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A Timeline of UK Philanthropy

Below is a timeline of some of the key dates and events in the history of UK philanthropy.

(This is inevitably selective, and as with all timelines there are probably as many things left out as put in so do get in touch if you have suggestions for additions!)

  • 597: Oldest surviving UK charity founded

    St Augustine arrives in Britain and (among other things) founds a monastery school near Canterbury, in Kent. The modern day King’s School Canterbury, traces its history back to this point and can claim to be the oldest surviving (though not entirely continuous) charity in the UK.

    Mosaic of St Augustine converting the English king
  • 1282: Bridge House Estates established by Royal Charter

    Bridge House Estates can lay claim to being the oldest continually-existing charitable trust in the UK. Its history dates back to its establishment by Royal Charter in 1282, as a means of collecting donations to fund the maintenance of the original London Bridge (and subsequently other bridges across the Thames).

    It has moved well beyond these original purposes, but survives today as the grantmaking City Bridge Trust.

    Drawing of medieval London Bridge
  • 1348: The Black Death

    The Black Death arrives in Britain causing the death of an estimated 40-60% of the population.

    As with subsequent outbreaks of plague and other illnesses, this puts huge strain on the system of almsgiving and charitable welfare, raising fundamental questions about the role of charity and the need to give in a more selective way.

  • 1532: English Reformation

    Henry VIII, motivated by his desire to wed Anne Boleyn, initiates the split with the Catholic Church in Rome. The ensuing schism between Protestant and Catholic leads to English Reformation.

    This is a major factor in shaping modern philanthropy. The destruction of medieval Catholic welfare infrastructure leaves a significant gap that must be filled, and spurs a rise in charitable bequests.  Protestant teachings on charity also shift the focus from the status of the donor’s immortal soul to the impact of the donation in the present day, laying the foundations for the eventual emergence of a new secular conception of giving.

    Portrait of Henry VIII
  • 1601: The Statute of Charitable Uses

    As part of a package of Poor Law legislation that marks the beginning of government-provided welfare, Elizabeth I introduces a law aimed at making charitable trusts more accountable.

    An introductory preamble to the Act outlines a list of examples of purposes that would be seen as legitimately charitable. Over time people come to interpret this list as a legal definition of charity (although this was never the intention).

    Eventually this forms the legal basis on which UK charity law – and the charity law of many other countries such as the US – has rested ever since.

    Elizabeth I
  • 1736: Mortmain Act

    A piece of legislation designed to address concerns about people leaving gifts to the church in their will and thereby increasing the power of the clergy. It decrees that gifts of land, or money for the purchase of land, for charitable purposes are illegal, unless strict conditions have been met.

    As a result, many charitable trusts go to great efforts to try and argue that they are not in fact charitable, so deathbed gifts to them are legitimate.  At the same time, the judiciary attempts to interpret as many things as possible as charitable, because they want money to pass to heirs wherever possible rather than end up in the hands of charitable trusts or the church.

    This has a lasting impact in leaving us with a broad, liberal interpretation of charitable purposes within the law.

  • c. 1750-1800: Associated Philanthropy

    Philanthropy was originally an interaction of individuals – individuals with money giving directly to individuals who needed it – since almsgiving traditionally took place at the village or parish level.

    But as society becomes more urbanised and the nature of poverty evolves, philanthropists start to come together and form organisations in which they can pool donations and combine their efforts. (This mirrors the development of the joint stock corporation in the business world at the same time).

    A great many hospitals are set up and funded by drawing on subscriptions from a wide range of individuals, rather than relying on single, large gifts. This forms the template for the modern idea of a charity we have today.

  • 1770-1815: The Enlightenment

    The Enlightenment is the name given to the period of intense scientific, political and philosophical discourse from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries. The nature and role of charity was an important topic of debate for thinkers throughout this era, which marked a significant shift towards a secular conception of philanthropy.

    Philosophers such as Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf and John Locke explored the fundamental basis of our ideas of property, and the implications for whether giving should be seen as a choice or a duty.

    Likewise, more radical thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine and William Godwin (as well as the not usually so radical Immanuel Kant) questioned the relationship between charity and justice, and whether more state intervention was needed rather than greater reliance on philanthropy.

  • 1801: The First Census

    This first comprehensive picture of the make-up of society has both a positive and negative impact on philanthropy.

    It provides valuable insight into many social problems – such as mortality rates among children and the deprivation suffered by the elderly – but also highlights the sheer scale of many of these problems, and thus leads to widespread acceptance of the need for state intervention.

    Historical cartoon about the census
  • c.1860-1900: The Victorian "Golden Age"

    The huge growth in manufacturing and industry leads Britain to dominate the world through its empire. Back at home, the industrial boom is matched by a boom in philanthropy.

    Philanthropists like Angela Burdett-Coutts, George Peabody, George Cadbury and Andrew Carnegie become household names through their philanthropic deeds as much as their business interests.

    Burdett-Coutts worked alongside Charles Dickens to address the problems of poverty in the slums of London; Peabody created affordable housing for the working classes and Cadbury revolutionised employment practices while also promoting pacifism driven by his Quaker faith. Carnegie, meanwhile, moved to the US and became perhaps the most famous philanthropist of all – founding many libraries and public institutions and publishing a highly influentil essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth” in 1889.

    A key concern for the Victorians is the fear that too much giving  is “indiscriminate”; failing to  distinguish between those who are “deserving” and those who are “undeserving”. The Charity Organisation Society movement is formed in London in 1869 and become the focal point for a long-running campaign to make charity more “organised” and “scientific”, which spreads around the UK and to the US. This attracts many followers, but also fierce critics who see its methods and views as counter to the true spirit of charity.

  • c.1900-1935: Early 20th Century Growth of the State

    Recognition of the need for state intervention has intensified by the end of the Victorian era, with a growing consensus that philanthropy could not by itself meet the needs of society.

    The social historian Benjamin Kirkman Gray, writing in 1905, declares that “private individuals were confident of their power to discharge a public function, and the government was wiling to have it so. It was left to experience to determine that the work was ill done and by no means equal to the need.”

    The Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911 introduce new state mechanisms to provide for people no longer able to work due to ill health or old age.

    The Liberal governments of the early 20th Century do, however, remain positive about philanthropy and voluntary action while laying the groundwork for far greater state involvement in welfare services.  Winston Churchill, during his time as a Liberal, states a belief that it would be best to ‘underpin the existing voluntary agencies by a comprehensive system – necessarily at a lower level – of state action.’

  • 1948: Birth of the Welfare State

    The National Health Service Act of 1948 marks the birth of the modern welfare state, and prompts a great deal of debate about the ongoing relevance and role of philanthropy.

    Prominent figures in the Labour movement make it clear that they would be happy if philanthropy became obsolete. Health Minister Aneurin Bevan tells the House of Commons that philanthropy is merely a “patch-quilt of local paternalisms”, and that “it is repugnant to a civilised community for hospitals to have to rely upon private charity.”

    At the same time, however, one of the key architects of the welfare state, William Beveridge,  publishes a book outlining his belief in the ongoing importance of philanthropy. (1948’s Voluntary Action).

    Nevertheless philanthropy enters something of a doldrum period in the 1950s. The Nathan Committee, a government committee set up to consider the role of voluntary action following the advent of the welfare state concludes that ‘certain growing pains have been evident in the years during which this change has come about.’


  • 1960-1980: Protest Movements & Charity Campaigning

    The growth of interest in participation, identity politics and rights issues – exemplified by things like the women’s liberation movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the demonstrations against the Vietnam war – suggests a way forward for philanthropy.

    Many existing charities refocus their efforts towards campaigning and advocacy, and new groups such as Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group are formed.

  • 1980s to Present Day: Mass-Market Giving and Fundraising

    Major TV fundraising initiatives such as Live Aid, Comic Relief and Children in Need bring the idea of charity right into people’s homes and prompt huge volumes of donations.

    The introduction of Gift Aid in 1990 means that, for the first time, a tax incentive for cash donations is available to the general public. This signals government support for the idea of mass participation in charitable giving and enables people to increase the value of their donations.

    New forms of technology and media such as text messaging, the internet and social media bring the work of charities into people’s lives like never before.

Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.