250 years ago, it was common for landed families to make gifts to the poor at Christmas and other set times of the year. The goods involved varied from estate to estate and year to year. At Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, beef was distributed on the 21st December every year on behalf of Lady Lucas, while at Stoke Gifford and Stapleton in Gloucestershire – estates owned by Elizabeth, dowager duchess of Beaufort – both beef and bread were given out.[i] Elizabeth Prowse of Wicken in Northamptonshire, sold a beef cow to the poor every winter at the subsidized price of 2d. a pound and in 1783 gave them the meat for free ‘it having been a hard winter for them’.[ii] Much the same thing was happening at Lanhydrock in Cornwall where beef and potatoes – or sometimes beef soup – were provided to poor families.[iii]
At Ashby St Ledgers in Northamptonshire, the Ashley family held a Christmas dinner for their tenants from at least 1740 onwards. The men and women were seated separately and were served with a range of meats including beef, mutton, goose and rabbit, plus some greens and plum pudding to finish the meal. By the early 1760s, two dinners were being held: one for the cottage tenants and one for the poor. No mention of the dinners was made in the early nineteenth-century accounts but meat and coals were being given to the poor at Christmas, as well as flour for pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and a Valentine’s penny to 30 poor children.[iv] At times of the year when the weather was often harsh and people were in great need – especially following poor harvests – such charity could prove crucial to the survival of the rural poor.
This form of country house charity had long been in existence and was typically seen as a peculiarly feminine responsibility. It fell to the landowner’s wife to oversee as part of her well-established role as ‘Lady Bountiful’. This included making gifts of money, clothing, food and medicine to the poor, as well as patronising or even founding schools, churches and almshouses, achievements celebrated both in these women’s lifetimes and in post-mortem obituaries and memorials. Yet, as propertied women themselves, Lady Lucas, the duchess of Beaufort and Elizabeth Prowse embodied both the landowner and Lady Bountiful; the iron fist and the velvet glove. This was a responsibility which sat differently with different women, so that for some female landowners, charity went well beyond the customary and expected giving at Christmas to encompass much more strategic efforts to relieve poverty and improve living conditions amongst the least fortunate. Indeed, some even combined their philanthropy with managing the estate, overseeing building works and pushing forward schemes for agricultural improvement and landscape change. But this is a story for another day!
Dr Briony McDonagh, University of Hull
[i] Gloucs Archives, D2700/QP14/1; Beds RO, L30/11/132/27, 60, 62, 63, 90; L30/11/40/9.
[ii] Northants RO, 364p/67-70.
[iii] See, for example, Cornwall RO, CL/5/406.
[iv] Northants RO, ASL 1226 and 351.
Illustration of ‘Image of Father Christmas’ from “Fun” (London, England), Issue 763, 24 December 1879, p 256, Public Domain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Christmas#/media/File:Father_Christmas_from_England,_1879.jpg
Illustration of ‘The Awakening of Father Christmas’ By John Tenniel (1820–1914) – Punch, 26 December 1891, p307, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46951693