Jonas Hanway: Pioneer Philanthropist

Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) is at best likely to be known through a passing reference or a footnote in the history of child care, partly because he does not fit the traditional stereotype of a reformer – he was an Anglican businessman who believed in the marriage of church and state – and partly because he worked in so many areas that no one can claim him as their own. But he was both an original and a practical reformer and two of the three charities with which he was principally concerned – the Thomas Coram Foundation and the Marine Society – exist to this day, the other having closed in 1958.

He was born in Portsmouth, to which his father had been sent as a Navy victualling agent following a corruption investigation in 1710, but his father died when he was two and he was brought up in Hampshire, attending the village school, where he gained a rudimentary education, which did not prevent him from later becoming a prolific if at times verbose writer.

Russia and Persia

Through family connections he gained an apprenticeship as a merchant at the English Factory in Lisbon where he stayed for twelve years. In 1743 he obtained a post with the Russia Company; soon after his arrival in St Petersburg, he volunteered to test the Caspian Sea route to the East which had recently been opened up and met the Shah of Persia, before returning to make a rather more positive report than was politically wise, as the Russians were against encouraging the Shah of Persia. He eventually returned to England, travelling overland through Germany and the Netherlands in 1750.

He initially lodged with family and wrote an account of his expedition to Persia which turned out to be an unexpected hit, running to several editions and being translated into Dutch. This prompted him to try his hand at other forms of writing, not all successful, but by his death he had published 85 works.

Foundling Hospital

In 1756, at the age of 44, Hanway took the decisive step of becoming a Governor of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital and the rest of his life was spent in active philanthropy. He was never wealthy, though he had a comfortable income after he was appointed a Navy Victualling Commissioner in 1762, but he was an indefatigable organiser, giving his attention to details such as diet, clothing, education and exercise which wealthier patrons were all too ready to leave to his judgement.

The day he was appointed a Governor, Parliament passed the Act underwriting open admissions to the Foundling Hospital and Hanway was at the heart of recruiting new foster parents from across the country and appointing local inspectors to monitor their performance. Though the experiment ceased four years later, it was not before Hanway had published a paper arguing for a fresh approach. Many children who were taken in perished, but the overall mortality rate was still better than the average for England at the time, and this says much for Hanway’s skills. There was simply no precedent for a civilian operation on this scale.

Marine Society

The month after he joined the Foundling Hospital, he was at a meeting with fellow members of the Russia Company to discuss the formation of a society to clothe and equip sailors for the Seven Years War. Hanway was opposed to the press gang and throughout his life looked for ways of encouraging people to volunteer for the Navy.

Six months earlier John Fielding, the Bow Street magistrate, had offered the first group of delinquents the chance to join the Navy as officers’ servants rather than go to jail and, by the time the Marine Society was founded, he had arranged for 300 boys to be found jobs as officers’ servants. Initially the Marine Society focused its efforts on clothing and equipping adult volunteers because, at that time, sailors had to buy everything out of their own pay. But they extended their activities to young people and John Fielding joined the Society. However, he and Hanway did not always see eye to eye, because he wanted to encourage offenders to reform, whereas Hanway wanted boys who were genuine volunteers. The society placed boys on both Royal Navy and merchant navy ships.

Magdalen Hospital

Hanway supported several other charitable organisations including various short-lived ones to raise funds for people affected by a particular war or disaster and was praised for the effectiveness of his prospectuses and pamphlets in encouraging donations from a wide range of givers.

In 1758 with other members of the Russia Company he founded the Magdalen Hospital for penitent prostitutes. The issue had been raised by several people including John Fielding and several plans had been published, including ones for an isolated rural retreat and for a quite punitive regime.

Hanway’s plan stressed giving the penitent prostitutes work to occupy their time but also “a safe Retreat” where kindness was to be the key and the “utmost delicacy and humanity” (Taylor, 1985, p.77) was to be shown to them. There should be no reproach for past conduct or questions about the penitent’s past. Hanway’s detailed plans show provision for boxes around the building in which inmates could put any complaints about their treatment.

Like the idea of local inspectors to monitor foster parents which was to be adopted by the Poor Law authorities a century and a half later, the ideas of complete acceptance of a person and of building in a complaints system put Hanway many years ahead of most other social reformers. Though he never married, he favoured marriage and campaigned for soldiers, sailors and domestic servants to be allowed to marry on the grounds that this would reduce prostitution.

Parish Poor Children

His experiences with the Foundling Hospital and as a Poor Law Governor had brought him face to face with the issue of infant mortality and he successfully campaigned in 1762 for the establishment of registers of parish poor children in London and Westminster. He was able to use these registers for an even more revolutionary plan in 1767 to foster children from the metropolis outside it because the mortality rate in London and Westminster was so appalling.

Though Parliament watered down his proposals, the Act forbade the fostering of children within three miles of London and Westminster, created Guardians of the Parish Poor Children and required registers to be kept until a child was 14 rather than 4 as under 1762 Act. The effectiveness of this one Act can be seen in the fact that by 1778 the mortality of children in the care of the poor law authorities in London had dropped to below 25% from over 90% in 1763-65.


Hanway anticipates Florence Nightingale, who first put the collection of social data on the map, by nearly a century in recognising that an effective campaign requires sound data and so the first thing you must set up are the systems to collect that data. Perhaps his originality made him more successful, but he was the first person to show how a well-planned campaign by someone outside Parliament could pay dividends, and it seems unlikely that the campaigners who eventually succeeded in abolishing the slave trade, many of whom were children of Hanway’s colleagues at the Russia Company, had not learned something from the older campaigner.

Climbing Boys

Among the other campaigns he waged was one against expecting visitors to tip servants, which he argued was an excuse for their masters to pay them poor wages, and one for climbing boys, as chimney sweeps were then known. He became generally interested in the subject in 1760 and in 1770 helped David Porter to form a friendly society to help sweeps. In 1779 he published proposals to appoint guardians and to establish a register and in 1785 A sentimental history of Chimney-sweepers, followed in 1786 by a proposal for a Bill to regulate the trade, which was passed after his death but which was ineffective because of insufficient attention to enforcement. Only in 1875 was the use of climbing boys banned.

Prison Reform

He proposed the “separate system” in which prisoners are isolated from each other, because he was against hanging and transportation and wanted to develop rehabilitation. He envisaged giving prisoners a large and commodious cell in a well appointed prison where the prisoner could walk (on his own) in the gardens and “the still soft voice of reason and religion, will tell [him] to repent, amend, and sin no more, and that all will go well” (Taylor, 1985, p.161). John Howard, the penal reformer, quotes Hanway but did not think his proposal practical, though versions of it were later developed at Pentonville and in Pennsylvania without the facilities that Hanway had thought were essential.

Employment and Education

Like many of his proposals, this must be seen in the context of his concern for people; he wanted the ordinary working man to be paid a sufficient wage to support his family, servants to be paid enough not to have to rely on tips and those who had fallen on hard times, whether foundlings or prostitutes, to be given the chance of a new life without the stigma of their past life. He favoured employment rather than education as the way to improvement, because he saw education as merely a support for employment, and he did not advocate educating children beyond what they needed to do their jobs.

Nonetheless, he made several proposals for schools for prospective mariners and wrote many didactic books aimed at enabling apprentices, domestic servants, soldiers and seamen to do their jobs better. At the same time, he did not believe that people should be tied to the class in which they were born if they had the ability to rise.

But alongside his concern for people was a concern for efficient philanthropy; he saw no point in caring for children if you then let them die or in sending boys to the Navy if they then ran away. He believed in philanthropy as a way of getting people out of dependency and enabling them to stand on their own two feet, and he was prepared to raise and spend large sums of money to do this. However, he abhorred the waste of philanthropic giving, for example on social events, which he saw as a betrayal of both the donors and the recipients of philanthropy.

Though there have been social reformers who have had greater skills than Jonas Hanway in particular areas, few can match his combination of originality, campaigning, administrative skills and concern for people.

Taylor J S (1985) Jonas Hanway: founder of the Marine Society: charity and policy in eighteenth-century Britain Scolar, London

2 thoughts on “Jonas Hanway: Pioneer Philanthropist”

  1. I have sailed several times as crew on the training vessel “Jonas Hanway” operated by the Marine Society whilst I served with the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service and had wondered who Jonas Hanway was. I am now enlightened. Thank You. RB.

  2. I live in hanwell and a member of the church where Jonas hanway is buried and love telling the story of this man and the umbrella but with the information I have read today I can talk about this man further when we have open days at St Mary’s church Hanwell


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