As it was customary in the 19th century, women of leisure or Ladies, by manners dictated, would show their sympathies to those less fortunate than themselves. Unfortunately, much of Victorian charity was for appearance. While there are those individuals who made assisting the poor their life’s works, they are scarce. Victorian England still remained entrenched in the Class System. It was unseemly for a Lady to mingle with those of the lower classes. However, in the name Virtue, and despite the lackadaisical attitude toward religion and spirituality, helping the downtrodden was socially acceptable.
For many women, it was a weekly or monthly endeavor to bring a basket of food to the unsavory parts of the town. A lady never went alone for reasons of propriety and security. Charity was administered during the daylight hours, preferably when the weather was ideal. Some women quietly handed out food to those who approached them. Other women doted on a family or two, often one of the tenants of their husband’s holdings. The Lady was invited into the hovel for a short duration. She inquired about the family, how they were getting along, and any other permissible topic of conversation in the span of a quarter hour. Sometimes a few articles of clothing was distributed during these visit but typical it was consumables.
Criticism arose of such charity. Some of the older generation sniffed mingling with the poor was inappropriate. To be at such close ranks where a lady could contract all sorts of diseases. For it was around this time period the importance of sanitation began to make its way through the Empire. Soap alleviated so many physical ills. Other critics berated the upper class for indulging in charity for egoistical reasons. These radicals proclaimed Ladies took on the role as savior to feel better about themselves, to validate their station, count their blessing, and worse, to have someone idolize them whether in envy or in earnest.
Proponents of Charity saw otherwise. The lower classes were simply too poor to care about the moral intent of the giver; they just needed relief. The downtrodden were realistic enough, they claimed, not to entertain ideas of social climbing. Thus, the poor were inconsequential and posed no threat to the System. What the less fortunate truly needed was reform; organizations to assist them to better their lives. Until legislation passed, there was not away to improve their circumstances other than marrying up, and that was supremely unlikely.
It is difficult to fathom the life of the poor during the 19th century. The phrase “abject poverty” comes to mind. While many scoffed, claiming the poor had a roof over their heads and clothes on their back. They might as well not have for all the good it did them. Their garments were threadbare and they were luckily if they owned a pair of shoes. Their home was often crammed with people, no light, with cracked walls, roof, doors, and window, if they were fortunate to have a window. Candles and light were scarce. Furniture was few. There was always someone who was ill or dying, the mother in a permanent state of pregnancy, the children with bloated bellies. Due to the over-building and overcrowding, those of the cities slums never witnessed the light of day. Everyone worked, from the toddler to the father. If a family had a loving father, he brought his wages home and provided food for his expanding brood. Meals consisted of bread and broth, but there were many days where there simply was no food in the house. Realistically, the man took his earnings to the alehouse only to come back and have his misery rubbed in his face. Domestic violence was rampant, debtors prison a harsh reality, and living to see passed 30 was a rarity.
Successive legislation from 1860s onward allowed for radical changes in the life of impoverished English families. Even then, charity was needed; as it will always be in some form or another.