Victorian philanthropists, philosophers and activists

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Michael Denham
Date Published:
27 May 2017
Last updated: 
27 May 2017

The United Kingdom was fortunate to have a succession of remarkable philanthropists, thinkers and reformers during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, who sought to improve the destiny of the disadvantaged. Some with considerable wealth, such as William Armstrong, George Cadbury, George Peabody and Lord Rowton, built accommodation including housing, hostels, schools and hospitals, while John Rylands’ wealth helped to found Manchester University library. Complementing these leading figures were those, perhaps best described as activists, whose beliefs and actions benefited the underprivileged, particularly the aged. Among this eclectic group were:

He was born in Houndsditch, London and was the founder of utilitarianism, which he defined as, ‘an act is right or good if it produces pleasure, and evil if it leads to pain’. He became the spiritual founder of University College, London. He suggested creating a National Charity Company to build a chain of 250 enormous workhouses, with accommodation for about 2,000 inmates. He believed in incentives to encourage people to work and penalties for not working, views which percolated into the 1834 Reform Act, and which discouraged admission to the workhouse by making life inside worse than outside. He also supported the separation of church and state, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of slavery and the death penalty.

He was born in Manchester but moved to London when his father became editor of the Spectator. He proved to be a difficult man to work with, a workaholic who did not suffer fools gladly, lacking a sense of humour and he held deeply unpopular views on the workhouse. He was literary assistant to Bentham, absorbing his ideas on social and health improvements and became a leader of the sanitary movement targeting improvements in the water supply, sanitation and housing, a crusade that presaged the appointment of the first medical officer of health in 1847, which was in Liverpool.

In 1832, Chadwick worked with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Operation of the Poor Laws, wrote much of the final report but was dismayed when the subsequent Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 left much reorganisation in the hands of local authorities. He sought a commissioner’s post to oversee the Act’s implementation but was disappointed to be appointed secretary instead.

He was born in Pentonville, London, the eldest son of the economist James Mill, a Benthamite. He supported utilitarianism, arguing that intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). He championed individual liberty against the authority of the state, believing that an action was right provided it maximised the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. He was a liberal MP, supporting freedom of speech, equality for women, compulsory education and birth control.

He was born in Liverpool into the noted Rathbone family. He became a Liberal MP and used his wealth to fund his philanthropic and public work. He worked with Florence Nightingale to found the Liverpool Training School and Home for Nurses, assisted in the establishment of the Queens Nursing Institute and helped to create the University College Liverpool, which became the University of Liverpool.

She was born in London, a member of the Twining tea family, and sought to improve conditions in the workhouse. She facilitated the establishment of a home for workhouse girls who went out to service, founded the Workhouse Visiting Society and was a Poor Law guardian. She helped to create the Metropolitan and National Association for nursing the poor in their homes, and was president of the Women’s Local Government Society.

She was born in Florence and is remembered for the astounding revolution she wrought in nursing care in the Crimean War. Her concerns extended to the appalling nursing care in workhouse infirmaries. She pressurised Edwin Chadwick to support the thrust of her reforms and wrote a paper: Suggestions on the Subject of Providing Training and Organizing Nurses for the Sick Poor in Workhouse Infirmaries.

He was born in Nottingham to impoverished parents. He founded the Salvation Army but was dictatorial and difficult to work with. Amongst many activities, the organisation created shelters for the homeless, which contained the ill-famed ‘one, two or four penny beds’.

Barnado was born in Dublin into a Protestant family. He trained as doctor but did not complete his studies until late in life. He founded Barnardo homes in 1866 and which ultimately cared for nearly 60,000 children in 96 homes. As social attitudes towards home care changed, the charity closed homes and sponsored fostering and adoption instead. 
George Robert Sims (1847–1922) was born in London. He was a journalist and playwright, and is remembered for his famous critical monologue: Christmas Day in the workhouse. This was criticised ‘as a mischievous attempt to set the paupers against their betters’! He wrote articles describing the grave conditions of the poor in London’s slums.

Crooks was born in poverty. He experienced the workhouse at first hand, was Mayor and Labour MP for Poplar, and campaigned to improve the workhouse system. He was the third of seven children born to a disabled father and illiterate mother. When outdoor workhouse relief was withdrawn, the family became penniless, causing admission of the father and five children to the workhouse, an experience seared into Crooks’ memory forever. The family were reunited when his mother earnt enough money to release them from workhouse control.

He worked in the London docks and took up radical politics. He was elected to the newly formed London County Council and petitioned the Local Government Board to lower the property qualifications, so that he could become a member of the Poplar Board of Guardians of the local workhouse. The Master of the workhouse vetoed his visit to the facility, so Crooks successfully petitioned for a change of rules so that the Master’s agreement was not needed. The subsequent visit was a shock. He found the workhouse was dirty; its stores were empty, the inmates were poorly dressed in dirty clothes and lacked footwear. Washtubs were full of inedible food. Rat droppings contaminated the broth. Stronger men stole food from weaker ones. Inmates committed crimes to precipitate admission to prison, where conditions were better!

Joseph Rowntree was born in York, a Quaker and a champion for social reform especially for workers at his chocolate factories. He created workers’ pension schemes, built the garden village of New Earswick, and set up charitable trusts to instigate social reform. Seebohm Rowntree (1871–1954), one of his children, became a researcher and social reformer.  He organised three major surveys of the living conditions of the poor in York, concluding that poverty was the result of low wages, which was contrary to contemporary opinion that the poor were responsible for their own condition. 

He was born in Liverpool into a Unitarian family and was a social researcher and reformer. His surveys of working class life in London in the 1890s eventually encompassed 17 volumes! He served on the Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, prompted government action against poverty in the early 20th century, contributed to the creation of old age pensions in 1908, and free school meals for the poorest children. His wife was a cousin of the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb.

Rowntree and Booth considered that nearly a third the populations of the cities were living on or below the Poverty Line and believed the main causes of poverty were illness, unemployment and age.

She was born in Gloucestershire, had a tempestuous relationship with Joseph Chamberlain, MP, married Sidney Webb, became an economist, labour historian and social reformer. She co-founded of the London School of Economics, the Fabian Society and the New Statesman. She was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law and co-authored the 1909 Minority Report. She believed there should be ‘a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged’. William Beveridge was their research assistant and espoused their principles in his 1942 Beveridge report.

George Lansbury was a Poor Law guardian, fought for improved poor relief in Poplar (Poplarism), was a Labour politician, who had to resign the party leadership because of his divisive, extreme pacifism.

Poplar (now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest areas of London, with high unemployment, much poverty and pitiable rate income. Lansbury, as Mayor, argued unsuccessfully, for rate equalisation across London to share the financial load equally. The borough withheld the rate precept, which paid for cross-London wide services, such as policing.

Consequently, in 1921, the thirty local councilors, including Lansbury, appeared before the High Court, found in contempt of court for their refusal to pay and were sent to prison. All were released after six weeks. Parliament changed the rules and the rating system in Poplar was improved.

Lansbury was member of the 1905 Royal Commission on the Poor Law and co-authored of the Minority report. In 1910, he became a Labour MP, and in 1912 helped to establish and edit the Daily Herald. He served in the Labour government of 1929-31, was Labour party leader in 1932 but his radical pacifist views lost him many friends and the leadership of the party.

To conclude

What talent, strength, tenacity, and perseverance! These individuals maintained unrelenting pressure to realise their goals, persisting in the face of indifference, even outright hostility. They helped to lay the foundations of our modern welfare state. Fortunately, the trend continues with the likes of Lord Nuffield and Sir Henry Wellcome.

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