University of Leicester
2022CarstairsPPhD.pdf (25.38 MB)

A generous helping? The archaeology of soup kitchens and their role in post-medieval philanthropy 1790-1914

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posted on 2022-09-22, 13:20 authored by Philip J. Carstairs

Soup kitchens, the charitable provision of food, principally soup (often accompanied by bread), became widespread in late-eighteenth century Britain. They were not a British invention. Soup is an ancient means of relieving hunger, but the circumstances during the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath helped form a new type of institution which has been exported worldwide as a panacea for the pangs of hunger fostered by urbanisation and industrialisation.

This thesis traces the development of this novel institution and its material culture in England. It examines the changing nature of charity and the relationship between the poor and the better off in five counties, Northumberland, Kent, Staffordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, within a national context. As historical archaeology, this research is inevitably cross-disciplinary, drawing on a wide range of evidence. Archival sources for soup kitchens are sparse, but nineteenth-century local newspapers provide a rich albeit fragmentary record with which to create the background for interpreting the material culture, architecture and landscapes of charity.

Objects, structures, landscapes and patterns of behaviour shaped the performance of charity, which is interpreted through architectural and spatial analysis and the lived-experience of the participants. This study takes the existing research on institutions in new directions and challenges our concepts of what archaeological sites are. By bringing both material evidence and innovative methodologies to the study of poverty and charity, the thesis contributes to the understanding of the makeshift economy that the poor used to survive.

Soup kitchens were widespread during the long nineteenth century, feeding between 10 and 30% of the population during wintertime. Later, soup kitchens fell from grace, particularly in industrial areas and were blamed for creating the problems they sought to alleviate. In less industrial areas soup remained in the repertoire of acceptable charity. England had developed very different regional cultures of charity.



Sarah Tarlow; Elizabeth Hurren

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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