Simey, M. (1992) Charity Rediscovered: A Study of Philanthropic Effort in Nineteenth-Century Liverpool. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 10-16.

[4] Owen, D. (1964) English Philanthropy 1660-1960. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 138.

[5] Owen (1964). 92.

[6]There are now over 160,000 registered charities in the UK.

[7] Rodgers, B. (1949) Cloak of Charity: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Philanthropy. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 25.

[8] Hunt, T. (2004) Building Jerusalem: The rise and fall of the Victorian city. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 31.

[9] Paul Piff from UC Berkely, quoted in Gose, B. & Gipple, E. (2012) Rich Enclaves Are Not as Generous as the Wealthy Living Elsewhere. Chronicle of Philanthropy, 19 Aug.

[10] For a detailed study of the Charity Organisation Society, see Owen (1964) Chapter VIII.

[11] See Davies (2016). 177-183.

[12] Owen, D. (1964). 149.

[13] (Andrew, 1989), 97.

[14] Finlayson, G. (1994). Citizen, State and Social Welfare in Britain, 1830-1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 51.

[15] Churchill, W. (1909). Liberalism and the Social Problem. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 363.

[16] See, e.g. Reich, R. (2006) Philanthropy and its Uneasy Relationship to Inequality. Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly, Vol 26, No 3/4, (Summer/Fall 2006)

[17] Prochaska, F. (199) ‘Philanthropy’. Chapter 7 in Thompson, F. (ed.) (1990) The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950, Volume 3: social agencies and institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 357-395.

[18] Davies, R. (2017) Chain Links: The role of mayors in building a culture of philanthropy. London: Charities Aid Foundation.

[19] Ross, C. & Chapman, C. Philanthropy: The City Story. London: Sutton’s Hospital

[20] For more on this and on the wider question of philanthropy and social status, see Davies, R. (2016) Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain. London: Alliance Publishing Trust. 119-126

[21] Gardiner, B., Martin R. & Tyler, P. (2014)

[22] Image taken from Head, B. (1903) The Food of the Gods: A popular account of cocoa. London: R Brimley Johnson, page 62. Digitised as part of the Internet Archive project (www.archive.org). Original Work is out of copyright.

[23] Bourneville, New Earswick and Port Sunlight respectively.

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The latest on key issues affecting civil society, philanthropy, social investment and using new technologies for social good.

Charity Street

Charities play a vital role in our national life - but are we fully aware of how much good they do?

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