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Philanthropic Princes – Charles, Prince of Wales, Edward VII and Victorian Cultures of Charity

2011 June 7

Last month Prince Charles officially became the longest serving heir to the British throne in history, outstripping the record held by his great-grandfather Edward VII, who spent fifty nine years in the wings waiting to take over from his mother Queen Victoria. Many of the British newspapers which carried the story indulged in comparisons of these two most senior Princes of Wales; some focusing on the relationships the two men had with their reigning mothers and their long preparations for succession, whilst others took a more negative tack, especially after a virulent attack on Charles’s suitability to succeed to the throne in a Daily Telegraph article written by Max Hastings, and instead fixated on the extra-marital relations of the two Princes, relishing that the Duchess of Cornwall is descended from Edward’s mistress Alice Keppel.

            What none of the news coverage addressed, however, was what either man really did during their long periods as heir. The Daily Mail came closet, vaguely hinting at a possible link between Charles’s The Prince’s Trust charity and what became the King’s Fund after Edward’s accession, before returning eagerly to a discussion of mistresses. Yet a comparison of the philanthropic activities of the two men should go much deeper as during his long tenure as Prince of Wales Edward both adhered to, and subverted, not only Victorian understandings of the role of the monarchy but also the very basis of charity itself.

            Frank Prochaska, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website, has observed that whilst George III was patron of just nine institutions by the end of his reign, Victoria lent her name to 150 and Edward, when he finally succeeded, was patron of over 250 groups and societies, many of them charities. For Prochaska it was a process of integrating with those great Victorian values of morality and social-worth that were both appealing to, and an agenda of, the middle-classes. Yet Edward’s engagement with charities and philanthropic projects did not always conform to expectations. Accepting nomination to sit on a Royal Commission into the Housing of the Working Classes in 1884 Edward upset the proceedings before they even began by attempting to have the social reformer Octavia Hill brought onto the committee, and when this was vetoed by the Prime Minister, insisted that Cardinal Manning, the high-profile Catholic convert and social critic, take second rank on the committee, before the influential Lord Salisbury. He also got on famously with Henry Broadhurst, the Liberal-Labour working-class MP, who he invited to Sandringham once the talks were concluded.

            Edward continued to take an active role in proceedings as the Commission began its investigations. Both he and Manning ruthlessly cross-examined the solicitor representing the interests of the Duke of Westminster and the Marquis of Northampton, two of the largest slum landlords of nineteenth-century London, pointing out the dilapidated and overcrowded conditions which went unchecked in their Clerkenwell buildings. Not content with this, the Prince and two companions disguised themselves as working men and explored Clerkenwell at night, deeply moved and ‘horrified’ by what he saw as his biographer Philip Magnus put it, four days later Edward gave ‘his only speech of substance’ in the House of Lords, labelling the conditions of life ‘perfectly disgraceful’ and urging the Lords to action. It was a prominent vocal departure from the disengagement of his mother the Queen.

            For all his activity, however, Edward also remained a firm adherent to the commonly held Victorian assumptions about poverty. At times his questions in the Commission display a naïve belief in a simple cause and effect model of poverty:

Prince of Wales:  Is it your opinion that…in the case of a very large number, drunkenness might be prevented and a spirit of thrift introduced by improved house accommodation being brought within their reach?

Rev. Fryer of Clerkenwell: I cannot say that I think the mere fact of people living in three rooms instead of one will make them either thrifty, or sober, or better in any way at all…

Yet to single out Edward alone would be both unfair and inaccurate – both he and Fryer agreed that poor surrounding would degrade the ‘better sort’ of working man or woman, as did Edward’s favourite Octavia Hill, whose belief that better housing bred better people underpinned her campaign for improved tenement blocks in the East End of London. It was an expression of the importance of individualism to Victorian understandings of philanthropy, where charity’s purpose was to provide the opportunity for the poor to better themselves, an attitude that Gertrude Himmelfarb has argued was shared by both intellectuals such as Samuel Smiles and powerful organisations such as the Charity Organisation Society.

            The Royal Commission on Housing was, however, only one aspect of the Prince of Wales’s charitable work, and his activities on the later Royal Commission on the Aged Poor in 1893-5 demonstrate a willingness to entertain, thought not adopt, more radical social ideas. The issue of state pensions was a highly contentious one in late Victorian Britain and was rejected by both Majority and Minority reports of the Commission. Edward himself was wary of implementing ideas that he deemed too radical and potentially disruptive to the social order, but made a detailed study of the mechanics of the Poor Law provisions for the elderly, which the Commission exposed as wanting. It was this experience which fed into his most lasting philanthropic achievement – the Prince’s Hospital Fund, established to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It provided funds to voluntary hospitals across London to pay for treatment for the poor, and although was hardly radical in supporting the existing system rather than pushing for change, it was as systematic a step as Edward could take towards providing financial assistance within the boundaries of his Victorian principles. His position was best surmised by himself when he had a memorandum inserted into the proceedings of the Age Poor commission stating that he would need to withdraw his participation due to ‘party controversy, both inside and outside of Parliament’ which the issue was stirring up.

            Prince Charles, by contrast, has never shied away from stirring up controversy. His own charitable activities have revolved around his Prince’s Trust organisation, established in 1976 to help ‘young people to find adventure, excitement and satisfaction in enterprises devised by themselves’ as the contemporary coverage in The Times put it. Since then it has grown into an organisation based on offering new opportunities and support to disadvantaged youth, displaying a similar attitude to the Victorian focus on helping the needy to improve themselves which Edward shared with many of his contemporaries. Yet it also displays many of the peculiarities embodied in Edward’s own relationship with the dominant Victorian attitudes to philanthropy. Unlike his great-grandfather Edward, Charles does not have the opportunity to sit on Royal Commissions; instead he has turned to alternative outlets to voice his own particular views, perhaps most notably speaking before the European Parliament in 2008 on the need to tackle climate change.

            The most important similarity between Edward and Charles has been the way both men have both internalised the Victorian middle-class culture of philanthropic duty, the latter through the legacy of the former, and also gone beyond the hobby-like involvement of many Victorian do-gooders to turn charity into a family business. This is perhaps why echoes of the Victorian cult of the individual still drive the activities of the Prince’s Trust today, and can be seen in the burgeoning activities of both of Charles’s sons. Finally, inescapably, the influence of the Princesses of Wales on the philanthropic activities of their husbands and their offspring cannot be denied. Alexandra not only supported Edward’s fundraising efforts but provided the veneer of respectability that Victorian charitable work required throughout public discussion of his indiscretions and, despite all the acrimony, Diana’s legacy has been to secure charitable involvement as a pillar of not just the lives of her sons but of the entire Royal Family, solidifying a legacy left behind by the previous longest waiting heir to the throne.

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