Flowers at the Gate - a brief history of giving quietly.

8th May 2020
In a village close to where I live there is an elderly gentleman who has a table set up outside his front gate where he places items such as cut flowers and vegetables that he grows in his garden. Passers by can take their pick and leave some money in a box. A nice little earner, you might think and a supplement to his pension. But as most long-time residents of the village know, and will whisper to you quietly if you enquire, the money does not go into his pocket. Despite all that hard work growing, picking and preparing flowers and veg, the small handful of coins he collects each day goes to the local church for repairs and maintenance.
painting of man with watering can in colourful garden, sunny
Painting by American artist Albert Fuller Graves (1859–1936)

No Fuss

The gentleman has done this for years, every spring and summer, perhaps most of his adult life for all I know. But here's the thing: he never tells anyone. He never makes a fuss or a song and dance. It somehow makes what he does all the more admirable.

Not that the Church is any stranger to the significance of 'The Gardener.' There has always been both a practical and a mystical connection throughout history. The 12th-century treatise on healing by the remarkable Benedictine abbess Hildegard Von Bingen refers to no less than 230 plants and grains that may be grown and used for medicinal purposes. And during the middle ages the monastic institutions became great repositories of medical knowledge, proficient in the growing, preparation and provision of herbal remedies, many of which are still in use today.
old illuminated manuscript shows gardener and woman
'Christ appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener' from an illuminated manuscript, France c.1504


The impulse to share what we have to give (be it wealth, healing or education) is as old as civilization, and you won't be surprised to learn that the Greeks had a word for it. The term 'Philanthropy' apparently comes from the words Phil = Love, and Anthro = Man. In most parts of the world, and among all religions, it has always been incorporated as a vital principle, particularly on a local level - disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Something that comes from the heart.


Similarly, the principle of charity has always a part of Christian doctrine. In the Middle Ages, the Church and the monasteries used to supply shelter, relief and medicine to those known to be in need. In fact it was often an obligation on their part to do so – for example in the establishment of almshouses and the distribution of medical aid.
old painting showing monks receiving woman and child at gate of building
At the Monastery Gate, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1846.

Hospitals and Almshouses

The origin of hospitals and almshouses, can be traced way back to the 10th Century, the first being founded in York by medieval king Athelstan. Over subsequent years, they were supported not only by the Church and King but also through bequests from wealthy landowners, providing a roof over the heads of the poor, elderly or ‘distressed’ from the local area.
old illuminated document, a charter
Detail from an early Tudor document connected with the foundation of Henry VII's chantry and almshouses at Westminster.


After the Reformation in Europe, and especially here in the UK following the vandalism of Henry VIII, the good works of the dissolved monastic institutions had to be taken up instead by the State in the form of poor laws or from endowments by wealthy individuals or groups. But it worked quite well.

For example, one of the most prominent beneficiaries from the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I, William Cecil (Lord Burghley), founded an almshouse on the site of an old medieval hospital in Stamford, Lincolnshire that once flourished for the use of pilgrims and the poor. The property was owned by him as early as 1549 and was maintained as an almshouse by 1595.
terrace of old stone buildings with lawn
William Cecil's almshouses still looking good today.
This was a pattern repeated all across the country. The vacuum left by the monasteries simply had to be filled. The rich of Protestant England were, after all, no less devout in their own way as their predecessors. And in Europe, where Catholicism survived and flourished in many places, the old ways were never entirely abandoned.
old painting depicting 17th century Dutch village with numerous people busy
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy - from the Studio of David Teniers the Younger. Can you spot what is going on in this clever depiction of a 17th-century Dutch village?

Puritan Ethic

The subsequent 17th-century Puritan ethic of frugality and self-sacrifice ensured that charity continued in one form or another through that most turbulent century of civil war, regicide, restoration and plague. And later, in Georgian and Victorian times, England became a hugely philanthropic society. With the development of the newer faiths such as the Quakers and Methodists, it was considered right and proper for those who had made wealth through the Industrial Revolution to give something tangible back to society in the form of good works.

The new rich would set up hospitals, libraries or in some cases build entire communities and towns based on the provision of decent housing, sanitation and social care. Nowhere was this better represented than in the town of Bournville near Birmingham, founded by chocolate manufacturers George and Richard Cadbury, who were Quakers. Bournville was a totally new town in which the workforce and their families were well housed and provided with opportunities and education.
montage of black and white photos of model village housing for workers
Some photos of Bournville around the dawn of the Edwardian period.
Victorian England certainly had its slums and social deprivation, but it wasn't all wickedness and satanic mills - or, as George Cadbury himself once declared: 'No man ought to be condemned to live in a place where a rose cannot grow.'

The Sally Ann

Another great and enduring Victorian institution was the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 by Methodist preachers William and Catherine Booth. Affectionately known as 'The Sally Ann,' I can remember them as a child in London campaigning around the streets and pubs in their uniforms and with brass instruments and tambourines and pamphlets, collecting for good causes - and always ready to talk to or help those in need.
painting of busy tavern interior with young woman preaching
The Salvation Army. Miss Booth visiting a Paris Tavern. by Gustaf Cederström, 1886.

Big Business

While the two world wars of the 20th century saw untold instances of extraordinary personal self-sacrifice and altruism, these were also years in which the process of public charity grew to be ever larger in scale, becoming more and more secular in nature. Charity became big business, and the spiritual impulse of quietly giving was coming to be replaced by vast commercial organisations and national institutions. Sensing this already, some Edwardian artists of the early 20th century were happy to hark back to more simple and innocent examples of kindness.
painting of saintly woman giving alms to poor outside of convent
The Charity of St. Elizabeth of Hungary - by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1915.
They would be gratified today, I think, because recent developments have reinvented the concept of good deeds on a local scale, with lots of folks just helping out neighbours through the pandemic - quietly and without taking credit.

One can always judge a person's character by how they treat those who can do nothing for them in return. And our current health crisis has brought back the old adage, ‘Charity Begins at Home.'  I do hope those who follow this principle are not destined to become a rare breed again, once it's all over, because their re-emergence might just be something positive to come out of the dreadful sacrifice of liberty we are going through at present.

Doing what comes naturally

Speaking of rare breeds, readers of my books will recall a central character who manages to get through an enormous amount of good works in the course of the story without actually being aware of doing anything at all. That is a very different concept - one in which it is not even necessary to cultivate anonymity in the doing of good deeds, but where it all happens perfectly naturally. The reader is left to decide if the fellow in question receives any blessings for his achievements. I think he does, in the end - though, by contrast, others who loudly proclaim their virtue do not fare quite so well.
small drawing of a carnival mask, golden in tone
I suppose that's why I admire the old gentleman with the flowers at his gate. He just gets on with it, and probably doesn't even stop for a moment to reflect on what a splendid fellow he is.

That's the way to do it.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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