London Charity Beneficiaries, c. 1800-1834: Questions of Agency
In recent decades historians have ‘discovered’ agency in a wide range of geographical and temporal contexts, amongst many different types of actor. This dissertation employs the concept of agency to dissect the dynamics of power in early nineteenth-century London charities. Concurrently, it uses charity to test the potential applications of agency as a historical concept and as a tool for historical analysis. Through case studies of five different types of charity in early nineteenth-century London, this dissertation explores the varied ways in which plebeians exercised their agency. The case studies engage with current definitions of agency —intentional action, resistance, the defence of rights and customs, exerting control over one’s own life, autonomy, strategy, choice, and voice— and test the boundaries of the concept, proposing different ways in which scholars might characterise agency. This dissertation not only examines how the poor exerted their agency, but also how philanthropists conceptualised the agency of the poor. Although agency had a different set of meanings in the early nineteenth century than it does today, Georgian commentators nevertheless discussed the same phenomena that historians today label as agency. This dissertation considers how philanthropists attempted to mould the agency of their beneficiaries and how the agency of the poor shaped charitable organisations. For all its prevalence, agency is an under-theorised and problematic concept. There is no consensus about what agency is or how to locate it. As a result, agency is a slippery concept that seems to elude meaning. Historians are often so personally invested in the project of recovering the agency of subalterns that they underestimate the structural constraints acting on agency or they project modern conceptions of agency on to the subjects of their study. This dissertation subjects agency to critical examination that is long overdue. It argues that agency, as an ‘essentially contested’ concept, is a powerful tool for dissecting subtle and diverse dynamics of power. This dissertation proposes and demonstrates ways in which scholars can employ the concept usefully, mitigating its problematic aspects.