History of Charities in The UK

History of Charities in The UK

As we embark on our journey to support charities, we thought it would be interesting to take a quick look at the history of charitable giving in Britain.

Britain has a long history of charitable giving.

Good stories start at the beginning, in this case, in 597 A.D. The foundation of The King’s School in Canterbury by Saint Augustine is the oldest surviving example of charity in the UK.

This characterises the fact that charitable activity for many centuries was a religious activity led and run by the monastic institutions and the church. Charity and giving were core to the Christian faith, and in the early centuries of development, it was hard to see charity as a separate entity from the church itself.

Indeed, the early British would not have seen a charity industry at all, just one aspect of church activity. There are echoes of this approach when we look at the first broad stab at characterising the width of charity activity in the reign of Queen Elizabeth a millennium later. So, what are the religious foundations for charitable activities?

“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.” St Francis of Assisi, The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, set out in Isaiah 58 and examined by St Augustine of Hippo back in 397AD, still form the backbone of Catholic teaching.

These laid out the charitable activities – almsgiving and helping the poor – expected of any Christian desirous of reaching Heaven. Pope Gregory IX’s Encyclical of 1230 sets out an authorisation for collections of alms for charitable activities.

He explains that giving is approved if done: Sir Stephen Bubb, lecture 3, July 2017, New College, Oxford 6 “…with works of great mercy, and for the sake of things eternal to sow on earth what we should gather in Heaven, the Lord returning it with increased fruit.” I’m sure such sentiments were much in mind with William of Wykeham when in 1379 and 1382, he was building and endowing his twin institutions of Winchester and New College.

Indeed, this idea of charitable activity as an investment in the future is echoed in the Koran: “Surely the men and women who spend in charity and give a Godly loan to God will have it doubled for them and will receive a generous reward.” 57 Surah Al Hadid (The Iron) Similar sentiments can be found in Judaism. In the Misneh Torah written by Maimonides in 1178, we read a list of charitable priorities, topped by “most blessed is helping a needy person become self-sufficient by a gift or loan.”

In the early centuries up to the Middle Ages, support for the poor, the ill, the vagrant, the old and young, hospitals & schools were provided for by and often in monasteries and churches. Where there were separate institutions established, these were church-led and church-funded. Alien as it is to our modern notions of the proper role of state and charity, prisons (‘houses of correction’) were widespread charitable institutions.

Indeed, an early prison for men and for women was established by another Bishop of Winchester at his palace in Southwark. Another, Bridewell Palace, was from the 1550s at once an orphanage, a correction house for sex workers, a poorhouse and jail.

Taken from: Sir Stephen Bubb, lecture 3, July 2017, New College, Oxford  

As Stephen states in his article. Many of our earliest charities were founded by religious groups, the nobility, or wealthy individuals to help the neediest members of society.

This was normally the poor – especially orphans and widows and the sick or disabled. Help would be provided in the form of shelter, food, clothing and caring for the sick. Charitable organisations often took the form of hospitals, orphanages, and poor houses.

As the number of charities has increased over the centuries, so has the range of causes. While many charities are still focused on helping the poor and caring for the sick and injured, many others are tackling global issues like climate change, conflict, and HIV and AIDS. It’s interesting to note that in Britain, health charities like Cancer Research remain the most popular cause to donate to.

How many charities are there in the UK?

Today there are over 180,000 registered charities in the UK. These charities employ thousands of people to work all over the world on a wide range of issues.

This includes working at ground level to provide support and relief services like vaccinations, pet care, sanitation, or shelter.

Thank you for reading this blog. I hope you found our brief look at the history of charities in the UK interesting.