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Bloomsbury Institutions


Society for the Suppression of Mendicity

Also known as Mendicity Society/London Mendicity Society


It was founded in 1818 to stop people begging in London

Its main approach was doling out charity to beggars on the condition that they immediately leave the area

It also prosecuted active beggars who refused to co-operate

The first Secretary was William Henry Bodkin and the first Treasurer William Williams

The Duke of Northumberland was the first President and the Duke of York the Patron

An account of its first Annual Meeting was published in The Times on 25 February 1819; in these early days, the newspaper was generally sympathetic to the Society and its aims, describing it as “[a]n institution which, whilst relieving real distress, spares no exertion to expose and punish imposition and fraud” (The Times, 2 June 1819)

By 1820 the Society had already been the recipient of at least one sizeable bequest: £100 from Mrs Jasper Leigh Goodwin of Hoddesdon (The Times, 15 August 1820)

It later received £500 from the late Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington, in 1826, and in 1820 was sufficiently prosperous to advertise for an “Inquiry Clerk” at a salary of £80 per year (The Times, 25 December 1820)

By 1824, indeed, it seems to have been so prosperous that The Times questioned how much of its money was being spent on beggars compared with the amount received by the Hon. Secretary as a bonus (The Times, 22 and 23 January 1824)

A special meeting of subscribers was held on 7 February 1825 at Freemasons' Hall in response (The Times, 9 February 1825), and eventually Bodkin, the Secretary, brought an action for libel against the newspaper (reported in detail in The Times, 17 July 1824)

Lord Brougham appeared among others as counsel for the defendants

By 1824 the Society was also appearing as a satirical target in fiction:

“Things were in this prosperous state, the bark of life rolling gaily along before the breeze, when, as Mr Harding was one day proceeding from his residence to his office in Somerset-place, through Charlotte-street, Bloomsbury, he was accosted by one of those female gypsies who are found begging in the metropolis, and especially in the particular part of it in question. “Pray remember Martha the Gypsy,” said the woman: “give me a half-penny for charity, Sir, pray do!”

“Mr Harding was a subscriber to the Mendicity Society, an institution which proposes to check beggary by the novel mode of giving nothing to the poor: moreover he was a magistrate—moreover, he had no change; and he somewhat sternly desired the woman to go about her business.” (Theodore Hook, ‘Martha, the Gypsy’, Sayings and Doings, 1824)

The Times was also continuing to attack the Society:

“It is well known that rat-catchers encourage the breed of those animals which they are paid to destroy. We should think that the agents of the Mendicity Society are actuated by some similar principle” (The Times, 9 March 1825)

“The Mendicity Society is a joint-stock company, the managers of which have consumed annually the sum of 3,500l. in effecting the important object of preventing His Majesty’s subjects from being asked for that which they may in all cases, with perfect safety and comfort, refuse” (The Times, 31 March 1826)

By 1835 the Assistant Manager was T. L. Knevett, and the Society owned a corn-mill where some of the destitute men and women who applied to the Society were sent to work (The Times, 15 December 1835)

Knevett was Secretary by 1838, when The Times (which seems to have changed its view of the Society yet again) commented on the “surprising proofs of the profligacy of the regular street beggars, and the inveteracy of their idle and dishonest habits”, as evinced by “the records of that invaluable institution” (The Times, 21 August 1838)

By 1860 the patron was Queen Victoria and the Assistant Manager was James F. L. Wood

The foundation of the Society for Organising Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity (Charity Organisation Society) in 1869 caused a dilemma: should the old society merge with the new?

This seems to have been agreed at a Mendicity Society meeting reported in The Times of 30 May 1870, and The Times published a letter from Charles Trevelyan on 6 June 1870 urging a merger with the “Organisation Society”

But the Mendicity Society was still advertising its annual meeting in Red Lion Square in 1879 under the old name

It was still extant in the 1880s under the same name but may have moved out of the Red Lion Square premises by this time; its meetings by this stage were chaired by the Duke of Wellington

By 1894 it was known as the London Mendicity Society; a report in The Times on 16 June 1894 said that its income had dropped because of the death of so many of its old subscribers

However, it made a triumphant reappearance in The Times of 19 July 1919 as the London Mendicity Society of 9 Red Lion Square, with the King as its patron

In 1959 it was finally reported in The Times that members were to be asked to dissolve the Society, which “[l]ike many other charitable institutions founded by people whose conception of social responsibility was in advance of the Governments of their day, it has been outmoded by the welfare state” (The Times, 29 June 1959)

Its lease in Gower Street was due to expire in 1960

It no longer exists

What was reforming about it?

It had a phenomenal level of organisation and record-keeping, and a habit of ruthless prosecution of repeat offenders

From the beginning the Society employed a system of tickets which could be given by the public to beggars instead of giving them money

The beggars could then take the tickets to the Society’s office, where their cases would be investigated

The Society kept registers which enabled it to identify persistent offenders

According to Dickens’s Dictionary of London (1888), it was also in constant communication with local parishes, hospitals, and dispensaries, to enable it to carry out its charitable mission more effectively

Where in Bloomsbury

The founders had their original meetings in the Crown and Anchor pub, in the Strand, but the main office was quickly established (by 1822) at 13 Red Lion Square

The Society’s records, and their collection of artefacts associated with professional beggars, were kept here; it was a famous and much-visited collection, almost a tourist attraction

In the early twentieth century the Society was at 9 Red Lion Square

Its last known address was 45 Gower Street (The Times, 22 March 1930), which premises it apparently occupied to the end (The Times, 29 June 1959)

Website of current institution

It no longer exists

Books about it

It published annual reports from 1819; copies are held in the British Library

Edward Pelham Brenton, A Letter to the Committee of Management of the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity in Red Lion Square (1830)

M. J. D. Roberts, ‘Reshaping the Gift Relationship: The London Mendicity Society and the Suppression of Begging in England 1818-1869’, in International Review of Social History, vol XXXVI (1991)

M. J. D. Roberts, Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England 1767–1886 (2004)


Correspondence relating to the investigation of the the Society by the Charity Organisation Society, from 1889 onwards, is in London Metropolitan Archives (ref. A/FWA/C/D/186/001 and A/FWA/C/D/186/002); more details are available online via Access to Archives (opens in new window)

This page last modified 13 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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