History of Anonymous Giving

Expressive Anonymity: What Pseudonyms in 19th Century Charity Subscription Lists Tell Us About Donors

Editors’ Note: Sarah Flew continues HistPhil‘s forum on anonymous giving. This post is based on Flew’s article, “Unveiling the Anonymous Philanthropist: Charity in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Victorian Culture 20, issue 1 (March 2015), 20-33.

Whilst researching philanthropy in London in the nineteenth century, I became fascinated by the small proportion of individuals who chose to hide their identity when giving contributions to charity. I became obsessed with charity minute books and account ledgers that often revealed the identity behind the mysterious ‘Miss R’, ‘Former Missionary Curate’ or ‘Mary (In memory of Louisa Laura)’ donating to the charity. What became apparent to me was that anonymity was being deployed in a multi-faceted way; many of the descriptors used for the anonymous contributions revealed a great deal either about the individual or their motivation for giving.  Additionally, my analysis of charitable subscription lists revealed that the likelihood of a contribution being made anonymously increased if the society receiving the gift had religious objects and if the contribution was a large one. The use of anonymity challenges the idea that philanthropists deployed their wealth merely to gain public power and prestige. Indeed, the mechanism of anonymous giving allowed individuals to privately fulfil their philanthropic obligations in a way that reflected upon their religious obligations and their deeply felt connection with society.

Charitable annual reports in the nineteenth century listed at great length the names of each annual subscriber and donor and the sum they had given in that accounting year. Peppered through these lists are a number of individuals who chose to conceal their identity through the use of a pseudonym. The principal form of illustrating an anonymous identity was through the use of initials; about half of all anonymous entries in the reports I examined were entered in this form. These initials typically expressed the individual’s name. For example, ‘FAH’ was a very generous supporter and was one of the top subscribers across many London charities. In its report of one large donation of £1,000 by FAH, the London Diocesan Magazine (May 1900) stated: “The donor does not wish his name revealed; he has in former years given us very generous support, and, while remaining anonymous, we would commend his example to the wealthier friends of our Church.” The identity of ‘FAH’ is almost certainly that of the merchant banker Francis Alexander Hamilton (1814-1907), with many of these significant donations appearing in the last few years of his life.

The remaining anonymous payments were descriptive, either portraying who the supporter was or why they were giving. There were, for instance, pseudonyms that conveyed a characterization of the financial supporter. Examples of such entries are: ‘A Churchwoman’; ‘A Country Curate’; ‘A Country Parson’; ‘A Freeholder of Middlesex’; ‘An Officer’s Widow’; ‘A Peer’; ‘An Old Balliol Pupil’; ‘Former Missionary Curate’; ‘A Countess’; ‘Member of the Executive Committee’; ‘Octagenarian Egrotans’ (which translates as ‘A Sick Man in His Eighties’); and ‘A Visitor to London’. The merchant banker Richard Foster (1822-1910) acquired the habit of anonymous giving from his youth. He gave away his twenty-first birthday gift from his mother (£2) anonymously to the National Society under the description of ‘B.D.P.’ which signified the words ‘birthday present’. Foster often donated anonymously under the description of ‘A Merchant of the City of London’ because he felt he had an obligation to help Londoners and hoped the use of this pseudonym would “arouse a sense of responsibility in other merchants.” As indicated by Foster’s use of a pseudonym, these descriptions may have been used to encourage other people with the same background or status to give. In other words, although public giving has often been promoted as a means of encouraging charitable acts in others, it’s possible that the generic nature of anonymous epithets did something similar.

The use of initials or character description was a common form of anonymity employed to shield authorship in literature in the nineteenth century. For example, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) used the pseudonyms of ‘P.B.S’ and ‘By a gentleman of the University of Oxford’. Scholars have argued that the use of initials or identity description in periodicals allowed the author to conceal his or her identity from the world at large, while allowing it to be easily penetrated by those in the inner circle. The use of such pseudonyms to hide philanthropic identity, in some cases, could likewise be a way of identifying yourself as a generous supporter while also professing to be humble. This seems a plausible explanation, as initials such as ‘FAH’ appear to be easily penetrated by historians and presumably also by contemporaries.

Some of the most commonly employed descriptions are variations of the concept of friendship, found in the subscription lists across a variety of religious and welfare charities. Descriptions used in the subscription lists of religious charities are: ‘Amicus’; ‘A True Friend’; ‘A Friend to the Good Cause’; ‘An Absent Friend’; ‘An Old Friend’; and ‘A Wellwisher’. References to ‘friendship’ were commonly employed as pseudonyms when donating to welfare societies. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals annual reports list donations from ‘A Lover of Dumb Things’ and ‘A Friend of the Oppressed’; the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity lists contributions from ‘A Friend to the Poor’; and the New Hospital for Women lists donations from ‘Amicus’ and ‘A Friend’. The use of friendship as a descriptor of anonymity was more prevalent in those societies which had a higher proportion of financial support from women.

The other forms of description expressed the motivation or emotion behind the donation. For example: ‘For the Spread to the Gospel’; ‘God’s Truth before Expediency’; ‘Offering to God’; ‘Gratitude’; ‘A Grateful Hearer’; ‘Fides, Spes et Caritas’ (‘Faith, Hope and Charity’); ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ (‘We praise you God’); and ‘Dicto Paremus Ovantes’ (‘Rejoicing We Obey the Word’). Again, such descriptions are rarer in the subscription lists of welfare charities but the few that appeared in the subscription lists of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also referenced the emotional basis of the gift: ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’; ‘Infinite Pity’; and ‘Sympathy’. The concept of a thank offering and thankfulness could be found in the subscription lists of all of the religious charities I studied and in the case of the New Hospital for Women; the Hospital received many donations in the names of ‘A Grateful Patient’ and ‘Thank offering’.

A small proportion of the anonymous contributions expressed some form of remembrance, in particular using the form of words ‘In Memoriam’ often followed by initials or a name. For example, one of the principle funders of the East London Church Fund was Caroline Amelia Newman (1840-1934), who made her annual subscription of £100 in memory of her husband Reverend Frederick Newman (d. 1894), a Wiltshire Rector; this was in the form of ‘In honoured Memory of Rev Frederick Newman – for St Anne’s Limehouse’. In another example, a donation was made to London City Mission in 1860 for £1 under the description of ‘A thankful heart for the Lord’s tender mercies to a beloved child in his departing hours’. This use of commemoration is also found in the subscription lists of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, with gifts notated by ‘In Memorium’ and ‘In Memory of a Dear Departed Pet’. Many of these anonymous descriptions convey the nature of the individual’s relationship and their deeply felt attachment to the society in question.

The wording of biblical teachings was also employed as anonymous descriptors but these were only found in the subscription lists of religious organization. These descriptions cited specific Bible readings, either by description or by Bible reference. For example, one donation was given under the description of ‘St Matthew vi 1-4’, which commands the individual not to give alms publicly in order to be seen. Alternatively, the anonymous descriptor of ‘Leviticus ii 12’ refers to the offering to God of the first fruits of the harvest. More general descriptions of biblical concepts that reference the act of giving were also used for the donor’s identity, for example, descriptions such as the ‘Widow’s Mite’, ‘First Fruits’ and the ‘Tithe’ (Mark 12:41-44).

Analysis of nineteenth century subscription lists shows that it is possible to uncover the varying motivations of philanthropy through the descriptive entries given to many anonymous donations. These descriptions express a range of emotions. They reflect duty, loss, remembrance, thanksgiving, and repentance. Anonymity, therefore, can be viewed as a tool that can be used both to hide identity and to communicate identity.

-Sarah Flew

Dr. Sarah Flew is Head of Foundation & Business Partnerships at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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