There was no welfare state in 19th century England, and the shadow of the workhouse that loomed over those who fell into destitution. The National Benevolent Charity was founded to relieve this social evil.
In 1808, Peter Hervé was living in the west of England and he established committees of the National Benevolent Institution in Bristol, Bath, Cheltenham and Gloucester. These committees were to raise money through subscriptions and donations to pay pensions to those no longer able to work because of age or illness. In 1812, he established a committee in London, and this committee became The National Benevolent Charity of today.
Peter Hervé’s National Benevolent Institution was a members’ organisation. The members, or subscribers, paid regular amounts to the institution and, in turn, they would elect those who were to benefit from a pension or other form of payment. Those applying for help would be visited by a member of the committee and they would have to disclose their financial means and suitable references and recommendations..
Peter Hervé was not a great orator, but his passion for the cause gave him great power over the audiences who attended his public meetings and the Institution grew from strength to strength. In his own words,
Are they...to be unrewarded and forgotten in their old age; to be cast off, as withered and useless branches, and to be suffered to go down in sorrow to the grave ? Forbid it, Justice ! Forbid it, Mercy ! Surely......public gratitude should follow them...in their hour of utmost need...
From the early days, the institution was honoured with Royal support. Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent was the first to associate herself with the institution. The first patron was the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria and, in 1859, the Queen granted the institution a Royal Charter. Eminent supporters at the beginning included the founder of immunology, Edward Jenner; the victor at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington; the banker, Sir Thomas Baring; and members of great political dynasties such as the Marquess of Landsdowne and the Duke of Devonshire.
Peter Hervé, the founder of the National Benevolent Institution, was a Huguenot whose family had moved to England in the late 17th century. He was a painter of miniature portraits whose works were good enough to have been displayed at the Royal Academy. He had a deep concern for the plight of the poor, and in particular for members of the middle classes who had fallen into poverty.
After establishing the committees of the National Benevolent Institution in the west of England and in London he devoted the rest of his life to the institution’s work. This was at great cost to his own financial well-being and to his health. He died in France in 1827 at the age of 48.
The annual reports of the charity from the beginning, are replete with the stories of people who had fallen on hard times and who were rescued from grinding poverty and even pauperism .
The development of the welfare state in the 20th century, and particularly after 1945, made abject poverty and destitution, for the most part, a thing of the past. But, poverty has not been overcome. On the contrary, many people still live in relative poverty through no fault of their own. Illness, disability, old age and many other causes can still lead to a life of great hardship. The work of The National Benevolent Charity is as important now as it has ever been.
In 1950, the charity extended its charitable work to housing. Miss Frances Knowles Foster, a writer and traveller, had purchased a small estate in Old Windsor known as the Tapestries in 1923. The estate had been built for the Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory and for the French weavers who worked there, and Miss Knowles Foster’s plan was for the estate to be converted to almhouses on her death. Sadly, she died prematurely in 1926 and her trustees were not able to carry out her wish. The Charity Commission asked the National Benevolent Institution to take on the project.
In 2004, The National Benevolent Charity expanded its housing stock with a development in Tetbury in Gloucestershire.
A book, entitled Peter Herve’s Charity, A History of The National Benevolent Charity is available from the charity’s office, price £10.00p inclusive of postage