Posted with permission of Anne Guthrie

Gorsky, M. (1999). Patterns of Philanthropy: Charity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Bristol. Woodbride, London: Boydell & Brewer Inc.

Martin Gorsky explores the changing nature of the voluntary sector in nineteenth-century Bristol, particularly in the shift from endowed trusts to charity subscription as the preferred vehicle of philanthropy (Gorsky, pg. 18). Corresponding with this shift, the book is divided into two parts. The first part addresses the reasons behind the withdrawal of giving to endowed trusts and second focuses on the rise of actively participating through charities (Dunkley, 2001). Three major themes emerge from Gorsky’s thesis that state welfare and class conflict alone fail to explain this shift in voluntary action as pervious literature emphasizes (Gorsky, pg 6).

The first theme aims to show that the decline of endowments are best understood from an economic lens of contract failure with a focus on how politics and religion propelled society to seek a more satisfactory method of providing public goods (Gorsky, pg. 18). The second theme aims to explain the rise of charities due to diverse interest groups exhibiting preferences for a new way of giving with the dual role of expressing authority over the poor and forging a middle class identify (Gorsky, pg. 19). The third theme shows how the new voluntary sector guided public discourse, influencing increased investment in social goods by the state and the market such as education (Gorsky, pg. 228).

Gorsky first argues that the decline of endowments resulted from a contract failure–a break in trust with how money was handled for the public good–because the topic of endowments was used to advance political gain. The political entanglement shifted public attitudes towards endowments rather than the workings of endowments in and of themselves (Gorsky, pg. 63). For example, Hunt’s 1812 election platform attacked charity administration as corrupt to portray his solution to the self-interested ruling elite, an argument absorbed by the Liberals (Gorsky, pg. 66). The Bristol Mercury, which was Liberal media, made charity corruption central attacking the Tories within their editorials (Gorsky, pg. 69). Groksy also argues that the parish and government relationship cause conflicts of interest that eroded public trust (Gorsky, pg. 86). Work was rewarded with political status, not pay, vestries exercised favoritism in leasing property, and the churchmen gave gifts to recipients they knew as means of cultivating social cohesion (Gorsky, pg. 99). The vestry was simultaneously the “smallest arm of government” (Gorsky, pg. 88) as they compiled the census returns, assessed various social taxes and the poor rate (Gorsky, pg. 106). The charity was thus damaged by party politics and donors sought new alternatives to voluntary participation in subscription charities. Gorsky concludes, “an important component of the decline of endowed charity was, paradoxically, the public debate over its improvement” (Gorsky, pg. 85).


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