Crowdfunding — Georgian Style

Have you ever contributed to a crowdfunding campaign to support a startup, community project or someone in need? It might seem like a new idea, but in fact, people had similar ways of fundraising for causes and ideas 250 years ago!

In the 1700s-1800s crowdfunding for a new product or project was commonly called ‘public subscription’ and just like now, financial backers could pre-order products or buy shares in a new venture – anything from a new railway to a book of folk stories. Supporters were given public recognition, for example in the book’s frontispiece or in a newspaper advertisement.

Having worked for numerous startups myself I appreciate that as well as an injection of cash, the public nature of subscriptions would have brought the additional benefit of PR from ‘celebrity endorsement’ – if Lady X and Rev. Z bought a copy, it must be good! (or at least, I’ll look good if I own a copy too!)

Some of the subscribers to The Midland Minstrel, by Thomas Gillet, published 1822
(Google eBooks)

Newspapers also frequently published lists of people who had contributed to a local charitable fund, such as ‘relief to the poor’, as well as national causes, like the ‘voluntary contribution towards the expenses of the War’ in 1798. Some of the supporters were truly philanthropic, but others would have been more concerned about keeping up appearances – with such public displays of generosity, you’d want to make sure your name was on the list, and the larger the donation you could afford to display by your name, the better.

Georgian Britons also launched public campaigns to raise money for individual people in need. Today, friends and families might start a gofundme campaign to help support a family after a tragedy. In Georgian Britain, similar appeals appeared in local newspapers.

Thomas Turner, my ancestor via marriage, was a goldsmith with a business on Oxford’s High Street and also a city council member. In February 1791 he was declared bankrupt. ‘Bankrupts’ were reported in newspapers nationally (presumably to alert anyone who might be owed money by them). Unusually, Thomas seems to have done a runner, as newspaper ads as far away as Kent called for him to ‘surrender himself’. However, less than three weeks later, he was dead. His difficult circumstances, the omission of his death in the papers, and my inability to locate a burial record all point to this being suicide. Quite possibly, rather than try to escape his debts, he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

In March, Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on the ‘dreadful catastrophe’ that had left Thomas’s wife Ann a ‘widow with four small children, including a newborn, and called on the community to support this family in need through a public subscription or private donation. The first ad appeared on 9 March:

OXFORD, March 9th, 1792

A CASE of Real Distress humbly submitted to the Charitable and Humane.

ANN TURNER, of this City, having by a late dreadful Catastrophe been entirely deprived of every Support, and left a Widow with four small Children, one not more than three Months old, herself in a very indifferent state of Health; in a few Days she must leave her Home, without one Relation who can afford her the least Protection or Assistance, and without on Prospect but what the Hand of public Benevolence will kindly supply: In this melancholy Situation, by the Advice of her Friends, she humbly presumes to address herself to those who are blest with the Means of alleviating Distress the most accumulated and poignant.

The smallest Donations will be most thankfully received … The Friends of this distressed Family have promised to take Care that whatever Sum may be raised shall be applied, as far as possible, to give a permanent Assistance to the rearing of her infant Family, and to render every Information to the Subscribers concerning the Application of it.

Mrs. TURNER returns her grateful Thanks to two Ladies unknown, for Two Guineas received by the Hands of Friends.

Oxford Journal – Saturday 10 March 1792

The tone of the notice was deliberately dramatic. However, the immediate situation for a widow with a young family, whose breadwinner would have died intestate, really was desperate. Without money for rent and food, a parish workhouse would have been one of her only options.

Throughout March, the pleas for support were published weekly with lists of benefactors and the amount they had donated. Amazingly, sums were received from scores of people from both ‘town and gown’, as well as beyond the city of Oxford. Many clergymen contributed, and donations even came from several members of the nobility, including Lord Charles Spencer and the Countess of Guildford. 

In April, an older goldsmith, from whom Thomas Turner had learned his trade, announced that he had purchased his former apprentice’s stock. Then, in May, another notice from Ann Turner announced that thanks to the charity of so many people, she had been able to acquire a small house and shop in the Cornmarket:

OXFORD, May 5th, 1792.

ANN TURNER, encouraged by the Indulgence she has hitherto experienced in her great Calamity, presumes once again, in the most humble Manner, to return her most sincere Thanks to all those by whose Generosity she and her Family have not only been rescued from immediate Poverty, but are now enabled to inform the Publick, that she is put into Possession of a small SHOP, opposite the Cross Inn, in the Corn-Market, where she carries on the China, Glass, and Earthen-Ware Business. – As she is supplied with these, and some few other small Articles, from the same Manufacturers as her late Husband, she presumes to solicit the Continuance of the Orders of her former Friends, and a generous Publick, to whom it is known she has no other Support now left for her young Family.

It strikes me that Ann’s own voice is behind this announcement; this is a woman who was confronted with a crisis, but with the help of friends and her own strength of mind, she not only saved herself and family from destitution, but set up a business to safeguard their future.

The amount of support received by the family indicates that the family was liked and respected. Perhaps Thomas’s financial problems had been caused by bad luck rather than recklessness – such as a failed investment or health crisis. In fact, the previous year, Thomas had placed an ad in the paper looking for his lost pocket book containing drafts (cheques) for £266 – could this have contributed to his misfortune?

Thanks to the rallying of the community, Ann was able not just to survive but to thrive. Sales of personal effects and stock in trade after her death in 1809 showed that she had been able to move her business back onto the High Street and lived in comfort. Moreover, her children went on to great things. One had a distinguished career as a Consul in Europe and Latin America. Another matriculated to Christchurch, Oxford at the age of 15, became a private tutor for about a year to William Gladstone, future Prime Minister, and finally became Lord Bishop of Calcutta!

Forty years later another Oxford family was in need of support: Mr Stephen Wentworth, Surgeon to the city and county gaols, died in 1831 at 49 ‘leaving a widow and nine children totally unprovided for’. In early 1832 the Oxford University and City Herald reported on an ‘AFFECTING CASE OF DISTRESS’. Wentworth’s family had been left ‘in a state of utter destitution’ by his decease. ‘After several years’ considerable practice in his profession, he had to struggle for a long period under the pressure of declining health, and the claims of an increasing family, but, having sunk at length, under the combined effects of sickness and adversity, his bereaved Widow and helpless Orphans are left with no resource but an appeal to the generous sympathies of a humane and benevolent Public, through whose prompt and liberal assistance, it is proposed to raise a fund by subscription, sufficient to enable the afflicted Widow to embark in some line of Business, by which she may be enabled to supply the wants of her numerous family.’

Oxford University and City Herald – Saturday 11 February 1832

Once again, the article listed the names of the most recent contributors to the fund, hopefully inspiring many others to follow.

Widows and orphans weren’t the only beneficiaries of charity projects. In 1817, my ancestor James Benwell, who had been a gardener at the Oxford Botanic Gardens for forty years, finally retired at the age of 82. Benwell was ‘although uneducated, a very intelligent man’ and he had many well-to-do supporters and admirers. One of those admirers addressed a long letter to the editor of the Oxford Journal describing Benwell as ‘an individual of acknowledged worth, who is at length, by age and infirmity, rendered incapable of providing for himself.’ After attesting to Benwell’s skills and character (through some fantastic anecdotes that deserve another blog post), he makes his pitch to readers for support:

‘In order to procure some trifling addition to his comfort and support during the remainder of his days, Messrs. Burt and Skelton, two eminent artists now resident in this city, have kindly and gratuitously contributed their assistance, the former by furnishing a most correct and characteristic likeness of the old naturalist, and the latter by executing an engraving from it, with all his well-known taste. … subscriptions will be very thankfully received’.

In other words, local artists had either been commissioned, or had volunteered, to draw James Benwell, and purchases of the engraved portrait would raise money for him. I don’t know how many copies were sold, but one is in the collection of the British Museum and another one hangs in the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy, Oxford, next to grand portraits of much more eminent men.

James Benwell lived two more years, and hopefully, thanks to the ingenious crowdfunding campaign of his friends, he enjoyed a few ‘trifling additions to his comfort’ during his well-earned retirement.

Read James Benwell’s full story

Engraving of James Benwell © The Trustees of the British Museum

Featured Image: Chris J. Ratcliffe / AFP/Getty Images

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