Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.3 (2001) 267-284
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Hannah More and the Problem of Poverty
In August 1789 the abolitionist William Wilberforce paid a visit to his friend, the writer Hannah More. More and her sister Martha, known familiarly as Patty, were spending the summer at their cottage in the scenic Mendip Hills. At Patty's suggestion, Wilberforce set out to view the remarkable caves at Cheddar. But the squalor he witnessed in the village of Cheddar destroyed the young man's appetite, as well as his pleasure in the excursion. He returned with his picnic dinner untouched, unable to dismiss "the poverty and distress of the people" from his mind (M. More, 13).
Wilberforce was wealthy; Hannah More lived only eight miles from Cheddar; both were Evangelicals, eager to serve man for the glory of God. And so Wilberforce told More that if she would implement a plan to improve conditions in Cheddar, he would help with the expenses. Shortly afterwards, Hannah and Patty More set out to visit the village. Their first project was to set up a school, but they also planned to see what else they could do for the local people.
During the next fourteen years, Hannah More devoted much of her time, money, and energy to improving the condition of the Mendip poor. Though they were middle-aged and in bad health when they took up philanthropy, the More sisters personally initiated and supervised a wide variety of projects. They established Sunday schools and day schools for children as well as religious discussion groups for adults. They founded mutual savings societies for women, and they freely contributed their own funds to ensure that the societies would remain solvent in times of economic hardship. They devised schemes to promote cottage industries. They distributed money, clothing, fuel, and food in the form of prizes for students enrolled in their schools, in the form of regular pensions for cases of unusual hardship, and in the form of temporary grants to communities suffering from trade depression, famine, or epidemics. Often they visited three or four parishes on a Sunday, traveling by horseback over muddy roads, staying out for thirteen hours at a stretch, and returning home prostrate with exhaustion. [End Page 267]
During the "Blagdon Controversy" of 1800-1803, the many schools which the sisters had established were, as More herself put it, publicly vilified as "seminaries of fanaticism, vice, and sedition" (Roberts, 2:69). Some of the attackers opposed popular education altogether, on the grounds that a literate working class would have access to revolutionary propaganda. Others thought that the lower orders should indeed be educated, but only under the strict supervision of the Anglican Church, and not by "methodistical" fanatics acting on their own responsibility. After the ugly controversy ended, More's efforts on behalf of the poor diminished, though they did not cease entirely.
In spite of her generosity and dedication, More's activities as an educator and social worker have been harshly criticized by later writers. In her scholarly 1952 biography Hannah More, the historian M. G. Jones wrote that More's involvement with the Mendip poor is
responsible in great part for the unsympathetic portrait of her which has been handed down to posterity. In it she appears as a masterful, dogmatic woman, a high Tory in politics, a rigid Evangelical in religion, using her undeniable talents for organization to dragoon the wretched, ignorant, ill-nourished population into schools which did not attempt to offer opportunity to children and adults to improve their material conditions. (Jones, 152)
Unable to refute these charges, Jones can offer only the partial excuse that More's attitudes were typical of her time. Like "the bulk of her contemporaries," More attributed poverty "to the depravity of [the working] class," rather than "to the failure of the Great Society to realize its responsibilities. . . . Hannah More reacted to the problem of poverty in a manner characteristic of reformers throughout the eighteenth century. To her the problem was a religious, not an economic one" (Jones...