The right kind of poor for the Charterhouse?

Robin Isherwood, the Preacher at the Charterhouse, yesterday remembered the charity’s founder Thomas Sutton in our annual short memorial service, and pondered the different attitudes to the poor, and the applicants considered eligible to live in the almshouse here over the years.  Here is an extract from his sermon….

“..Surely one of the aspects of this site which attracted Thomas Sutton was its established identity as a place of refuge for those with the hounds of misfortune snapping at their heels.

It’s an endless diversion to ponder what would have bemused Thomas Sutton down the centuries of his charity. What would he have made of the Civil War? Would he have been unhappy to see the school depart, to forfeit the sight of cricket on the old cloister garth? Had his financier’s heart felt a twinge of regret when we sold our last farm a couple of years ago?

And what of today? Regarding women brothers and a female Master I suspect he’d only be surprised it took us so long. Through his Dutch connections he was used to dealing with women in charge, and in his original statutes he’d not specified men, but only ‘poor people’. I can imagine him being fascinated by the small things, the careless asides he’d pick up as he sat chewing his crust and calculating his interest.

I was privy to an extraordinary conversation at a recent dinner. The man on my right was wondering where to send his daughters for their VIth form education. There was a high success rate, he said, at Eton, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors, from where despite their disadvantages, a high number of students were gaining access to the top universities. The chap on my left asked what he met by disadvantages.

Well, said father of the two girls, all the cards are stacked in favour of pupils from state schools.

I don’t believe a man alive in Sutton’s time would have been able to conceive such a crass delusion. Sutton and his like moved with ease between the two worlds of the palace and the pauper. What would he have made of the gulf between the worlds lived in by the rich and the poor today. It’s no accident that he spent a fortune on a bridge.

Perhaps it was the notion of Christian duty, or perhaps it was some flow in the spirit of humanity less susceptible to the gaze of analytical inquiry, but there was some instinct in Sutton’s day prompting the well-placed to support those who in the words of Sutton’s executor, Lancelot Andrewes, “have no helper”. In those early days of the market economy in Britain and the Netherlands, it was necessary for capitalists to rub shoulders with those whose labour produced their profits. It would have been impossible for them to live a life of such isolation that they could say of evidence of poverty that they simply don’t believe it. But such was the response to the recent report on poverty in the UK for the UN carried out by Philip Alston. He found elements of the implementation of austerity measures to be harsh, punitive, shocking – and unnecessary. They have resulted, he reported, in great misery for people who are struggling to work out where their next day’s bread is going to come from – and I mean bread.

One aspect of our way of life which would surely bemuse Thomas Sutton is the indifference of the ruling class to the suffering of the poor, a disfigurement of society that he sought to redress by helping the young avoid poverty and the old to endure it.

From time to time this charity has been abused by its governors and officers – most notably, perhaps during that long period beginning in the C18th when it was used by aristocrats to relieve themselves of the burden of supporting their retired servants.

Lord Liverpool put an end to this practice, but although Governors’ servants may not now become Brothers, it didn’t resolve the question of who may. Whatever the qualifications, I find it difficult to imagine that Thomas Sutton would have been much bothered about how prospective Brothers spoke English. My thanks to Stephen Porter for the following:

The Masters during the 1920s and early 1930s had an image of the kind of man they wanted, ideally one with the characteristics of the applicant in 1931 who was ‘gentlemanly in speech and bearing’. A prospective Brother seen in 1927 was described as ‘Beyond all question, a gentleman and an excellent candidate’. On the other hand, a man who applied in the following year was of ‘no social standing’ and so was deemed unsuitable.

In some cases the judgement was harsh – ‘socially very common’ or ‘not the class of man we want’ – but in others favourable, apart from falling short of the social requirement. A candidate in 1922 failed to impress in that respect – ‘Won’t do socially. I told him so. A very decent fellow otherwise I feel sure’ – and a few years later another was described as ‘Socially, below standard, but very decent and respectable’. Pronunciation and education counted for a great deal in these subjective social examinations, summed up in the case of a man who was ‘Not our sort. H’s awful. No education’.

I’m proud, if I may say so, to be serving the Charity at a time when the Governors are less concerned with a candidate’s elocution than they are with their social and financial needs, more keen to admit a woman who after decades of hard work running a cafe has nothing to show for it than an Old Carthusian claiming entitlement and trying to strike a bargain about how much he’ll leave the charity in his will.”




Recent comments

Leave a comment