[This document comes from Helena Wojtczak's English Social History: Women of Nineteenth-Century Hastings and St.Leonards. An Illustrated Historical Miscellany, which the author has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on the title to obtain the original site, which has additional information.]

Charity was a lifeline for the impoverished and an acceptable pastime for wealthy ladies.

I have often heard it regretted that ladies have no stated employment, no profession. It is a mistake: charity is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is her profession. Men have little time or taste for details. Women of fortune have abundant leisure which can no way be so properly or pleasantly filled up. -- Hannah More, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809)

When the poor of 1850s Hastings fell on hard times they were fortunate to be in an area which contained many wealthy spinsters with philanthropic ideals. By giving to the poor through organised charity the rich hoped that beggars would not come knocking on their front doors or approach them in the streets.

A few "deserving" cases -- those who lived a blameless, pious life -- received Parish Relief (money given via the church), but the problem grew and so many people were out of work by the mid-century that the Mayor founded a distress-relief fund to which the wealthy subscribed generously. This paid for huge amounts of bread and soup to be doled out to the needy. However, poverty in the town continued to grow and became too great even for the charitable societies to handle. As a last resort those with no means of support went to the workhouse. The numerous small parish workhouses were replaced in 1836 by the purpose-built Hastings Union in Cackle Street (now Frederick Road). Inside, men and women were segregated and mothers were admitted with their children. Females were superintended by a Matron.

The district was plagued from the 1830s with itinerant mendicants, who came from far and wide having heard of the newly-built watering-place of St Leonards with its many wealthy and kind-hearted spinsters. Court reports show that an especially large number of Irish people were found begging or fortune telling. By 1845 public notices were being circulated asking people not to encourage beggars to the town by giving alms indiscriminately. In the 1850s The Mendicity Society bought two cottages in Bourne Passage as hostels for ten men and five women, under the authority of a resident matron and master.

Hastings' greatest philanthropic benefactress was The Countess of Waldegrave. Other ladies of Hastings & St Leonards founded and managed numerous clubs and philanthropic societies, some of which were organised through the church.

From the 1871 Directory

The ideology behind these enterprises was that the poor must help themselves and not just expect handouts: the discarded blankets donated by wealthy ladies to the Blanket Lending Society were hired, not lent, to poor families for the winter. Nor was charity doled out indiscriminately on grounds of need; the intention was to assist the 'deserving' poor who were meek, polite and duly grateful, and who followed a bourgeois code of morality. For example, schemes to help poverty-stricken women during their confinements were not available to the most needy - the unwed mothers. Schemeswere introduced in which the charity-minded could purchase tickets to give to beggars instead of money. That way the recipient could not spend alms on alcohol, as the tickets could be used only on services provided by the Mendicity Society.

Last modified 18 November 2002