New Works in the Field

The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: Karen Sonnelitter discusses her recently-published book, Charity Movements in Eighteenth-Century Ireland (2016). More specifically in this post, she explains how “joint-stock financing” facilitated the establishment of a wide range of charitable societies in eighteenth-century Ireland. Earlier this summer, she presented part of this work at the 2016 conference of the International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR) in Stockholm, Sweden

In June of 1746 the Earl of Chesterfield, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and King George II’s highest official there, wrote a letter to Mr. Thomas Prior, who fifteen years earlier had founded the Dublin Society. The Lord Lieutenant praised Prior for his excellent work but noted that much more still needed to be done. “Think of your manufactures about as much as your militia, and be as much upon your guard against poverty as against popery, take my word for it, you are in more danger of the former then of the latter”. To Chesterfield by this point in the eighteenth century the greatest danger to Protestant rule in Ireland was not Jacobite Catholic rebellion, but social unrest caused by economic problems and rampant poverty. At the end of the seventeenth century English authorities had found the solution to the Jacobite threat to be stationing a large army throughout Ireland and creating a series of penal laws designed to politically and economically weaken the Catholic elite. The threat posed by poverty was less easily disposed of, particularly when that threat was not based solely on religion but on the vast and deepening economic disparities of the era.

The eighteenth-century is well-known as an era of social, economic, and political innovation and revolution. What has been less well-established are the humanitarian and philanthropic developments that emerged in reaction to these developments.

Many eighteenth-century states were not well equipped to deal with large-scale poverty nor was there a strong sense that this was the state’s responsibility. In the absence of any other solution philanthropically-minded Anglo-Irish citizens founded a range of voluntary charitable societies that were designed to address social issues. These organizations revolutionized both charity and philanthropy changing the way they were funded and broadening the range of people involved. The philanthropists who founded voluntary societies worked in a broad range of issues, which are detailed in my new book Charity Movements in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: Philanthropy and Improvement. This post will discuss some of the developments that contributed to this philanthropic revolution.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a number of people in both Great Britain and Ireland became concerned about what they perceived to be a growth of immoral behaviour among society at large. To address these alarming trends they founded local organizations called the Reformation of Manners societies, and vigorously campaigned for the prosecution of blasphemers, Sabbath breakers, and fornicators. A subset of members came to feel that the best way to correct adult behaviour was to focus on child development. And so the charity school movement began in earnest. The guiding principle was, “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The schools provided a basic remedial education to their charges, including religious instruction, and would train them in a valuable trade so that as adults they became contributing members of society.

The men and women who began to found charity schools in this period were almost universally from the emerging middle-class or were low churchmen, and all of them had financial limitations. Charity schools became immensely popular because they were cheap and easy to establish. They needed only a single room, a schoolmaster, and some books. The schools were not intended to operate off endowments but instead were to be continuously funded through the joint-stock method of finance. Joint-stock charities were meant to mirror joint-stock corporations by raising funds through small contributions from a large number of people.

Groups of philanthropists in urban areas like London and Dublin began to establish charity schools around the British Isles. Charity schools became so popular that the philosopher Bernard Mandeville commented in 1714 that, “charity schools are in fashion in the same manner as hoop’d petticoats, by Caprice. And the no more reason can be given for the one then the other.” The ‘fashion’ for joint-stock charities continued and was not confined to schools. In Dublin Anglo-Irish philanthropists founded a range of voluntary charitable societies some operating on a local level, like charity schools and charity hospitals, and others with national ambitions, like the Dublin Society and the Incorporated Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland.

To the Anglo-Irish philanthropists who founded, donated to, and ran these organizations their work was a form of patriotic action as well as a form of benevolence. Involvement in philanthropy was a way to combine their Christian obligation to aid the less fortunate with their civic duty to the Irish state. In their fundraising materials each organization stressed how their mission strengthened the Anglo-Irish state in addition to aiding the less fortunate. George Stone, the Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin, argued in a charity sermon that the Incorporated Society served to “unite our temporal and eternal interests.” Rowland Davies, dean of Cork, stated that, “Nothing can contribute more to the publick good, nor be of greater service to any country, than the number and frequency of schools…whereby such children may receive good and virtuous education, and so being bred up in the fear of the lord, may entertain and early abhorrence of all sin.” Ireland’s Parliament clearly agreed with these assessments; it perceived many large voluntary societies as providing a necessary service to the state and supported their activities through parliamentary grants.

The philanthropic revolution of the eighteenth century began with small organizations, such as local charity schools, funded through joint-stock financing. The ease of establishing such charities is in part why such a wide-range of societies proliferated. Dublin, for instance, saw the establishment of the Charitable Musical Society, the Sick and Indigent Roomkeeper’s Society, the Society for the Relief of Distressed Widows and Children of Clergymen to name only a few. Most organizations operated locally and focused on a specific group in need of assistance. For these organizations the joint-stock method was mostly adequate to ensure their continued operation. The ease of establishing joint-stock charities also inspired the establishment of larger organizations that operated on a national level. The Dublin Society and the Incorporated Society were founded on the same model as smaller organizations but were frequently short of funds and eventually became dependent on routine grants from Parliament. The joint-stock method of finance which began the philanthropic revolution of the eighteenth century eventually proved inadequate for many organizations.

Indeed, the ambitions of many organizations were difficult to achieve. Charity schools may have succeeded in providing a basic education for their charges, but they did not fix the problem of adult poverty nor did they stimulate much in the way of economic growth. The Dublin Society did not manage to transform the Irish economy. Many of these eighteenth-century philanthropic societies fell far short of their goals, and in the long term they have either shut down or drastically changed their missions.

One reason could be that their missions were very much products of their time. Many charity schools, while founded with the best of intentions, explicitly reinforced a social and political system that was fundamentally unequal. They focused on educating children for work in linen mills or as household servants. The Dublin Society’s economic goals were in keeping with the mercantilist ideology that dominated the period. Despite their shortcomings these voluntary societies developed an innovative approach that, though only temporarily, revolutionized how philanthropic activity was funded and carried out.

-Karen Sonnelitter

Karen Sonnelitter is an assistant professor of history at Siena College. She holds a Ph.D. in European History from Purdue University, a Master’s degree in history from the University of Connecticut, and a Master’s in Irish Studies from Queen’s University Belfast. Her first book Charity Movements in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: Philanthropy and Improvement was recently released with Boydell & Brewer. She can be found on twitter @ProfSonnelitter. 


Rowland Davies, The Right use of Riches. A Sermon Preach’d in the parish church of St. Peter’s Corke on Sunday August the 11th, 1717, (Dublin, 1717), p. 22.

Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, vol. 1, Commentary by F.B. Kaye, (Oxford, 1924), p. 276.

PRONI T3228/1/26

Proverbs 22:6

George Stone, A Sermon Preach’d at Christ-Church, Dublin, on the 28th Day of March 1742. Before the Incorporated Society for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland, (Dublin, 1742), p. 5.


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