Cringe or Starve: As Cold as Charity?

‘Cringe or Starve’ was an epithet for the COS or Charity Organisation Society that sought to regiment philanthropy and avoid ‘indiscriminate’ charity  in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Charles Dickens immortalised the COS in his final unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as the Haven of Philanthropy with Luke Honeythunder as ‘Stipendiary Philanthropist’. Dickens described Honeythunder’s brand of philanthropy as the ‘gunpowderous sort’ and that the ‘ difference between it and animosity was hard to determine’.

Charity Organization Society null by Henry Tonks 1862-1937

Above: Artist, Henry Tonks,  unknown date, the Tate

The COS envisaged charity as a vehicle for encouraging self-help. Any gift which did not make an individual better, stronger and more independent, they felt damaged rather than helped the recipient:

‘Kind hearted persons are often perplexed when cases of apparent distress come under their notice. They would willingly give help if they knew the tale was true, and the appellant deserving, but this can only be proved by enquiry, for which busy people have not the needful time. It was partly to meet this difficulty that the COS was established – to discriminate between the honest, industrious struggling poor, and the vicious, idle, and improvident’.

Thorough investigation of the people asking for help was at the heart of the COS. This ‘casework’ approach pioneered the professionalisation of social work and took notions of the deserving and undeserving poor to new heights (or depths). In Swansea, if a ‘kind hearted person’ was approached for help, they would give the ‘appellant’ a ticket, like the one below, to present to the COS for enquiries to be made to their veracity and need, ‘instead of giving money to beggars on the street or at the doors’.

cos ticket

If applicants passed the stringent investigations, local COS branches would refer clients to poor law authorities, relieve clients direct or refer them to other charities. As the figures below demonstrate, the promise that Swansea COS would not’ knowingly encourage thoughtlessness and improvidence’ seemed to result in more refusals than help.
Assistance Refused 1900-01
•False statement made    9
•References unsatisfactory  23
•Otherwise undeserving  18
•Employment found but not taken    3
•Unsuitability for work or Aid sought    1
•Referred to Relatives     0
•Referred to Poor law Guardians  19
•Referred to COS other towns    0
•Other reasons including claims abandoned   19
Applications  total  92
Assistance Rendered 1900-01
•Interim Relief  5
•Direct convalescence Aid  3
•Hospital or medical Aid   6
•Convalescent Homes, Schools, &c  3
•Clothing, Blankets &c  14
•Special Railway Fares  4
•Transmission of Specific Gifts from Subscribers   3
•Labour List  1 man 4 women
•Employment Found  5
•Loans  2
•Pensions  4
 Other Aid   5  Total aid 59
The Swansea branch of the COS did appear to run a successful savings scheme or ‘thrift club’ (below), and also operated a an agency for domestic staff.
cos thrift

However, it is this statement from 1906 that, in my mind, emphasises  the  supreme and utter confidence of the Victorian and Edwardian ruling class:

‘We dealt with 35 cases, which proved to be unsuitable for help, but we desire to emphasize our opinion that this does not mean lost labour. As a Society for organizing Charity, a very important part of our work is to prove by our investigation what cases are suitable or unworthy, and thus protect the charitable public from unscrupulous beggars and unworthy applicants’.

They absolutely knew they were right…

A limited number of Swansea COS annual reports are available in Swansea Central Library.
For more on the COS see:
Jane Lewis, The Voluntary Sector, the State and Social Work in Britain: The Charity Organisation Society/Family Welfare Association Since 1869.  Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1995.
My favourite account of the COS in London, where the society was most established, is in Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
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