Abstract

In Early Modern north-western Europe a unique form of charitable foundation developed – almshouses. These were inhabited by elderly men and women, who had led honourable middle-class lives, but had become unable to support themselves. In towns that were rapidly growing through immigration, many elderly people were without income or family support. The masses of the working-class poor had to resort to outdoor relief and other survival strategies or were confined in old people’s homes and hospitals. Almshouses, in which residents could maintain their privacy, autonomy and honour, were a viable middle-class alternative. We argue that this type of provision could rise especially in relatively urbanised, monetised north-western Europe. Here, wage labour was the dominant form of income; nuclear families the prevalent family type, and rich citizens had great interests to invest in building religious and urban communities. Around the North Sea, dependent middle-class elderly could entertain early notions of individualism and privacy, which were not catered for by charitable institutions elsewhere.

Abstract

This article aims to compare the financing of two apparently entirely different systems of pre-industrial welfare: urban institutional welfare in the federal Dutch Republic and the national Elizabethan Poor Law in Britain. By analysing a new dataset on the income and expenditure of five Dutch towns, we conclude that, despite the absence of uniform legislation, Dutch poor relief was viable at least up until the 1790s, even in times of severe crises and declining real wages. This was obtained by the – in monetary terms – remarkably stable donations by Dutch citizens, mostly through regular collections, as well as careful financial management of the charitable funds.