Victorian-style Charity for Christmas in Cambridge.

This is how we rolled in 1862.

In the mid-1800s Cambridge was slowly but surely coming to terms with a rapidly expanding population at a time of huge technological change. The railway station had only been around for 17 years, and the new large assembly hall on the Guildhall site had only just been opened. Between 1800-1900, the population of the borough of Cambridge (not including Chesterton) had quadrupled, from 9,000 to just over 40,000. The late Allan Brigham spoke about the challenges this entailed at Great St Mary’s back in 2016.

Church-based relief in the winter of 1862.

One of the things that browsing through the British Newspaper Archive shows us is the changing attitudes of the social reformers towards dealing with poverty and destitution. In the mid-1860s this was a peak period of the great and the good appealing to each other to donate money to various charities that provided for families living in poverty. But such temporary relief could never be enough.

Addenbrooke’s Hospital is a particularly interesting example of how the source of its funding evolved over the years, from almost entirely charitable funding through to the commencement then increase in funding from local municipal councils, through to centralised funding via the National Health Service. That didn’t mean charitable funding came to an end – it still continues today with the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust.

This short article from 1862 – a self-congratulatory article from the Cambridge Chronicle praises the donors (town and gown alike) for their generosity towards the poor at this time of year. While it might seem quaint that coal was being distributed – and highlighted prominently, it’s worth noting the context of the markedly colder climate of what some call The Little Ice Age, which resulted in colder winters in Europe from the 1300s to the late 1800s. In these times, the River Cam often froze, and people were able to go ice-skating in flooded, frozen fenland fields.

This is what the Chronicle, a Conservative-supporting newspaper, recorded as the charitable record for Cambridge, listed by church parish.

“Notwithstanding the noble manner in which all classes in the kingdom have contributed towards the relief of the distressed cotton operatives in Lancashire and elsewhere, we are glad to notice that our own poor have not been forgotten by the charitable at home. In the various parishes, the inhabitants have endeavoured to afford the means of enjoying season, to those whom poverty would otherwise have compelled to pass a cheerless and unhappy Christmas.

“In addition to the numerous unostentatious acts of private charity which have gladdened many poor and destitute household, distributions of coals, food, and clothing were made by the ministers and churchwardens of the various parishes on Monday, the day after St. Thomas’s Day. Of these shall, according to our usual custom, give some account:

All Saints’. —There was a liberal distribution of bread and coals to large number of poor parishioners, each of whom received about 2 cwt. of coals and some bread.

“St. Andrew the Great distributed 8 bushels of coals from Lambert Damp’s charitable bequest; also the interest of £20 left by the will of Thomas Carrington; and of £25 which was given such five poor widows as were deemed most worthy objects of the benevolence. Various other benefactions, arising from the wills of deceased persons, were dispensed.

St. Benedict.—In addition to the charitable bequest of Mr. Gilbert Ives, by which each poor person in the parish receives 1s., the worthy and benevolent incumbent has given away large quantities of bread and meat to the deserving poor.

“St. Botolphs’.—Five bushels of coals from Wulf’s and four from Damps’ charity were given out; in bread also the sum of 40s., left by Thomas Johnson, citizen of London, in ; and 9s. from Trinity College.

St. Mary the Great.—The usual amount of coals and bread was distributed in this parish, in accordance with the bequests of several benevolent persons, though the number of poor is not so great as in many others.

St. Mary the Less receives 6 bushels of coals from Wulf’s gift; and about £7 10s., interest on money left to the parish by the Rev. Francis Gisbourne, in 1821.

“St. Michael has 6 bushels of coals from Wulf’s gift, and 56 from Lambert Damp’s. The usual gift of money from Trinity College was expended in bread and coals, and distributed to the indigent.

“St. Giles’ and St. Peter’s each receive bushels of coalS from Wulf’s and 6 from Lambert Damp’s. There is 6s. 8d. from Elly’s gift.

“St. Clement’s gives away annually 36 cwt. of coals from Lambert Damp’s charity; bread to the amount of £2 12s. from the rent of three tenements; 12s. from the Trinity allowance; and 5 bushel of coals from St. Peter’s College. These were all distributed amongst the most deserving needy families in the parish.

St Giles – the old church opposite The Museum of Cambridge. This is from Cooper’s Annals.

Holy Sepulchre [The Round Church] has about 9.5 cwt, of coals from Lambert Damp’s bequest; 10 cwt. from St. Peter’s College; and 25s. in money from St. John’s. The latter sum, with several augmentations from private individuals, was distributed among 28 recipients, who were of course liberally provided for, in consequence of their small number.

Above – the Round Church before the Camden Society got to it and changed the roof.

“Holy Trinity is a pariah containing a great number of claimants for charity, and 290 families are annually supplied with 1 cwt. of coals and numerous gifts of bread. The Colleges, as may easily be supposed, were not, behind-hand in their liberality, is with them a good old English custom to contribute to the festivity of their dependents presents money and the good things of this life, and this year saw the custom heartily carried out.

The paupers in the Union Workhouse were regaled to their immense satisfaction with a good dinner composed of the traditional Christmas fare – roast beef and plum pudding. And to judge from their demeanour, these poor people were, for once in the year, as happy the wealthiest of Her Majesty’s subjects.

“Even the denizens of the gaol were made as comfortable possible under the circumstances, and their Christmas was made pleasant for them the prison regulations would allow. It is a comforting reflection that the more favoured classes are mindful of their poorer and unfortunate brethren ; and we trust that donors and recipients, and indeed all our readers, spent merry Christmas and will enjoy A New Year.”


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