‘Unexampled kindness’: Material loss and benevolence in Victorian society

Mr. James Rogers, Hon. Sec. on the Relief Committee, has received £75..7 on behalf of the sufferers. A portion of this amount was obtained by means of collecting boxes, which were placed in various parts of the town.—A meeting of the Relief Committee was held at the Town Hall on Tuesday morning. It was decided that £5 should be voted to the Hitchen family for their immediate wants, and the £2..10 to be given to the Rayners … A house has been obtained and furnished for one of the families, and the same will be done for the other.—The Maldon Amateurs have given two excellent entertainments for the purpose of benefitting the sufferers.’

The Relief Committee – Essex Standard, March 31, 1888.

In my recent investigations into the beds inhabited by the Victorian working class, an overarching theme has been that of material loss; a loss that was felt most acutely in cases of household fires. With fire having consumed all that they possessed, as well as their loved ones, families were faced rebuilding their lives and their home from scratch. Yet, for those with minimal financial means, this was not possible without the benevolence of the local community. One striking example of this is revealed in the newspaper reports pertaining to a fatal conflagration in the Essex town of Maldon in March 1888.

With snow still on the ground, a fatal fire ripped through the ‘brick and old-tarred weather-boarded’ double tenement of head horseman, Charles Hitchen, and gardener, Jonathan Rayner, in which three of Hitchen’s children perished as they slept in their beds. Homeless, and with no belongings to their name other than the clothes on their back, the Hitchens consented to be temporarily admitted into the workhouse, while the Rayners found temporary shelter with relatives. The reports were explicit to state that the Hitchen’s short stay at the workhouse was not at the rate-payers expense, and that the family entered ‘not as paupers’. Yet, with Charles Hitchen temporarily incapacitated on account of the injuries he sustained in the desperate attempt to save his children, the grieving family risked a rapid spiral into destitution. Certainly they had no possession to sell or pawn, a strategy that was vital in maintaining household income upon the temporary loss of a breadwinner’s wage at times of sickness (Horrell and Humphries, 1997). However, the local community’s rapid response to their plight ensured that both families would not suffer any pecuniary loss after such a tragic loss.

‘The subscriptions have continued to fall in [and now] exceed £80 … No single individual subscription exceeded a guinea, and there were many as low as threepence, the large number of very small subscribers indeed being significant of the kindly feeling towards the distressed of their own class … As Mr. Jas. Rogers, who has been indefatigable as hon. Sec. and treasurer of the fund, was about to put a box outside his own office he was accosted by a little 10 year old boy who meekly inquired “whether threepence was too little to put in—it was all he had.” Another little chap named Last cried nearly all night after he heard of the fire, and in the morning heroically devoted the whole contents of his money box—6½d.—to the fund. Happily against such and many other noble instances of true charity there were only two cases of refusal to subscribe—one man, a fire insurance agent, replying “They ought to have insured their property,” and another being indisposed to depart from his rule never to give anything away. Among the noteworthy subscriptions were the voluntary offertory by the “scholars and friends” of the National School, Maldon–£2 3s. 1d.,” donations of two guineas from the local Co-operative Society, and a spontaneous offering from the mistress (Miss Pounds) and children of the Langford National School of 12s. 10d’.

Subscriptions and Donations – Essex Herald, April 3, 1888.

Firstly, Hitchen’s employer consented to pay his usual wages while he had recovered from his injuries, allowing Charles to continue to provide his surviving family’s most basic needs. Meanwhile, the Mayor began a subscription intended to replace both families ‘clothing and bedding’. The response was overwhelming. With the exception of a couple of misers, there was a vast outpouring of compassion from the local community which resulted in over £80 (over £6,000 in today’s money) raised within a matter of days from collection boxes, donations, and entertainments. This sum allowed for much more than the simple replacement of clothes and bedding. Indeed, it meant that both families were provided with fully furnished homes, which, as the Essex Newsman commented, saw them ‘better supplied with home comforts than before’. Having settled into their new home, the following month Charles Hitchen published a notice of thanks ‘to the inhabitants of Maldon and neighbourhood for their unexampled kindness in furnishing them with everything that was needed to restore as far as possible their home’.

‘CHARITABLE ENTERTAINMENT. —The Maldon Amateur Entertainment Society lost no time in arranging an entertainment in aid of the sufferers by the late fire, and it came off most successfully on Tuesday evening at the Temperance Hall. Part one consisted of the following pleasure items, viz. :—Pianoforte solo, Mrs. H. Hurrell; song, “Far away,” Mr. Martin; recitation, “Saved by a kiss,” Mr. Peacocke song, “Ev’ry man for his brother;” reading, “Three shies a penny,” Mr. T. Isaac; comic song, “I couldn’t,” Mr. T. Woollard (encored, “Waiting”); recitation, “Not in the programme,” Mr. Quilter; song, “The lost song,” Mr. F. Paul. Mr. Harry Bate followed with a clever experiments in sleight of hand, or, as he was pleased to mysteriously designate it “finger-feritigkert.” Part two, prefaced by a pianoforte solo by Miss Jessie Sadd, included a comic sketch entitled “Caught in his own trap,” inn which the parts were admirably sustained as follows :—Stephen Sly (a toffish young fellow), Mr. J. P. Sayer; Old Flyaway (a crabbed old gent), Mr. H. Sadd; Flora Flyaway (his daughter), Mr. F.C. Abbot; Kimbo (Old Flyway’s servant), Mr. T. Woollard; Bluff (a policeman), Mr. John Sadd; Professor Dabb (an artist), Mr. F. Paul; Jane (professor’s servant), Mr. W. Biles. The little hall was crowded and a profit of nearly £5 accrues to the fund. The pianoforte was lent by Mr. J.G. Sadd, the printing was done gratuitously by Mr. Poole, and nothing was charged by the Coffee House Company for the use of the hall’.

Charitable Entertainment – Essex Newsman, March 31, 1888.

Other newspaper references: Chelmsford Chronicle, March 23, 1888; Chelmsford Chronicle, March 30, 1888, Chelmsford Chronicle, April 20, 1888; Essex Herald, March 18, 1888.

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