Charity history on Placecloud

As the summer sun first starting to make an appearance, with many of the lockdown restrictions just lifted, I spent a day taking a friend on a history walking tour of London. It was an opportunity for me to find out or remind myself what it’s like to see for yourself each of the charity history sites I’ve recorded short viewpoints podcasts about for Placecloud.

As well as finding out about council housing and public executions, clubs and graffiti, you can listen to my contributions for glimpses into the history of charity and campaigning in London.

The statue of Thomas Guy has been hidden from public view now, but from October 1739 until June 2020 it had pride of place in the courtyard of Guy’s Hospital. So why did the statue of this Georgian philanthropist become a point of controversy?

The first Peabody Housing Estate is still housing today but luxury apartments of a rather different kind from the American banker’s social housing that opened in 1864 on Commercial Street in East London.

The Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company was another social housing project not far away, on Wentworth Street, for which a lone archway is the one surviving feature of the original estate. This scheme, set up by Nathaniel Mayer Rotschild in the 1880s, was specifically intended to address the poor living conditions of so many Jewish migrants in East London.

Toynbee Hall, just round the corner, has been a hub for all kinds of social and community projects for more than 130 years, linking those from Oxford and Cambridge Universities with some of the poorest neighbourhoods of the East End. While they work closely with the area’s Bangladeshi community today, in its early days it was often the first port of call for Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe.

The Indian Workers Association’s welfare centre in Southall played a similar role for those arriving from the subcontinent in the postwar period. Alongside anti-racism and workplace activism, this informal social work was an important part of their activities with London’s growing Asian community.

The other half of my London viewpoints are sites I’ve come across during my research into the surprisingly long and varied history of charity shops.

The earliest fundraising shop in London of which I’ve been able to find any record occupied a very upmarket location in Mayfair from 1870 until the late 1930s. While this shop raised funds for a mission in the East End, what it sold was entirely different from what we’d find in a charity shop today.

The Salvation Army’s Trade Headquarters opened in Bloomsbury in 1911, bringing together their various workshops and showrooms. While they had salvage stores elsewhere that sold second-hand goods, this was more of a salvationist department store.

St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park gave its name to the blinded veterans charity who spent more than a decade there, providing rehabilitation and retraining for those blinded in the First World War. Their grand Regent Street shop, opened by Mr Selfridge in 1922, was at the heart of their retail operation, selling the craft items the St Dunstaners were trained to make in the charity’s workshops.

Christian Aid’s first shop has been replaced on now by Chanel, but from 1964 until 1970 their Belgravia store was part of a reimagining of their fundraising relationship with the British public. At a time when St Dunstan’s was closing their shop to focus on mail order retailing, Christian Aid was going through something very similar a little over a mile away.

The desirable location of these shops is just one of the ways in which they were not the same as the charity shops that are such a familiar sight on today’s high streets.

You can listen to all of these viewpoints here or find out more about my research on the history of charity-run shops here.

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