top of page
  • Charity Hall

A Brief Perspective of Charity in the UK

Our nation's history of charity is a rich tapestry woven from the early medieval period to the present day, marked by the profound impacts of social pioneers and charity founders. The evolution of charity in the UK reflects a journey from rudimentary almsgiving to sophisticated, structured philanthropy addressing complex societal issues.

The Foundations of Modern Charity

Charity's origins in the UK are deeply embedded in our history, transitioning from religious duty in the medieval period to the establishment of formal institutions like almshouses and hospitals. Religious institutions were often the main provider of charitable works and this tradition still thrives.

Mary Seacole, c.Wikipedia

The 18th and 19th centuries produced many social pioneers. People like Thomas Coram, whose Foundling Hospital provided a lifeline for abandoned children, and Octavia Hill whose visionary work in social housing provided dignity and a sense of community to the poor. Elizabeth Fry's reformative work on prison conditions emphasising rehabilitation over punishment and Mary Seacole who challenged the racial prejudices of the time to provide care for soldiers during the Crimean War. They and many others laid the foundations that shifted the perspective on charitable work from immediate relief to structural societal change.

The Turn of the 20th Century

The early 20th century saw figures like Eglantyne Jebb and Clemence Housman emerge, focusing on children's welfare and women's rights, illustrating charity's expanding realm into advocacy and social reform. Meanwhile Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree, through their studies into poverty significantly influenced social policy and welfare reform. Their efforts, along with those of others like Beatrice Webb, laid the groundwork for the modern welfare state.

The late 20th Century: A New Wave of Activism

As the 20th century progressed, the community changemaking landscape in the UK continued to evolve.  Innovative solutions to social issues were pioneered by individuals like Bruce Kenrick who founded Notting Hill Housing Trust to address the appalling housing conditions provided by slum landlords in the 1960s. Sue Ryder's Foundation became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s for its care of people with complex needs and life threatening illnesses. And Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian born journalist and activist, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival to promote cultural unity and racial equality.

Sir Elton John c.Rolling Stone

As we hit the 1980s celebrities such as Bob Geldof and Elton John became champions of famine relief and HIV/AIDS support. Like business founder Anita Roddick they exemplified how profile and celebrity status could highlight causes that went beyond national boundaries and incorporated new models of social entrepreneurship and global advocacy.

The British Royal Family has also played a huge role in shaping the image and impact of charity. From HRH Prince Philip's Duke of Edinburgh's Award and HM King Charles' environmental and social initiatives such as the Prince's Trust, to Diana, Princess of Wales' groundbreaking work with HIV/AIDS and landmines. Their commitments highlight the enormous influence that public figures can have on mobilising resources and awareness.

In the closing decades of the 20th century, social pioneers like John Bird, who founded The Big Issue, providing a lifeline to the homeless and Camila Batmanghelidjh whose Kids Company offered a beacon of hope for vulnerable children in London, emphasised the importance of direct, community-based support.

Legacy and Continuing Innovation

These pioneers' legacies - a small representation of the huge scope and breadth of social innovation in the UK - underscore a continuous thread in our charitable landscape: innovation, compassion, and the relentless pursuit of social justice.

Mandy Ogunmokun, c.Inside Housing

In the 21st century social innovators and campaigners are still very much at work during a time when society needs them more than ever. Founders such as Mandy Ogunmokun, whose Treasures Foundation supports women with criminal convictions, provide a powerful reminder that lived experience can be a strong motivator to help others.

Our rich history underscores the profound impact that determined individuals and collectives have had and continue to have on society. Each era's challenges have produced a response from those willing to step up and make change happen, highlighting a narrative of hope and the enduring power of human compassion in driving societal progress.

What's striking is that despite this rich history there is no central archive that records the impact and evolution of our sector. Charity Hall wants to change that.

These are our brief reflections on charity and we accept that others will have different perspectives, examples and role models.

Who would you like to see in the Charity Hall of Fame? Let us know in the comments below!


bottom of page