How givers learnt to grab the limelight

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Britain's first philanthropists were far more reluctant to publicise their generosity than their modern celebrity counterparts, who are overly keen to be photographed at charitable events, according to new research.

Much of the earliest philanthropic work, which pre-dated a monetary economy, was done by evangelist monks on the strict condition of anonymity, the Charity Commission said yesterday.

The earliest charity traced by the commission is the King's School in Canterbury which was set up AD597 on church property. The scheme was set up by St Augustin, the monk credited with converting England to Christianity. He provided an education for poor children by soliciting clothes and food from the local community.

Canterbury Cathedral was also associated with Britain's second oldest surviving charity, the Rochester Cathedral Grammar School. also in Kent, founded in 604.

The research was published to mark the 400th anniversary of the Charity Commission, which was set up after the Charitable Uses Act of 1601 laid the foundation for modern charity law.

Jane Grenfell, head of registration at the Charity Commission, said: "Early forms of charity were often associated with churches and the Christian duty to help the less well off. It was almost always personal and anonymous giving and not long term."

Bridge House Estates, listed as the eighth oldest active charity in England and Wales, was formed in 1097 when William Rufus, second son of William the Conqueror, raised a special tax to help repair the wooden London Bridge. St John Ambulance, the ninth oldest charity in Britain, was established in 1113 by the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

According to the commission, the nature of charitable giving changed after the Norman Conquest and the monetary economy gave rise to longer-term giving and people making wills.

Ms Grenfell said: "In a more sophisticated society the wealthy set up endowments rather than giving through the church. Others less well off would pay for bread to be distributed on their favourite saint's day."

The philanthropists of the early 1500s turned to "socially aware" giving such as for the building of bridges and roads

In 1423, Dick Whittington, three times the Lord Mayor of London, set up a charity to aid the poor by establishing hospitals and almshouses. Whittington, who was childless, bequeathed his entire wealth to his charity, which also owns sheltered accommodation now run by the Mercers' Company.

Philanthropy's "biggest hitters" date from the Victorian era. Men such as Joseph Rowntree – who founded the Rowntree Trust to fund research and make grants to improve social conditions – and the Scots-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who made his fortune in Pittsburgh iron and steel but funded libraries and education on both sides of the Atlantic.

In recent years, charity has become less anonymous and more driven by high-profile campaigns led by celebrities such as the anti-landmines campaign for which Diana, Princess of Wales, became the figurehead. John Stoker, the chief charity commissioner, said: "Charities are at the heart of our society, there are 185,000 in England and Wales alone, and they have lost none of their relevance."

The faces of philanthropy

Dick Whittington

This 14-century cloth merchant and three-times London Mayor came from a poor background. The Whittington Charity, set up in 1423, helped set up hospitals, almshouses and sheltered housing now run by the Mercers' Company.

Joseph Rowntree

A Quaker businessman, Rowntree made his fortune in the family's chocolate business. He founded three trusts for projects relating to social development. Last year the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust gave £4m to almost 200 projects.

Andrew Carnegie

This US industrialist, who made a fortune in steel production in the late 19th century, endowed public libraries, schools and various research trusts. Carnegie Hall in New York was named in recognition of the Scottish-born magnate in 1898.