The reputation of philanthropy since 1750

Britain and beyond

Most people now associate philanthropy with donations of money by the rich to good causes. It has not always been so. The reputation of philanthropy since 1750 explores how our modern definition came about and asks why philanthropy and philanthropists have always been as likely to be criticised as praised. Based on original research in newspapers, periodicals, novels and letters, the book provides a compelling account of a shift from philanthropy being a feeling of love of humankind to one where it became heavily engaged in opposing slavery and reforming prisons, both of them political and contentious issues. On the positive side Britain was praised as the most philanthropic country in the world and something the nation was proud of. But the ‘telescopic philanthropy’ that Charles Dickens lambasted, a philanthropy that focused on those far away to the neglect of the poor at home, was under the spotlight. Equally contentious was the relationship between philanthropy and political economy: to the critics philanthropy led to the creation of a dependency class, it did more harm than good. After almost sinking out of sight in the mid-twentieth century, dismissed critically as ‘Victorian’, philanthropy in the twenty-first century has regained a high profile.

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