Find the records of charities which helped your ancestors
When you explore an old church, you will often see a wooden ‘benefaction board’ hanging in the porch. Ancient letters, on age-blackened wood, proclaim a donor’s gift to the parish poor ‘for ever’. The impulse to help others less fortunate than oneself is as old as mankind. For family historians, charity records are extremely useful because many pre-date civil registration and the Victorian censuses.
Charities once filled many roles eventually superseded by the advent of the welfare state, national education, and the National Health Service. Perhaps your ancestor grew up in an orphanage, lived in an almshouse, or received medical care. Maybe your
ancestor worked as a nurse or doctor, distributed food or clothing, or endowed a charity in their will.
Formerly, the poor relied on food and alms dispensed by Britain’s ancient religious houses. Some had hospitals attached to them. From the tenth century onwards, abbeys, priories and other religious institutions received one-tenth of all crops, livestock or produce: tithes. Tithes helped provide charity for the poor and hospitality for strangers as well as funding the clergy’s maintenance.
When Henry VIII introduced the new Anglican state religion in the 1530s, the monasteries were suppressed and their lands and possessions seized by the state; some were given to lay people. The ages- old system of charity disappeared just as the numbers of poor were rising because of population growth.
The state’s response was to introduce new legislation. Parishes already had a common law duty to care for their poor so that nobody would ‘die for default of sustenance’, as antiquary Nicholas Carlisle phrased it in 1828. Now parish officials had to collect ‘voluntary and charitable alms’ to fund care for all aged and sick persons born, or who had lived for three years, in their district. Soon, compulsory levies on parishioners were introduce, and people were fined if they did not pay their poor rates. However, private charity was very important, too.
Our ancestors believed they had a moral and religious duty to help the poor
Our ancestors believed that they had a moral and religious duty to help the poor, support the church, and promote education. They bequeathed money, property, or land, to charities. In practice, the local clergyman and churchwardens, or parish officials, had the task of administering charitable trusts, perhaps acting as trustees or feoffees, and distributing money, food or clothing to the poor (a feoffee was a trustee of freehold land invested for a charity).
Sometimes people left money to apprentice out poor children; occasionally, they also made provision for relatives to benefit. For example, the Reverend Robert Kening of Kelston left £120 in trust in his will, which was dated 4 August 1709; the interest was used by the parish each year to apprentice out a poor boy of that parish. But if his kinswoman Christian Ward’s son needed financial help for an apprenticeship, trustees could use the interest that year to pay the premium.
Some of Britain’s oldest charities were endowed by the Crown, but others were founded by churchmen, merchants, and wealthy men and women. To give a couple of examples, Bethlem Hospital, formerly at Bishopsgate, London, dates back to the 13th century. This well-known mental hospital founded by a charitable deed was originally attached to St Mary’s Priory of Bethlehem (the Historic England website has a brief history of it at https:// historicengland.org.uk/ research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1050-1485/ from-bethlehem-to-bedlam/).
Rich merchant Thomas Sutton founded a Hospital at Charterhouse to care for poor gentlemen who could not support themselves; it also had a school for poor boys. Some hospitals, like the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (1691) cared for
old or wounded soldiers and sailors, www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk/tracing-ancestors. Trinity House, Leith, looked after poor, aged and infirm seafarers and its records includes lists of pensioners from the mid 17th century (find out more through the National Records of Scotland website at www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/poor-relief-records).
Christ’s Hospital was another early foundation; Edward VI confirmed its charter in 1553. The children at this school wore blue coats and yellow stockings (hence the term ‘blue coat’ schools). George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh was founded as a charity school in 1659 for orphans or other poor children of burgesses and freemen (see www.ourtownstories.co.uk/story/1303). Other typical objects of largesse were asylums, almshouses, free grammar schools, orphanages, etc.
The government encouraged private charities (in order to reduce the poor rates), but became worried by growing
evidence of fraud. The Act of Charitable Uses (1601) said that charities must be run properly, or risk losing their charitable status. This Act, which covered England and Wales, stated that charities must be ‘for the benefit of the public’, and described some examples of charities (important for later court cases). These included aiding old, ill, and poor people; caring for sick and disabled soldiers and sailors; schools of learning; free schools and university scholarships; the relief of prisoners; supporting young tradesmen or craftsmen; and orphans’ education. Other examples given (some a little odd to modern eyes) were the repair of bridges, roads, highways, ports, sea-banks, the marriage of poor maidens, and the maintenance of houses of correction.
Colleges, free schools, incorporated towns, and hospitals were exempt from this Act if they already had governors or visitors appointed by their founders. Scotland did not have a similar statute, but in Ireland, the ‘Statute of Charles’ or Statute of Pious Uses (1634) was on similar lines to the Elizabethan law.
If a complaint was made against an English charity’s trustees, then the Lord Chancellor, or Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if applicable, could appoint ‘commissioners’ to look into any abuses. Financial redress must be made if money had been misappropriated. A trustee for the charity being investigated could not serve as a commissioner. The commissioners’ decisions, or ‘decrees’, were certified by the Chancery Court.
Funding and income
The 1736 Mortmain Act changed the way many charities were funded. Now people could only leave land – or money for purchasing land – to a charity 12 months before they died. The aim was to stop a person on their deathbed from disinheriting their heirs by leaving their estate to the Church in the hope of saving their soul. However, charitable gifts could be made by a deed executed and witnessed by two people, then enrolled in Chancery.
Increasingly, charities were funded by public subscription – sometimes called ‘associational’ charities. Early examples in London include the Foundling Hospital for unwanted infants, the Marine Society, which apprenticed out poor boys and girls, and the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. There’s useful information about the Marine Society children on the London Lives website, at http:// bit.ly/2gSBzH7, and you can also access Marine Society records at the Caird Library and Archives at the National Maritime Museum in London ( www.rmg.co.uk/ national-maritime-museum/caird-library).
The first national survey of charities was made at the suggestion of Thomas Gilbert in 1786. Each parish in England and Wales was asked to make a summary of all the charities it administered. Abstract of these reports, known as ‘Gilbert Returns’, were reprinted by parliament during the 1810s. Each parish summary
The government encouraged private charities, but became worried by growing evidence of fraud
gives the name of persons who founded charities, whether by will, with date, or gift of deed, and their object – such as food for the poor. The total income of all charities surveyed was over £528,000, and by the beginning of the 19th century, there were thousands of charitable trusts in England and Wales.
After 1812, charities had to register a statement of their property and income with the clerk of the peace, as part of quarter sessions business, but this law was poorly enforced. A few years later, a government enquiry into the education of the London poor investigated long-established educational foundations. It found some schools only cared for a tiny number of children, but endowments could not be altered to benefit communities more widely because it was difficult to overset a founder’s will.
This report’s alarming findings prompted the government to set up a survey of charities across Britain: the Charity Commission. A few years later, the commissioners investigated all charities as well as schools, and issued reports for each county. The Commission found immense potential for maladministration: sometimes charity funds were stolen by trustees, or lost by incompetence.
The Charity Commission became a permanent body in 1853. It took over the Lord Chancellor’s traditional role of supervising trusts. After 1855, charities sent the Commission annual accounts, and five years later, the Commissioners were given powers to remove or appoint trustees.
The number of charities mushroomed during the Victorian era as the population grew and the poor law proved inadequate to cope with many social evils. Ragged schools, industrial schools, children’s homes and orphanages, friendly societies, hospitals, etc. appeared across Britain.
The British public had a warm heart, and donations poured in to help victims of particular disasters like coal mining accidents,
or the Lancashire Cotton Famine of the 1860s. There were also animal charities like the RSPCA, which was founded in 1824. Voluntary work and organisations developed, too, and nurses went to serve with Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole during the Crimean War.
Although we now have the ‘safety net’ of the welfare state and NHS, these institutions are increasingly stretched, and the social problems which our ancestors knew are returning. Many families live in poverty, and the use of food banks is rising. Will charities assume a new importance in the age of austerity?
Trust deeds for charities are an amazing resource for local historians. From 1736 to 1925, conveyances of land, money, and goods in trust for charities were enrolled in Chancery on the Court Rolls (C54 at The National Archives). Some records pre- date 1736 because some charities’ trustees decided to enrol earlier deeds (see TNA’s website for details of conveyances, at http:// bit. ly/2jchFrk).
It was not uncommon for heirs to dispute a will if the testator made a large charitable bequest. Legal cases involving charitable trusts and bequests were heard by the Court of Chancery, and after 1875, deceased persons’ estate cases were heard by the Chancery Division of the Supreme Court (see http:// bit.ly/1ig1gwm for information about chancery equity suits, and http:// bit.ly/2eMoLgX for details of post-1875 Chancery cases). Legal notices were reported in the London Gazette ( www.thegazette.co.uk/).
TNA holds Charity Commission records from 1750 to 2015 ( http:// bit.ly/2wPHuQW; there’s a searchable database of case files at http:// bit. ly/2gOHp8x). The Charity Commission is still responsible for registering charities, and you can find out more at www.gov.uk/government/ organisations/charity-commission. You can search for a charity’s current contact details (although historical records are not included), at http:// beta. charitycommission.gov.uk/. However, the Charity Commission’s remit never included Scotland or Ireland. Instead, in Scotland, an Act of 1842 gave the Special Commissioners of Income Tax the task of deciding if an organisation was a charity
(and hence exempt from tax). Inland Revenue records relating to charities (series 1RS21, covering 1810–1988), are held offsite by National Records of Scotland (see http:// bit.ly/2wIL4M8 for more information). Northern Ireland’s own Charity Commission was not set up until the 21st century.
Large reference libraries and county record offices may have copies of parliamentary papers including Gilbert’s Returns and the Charity Commission’s reports, published from 1817 to 1841. The Digests of Endowed Charities compiled by the Commission were published in 1867–1868 and 1912–1913. Use these to discover which charities, such as endowed schools, existed in a particular location. The Parliamentary Archives also has copies (see http:// bit. ly/2xitOkw). Some parliamentary papers are also available to access free on Google Books ( http:// books.google.com).
Records relating to charitable foundations and trusts that date back to medieval times may be held at more than one repository. TNA’s Discovery catalogue covers repositories in England and Wales, so have a look at http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ to see where ones you’re interested in are kept. Large, famous charities
such as Oxfam or the RNLI often have their own archive. If you know the charity’s name, search http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov. uk/find-an-archive.
For Wales, try the Archives Network Wales search engine, too, which is at http://anws.llgc.org.uk/. The Archives Hub search engine covers over 300 specialist repositories and is also worth exploring, at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/. For charities in Scotland, use the Scottish Archives Network online catalogue to find records, at http:// bit.ly/2wNJuL7. For Northern Irish charities, search the Public Records of Northern Ireland e- catalogue, at http:// bit.ly/2gODhW3.
Also look in parish vestry or churchwardens’ accounts for charities administered by them. Rentals for charity properties and lands are a rich source of tenants’ names. After the mid-1830s, municipal corporations often took over local charity administration, and quarter session records may also include enrolment of charities, including friendly societies. Institutional records may include admission registers, death or discharge registers, minute books, pensions, and accounts. However, remember that records with sensitive personal information will be restricted access, and may be subject to 100 years’ closure.
When searching local archive catalogues online, remember that a charity such as a school or hospital is probably catalogued by its usual name; do a ‘text search’ if you’re struggling to find it. Also watch out for different collections associated with the same charity – for example, PRONI has letters and papers relating to George Vaughan’s Charity for the period 1753–1909 (DIO/4/9/7), plus governors’ minute books 1766–1934 for Vaughan’s Charity School in Tubrid, County Fermanagh (D433).
A variety of charity records (schools, hospitals, apprenticeships) held by local record offices have been digitised by the online genealogy suppliers: for example, records for the Lyingin Hospital, Holborn are on TheGenealogist’s website ( www. thegenealogist.co.uk), and Bethlem’s registers are available via Findmypast ( www.findmypast.co.uk). Some parish and borough collections have also been digitised. For example, Ancestry’s Warwickshire collections (via www.ancestry.co.uk) include poor law records for Warwick St Mary’s parish, such as charity accounts 1737–1823 and charity papers 1781–1836, including rentals. Meanwhile, Findmypast has digitised Plymouth and West Devon Record Office’s collection of Orphans’ Aid apprenticeship papers, covering the years 1868 to 1906.
For the London area, the London Metropolitan Archives website has guides to researching charities, schools, hospitals and medical care, wills, and apprentices ( http:// bit.ly/2eWS3Zl). The Charity Organisation Society published the Charities Register
and Digest (1882 onwards) which covered London; after 1897, this publication was renamed The Annual Charities Register and Digest, and reference libraries may have copies.
Charities published pamphlets, sometimes with lists of subscribers, and advertised in newspapers and magazines to help publicise their work. Lists of donations were sometimes published in newspapers, too; see the British Newspaper Archive, www. britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ to start your search. However, over time a charity may have changed its name, merged with other organizations, or ceased to exist. The Victoria County Histories and other local histories are incredibly helpful when researching charities in a particular area – try searching British History Online, for example (see box on page 29). Use the DANGO database (see the Step-by-Step on page 24) for more records information ( www.dango.bham.ac.uk/index.htm).
Trade directories (the University of Leicester’s Special Collections has a good range at http:// bit.ly/1HqmpLy) and local histories also mention charities. Combine these with the Charity Commission reports to trace the history of a school, hospital or institution – and remember that charity records held locally may also include Charity Commission correspondence and reports.
Top: Portrait of Sir Thomas Bernard, 3rd Baronet. He was treasurer of the Foundling Hospital and also founded the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor Bottom: Captain Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundling Hospital Main image: The distribution of charity loaves at St Mary’s Warwick, 1899 Above: Minute book of Dumfries Infirmary with list of subscribers, including Dr Gilchrist, 29 October 1776
A colour lithograph of two Chelsea Pensioners arm-in-arm
The Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum was founded by Joseph Proud Hodgson in 1827 near the Old Kent Road, London. It cared for impoverished members of the trade, and their wives or widows
Old St Paul’s School, founded in 1509 by John Colet
Halfpenny dinners for poor children in East London. Illustrated London News, 1870
Four ivory charity collection tallies, 1750–1800. Charity collections were important revenue sources for hospitals and other social causes; the money was used to pay staff and to purchase supplies. These ivory tallies were probably attached to collection boxes and are inscribed with the name ‘Mrs Vaughan’
Top left: Tintern Abbey. Until the dissolution of the monasteries, religious houses cared for the poor and sick Top right: Commemorative plaques recording benefactions on Twitty’s almshouses, Abingdon Bottom left: Benefaction board in the church of St James The Great, Audlem, Cheshire. It records the bequest of brewer James Holbrook to the poor of the township of Buerton; Richard Baker was appointed trustee Bottom right: Twitty’s almshouses, Abingdon
The Charity Commission’s remit never included Scotland or Ireland
The cover of a book about Florence Nightingale. As well as her pioneering nursing work, she also founded a school for nurses in London
Top left: Plaque on the Man of Ross Inn, Ross-on-Wye, commemorating local philanthropist John Kyrle Middle left: A well-off child gives money to some little orphaned match-sellers Middle right: Thomas Sutton, who in 1611 founded the Hospital of St James and a school for poor scholars at Charterhouse, on the site of an old Carthusian Monastery Bottom left: ‘Band of Help’ members’ certificate, c1910, the Birmingham and District Cripples Union
Orphan School, Edinburgh, 1819