How sweet is charity? (part 1)

Once when we wanted to avoid the importuning of charitable organizations, we only had to walk across the road to evade the flag-seller on the corner. But now these collectors seek us at our own front doors, they invade our place of work, they nobble our children at school. They write us begging letters, send unwanted Xmas cards, and issue catalogues of goods for sale. Shops selling jumble have appeared in the High Street. Large newspaper advertisements press us for support. Heart-rending unfortunates stare at us from hoardings. Charity has become Big Business.

Many workers display attitudes of confusion and guilt about charity, and before they next dip their hands into their shallow pockets they should pause, question why all these appeals are necessary, and if the voluntary contributions they are giving are doing any good. In spite of the Welfare State and the ramifications of charitable organizations the poor are still with us. As the standard of living has risen so the standard of poverty has changed. The wealthy nobles in the 12th and 13th centuries did not have the comforts the poorest take for granted nowadays. Poverty is a relative thing, and can only be assessed by comparison with the wealth that is produced. All members of the working class are poor, and some are more unfortunate than others.

All the more reason the worker may think, to spare what he can, even to deny himself, to alleviate a small part of that hardship in those less fortunate. Distress in others makes us uncomfortable. Few can hear a child cry or watch a fellow human in pain or trouble, without being moved. In man’s early days the young were protected, for in them lay the future, and the old were respected for their knowledge and experience.

As private property developed the tribal structure broke down. Hard though their lot might be, to some extent the chattel slave and serf were protected by their servitude. The slave had to be fed, clothed and housed. The serf was bound to his feudal lord’s land which was his means of life. But where this did not apply, those in distress and want had to rely on the goodwill of those who might pity them. Pity has a curious effect on the recipient. The writer remembers as a child being taken by the Country Holiday Fund from the slums of London to a beautiful village in Shropshire. We stayed at a farm; the lady of the manor invited us to tea; the vicar let us ring the church bells, and called on his congregation to be kind to the “poor little children from the East End of London.” (The effect was to create humiliation not gratitude.)

After Christianity was established in Britain, the care of the sick and needy was undertaken mainly by the monasteries. Under feudal custom one-tenth of all yearly produce was an obligation for the upkeep of the Church, and the Church was equally bound to use part of the tithes for the care of those who could not support themselves. Early hospitals such as Bart’s (founded 1123), St. Thomas’s (1200) were combined almshouses, shelters for the sick, and orphanages. Christians like to claim that charity is synonymous with Christianity, but taking with one hand and doling out crumbs of relief with the other is practised by all religions. In England, the hand that took prospered so well, that by the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII the Church owned one-third of the country.

In time the old system of fixed work-days for the feudal lord fell into disuse, and the serfs became peasant tenants paying money rents for their leaseholds, and receiving money wages for labour on their lord’s demesne lands. All they produced by their own labour on their own holding belonged to themselves (except for tithes). While the nobility fought, the peasants had no say and little interest in the struggle. When it was resolved, the exhausted nobility were ordered by the new upstart Henry VII to disband their armies of feudal retainers, who were cast penniless and propertyless onto the roads.

The wool trade was growing, and those landed gentry who sought riches saw that turning the land into sheep-walks would achieve their object. They began to enclose the common land, and drive the peasant tenant from his olding. The Reformation dissolved the monasteries and confiscated Church lands. Many of the clerics readily adapted their views and made the transition to office in the Protestant church, but the monasteries employed large numbers of lay servants, and Church lands were farmed by lay tenants, and these joined the throng of those with no means of subsistence. Some of this force of landless humans suited the needs of a rising merchant and manufacturing class who required cheap labour for commodity production, but the influx of recruits could not be absorbed as quickly as they were dispossessed, so begging and thieving were the inevitable outcome. Such relief of pauperism as was undertaken was provided by craft guilds and individual philanthropy. It became something of a fashion for nobles and rich merchants to establish almshouses during the reign of Elizabeth I, either out of a desire for immortality in stone or to “lay up treasure in the life to come”.

By the beginning of the 17th century, so troublesome were vagrancy and destitution, that the Poor Law Act of 1601 laid upon local parishes the duty of providing from the rates for the sick, needy and homeless, and putting to work the able-bodied. This established for the first time the principle, that the care of such people was part of the responsibility of the State. The State has developed into the overseer for the capitalist class of the wage-slave, and it has been discovered by slow degrees (as the chattel-slave owner learnt earlier) that to allow working-class welfare to sink below a certain level seriously affects their efficiency and consequent profitability. Running through the history of Britain from the 15th to the 19th century is the account of how the land that was the peasant’s means of subsistence was first illegally and then legally expropriated; and the once self-sufficient peasant and agricultural labourer dispossessed of any means of support, except by hiring themselves to the manufacturing class.

Thus the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution saw an enormous increase in human misery. A “free” worker who could not find a job, or who was unable to work because of illness, found himself and his family destitute. Some workers formed friendly societies in an attempt to help each other. Machinery meant that women and children could take part in production. Working conditions in the factories were so bad that medical observation reported the “rapid spread of malformation of the bones, curvature of the spine, heart disease, rupture, stunted growth, asthma, and premature old age among children and young persons”.

As capitalism developed so did the need for and nature of charity. The contrast between the resultant luxury on one hand and poverty on the other became more apparent. Societies for the relief of this or that affliction sprang up in the 19th century. These were sponsored and supported by the rich: characteristically, the capitalist could not enjoy his dinner and claret with a hungry waif staring through the window—besides, the organization gave his wife and daughters something to do! Yet still distress continued, and so widespread was the problem that the capitalist class became concerned about their potential labour force, and introduced the Welfare State to care for the working class from the cradle to the grave.

Charities Register
What has been the result? Next time in the library look for the Charities Register. There are over 100,000 listed covering every conceivable (and inconceivable) need. Each has to satisfy the Charity Commissioners’ definition of a charitable cause. Most are competing for your cash. These are only the registered charities, and take no account of the hundreds of thousands of informal projects that go on, such as pub and club collections, sweepstakes, school funds, coffee mornings etc., held for strictly local objectives and not included in official statistics. The welfare umbrella, it seems, leaks badly.

This puts the donor in something of a quandary; there is the problem of which charity to support, for it is certain one cannot help all. A choice must be made between this misery or that. Does one Help the Aged or Save the Children? Help the blind or the deaf? Support cancer research, kidney machines, multiple sclerosis, or spastics? Are you more touched by Dr. Barnardos or the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Aid Association? And people have now become aware of distress beyond these islands. Television brings painful sights uncomfortably into our sitting-rooms. Do earthquake victims move you more than flood disasters? Whose need is greater, famine victims or war refugees? We must not forget our four-footed and feathered friends, catered for by the RSPCA, RSPB, PDSA. Blue Cross, World Wildlife Fund, etc., etc. There are even charities for those who do not care much for some of the human race. There is a classified list under the heading “Promotion of the Efficiency of the Forces”. A typical rifle-club charity will have as its declared aim: “To encourage skill in rifle shooting by any of Her Majesty’s subjects so that they will be better fitted to serve their country”.

When workers contribute to charity they must not lose sight of the fact that their donations merely reduce the obligation of the government, so that the taxpayer, i.e. the capitalist class, is being subsidized instead of the charitable cause. If they argue, as some do, that the government will only offer the bare minimum, and it is necessary to fill the void where the State will not or cannot intervene, then they should acquaint themselves with the conduct and efficiency of the mammoth organization of charity today. The effect of the capitalist ethic on even such a worthy object as trying to relieve distress is startling!

Alice Kerr
(To be continued)