The Charity Organisation Society

Much has been written about the Charity Organisation Society (COS), both by admirers and critics. Its impact on late Victorian social policy was strong: its founders were well-connected and familiar with the corridors of power. Its distinctive approach was by turns progressive and reactionary:

  • It pioneered a 'casework' approach to welfare following the emerging research-based discipline of social science; but its insistence on targeting relief on the basis of the detailed investigation of individual family circumstances led it to oppose universal state remedies (see below on pensions), as well as the work of bodies such as the Salvation Army whose relief they regarded as 'indiscriminate'. 
  • It sought to bring piecemeal charitable efforts together to work in tandem with the Poor Law system in a more co-ordinated and efficient way, but this tended to reinforce paternalistic distinctions between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' (or 'not likely to benefit' or 'unhelpable' - COS struggled with the terminology) poor, and to support harsh treatment of the latter.
  • It set up many innovative projects for the sick, for children and the unemployed, but its emphasis on the primacy of voluntary charity was gradually undermined, and most of its programmes became state-funded activities by the mid-20th century.

This page traces some of the impact of COS on this and neighbouring parishes. In the 19th century some of our clergy were enthusiastic supporters (one went on to found an American branch); others were hostile and would have nothing to do with it; yet others changed their minds. One of our 20th century Rectors, J.C. Pringle, served for many years as its General Secretary both before and after his time in the parish.

Various charities had been created by the middle classes to address the effects (though not the causes) of poverty. Among them were the Strangers' Friend Society (1785), the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity (1818); the Metropolitan Visiting and Relief Association (1842); the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes (1844), whose chairman was Lord Shaftesbury; and the Society for the Relief of Distress (1860). In 1857 the Social Science Association (SSA) was established to pursue research into welfare issues, including sanitary provision - Octavia Hill was to be a leading light. In 1866 John Llewelyn Davies, who in the previous decade had been Vicar of St Mark Whitechapel, published The Poor Law and Charity, foreshadowing the COS approach.

When attempts to join with other bodies (including SSA) failed, a new society was created in 1869 at the home of Lord Lichfield. The rallying-call was a paper read at the Society of Arts the previous year by a Unitarian minister Henry Solly [left - in 1862 he had founded the Working Men's Club & Institute]How to Deal with the Unemployed Poor of London, and with its 'Rough' and Criminal Classes. Its full title was the Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity, with 'The Charity Organisation Society' adopted as the working title in 1870. Among the founders were Lord Shaftesbury, William Gladstone, John Ruskin, Cardinal Manning and Octavia Hill, though her emphasis on subjective feelings alongside statistical research was to make her influence marginal. Other key figures were Thomas Mackay, Helen and Bernard Bosanquet (who wrote London, its Growth, Charitable Agencies and Wants in 1868), and also Canon Samuel Barnett of St Jude Whitechapel and Charles Booth, both of whom were later to fall out with the society. Charles Stewart Loch, Balliol-educated son of an Indian judge, replaced Bernard Bosanquet as general secretary in 1875. He was just 26; he later married Sophia Peters, one of Octavia Hill's helpers. He was to be hugely influential, holding the post until 1913. His publications included Charity Organisation (1890) and Charity and Social Life (1910).

District Committees were established; Marylebone, led by Octavia Hill, was the first and St George's (East) the second; by 1870 there were seventeen. There was a constant struggle to recruit enough volunteers to staff the committees and do the work. Tensions were to surface between the local and the authoritarian central committee.

Many of the local clergy were supportive (for a variety of reasons) - for example, in 1883 the St George's (East) Committee was chaired by the Rector, with two of his curates, the incumbent of Christ Church and two of his curates, and the incumbent of St John's with his curate, plus Wapping clergy, as members -  a more overwhelmingly clerical body than elsewhere (see below on Crowther, its secretary). But other clergy were opposed to its methods, among them probably Dan Greatorex of St Paul Dock Street. In 1877 Henry Cowell, who had been one of the mission priests at St Saviour's, spoke of the certain stigma attached to clergy who supported COS, and in 1886 Charles Latimer Marson, who had been Samuel Barnett's curate at St Jude Whitechapel and was later involved with various Christian Socialist groups (and also the collection of folksongs), filled in a mock application form for relief in the name of Jesus Christ [right]

Its philosophy and practice
In a paper read to the SSA in 1869, significantly titled The Importance of aiding the poor without almsgiving, Octavia Hill [left in 1870s] set out what was to be the approach of COS: charity, which is a work of friendly neighbourliness, and essentially private, should help and not harm. Any gift which did not make an individual better, stronger and more independent damaged rather than helped him. 13 August 2012 saw the centenary of Ocavia Hill's death, and various events were held to mark it.

Among the factors influencing leading members (in different proportion for each) were

  • 'neo-Malthusianism' (especially Thomas Mackay): the reapplication of the ideas of the Revd Thomas Robert Malthus, who argued that poverty, like natural disasters, could have beneficial effects in long-term population control (his main target), and that relief should be left as far as possible to private charity, to motivate the most able victims of poverty towards self-improvement 
  • the 'classical' economic theories of Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith as they applied to welfare
  • fears of social unrest: the labour market had worsened the lot of casual workers, widening the gap between rich and poor, increasing pauperism and the rise of the 'dangerous classes'. COS saw themselves as 'resident gentry' checking these tendencies
  • in the 1880s and 1890s, the rise of 'socialism' (an issue to which COS generally over-reacted). The 1884 report lamented that socialist ideas were taking a great hold upon the clergy, and that many books were being produced, the title of some of which sound like sentimental novels.

Social problems, the COS believed, were ethical in origin, the result of free moral choices made by 'calculating' individuals. Poverty should spur individuals on to better their lot, to the benefit of all; charity should step in to help the destitute only if they were morally upright, and provide training in personal responsibility. But pauperism - dependence on welfare - is a social evil, a degraded mentality, even (according to Mackay) a disease requiring scientific treatment which should be deliberatively punitive and stigmatising. (Even Samuel Barnett supported measures such as labour colonies and training farms.)

In practice this meant that the COS wanted 'out-relief' (casual individual payments) under the Poor Law system to wither away, with a return to the rationale of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, restricting help to 'in-relief' of the able-bodied through the workhouses which were set up in each parish (or in unions of parishes) under the control of local Boards of Guardians. (See here for evidence of Abraham Gole, a churchwarden and trustee, on the workings of the system immediately prior to the 1834 Act.) Over the years out-relief had spread, and COS believed this was a corrupting sign of a dysfunctional society. It also meant that the Poor Law Guardians and the charities were competing for the same clients, each knowingly giving inadequate relief because of the other.

Heavily influenced by the COS authorities, the 1869 'Goshen circular' (he was the President of the Central Poor Law Board) instructed local Boards to co-operate with charities so that the Poor Law would relieve the undeserving in workhouses, and charities the deserving, and out-relief be drastically reduced. Although COS had secured many places on the local Boards (knowing how to get their people nominated), most Boards received this coldly - but not St George-in-the-East, where COS had no less than six places and the chairman was Albert Peel. He was a wealthy farmer, Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, and chaired the Central Chamber of Agriculture (a pressure group of rural landowners resisting social change); from 1877-98 he also chaired the Central Poor Law Conference. In St George's (and in due course Whitechapel and Stepney) out-relief virtually disappeared, and the Poor Law Board and COS worked hand-in-hand.

The COS argued that if the Poor Law system concentrated on in-relief of able-bodied males (using the discipline of the workhouse), more 'scientific' charitable provision could be made for those whose value to the labour market was marginal: widows, the elderly, children, the chronically sick and disabled - the traditional 'impotent poor'. On that basis they developed their pattern of individual social casework, aiming to build self-sustaining units that drew on the resources of family, friends, and neighbours (which were assiduously assessed before any grant was made). See this collection of annual reports from 1883, some of which give detailed case studies of those who were assisted and those who were not. From the 1890s they produced training manuals for this purpose, for the use of their volunteers. They also believed that loans (which the Jewish societies used) could be less 'demoralising' than gifts.

Although it never captured the whole of the Poor Law system, COS was highly influential in public debate through the 1870s and 1880s. But by then political and economic crises were pushing the middle classes away from the stern unbending tenets of economic individualism towards more collectivist, 'liberal' remedies. Some members came to see the need for limited extension of state action to address the problems endemic to late Victorian capitalism and the rise of socialist ideas (given greater currency by the extension of the franchise, including to those in receipt of medical relief - who could now have a say in the election of Boards of Guardians!) The issue of pensions proved to be the flashpoint.

The campaign for state pensions was originally a conservative cause, so that the Poor Law could revert to its 1834 rationale, and the able-bodied be dealt with more harshly (as described above). It was assumed to need contributory insurance funding. In time, however, the labour movement took up the cause, and argued for non-contributory old age pensions as an entitlement.

The COS said no to the idea in its first annual report in 1870 - and continued to do so. Unsurprisingly, it favoured charitable pensions. In 1875 the St George's District Committee raised a fund for 'chronic' pensions, for long standing residents: 12s 6d for a couple and 8s for a single person, supplementing out-relief. This expanded in 1877 into the Tower Hamlets Pensions Committee; chaired by Albert Peel (see above), its members were Canon Barnett, A.G. Crowder*, Russell Barrington, Charles Fremantle and J.R. Holland. It was to provide pensions so far as its funds permit, for those poor persons who seem by their character and circumstances to be worthy of assistance outside the workhouse. By 1881, it was only issuing 119 pensions, and by 1896 only 1194 (961 of them to women) across the three Unions of St George's, Whitechapel and Stepney. One reason was that these pensions had to be 'deserved'; recipients were chosen to set an example, as the 'cream' of the old working people in the district. Morality seemed more important than the relief of poverty, and pensions depended on the usual rigorous examination of family circumstances, and what help younger relatives could give. Furthermore, the COS insisted on fresh donations for such cases, because help should be direct, to strengthen the human contact. Deserving cases were advertised in the Charity Organisation Review, giving personal details. Typically of the organisation, donations were paid to the Committee, then forwarded to the relevant district committee, and delivered weekly by a COS visitor.

was a protegé of Octavia Hill and Canon Samuel Barnett. Educated at Eton and Christ Church Oxford, he lived in the West End, at 65 Portland Place, but for well over 30 years gave most of energies to the East End. He had taught in Barnett's Sunday School in 1874, became a trustee of the playground in 1878, and paid for a block of model dwellings (later known as Balliol House) near Toynbee tennis courts, where the rent was 2s 6d a week. Henrietta Barnett described him as tall, erect, well-dressed, cultivated, devout, his every action based on principles. Mr Crowder was to him [Barnett] a rock on which to rest (
Canon Barnett: His Life, Work & Friends p107).

He was the Secretary of the local COS branch, and in 1876 became a Poor Law Guardian for St George-in-the-East. In consort with Albert Peel, he set about reforming the Board's work, curtailing out-relief to a minimum - in which he had few imitators. Peel had high regard for him, describing himself as Crowder's disciple. He became secretary of the annual Metropolitan District Poor Law conferences (representing 30 Unions across London), and was made a Justice of the Peace. He was also a member of the Liberty and Property Defence League.

By this time he had become a leading member of St George's church (footing the entire bill for the laying-out of St George's Gardens in 1886 by the then-Rector Harry Jones), and closely involved with Christ Church Watney Street.

In 1888 his evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Poor Law Relief (published as The Administration of the Poor Law Spottiswoode 1888), included these words: If outdoor relief were abolished, charity would receive such an impetus that it would prove sufficient. I think it is the business and duty of the rich to take up cases of deserving distress... it is hopeless to look for much improvement unless the present too wide discretion of the Guardians is curtailed, and by legislation and Orders of the Local Government Board the progress that has already been made is made general and permanent 

His new Rector at St George's, C.H. Turner, also gave evidence along the same lines:
In my opinion, the administration of outdoor relief has a great tendency to make the poor more improvident than they are already, and indisposes them to take advantage of savings banks and provident funds. It is also detrimental to their moral character, in not only making them dependent, but it has a great effect on their relations. It also acts as a stimulus to increasing the population, because of improvident marriages.

Twenty years later Crowder was still active in the COS, as a representative of the 'hard and dry' strand of opinion, warning in a 1909 report on its future direction that any relaxation of the Society's view regarding the role of the state in social provision would result in increasing amounts of injurious relief given under the guise of co-ordination and co-operation

Denmark Street was renamed Crowder Street [right, today] in his memory.

In our parish archives is his annotated map, dated 20 April 1875, of the boundaries of the Poor Law Parish of St George-in-the East.

To return to the question of pensions:

COS' continued opposition to any state intervention through the 1880s began to seem remote and anachronistic. Charles Booth [left] was the first COS member to break ranks and advocate a universal, non-contributory pension of 5s. a week. Canon Samuel Barnett [right, with his wife Henrietta, and with students and others at Toynbee Hall] followed him. In 'Practical Socialism' (Nineteenth Century, April 1883) and later in 'A Friendly Criticism of the COS' (1895), Barnett said that while he was glad that outdoor relief had been virtually abolished, intervention was needed to address the socialist challenge. He advocated a pension of between 8s. and 10s. a week to every citizen who had kept himself until the age of 60 without workhouse aid, with a work test. The COS, he said, was refusing to do anything except clothe themselves in the dirty rags of their own righteousness. [n 1908 Canon Barnett was reported as saying The working classes are aliens from the Church. They are not antagonistic; what is perhaps worse, they are indifferent. They are somewhat scornful of the Church's teaching, and sceptical as to its authority. Few Labour leaders are Churchmen, and the Church cannot be said to be influential in the thought of the Labour circles.]

Both Booth and Barnett, who hitherto had shared many of the COS presuppositions and were 'reluctant collectivists', were singled out for vicious attack by C.S. Loch and others. Barnett was described as a political coward who kept changing his views. Booth's scheme was seen as the most 'socialistic'; his empirical research, previously approved of by COS, was now dismissed as manipulation and decimal-pointing of all figures within his reach; his shower bath of 5s. pensions would demoralise those who did not need them, and be insufficient for those who did. It was at this point that Beatrice and Sidney Webb also parted company with COS.

Pensions became the social issue of the 1890s, and the campaign increasingly divided COS. Brooke Lambert (also formerly of St Mark Whitechapel) warned that continued opposition, ignoring the growing public support for state pensions, would look foolish. The District Committees resented being dictated to by the Council, and being regarded as disloyal; led by Barnett, several of them protested. But the old guard prevailed for a little longer. Loch spoke of the two paths: one slow and difficult, leading to social independence, prosperity and stability for all; the other, that of liberal political expediency, dangerous, fatally expensive, and resulting in universal pauperisation. (There were double standards at work here, since many of the middle class received occupational pensions! Octavia Hill was trapped into saying that she was against all pensions, but that those paid to higher class people were utterly different.)

Public support for a scheme like Booth's was growing. In the 1894 elections COS lost influence on the Boards of Guardians. In 1896 the COS stance was attacked in the press. By the time of the 1905-9 enquiry into the Poor Law, it was too late for COS to speak with credibility on this issue; the 5s. pension became a reality in 1909. However, Loch's ideological baton was passed on to his successor J.C. Pringle, who served as general secretary of COS both before and after his time as Rector of St George-in-the-East.

For a more detailed account of COS and pensions, to which the above is indebted, see chapter 4 of John Macnicol The Politics of Retirement in Britain 1878-1948.

Other issues
COS maintained its opposition to indiscriminate philanthropy across a wide range of issues, though in some areas their alternative approach was genuinely innovative. For example, the first hospital almoners were probably inspired by COS. But in 1871 they set up a medical sub-committee which deplored the fact that 180,000 out-patients were treated annually at St Bartholomew's Hospital without any enquiry, and favoured the creation of charitable provident dispensaries and after-care centres (especially for TB patients) - see here for the Leman Street dispensary. On 23 March 1878 A.G. Crowder wrote to the British Medical Journal (which endorsed his views) about the London Hospital's financial difficulties, claiming that many people failed to subscribe because of its pertinaceous neglect of reform.... A system of enquiry into the circumstances of each applicant ought surely to be adopted. Persons found to be in a position to contribute towards the cost of their treatment should be made to do so; and those who have received parish relief, unless requiring special treatment, should be referred to the workhouse infirmaries. I know, from my own experience, that the London Hospital, for instance, habitually admits what may be termed ordinary 'pauper' cases requiring no special treatment, and that persons suffering from ordinary illnesses exchange the workhouse infirmaries for that hospital with impunity. The plan suggested would augment the funds, obviate the necessity of refusing admission to many legitimate cases for whom at present there is frequently no room, and also tend to encourage thrift.

A similar committee was set up to consider work with the 'physically and mentally defective' which pressed for better charitable provision for the blind, and for the mentally ill. For children, the Invalid Children's Aid Association was created. But, not surprisingly, COS opposed the spread of free school meals [compare the approach of Dan Greatorex at St Paul's Dock Street where they were pioneered]. A Sanitary Aid Committee was created in 1882, and some local inspectors appointed, which helped to raise standards of hygiene. To assist the able-bodied to find work, they created a series of employment enquiry offices (the precursor of Labour Exchanges). And they provided reading rooms (including the Denison Club at Denison House*, Vauxhall Bridge Road, which became the COS headquarters in 1905), thrift clubs (run by a thrift sub-committee) and the like.

* Edward Denison was one of the founders of the Society for the Relief of Distress, son of the Bishop of Salisbury, nephew of the Speaker of the House of Commons and for a short time an MP, but died of TB at the age of 30. He regretted the absence of the middle classes from the East End and the influence they could have, and lived in Philpot Street [north of Commercial Road] for eight months to make his point. His research and example influenced early COS thinking, and J.C. Pringle later referred to him as 'our patron saint'.

Twentieth Century
In 1910 the phrase in its title 'for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity' was replaced by 'for Organising Charitable Effort and Improving the Condition of the Poor'. C.S. Loch, who had received honorary degrees from Oxford and St Andrew's in 1905, and a portrait by the American artist John Singer Sargent RA presented at Lambeth Palace to mark his 25 years of service [right], and a knighthood in 1915, retired in 1913. He died ten years later: The Times obituary commented He made the COS - he was the COS. In 1898 the architect Charles Voysey (whose 'defrocked' father had once been a curate at St Mark Whitechapel) had designed a house for him at Oxshott [right], on a scale unimaginable for the clients of COS - but it was never built. 

Helen Bosanquet, one of the COS founders, wrote in 1914 that its work of persistently fastening on weaknesses in social provision was gradually coming to fruition (Social Work in London 1869-1912, pages 266-300); others believed that its stance was becoming increasingly irrelevant. A questionnaire to clergy in 1916 produced a half-hearted response (for example, Arthur Stevens, Vicar of Christ Church Watney Street, said that as he was leaving the parish any answers would be misleading). But with J.C. Pringle as its new chief officer [see above], and the driving force in the inter-war years, it continued to produce research and reports, and to challenge policy. Madeline Rooff [see below] said that by upholding its traditional stance he put the COS at the centre and out of touch with political reality, though she also notes a growing co-operation with statutory provision, and feels it came closest to its vocation as an auxiliary service in this period. And there were further innovations: in 1938 COS was responsible for the first Citizens' Advice Bureau, and continued to run branches until the 1970s. With 30 district offices at the outbreak of World War II, it felt no need of a radical re-think of its philosophy.

In 1946 the society was renamed the Family Welfare Association; it had begun to employ paid local staff. In 1975 it pioneered family therapy. The most recent name change was in 2008, when it became Family Action. In the current climate of collaboration between the statutory and voluntary sectors, it is now a leading provider of support to disadvantaged families.

For more information, see Charles Loch Mowat The Charity Organisation Society 1869-1913 (1961), Madeline Rooff A Hundred Years of Family Welfare: A Study of the Family Welfare Association (Formerly Charity Organisation Society) 1869–1969 (Michael Joseph 1972) and Jane Lewis The Voluntary Sector, the State and Social Work in Britain (Brookfield 1995). Michael J.D. Roberts, in an article 'Charity Disestablished? The Origins of the Charity Organisation Society Revisited, 1868-1871' in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (CUP 2003, vol 54 pp40-61) suggests that alongside the desire to relieve chronic urban poverty, another key factor in the foundation of COS was the concern of Whig Broad Churchmen (such as Barnett, and clergy of St Mark Whitechapel) to fly the flag of religious voluntarism in the wake of the disestablishment of the Irish church by Gladstone in 1868 (though Gladstone was himself one of the COS founders).

All in all, a complex story!

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