Charity was a lifeline for the impoverished and an acceptable pastime
for wealthy ladies.
I have often heard it regretted that ladies have no stated employment,
no profession. It is a mistake: charity is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is
her profession. Men have little time or taste for details. Women of fortune have abundant
leisure which can no way be so properly or pleasantly filled
When the poor of 1850s Hastings fell on hard times they were fortunate to be in an area which
contained many wealthy spinsters with philanthropic ideals. By giving to the poor through organised
charity the rich hoped that beggars would not come knocking on their front doors or approach
them in the streets.
A few 'deserving' cases - those who lived a blameless, pious life - received Parish Relief
(money given via the church), but the problem grew and so many people were out of work by the
mid-century that the Mayor founded a distress-relief fund to which the wealthy subscribed
generously. This paid for huge amounts of bread and soup to be doled out to the needy. However,
poverty in the town continued to grow and became too great even for the charitable
societies to handle.
As a last resort those with no means of support went to the workhouse. The numerous small parish
workhouses were replaced in 1836 by the purpose-built Hastings Union in Cackle Street (now
Frederick Road). Inside, men and women were segregated and mothers were admitted with their
children. Females were superintended by a Matron.
The district was plagued from the 1830s with itinerant mendicants, who came from far
and wide having heard of the newly-built watering-place of St Leonards with its many wealthy
and kind-hearted spinsters.
Court reports show that an especially large number of Irish people were found begging
or fortune telling. By 1845 public notices were being circulated asking
people not to encourage beggars to the town by giving alms indiscriminately. In the 1850s The
Mendicity Society bought two cottages in Bourne Passage as hostels for ten men and five women,
under the authority of a resident matron and master.
Hastings' greatest philanthropic benefactress was
The Countess of Waldegrave. Other ladies of Hastings & St Leonards founded and
managed numerous clubs and philanthropic societies, some of which were organised
through the church.
- Hastings & St Leonards & East Sussex Infirmary, White rock (founded 1841)
- The Society for Suppressing Mendicity and the Relief of Distressed Travellers (1855)
- District Visiting Society
- The Blanket Lending Society (1846)
- Society for the Instruction & Relief of the Blind
- Lying in Societies (several)
- Soup kitchens
- Maternity Society
- Ragged Schools
- School Shoe Club
- Clothing and Coal Clubs (several)
- Society for the Relief of Poor Lying In Married Women of the Parishes
of All Saints and St Clement (founded 1814)
- Albert House kitchen, Cross street (StL)
The ideology behind these enterprises was that the poor must help
themselves and not just expect handouts: the discarded blankets donated
by wealthy ladies to the Blanket Lending Society were hired, not
lent, to poor families for the winter. Nor was charity doled out indiscriminately on
grounds of need; the intention was to assist the 'deserving'
poor who were meek, polite and duly grateful, and who followed a
bourgeois code of morality. For example, schemes to help poverty-stricken women during
their confinements were not available to the most needy - the unwed mothers. Schemes
were introduced in which the charity-minded could purchase tickets to give to beggars
instead of money. That way the recipient could not spend alms on alcohol, as the tickets
could be used only on services provided by the Mendicity Society.
Some very rich men gave 'relief' to the poor on a regular and organised basis:
W.D. LUCAS-SHADWELL, ESQ. This day observes his annual custom of giving relief
to the poor of All Saints', by distributing 300 gallons of bread to the poor of
that parish - a custom which redounds much to the honour of the gentleman who so
liberally observes it.
THE SPECIAL RELIEF FUND - The arduous labours of the indefatigable committee
engaged in this good work, are now rapidly approaching their termination.
On Saturday, 200 gallons of bread and 160 gallons of soup were distributed;
and on Wednesday last, 200 gallons of bread. Next Tuesday it is contemplated
a final distribution of about 200 gallons of bread, the quantity being dependent
on the residue of the funds. The sum raised has exceeded £250, and the utmost
spirit of liberality has been displayed towards the suffering poor, a second
subscription being promised in many instances if the occasion should require it.
From the Hastings & St Leonards News, 6 February 1855.
Hannah More: 'Coelebs in Search of a Wife' (1809)