Collecting for Good Causes in Seventeenth-Century England

By Jacob F. Field (@jakeishistory)

Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of contemporary British society. In 2017 the total amount given to charity in the United Kingdom was £10.3 billion, with the most popular causes being medical research, animal welfare, children or young people, hospitals and hospices, and overseas aid and disaster relief.[i] Early modern England was no different – donating to charity was widespread, although the causes deemed most worthy, and the methods of publicizing and administering collections, were slightly different.

I became interested in early modern charitable giving while researching my PhD on the socio-economic impact of the Great Fire of London, 1666.[ii] In trying to determine how to explore the perception of the Fire in seventeenth-century England and how Londoners recovered from the disaster, I came across records of a national collection to help those ‘distressed by the late dismall Fire’.[iii] This raised £16,487, with donations coming from across England and Wales (the University of Cambridge, somewhat stingily, only gave £1).[iv] Although this formal charitable giving was just the tip of the iceberg, and almost certainly superseded by informal, face-to-face acts of support (not to mention bequests). The question of how such a national effort was administered, as well as the local determinants of generosity, fascinated me.

The collection to aid post-Fire London was just one of a series of major, national charitable efforts that were undertaken during the second half of the seventeenth century. There were several others, for causes ranging from redeeming captives taken by the Barbary Corsairs, to providing relief for Poor Irish Protestants, to assisting Huguenot refugees. These collections (as well as smaller scale ones for local causes) were transmitted through a mechanism known as a ‘brief’, which was essentially a warrant that gave permission for donations to be taken for a set time, area, and cause. Briefs were publicized through appeals announced at Anglican services on Sundays, and sometimes followed by a house-to-house collection in the parish.[v] Along with the collection for ‘distressed’ Londoners, the appeals with the highest level of detail in the later seventeenth century were one declared in 1655 to help the Vaudois (or Waldensians), a persecuted Protestant sect living in Piedmont.[vi] In 1678, there was an appeal to raise money to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral (the University of Cambridge was far more generous this time, raising £1,138).

Using the records of these three collections (which are of an unusually high level of detail compared to others taken at around the same time) I am currently working on an article that will model the determinants of charitable giving in seventeenth-century England. It will examine questions such as what types of community were most generous to charity, as well as what types of appeal were most popular. Were the early modern English public constantly generous or did they echo the thoughts of Samuel Pepys, who, possibly suffering from charitable fatigue, recorded in his diary on 30 June 1661, ‘we observe the trade of briefs is come now up to so constant a course …  that we resolve to give no more to them’.[vii]

[i] Charities Aid Foundation, ‘CAF UK Giving 2018: An overview of charitable giving in the UK’, March 2018, <; [accessed 29 January 2019].

[ii] This was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and has since been published as: J. F. Field, London, Londoners and the Great Fire of 1666: Disaster and Recovery (Abingdon, 2018).

[iii] Held at London Metropolitan Archives, A Posting Book for Ye Collection Money for Reliefe of Those that Have Had Great Losse by Ye Lamentable Fire within ye City of London & Liberties Thereof, COL/SJ/03/007.

[iv] J.F. Field, ‘Charitable giving and its distribution to Londoners after the Great Fire, 1666-76’, Urban History, 38 (2011), 3-23.

[v] M. Harris, ‘‘Inky blots and rotten parchment bonds’: London, charity briefs and the Guildhall Library’, Historical Research, 66 (1993), 98-110.

[vi] It was ordered by Oliver Cromwell, who personally donated £2,000, after he heard of the Duke of Savoy’s brutal massacre and persecution of the Vaudois.

[vii] Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols. (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1970-83), ii, 238.

Image: Print illustrating the 1655 massacre in La Torre, from Samuel Moreland’s History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont, published in London in 1658 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons).

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