Posh paupers

Posh paupers

Paul Matthews looks into distressed gentlefolk and the charities that helped them

Paul Matthews, a freelance writer who has written widely on family history

Paul Matthews

a freelance writer who has written widely on family history

In the 1800s the newly poor were viewed differently from those born to poverty, it being thought that the plight of gentlefolk who did not flaunt their poverty was all the more heart rending.

Blue plaque at 75 Brook Green
Blue plaque at 75 Brook Green, Hammersmith, London. The Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association was founded here by Elizabeth and Constance Finn on 5 May 1897

Henry Mayhew, journalist and social researcher, wrote ‘brought up in ease and luxury, [they] must feel their present privations doubly as acute as those who&hellip: had been used to poverty from their very cradle.’ Visiting an impoverished gentlewoman in 1849 he commented: ‘There was that neatness and cleanliness about her costume and appearance which invariably distinguished the lady from the labouring woman.’ Her father and deceased husband had been army officers, but now her home consisted of little more than bare walls. She told him: ‘I have chewed camphor and drank warm water to stay my hunger,’ and ‘I cannot but think it hard that the children of those who have served their country so many years should be so destitute as we are. All we want is employment, and that we cannot get. Charity, indeed, is most irksome to us.’

In 1886 an impoverished gentleman wrote to the Guernsey Star, complaining that although called to the bar, he was a ‘briefless barrister’, without the right connections to find work.

Some rural clergy became impoverished while still working, one in 1897 saying that when leading prayers for the poor, he hoped that someone would pray for him. To other gentlefolk, having to earn a living at all counted as poverty. In 1879 a ballet in Sadler’s Wells was composed of impoverished daughters of gentlemen who were now sadly ‘compelled to get their own living’.

Henry Mayhew
Henry Mayhew (1812–1887)

A ‘poor gentlewoman’ wrote in an 1897 Morning Post: ‘All who sympathise with this silent poverty must feel grateful to those gentlemen who plead for the distressed gentlefolk… The working class is having happy days… holidays and pleasure are to be had for the asking. But what is being done for the distressed gentlefolk?’

However, it was never clear exactly who qualified as being gentlefolk. A letter writer to the same paper in 1898 said: ‘What constitutes a gentleman in these days, when every man from the small grocer’s son educated at a petty grammar or… a nobleman’s son educated at Eton or Harrow… considers himself a gentleman.’

Sadlers Wells, 1879
Sadlers Wells, 1879

Welfare cheats before the Welfare State
In the early 1800s some people were too willing to give money to distressed gentlefolk, and con artists took advantage, such as, in 1831, Mr & Mrs Clark ‘alias Hill, alias Robinson’ who made a good living taking money from the credulous. It seems ‘a great deal of interest was ultimately excited for these distressed gentlefolk’, until, that is, they were found out and arrested in Bath. The man escaped but the woman was sent to Shepton Goal.

Two principal charities emerged to help poor gentlefolk. The first was the UK Beneficent Association, later a royal association (RUKBA), founded in 1863 to help the ‘new poor’, providing those who qualified with a small income for life. Applicants had to be over 40, living on less than £25 per year, and, of course, to be from the ‘upper and middle classes’.

At a Kensington Town Hall ‘rose, thistle and shamrock bazaar’ held for the association, a speaker said: ‘the really poor were well looked after, but those who had to keep up appearances and yet could hardly make ends meet often had a great struggle.’ At a 1909 association gathering at St Johns Parish Hall, Clifton, a Miss Kirby told the assembled well-to-do that some of the ladies in need of help had no mattresses and were sleeping on the wires of their bed. She said to the audience that ‘they should help people of their own class’ and ‘if charity begins at home it was for them to look after their own people first.’

A 1913 Gentlewoman was one of countless periodicals carrying this advertisement by the association: ‘The number of applications from poor gentlefolk is increasing so rapidly that the association is unable to cope. Urgently plead for new subscriptions, H.P. Hussey, Secretary, Royal UK Beneficent Association, 7 Arundel Street, Strand.’

In 2005 the RUKBA became known as Independent Age.

In 1897, Elizabeth Anne Finn and her daughter Constance, learning that people of ‘a better sort’ were destitute, founded the second main charity, the Distressed Gentlefolks Aid Association (DGAA), based at her home in Hammersmith. Another founder member was Colonel W.W. Knolly (1833–1904), who in 1898 described these gentlefolk as ‘a class hitherto much neglected by the charitable public’, and in 1899 he appealed for donations to ‘rescue victims from starvation who were well born but through no fault of their own have fallen on evil days.’

Elizabeth Anne Finn (1825–1921) was born in Warsaw, Poland, where her father, the Reverend Alexander McCaul, was a missionary. She married James Finn (1806–1872), who became British consul to Jerusalem in Ottoman Palestine. A writer and linguist, she was fluent in several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and German. She is found on the 1891 census at 75 Brook Green, Hammersmith, as a literary author, living with her daughter and granddaughter and two servants. Elizabeth and daughter were still here in 1901.

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When the DGAA was founded, Britain was perhaps the world’s richest country, and the middle classes generally prospered, but when circumstances changed, many previously wealthy people fell into poverty and were too old or too ill to work. The association at one point paid £21,000 annually to over a thousand annuitants including many elderly widows.

By 2000, the association had changed its name to the Elizabeth Finn Trust, which in 2014 merged with Turn2us. In the early 2000s the chief executive commented, ‘we describe ourselves as an organisation that helps out with professionals rather than gentlefolk’.

There were other charities, like the Society for the Assistance of Ladies in Reduced Circumstances, which in 1906 looked after 300 ladies regarded as too old and feeble to work.

There was also the Irish Distressed Ladies Fund. In The Queen, in 1899, we read: ‘Of the many cases of distress which make their voices heard, none perhaps are more pitiable than those of ladies born to affluence and reduced to absolute poverty by the non-payment of Irish rents.’ The Irish gentry seemed to experience particular problems. A society bazaar took place in 1889 at Willis’s Rooms, London, to raise money for ‘educating the children of impoverished Irish gentlemen and assisting them and their families.

George Herring (1833–1906), a well-known philanthropist, established a haven of rest in Maidenhead for gentlefolk ‘brought to poverty through genuine misfortune’, and also co-founded the Twentieth Century Club at Stanley Gardens in Notting Hill for working gentlewomen. In 1906, an ex-secretary of the club was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude for the misappropriation of funds. George Herring died in the same year and his ashes were deposited under the sundial at the Haven of Rest almshouses in Maidenhead.

George Herring and the Rugeley Poisoner
George Herring was a rag-to-riches philanthropist who made his money in horse racing and finance and then quietly gave much of it away. In 1856, he was a witness in the notorious Rugeley Poisoner trial, helping to convict racehorse owner, William Palmer, who poisoned a gambler, John Parsons Cook. Palmer probably murdered several other people by poison including his brother, mother-in-law, and four of his children. He was publicly hanged in 1856. At the gallows, looking at the trap door, he asked: ‘Are you sure it’s safe?’

Sir William George Armstrong
Sir William George Armstrong (1810–1900), 1st Baron Armstrong of Cragside

Various homes were set up for distressed gentlefolk. In the 1890s, Lord Armstrong bought Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, setting aside funds for a home for poor gentlefolk, and in 1927 Lady Armstrong opened Armstrong House, Bamburgh, ‘for people of culture and refinement’. It is now a Grade II listed building. A 1934 advertisement in the Scotsman reported that Edgar Figgess, of Crookham, Hants, left £400 to the home for distressed gentlefolk at St Marks Hospital, City Road. There was also a home for distressed gentlefolk in Virginia Water, Surrey, the property being bought by the DGAA in 1948 and converted into a care home.

Downward mobility is found in many family trees, with some including destitute recipients of charities. If your ancestors lived in one of the above-mentioned homes, they can easily be identified as ‘distressed gentlefolk’. The 1911 census for the Haven of Rest, Bridge Road, Maidenhead, shows a number of such individuals, married and widowed, aged from their 40s to their 80s. Their previous occupations include naval officer, manager, fine art dealer, author and artist. In 1914, Sydney Henson of 6 The Haven of Rest, won a seven-shilling prize in a Sheffield Weekly story writing competition.

Most impoverished gentlefolk, however, lived in regular accommodation, including some of the elderly women described on censuses as ‘annuitants’. Occasionally ‘retired gentlefolk’ are also recorded on censuses, some of whom may have been of the ‘distressed’ category.

The Rothschild Archive, holds a list of 1902 charitable donations by the Rothschild family, including to the DGAA.

The trial of William Palmer for the Rugeley poisonings
The trial of William Palmer for the Rugeley poisonings

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