Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Charity, Public. The systematic aid of the distressed was almost unknown before Christianity. Its modern growth has been doubtless greatly assisted by the substitution of free labourers for slaves, as the latter of necessity look solely to their masters for support. For various kinds of charitable institutions, see Foundling Hospital, Nursing Missions, Orphanages. Charity is far more developed in England than elsewhere, except in the United States. But Christian charity has too often assumed that the saying of its Founder, "The poor ye have always with you," refers to all time, and not mainly to small societies with fixed occupations and little mobility of labour, like that of Judaea in the Roman period. The wisest modern charity essentially aims at the promotion of self-help. Charities, public or otherwise, have always been much favoured by the law, for "no time," as Lord Coke observes, "was so barbarous as to abolish learning, or so uncharitable as to prohibit relieving the poor." Wherefore, when by a statute of Henry VIII. c. 10 gifts to superstitious uses were made void, gifts for charitable purposes were held not to fall within the provisions of that statute. By a statute of the 39th year of Queen Elizabeth's reign (made perpetual by a later statute) any person was enabled by a deed enrolled in Chancery to found a hospital and to give it a corporate existence, with capacity to take and purchase goods and chattels, lands and tenements, and this without the king's licence in mortmain, and subject only to these conditions that the lands were free-hold in fee simple of the clear annual value of £10, and not exceeding £200 in annual value. By the above and later statutes the interposition of the legislature had been uniformly favourable to charities. Abuses, however, gradually found their way, particularly that attending the power of disposing of lands by will or making them over at the approach of death for purposes of this description, and therefore by a statute passed in the 9th year of the reign of George II. c. 36 (after reciting that many large and improvident alienations of land to charitable uses had of late been made by dying persons), it was enacted that no lands or hereditaments, or money to be laid out in the purchase thereof, should be given or conveyed, or otherwise charged or incumbered in trust for, or for the benefit of any such uses, unless by such conveyance inter vivos, and under such conditions as the Act specified. This Act does not apply to dispositions of mere personal estate when not directed to be laid out in land, and such dispositions by will or otherwise may consequently be made without restraint to charitable uses.

Abuses in charities are now remedied by the Attorney-General, who, in his official capacity, institutes proceedings in Chancery at the relation of some informant (called the Relator) to have the charity established, or to have the charity funds duly administered; and it is not necessary that the relators should be the persons principally interested, for any persons (though the most remote of those falling within the scope of the charity) may act in that capacity. The registration of charitable donations is provided for by a statute passed in the 52nd year of the reign of George III. (c. 102), and such registration is now part of the business which by the Local Government Act, 1888, has been transferred to the County Councils established by that Act, and the Clerk of the Peace is made the Clerk of such Council. The protection of charitable endowments is also otherwise secured by a series of statutes passed previously to the present reign, and known as the "Charitable Trusts Acts."

And with regard to all charities it is a rule that the intention of the donor, so far as it is practicable and legal, shall be strictly observed, the law not permitting it to be varied without necessity, even by consent of the heirs. But where such intention is incapable of being literally acted upon, or its literal performance would be unreasonable, a decree will be made for its execution cy-pres, that is in some method conformable to the general object, and adhering as closely as possible to the specific design of the donor. For example, where a sum of money was bequeathed to trustees to be distributed among the inhabitants of several specified parishes in money, provision, physic, or clothes as the trustees should think fit, and the fund ultimately became too large to be suitably confined to those objects, the Court directed it to be applied to the further objects of instructing and apprenticing the children of those parishes to benefit which the charity was designed. On a somewhat similar principle it was enacted by a statute passed in the present reign, known as "Lord Lyndhurst's Act," otherwise the "Dissenters' Chapel Act," that, as to meeting-houses for dissenters where no religious doctrines or modes of worship had been prescribed by the Deed or Instrument of Trust, the usage of the congregation for 25 years should be taken as conclusive evidence of the doctrines and worship which might be properly observed therein.

Lastly, though by Roman law a legacy to pious or charitable uses was entitled to a preference over other bequests in a will, it is not so by out-law, which directs that in the case of a deficiency of assets the charitable legacies shall abate in proportion to the others, but the testator may of course himself give the charitable legacies a priority over all other legacies.