Philanthropy comes in many guises. Sometimes springing simply from kindness or a desire to increase the well-being of mankind it has had a very long history. So too has the Philanthropic Society whose contribution to the development of criminal justice policy deserves close attention. Founded in 1788, as crime and disorder reigned around the streets of London and caused its good citizens to fear for their persons and property, this was the very first charity to take crime prevention seriously. Nothing else seemed to work. Even the Bloody Code of penal law had not prevented crimes being perpetrated in the shadow of the gallows. Just as worrying, hordes of homeless and neglected boys and girls survived only through stealing and begging at a time when any one of them could be sentenced to death for committing a felony and left to moulder in prison if charged with vagrancy or misdemeanour.
Believing it their civic duty to solve social problems in practical ways, the Philanthropic Society's founders set out to nip crime in the bud and demonstrate to the nation how children at risk of such fates - and those who already had experienced the terrors of the law - could be rescued and given the means to earn honest livelihoods. Amongst the personalities involved in this crime prevention experiment in the early years were the grand old Duke of York, Sir James Sanderson (Lord Mayor of London), Middlesex magistrate Jeremiah Bentham (father of Jeremy), Dr. James Sims (President of the London Medical Society) and prison reformer George Holford (who supervised the construction and management of Millbank Penitentiary). His fellow Members of Parliament, Samuel Whitbread and William Wilberforce also lent support.
Initially providing education, training and employment in family houses scattered around the village of Hackney, by 1793 the enterprise had re-located into newly built premises at St. George's Fields in Southwark. With a separate Female School, a Reform department for criminal boys and a Manufactory for others created, the Philanthropic Society's innovative institution soon gained the admiration of a host of visitors from home and abroad. The children maintained within its walls also provided trustees with ample evidence to prove that the task of moulding model citizens was not an easy one.