Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Charity, Status and Leadership: Charitable Image and the Manchester Man

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Charity, Status and Leadership: Charitable Image and the Manchester Man

Article excerpt

While significant relationship which existed among charity, status and social leadership in the Victorian urban environment has been fully recognised, it has only provided a limited focus for study.(1) This article is concerned with the underlying construction and dynamics of this relationship. It will focus on a distinct group of charity leaders who became associated with a proportionally large number of voluntary charities. This group was characterised not only by its degree of charitable involvement but also its members' considerable individual capital, their affluence and social standing.

Involvement with local charities, entering the "charity field," meant associating with notions of care, benevolence and Christian duty, making the leaders appear as altruistic and morally upstanding members of the community. Local newspapers and magazines eulogised those who became most actively associated with Manchester's voluntary charities. This was part of the discourse of charity, a vital structure of the charity field. It was their level of involvement combined with their social and political status that constituted these individuals as charity leaders from within the local middle classes. Charity was a vital means of acquiring or reinforcing their symbolic capital and social position. For many this was not necessarily a source of motivation. Yet through charitable involvement they nevertheless became regarded as "Manchester men," local leaders who had displayed moral worth and value to the community. The relationship was reciprocal. While the community held charitable association in relatively high regard such involvement could elevate or maintain an individual's status, becoming an essential part of the criteria for acquiring and maintaining social leadership within the community. However, a change in the criteria meant a change in the charity field which diminished its significance as a vehicle for social power.

The value of charitable association as a mechanism for acquiring and maintaining status and leadership, and the changes in its importance in the nineteenth century, is reflected in a study of the patterns of involvement of those who held governing and honorary positions in Manchester's charities.(2) These patterns raise a number of issues. First, they suggest comparatively few individuals were involved in a large number of charities across the century. Second, biographical details indicate that even without their charitable careers most members of this group were prominent figures within the community. The majority were affluent and several held a range of other public positions and titles. Some were "self-made" men, though a significantly large proportion had inherited their wealth and position. They were a group of charity leaders who were also prominent members of the local middle classes. Most had considerable cultural capital with which to enter the charity field, suggesting that success within this field was dependent on having the necessary time, and money, as well as ability to succeed.

As will be seen, Bourdieu's notions of cultural capital, charity field and symbolic capital provide a useful framework for examining the relationship among charity, status and power.(3) Through successful association with a range of charities these individuals were able to maintain or acquire symbolic capital and social leadership. In effect, this symbolic capital made them "Manchester men." This was a position legitimised through the fulfilment of a particular set of criteria. Generational data regarding the patterns of the births and deaths of Manchester's charity leaders suggest that their charitable career was an important element in social leadership during the mid-to late-nineteenth century. Entering the charity field provided similar dispositions for all, whether actively sought or not. This was a period when charity leaders were placed on a very public pedestal. The construction of a charitable profile was a vital means of acquiring status,(4) allowing individuals to influence sections of the community. …

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