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Sarah Flew, Unveiling the Anonymous Philanthropist: Charity in the Nineteenth Century

2015 March 12
by lucinda matthews-jones

Sarah Flew (London School of Economics)

This post accompanies Sarah Flew’s Journal of Victorian Culture article published (2015). It can be read in full here.

Charitable annual reports, in the nineteenth century, listed at great length the names of each annual subscriber and donor and the sum they had given in that accounting year; some subscription lists also gave the accumulated sum given by each philanthropist. Peppered through these lists are a number of individuals who chose to conceal their identity through the use of a pseudonym.

I didn’t set out to study anonymous philanthropy. In fact, during the early stages of my PhD the existence of anonymity in charitable subscriptions lists caused me great methodological issues whilst trying to analyse the gender makeup of the financial supporters of various different voluntary organisations in the nineteenth century.  I was however intrigued by the motivation underlying anonymous philanthropy and have for the past few years squirrelled away quite a large body of anecdotes and data relating to the subject. Of course, I also personally derived a great deal of pleasure in “playing detective” in order to unveil the identity of the philanthropist. Such identities were often hidden away in the seldom read dusty pages of charitable general ledgers and cash books. Often though, even the charity itself was unaware of the philanthropist’s identity as the bank paying the donation to the charity kept it a carefully guarded secret.


Subscription List Detail Photo - Author’s own copy

This article examines anonymous contributions in nineteenth century charitable subscription lists in order to explore what the phenomenon of anonymity can illuminate about the Victorian culture of philanthropy. Anonymous giving has received little historical scrutiny. The article contrasts the public and private nature of philanthropy and considers why some individuals chose to conceal their identity when making charitable donations. It suggests that the use of anonymity is counter to the idea, prevalent in the historiography, that philanthropists used their wealth to gain public power and prestige. Instead, this article suggests that anonymous giving highlights the personal and private aspect of charitable giving that reflects both the philanthropist’s relationship with God and their deeply felt connection with the charitable cause.


Subscription List

This page is from the subscription list contained in the Fifteenth Bishop of London’s Fund Annual Report for the budget year January to December 1878. This page is illustrative of the variety of anonymous descriptions employed: HW; HWG; HWS,Agra; IB; II; “In Memoriam,” per Rector; “It is Thine”; JABV; JAL; JB; JC; JCDW; JCH; JD; JDF; JE; JFG; JG, a Thankoffering; JGF; JH; JHH; JHM; JHW; JL; JM; and JO.


For further information on Sarah’s work see: Sarah Flew, Philanthropy and the Funding of the Church of England, 1856-1914(London: Pickering and Chatto, 2014).

You can contact Sarah by email on or by twitter @C19thLondon

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