We all know the rags to riches story of Dick Whittington, his cat and his rise to become Lord Mayor of London. Also, we’ve heard or read about the great Victorian philanthropists such as Angela Burdett-Coutts, George Peabody, Andrew Carnegie. Octavia Hill. But Dick Whittington didn’t invent philanthropy in London and nor was the Victorian period an isolated beacon in a long dark history of nobody giving a damn. No, the City has a long tradition of benefactors through the ages and the act of founding, supporting, endowing has constantly taken place.
A new exhibition opening today at the ancient Charterhouse demonstrates this clearly. The institution itself is a perfect exemplar, for in 1611, business mogul Thomas Sutton made provision for a home there for 80 poor men (the “Brothers”) and a school for 40 poor children, both institutions which survive to this day. Daniel Defoe called it “the greatest gift that was ever given for charity, by any one man, public or private, in this nation.”
Philanthropy: the City Story tells us of much besides. How the maintenance of old London Bridge from the very beginning in the early 13th century was underpinned by charity from the City, hence the Bridge House Estates, the umbrella body which has that role to this day, and much else besides; the story of Thomas Coram and his Foundling hospital; schools and hospitals for the less wealthy; food relief. And so on.
But while acts of charity themselves and philanthropy have been continuous, the types of people and institutions who undertaken them have constantly changed and especially so since the Tudor hey-day of Gresham and Sutton. With the growth of non-conformity, so grew an incredibly strong tradition of charity, Quakerism being an outstanding example. Similarly, over the years, London’s Jewish community – particularly as concentrated in East London – benefitted from the more successful among their numbers. But while much evolves, there are constants, the most obvious manifestation being our Livery companies, Corporate benefactors in the Middle Ages as today.
But should there be a need for well-off people look after the less fortunate? Some would argue that in a “decent” society there shouldn’t be that requirement. It’s an ancient debate and it is not shirked here. Outgoing Lord Mayor, alderman Roger Gifford, notes that philanthropy is not entirely selfless, calling it in the City context “enlightened self-interest”, pointing out that the City’s success goes hand-in-hand with investment in community matters. Do you agree?
The other Big Question the show asks, directing it mainly at ambitious young professionals in the Square Mile: where are tomorrow’s philanthropists and where are they going to steer philanthropy in the years, decades, centuries into the future? Indeed Philanthropy: The City Story is merely an early step in a longer term project that will continue to develop these themes. In parallel, the Charterhouse will be used increasingly frequently until it will be open to the public with a new museum sometime in 2016. Fabulous news.
An engaging show, rich in history. Crucially, a quite rare opportunity to visit the Charterhouse and in particular its exquisite ancient chapel containing the tomb of Thomas Sutton. But the run is quite short, don’t miss out. There is also a series of free evening talks and debates associated with the exhibition.
Philanthropy: The City Story opens today (30 October) and runs until 30 November. It is open Wednesday to Sunday from noon till 5pm. Entrance is free. The exhibition is a partnership between the Charterhouse, Museum of London, the City of London Corporation’s charity City Bridge Trust and City Philanthropy.