Podcast: A rough history of the UK charity sector

03 Jan 2024 Announcement

By Christian Horz/Adobe

Civil Society has published its first-ever podcast episode, covering the history of the UK charity sector.

In the episode, news editor Rob Preston and deputy news editor Harriet Whitehead are joined by sector expert Ian Allsop to discuss the origins of charitable activity and the development of the charity sector we have today.

You can listen to the first Civil Society Podcast episode here or on Spotify with an AI-generated transcript below:


As this is a pilot episode, we are keen to hear listeners’ feedback or suggestions on topics listeners would like us to discuss in future episodes. Please contact us here: [email protected]


Rob Preston: Hello, and thank you for tuning in to the very first podcast from Civil Society Media. This is our pilot episode in which three of us attempt to summarise the entire history of the UK charity sector in about 25 minutes. I hope you enjoy it and I'll speak to you again at the end of the show.

Rob Preston: Hello, listeners and welcome to the very first Civil Society podcast. Your hosts this week are me, Rob Preston, news editor. 

Harriet Whitehead: And me, Harriet Whitehead, deputy news editor.

Rob Preston: Harriet, how're you doing?

Harriet Whitehead: I'm good. I'm excited for our first-ever podcast. How are you doing?

Rob Preston: I'm very well thanks. Yeah, equally excited and glad that we've finally got this going. So Harriet, what have we got planned for our first-ever podcast episode?

Harriet Whitehead: So, in this episode, we will be making up for lost time by discussing the origins of the charity sector in the UK. But fear not everyone we will not be trying to summarise the vast and sprawling history of civil society alone in about half an hour.

Rob Preston: To help us with this tall ask we're joined by sector expert, freelance journalist, former editor of Charity Finance Magazine, beloved satirist, Twitter troll and event speaker for hire, Ian Allsop. Ian, how are you?

Ian Allsop: I'm very well thank you. I'm also excited to be doing this. And so thanks for asking me.

Harriet Whitehead: So, Ian, take us back, if you could, to the first ever recorded act of charity, before charities as organisations existed.

Ian Allsop: Ok well, the first recording of acts of charity, I guess, if you're a biblical scholar was when Adam donated his rib so that Eve could be created. I think that's correct. As I say I'm not a theological, academic and don't wish to offend anyone who is. But seriously, charity in the sense of helping others and not expecting financial reward has always existed. If we look at the dictionary definitions of charity, we've got the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money to those in need, generosity and helpfulness, especially towards the needy or suffering. And we can easily recognize those as a general concept of what we understand charity to be today. So charity, in terms of organisation is one that is set up to carry those things out. The word charity originated in late Old English to mean a Christian love of one's fellows. It is etymologically (I’m glad I've got that word out the way) linked to Christianity and was a word originally entering into the English language through the old French word charité, which was derived from the Latin caritas a word commonly used in early Bibles in itself to translate the Greek word, agape, which sounds like something you'd have at the end of the meal, on holiday in Skiathos. And that meant in itself a distinct form of love. Wikipedia had better be right. Caritas is certainly the sort of accepted linguistic route. Indeed, when I first worked in the charity sector, there was a magazine called caritas, though it wasn't as good as Charity Finance, obviously. I should note that we've linked a lot of that to the Christian element of it, but other religions may have their own spin on this.

Rob Preston: Yes, so on the note of other religions, “däna” is mentioned in Hindu text the Rig Veda, which dates between 1500-1000 BCE. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism däna is the practice of cultivating generosity, it can take the form of giving to an individual in distress or need or philanthropic public projects that empower and help many.

Harriet Whitehead: Yeah, and also in the Islamic faith, Zakat is the obligatory annual tax due on adult Muslims. It is one of the five pillars of Islam. So supporting the poor and needy through charity is an undeniable cornerstone of Islamic faith.

Ian Allsop: Indeed, I won't get into any debates about how Scientology views of things. But generally speaking, over time, the meaning of charity has evolved from one of Christian love to that of providing for those in need and of generosity and giving. So yeah, that's the semantics sorted. 

Rob Preston: Excellent. Thanks very much. And so what about charities as organisations, what are some of the earliest examples of those, particularly in the UK?

Ian Allsop: Okay, even though these weren't formally established as charities at the time, because as a legal form, it wasn't sort of a recognised concept, the oldest, the oldest organisation that is currently still a charity, certainly according to one list I looked at, is King’s School Canterbury which was founded in 597.

Rob Preston: Okay, so there were no state schools in those days?

Ian Allsop: No, and they were constructed from more long-lasting building materials, as well. Access to quality education was not widespread and would have largely depended on having money. Any parallels with the modern system may be touched upon later, but the underlying idea was all society benefits from those who are educated. A lot of early schools were closely linked to religious institutions. Although other schools including grammar schools became more common over time, any form of state education as we recognize it today didn't come in until the 19th century. By 1880, education was compulsory for all children aged between five and 10. Now aside from schools, we've got St. John's Winchester, which dates back to the creation of a hospital by the bishop of the area in 934. And it still provides sheltered accommodation and nursing care for 100 people to this day. Not the same 100 people I assume, or if they are that is a charity that is definitely delivering real impact.

Rob Preston: Excellent. So, the same story for healthcare then, no state provision there in that time?

Ian Allsop: That’s quite right Rob, so no universal state health care, nearly until the NHS was established just after the war, before that you either paid for it or it was provided by charities or through local authorities for poor people on very much regional basis. Other than education and health care, there were very early doors to one of my favorite charities. I know to maintain editorial integrity, I should remain impartial and not have favorites. But Bridgehouse Estates, which was founded in 1097, is still responsible for the maintenance of five of the London bridges, including Tower Bridge. And I think has just been renamed at the City Bridge Foundation, which interestingly, I was in Hastings last weekend, I actually touched part of the original London Bridge, which was in the shipwreck museum. I think part of the bridge had been used in a boat, which was down the rags. And so it was quite bizarre to touch that, especially as to get to Hastings we had set off from London Bridge station. Anyway, I am digressing now! What we now refer to as St. John Ambulance was established as a religious order. They were involved in the Crusades, arguably not what we not what we would regard as a charitable purpose now, in 1113. So that's just a few of the sort of the, the early ones.

Harriet Whitehead: So how about legal registration? When did organisations in the UK start having to meet certain criteria to gain charitable status? And what were they? 

Ian Allsop: What we would consider the first legally established reference to charities is in the preamble to the statute of Charitable Uses Act 1601. This contained a list of purposes or activities that is sometimes described as the first statutory definition of charitable purposes. But that list because it was in the preamble, not the main body of the Act, did not form part of statute law. It was in effect a list of purposes or activities that the state at the time, believed were of general benefits of society, and to which the state wanted to encourage private contributions. So, we've got things like the relief of aged, impotent and poor people, the maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners, the maintenance of schools of learning, free schools and universities. Back to bridges, we've got the repair of bridges, ports, havens, causeways, churches and highways, the education of orphans, the relief stop or maintenance for houses of correction. And then we've got marriages of poor maids.

Harriet Whitehead: Marriages of poor man's what did that mean? 

Ian Allsop: I am glad you have asked me that Harriet, as fortunately I've researched it just in case. I don't want to go into the first thing that came up when I Googled this. But essentially, it was a sort of a well-meaning but slightly patronising paternalistic way of rescuing sort of fallen women, as it was an assumption that if you weren't married, married women were bad and hapless and sort of charity cases in need of relief. 
We have also got things like the supportation aid and help of young tradesmen, handy craftsmen and persons decayed, which I guess is sort of a forerunner of the modern benevolent societies. The relief or redemption of prisoners or captives, the aid or ease of any poor inhabitants concerning payments of 15, which was like a property tax, setting out of soldiers and other taxes. 
Now, this list formed the foundation of the modern definition of childhood purposes, which developed then entirely through case law. It was tightened up was the work of Lord MacNaghten. I think that's how it's pronounced. It's spelled MacNaghten. The proofreader in me has always been annoyed by the fact that it looks like there's a ‘U’ missing from his name. And he was involved in something that was referred to as the Pemsel Case, not the pencil case. In 1891 were established four heads of charities, which were the advancement of education, advancement of religion, relief of poverty, and the beautifully vague other purposes beneficial, beneficial to the community, which is a great capsule term, which sort of almost makes it like a circular definition. These things had to have public benefit, but that didn't have to be to all of society. It could be a small defined group.

Rob Preston: Okay, so this Lord MacNaghten sounds like quite an important figure in the history of charities in the UK. Is there any more you can tell us about him and why he decided to write up this list.

Ian Allsop: Well he actually formulated the list during a case that he was a judge on involving the Inland Revenue Commissioner. Yeah, I'm more than happy to go down a little bit of a Lord McNaughton rabbit hole here. He was an Anglo Irish law Lord, he rowed in the boat race for Cambridge. He was a member of a British tribunal arbitrated on a Chile-Argentina boundary dispute. And he also sat in a landmark case brewery in Stone in Staffordshire which was judged to not use the name Stone Ale as it infringed the rights of an existing product. And as he proclaimed ‘thirsty people want beer and not explanations’.

Harriet Whitehead: And I'm curious about this ‘other purposes beneficial to the community’. Are there any examples of odd charities that existed under other purposes beneficial?

Ian Allsop: Now, as you know, I'm not one to seek out eccentricities just so we can have a good laugh, never have been never will be. But if I was, I would consider the following. Two of these are real, two of these are made up. We've got the Society of Welsh Cake devotees, the Masonic fishing charity, the Stoat and Weasel Trust and the Sitar Music Society. I won't say which of the two that are made up.

Rob Preston: Okay, so we don't have to guess then?

Ian Allsop: Well, you can guess if you want – which ones are real?

Harriet Whitehead: I think the Masonic one is going to be real. 

Ian Allsop: It is, yes

Harriet Whitehead: And then, I am hoping the Welsh cakes one is

Rob Preston:  Yeah me too, I would like that one to be true, but perhaps not

Ian Allsop: It is not, no. It's obviously the Sitar Music Society

Rob Preston:  Oh, okay. All right.

Rob Preston:  And so how long did those four heads of charity last?

Ian Allsop: Well, this was pretty much how it stayed until the Charities Act in 2006, which widened out these heads to include further things, including the advancement of health or the saving of lives, the advancement of citizenship or community development, advancements of the arts, culture, heritage or science, the advancement of amateur sports, the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution, or reconciliation, or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity, which is a bit of a mouthful. It was the first time specifically, the advancement of environmental protection or improvement, the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage, we have animal welfare. And we also have the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces of the crown or the efficiency of the police, fire rescue services or outdoor services. I'm not quite sure why this one was specifically listed. I mean, I could make something up on the spot to cover the fact that I have not researched it, but I won't. I suspect it might hark back to the soldiers' tax that we mentioned earlier. Now, all of these things were already charitable under the other purposes clause. But charities registered doing them weren't registered specifically under the most purposes. And obviously, some of those did reflect sort of more modern concerns of the time, such as the environment.

Harriet Whitehead: So what was the main reason for expanding that list?

Ian Allsop: I think mainly, it was sort of simplifying, tidying up the registration process for charities and giving us a clearer idea of the activities, organisations were involved in, rather than just all being in the same pot. It's also interesting to note, and this is admittedly quite self-serving from a Civil Society really point of view, but there's quite a strong overlap with the categories we use for the charity awards

Rob Preston: Excellent. 

Harriet Whitehead: Everybody enters!

Ian Allsop: And while having evidence of public benefit wasn't formally defined in the 2006 Act, and there was a lot of debate about it, which I remember quite clearly, having public benefit underpin as well, an organization can be charitable. Now, it's hard to define it tightly enough to be legally robust, which is I think, why they shied away with it in the end. I mean, I think if you ask different people they would have different ideas on what public benefit is, I could ask you to, I could ask all million listeners to the podcast. And you would all have differing views on what it meant. But in a general sense, having to demonstrate public benefit underpinned everything about charitable status. The Act actually removes the presumption that advancement of education and advancement of religion were automatically charged within themselves. And there was now a greater requirement for organizations in those two areas to demonstrate public benefit, and which is what led to the debate around private independent schools. And whether somewhere like Eton College could be said to have any public benefit if you look at some of the prime minister's we have had recently is another area. I won't be drawn on that. But there is now a greater obligation on those schools to demonstrate public benefit be it through scholarships, bursaries, although people use cricket pitches. This is still very much a debate and seems to be when Labour are closer to power. There's been some pledges made by Starmer on public schools and somewhere he has rowed back on them a little bit, on the stuff around VAT on school fees. But that's actually a whole different discussion and will probably form an entire podcast on itself, but it's certainly an area to watch out for.

Rob Preston: Okay, so, what about regulations? So when were organisations like the Charity Commission inaugurated and how they developed over the years?

Ian Allsop: Ok well, first of all to get out the way one of my bugbears and note that it is very much the Charity Commission, not the Charities Commission, which is how it is often incorrectly labeled, often by people who should know better. I've even had a letter published in Private Eye in the past chastising them for it - so small victories. Essentially, the Charity Commission is a non-ministerial department of government, but it is crucially independent of government. This is important, especially because of recent debates around some of its chairs and their own links to government. It is the regulator of charities in England and Wales, Scotland has a similar body, OSCR, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, and the Charity Commission has powers to investigate wrongdoing. It was often seen in the past as a more benign regulator than some had a twin role, which some consider contradictory because it was there to regulate, but also provide guidance and the guidance is very much an important part of what they do. I think cc 14 on Investment being revised recently is a good example of the importance the Commission's guidance still has. I think perhaps in the past, its investigatory role was less visible. Because there was no Internet to report on things. I think it was still happening. We just didn't see examples of it so much. Now a body of charity commissioners had been established by the aforementioned 1601 Act, remember that from 10 minutes ago. But I think these were found to be proved largely ineffective. The Charity Commission itself was first established by the Charitable Trusts Act in 1853. There have been several attempts at reforming charities before that, which had been opposed by various interest groups, including the church, the corps, companies and universities, imagine that progress has been hampered by vested interests. The Charity Commission was then substantially reconstituted by the Charities Act in 1960. And it was at this point that it introduced new duties for it to determine the charitable status of organizations. And it was then at first, an obligation to maintain a public register of charities. 

Harriet Whitehead: Okay, and how was this register accessed? 

Ian Allsop: Well, obviously in the 1960s, I wasn't around. That's always a good joke to make on audio. But in 1996, for example, when I think I first came across the Charity Commission. If you wanted to get, say, a set of accounts, you had to contact the charity in writing by post usually, so ask them to provide the trustees annual report, which they were legally obliged to do, but it didn't mean they would, of course, they could charge an admin fee. So sometimes you have to make a check for say, 20 pounds. Other than that, you had to go down to a dusty basement in the Commission's offices on Haymarket near Piccadilly, I exaggerate, but not too much. You need to make an appointment beforehand and say what it was you wanted, they'd have one copy of the accounts, you couldn't take them away, you couldn't photocopy them, you could just look at them. So technically, the information was there. I guess that again, reflects the time. The Internet has improved access to all sorts of information. But most people didn't care then. And actually, I don't think most people care now. We look at accounts as journalists, but I think most members of the public, don't read the accounts. But I think the key thing was that the information was there if people wanted it. The next big change was again, in the 2006 Charities Act, which established the Commission's current structure, whereby there's a board and a part time share with the chief executive responsible for the day to day running of the Commission. Prior to this, there was a sort of Chief Charity Commissioner. So, it's only relatively recently that the Commission has had this structure, which is the one used by most of the organisations it is regulating. The more recent charities Act in 2022, which is still being implemented in part, has again sort of beefed up the powers of the Charity Commission on paper, at least. In reality, like a lot of things, it probably isn't funded nearly enough to do its job properly. It's a lot of day-to-day admin it has to do, which time consuming, as well as its investigative role.

Harriet Whitehead: And what about government involvement in the way charities operate? Has the development of institutions such as the welfare state led to a shift away from the Victorian notion of charity? And also, would you say that the recent charity ministers have had much effect?

Ian Allsop: The shift away from the sort of Victorian paternalistic, philanthropic help model is an interesting one. There are people who still think that is what charity means even now and some of those are in government. They think charities shouldn't campaign about the things that are the cause of why they are needed in the first place. I think charities have moved on over time by staying the same at their core, but just in different contexts. Even in Victorian times, there was campaigning, abolition of slavery being the off-site example. And even then, I bet there were people who probably thought that those charities should or those organizations campaigning to abolish slavery should shut up. I recently researched previous chief charity commissioners for a vital piece about their hairstyles, and came across a quote from 1979, which again, was about charities sticking to giving aid and not getting involved in voicing opinions on things. Sort of a ‘stick to the knitting’ that Brooks Newmark touched upon a few years ago. And there have been so many high-profile stories recently around whether charities should be political. The RSPB tweeted the textbook example, how much should they speak out? When in fact, they're allowed to, they've always been allowed to, and indeed did have a duty to speak out as long as they stick to the guidelines around impartiality. They can be political. I mean, everything is political in a sense, but they can't be party-political. And I think this is grossly misunderstood, either willfully or not by the wider right-leaning media and government. I think this debate is becoming pronounced again, because social media amplifies things. But it's always been there. Essentially, it boils down to government thinking charity should feed the poor, but ignoring why they're poor because it makes them look bad in simplistic terms. 

Now you talked about the division between charities and state, and then this is complex. Should charities take on things that are the obligation of the state, and the sort of contract culture that came to about 20 years ago? For example, leisure centers that charities took on because local authorities were prepared to do so. Should they do this? Well, if they can't trust the state to do it properly, they probably think if we don't do it no one will, and this area will become even more prevalent as more local authorities collapse, like Birmingham did recently. Put simplistically, I think government generally doesn't understand charities. It doesn't want to. Ed Miliband, remember him? He was the first proper dedicated Third Sector minister. Third sector being the fashionable term of the time. Before that was a role in treasury. Now he was on his way up. He was ambitious. He understood the sector, or at least he took trouble to understand it or at least completely pretend he did or competently pretend he did. The brief now is so long. The current guy, Stuart Andrew, I think he's pretty good. He's got sector background, but he can't dedicate enough time to charities when he's got all these other things on his plate, especially when there are World Cups that have to be attended. I think this illustrates how the sector is seen. It is not viewed as a responsibility of government. You know, they'll give us the sector headline figures and money as a handout, but it only scratches the surface. And this is not just ideological, five-year cycles mean, you can't plan for the long term, they know that. But charities will keep on doing what they do, and plan further ahead as well as respond instantly to need. The specifics may change. But the model largely works because it has to. Think of crises like the credit crunch, a lot of charities responded to survive, but not all of them, of course, but most. They adapted. Cost of living was the same, however this tipping point does feel even more serious, especially coming on top of the pandemic. People working in charities are dedicated, and that will continue to see them through as it did in 597 and before. We shouldn't have to be this way, but it is and will always be so and despite their flaws charities will continue to write their own history far more effectively than what I have attempted here.

Rob Preston: Amazing. Thank you so much Ian, that was a great ending to a really interesting summary of the entire history of the charity sector in the UK. So to summarize what we've learned today about the history of the charity sector in a nutshell, Adam donated his rib to Eve, people spread Christian love, some posh schools were set up, other charities formed to provide for those in need. The statute of charitable uses in 1601 formalised what missions charities should have and then regulators got involved. 

Ian Allsop: That is pretty much it.

Harriet Whitehead: Yeah, perfectly summed. So we've come to the very end of our first podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in. And a very special thanks to our first guest Ian Allsop. We hope you've enjoyed it and perhaps found some of this interesting. If you could please rate and review this episode, we'd be really interested to hear your thoughts. What did you like, what did you dislike? And what else would you like us to cover? We're very open to hearing everyone's thoughts. 

Rob Preston: Thanks again and we may see you next time. 

Hello again and thank you for making it to the end of the pilot podcast episode from Civil Society Media. Please let us know your thoughts and I hope to speak to you again soon in a perhaps slightly more polished second episode. In the meantime, I hope you stay safe and well and thanks again for listening.

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