Charity and Welfare

Charity and Welfare IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

The long history of the people of Cape Ann caring for one another is documented in city records dating from the seventeenth century, notes from community-led initiatives, and written arrangements between community groups and local government. In England, each community was expected to support its residents in need, and eighteenth-century New England towns borrowed from that model. A poorhouse was erected in Gloucester in 1719, but as the local historian James Pringle remarked, with only one resident, the house “was never very popular.”[1] Instead, the poor were cared for by private citizens who were paid by the town.[2] For example, in 1783, Mr. Brown received three shillings “to keep the Negro and her child.”

Gloucester established its first workhouse on Granite Street in 1796. But it too was less than desirable, especially for those already on the margins of society. For example, when two Gloucester residents, Adelia (or Delia or perhaps Dill) Bundlee, “a black,” and her daughter Mary, appeared in 1819 in Salem “in distress,” Gloucester’s overseer of the poor was charged with paying for their care while in Salem and also with ensuring that they returned to Gloucester. Little is known of these residents, except that Mary Bundley (perhaps a variant on the spelling of “Bundlee”), daughter of Isam and Dill (perhaps a variation on the name “Adelia”), was born in 1804.[3] A letter from Boston in November 1820 mentioned charges accrued in 1815 for Delia Bundley that Gloucester’s overseer of the poor still had not paid. One wonders what caused the Bundleys to flee in 1815 and 1819, and perhaps at unrecorded times in between.[4] The Reverend William Bentley (1759–1819) reported a similar incident of a “mulatto” woman and her child from Gloucester in 1814 turning up at the Charity House in Salem. Bentley’s story had a decidedly unhappy ending, however, as he officiated at the child’s funeral.[5]

Town governments in the eighteenth century also assisted needy residents by giving them relief from paying taxes. Gloucester City Hall’s Poor and Abatement records included various ways of administering this benefit. Reasons cited for tax relief leave much to the imagination, with descriptions like “poor and obstinate” and “poor and unfortunate.”[6] Nineteenth-century Gloucester’s most famous son, Fitz Henry Lane, even made it into these records. Because his recently widowed mother “support[s] a lame child,” she “aught not to be taxed,” according to the Gloucester assessor in his property valuation. This record remains the “first and so far only contemporary municipal record of [Lane’s] lameness.”[7]

Charity BallTrade Card Collection. Cape Ann Museum

Care for the less fortunate was also provided by private citizens; records of acts of charity big and small can be found in local archives. The Gloucester Female Charitable Association was founded in 1839, though its origins as the Female Reading Society date back to 1812. This group of women sewed clothes and dispensed help to the needy; in 1895 the association received $40,000, its largest bequest, from Samuel E. Sawyer (1815–1889), Cape Ann’s greatest nineteenth-century philanthropist.[8] Sawyer, Gloucester’s own Andrew Carnegie, established the Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library in 1884; it was dedicated in the same building it occupies today, with the motto “Books are lighthouses on the sea of time.” At the dedication, Sawyer said, “It has always been a prominent motive or object of my life to do something to promote the best interest of the young, for in them lie the germ, the roots and fibres of civilization. Books are the food of the mind; from the earliest years of childhood books are sought to feed the intellect, and so from school to college; later on they are a course of recreation to the idler, the tools of the student, the scholar and the man of letters.”[9]

Upon his death, Sawyer proved that he was interested not only in feeding the mind, bequeathing $350,000 to various charitable donations and giving the city the land for Ravenswood Park.[10] Sawyer kept meticulous records of his expenditures in small pocket diaries.[11] They contain copious examples of his smaller handouts, including a one-dollar gift “to slave for his freedom.” Given that slavery had been outlawed in Massachusetts for nearly a century when Sawyer wrote this, it is hard to know what he meant by “freedom.” Adjacent diary entries place him in Boston at the time. Perhaps it was a gift to the abolitionist cause, which was at its height in New England just before the Civil War.[12] Or perhaps he gave the dollar to an enslaved person who had recently escaped bondage in the south.

Giving money was not the only way people served their neighbors. Community-organized groups provided vital services to residents. Fighting fires was one of the first ways that colonial Americans living in cities came together to take care of one another. Benjamin Franklin organized Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company in 1736,[13] and other cities and then towns soon began purchasing their own engines. Reverend William Bentley records that in 1792 a fire engine had been built in Boston for Gloucester.[14] The great fire of 1830 in Gloucester necessitated a more centralized firefighting force, so a year later the Massachusetts General Court passed an act establishing the town’s Fire Department.[15] This act was only for the town of Gloucester, however; it did not include outlying areas. Annisquam established its own firefighting unit, building Deluge 8 Firehouse in 1831. Resident groups, such as the Deluge Fire Engine Company No. 6, organized in 1854, helped fight fires. The Deluge 8 Firehouse was moved in 1847 and stopped operating as a firehouse in 1887; ever since, the building has been used as a repository for documents and artifacts donated by generations of village residents.[16]

Steam Fire EngineGloucester’s first team fire engine, East Gloucester fire station, 1864, Cape Ann Museum.

Though fire posed a serious threat to the people of Cape Ann and their buildings and homes, the element residents most feared and revered was water, and, more specifically, the sea. It is no surprise that one of Cape Ann’s longest-lived benevolent societies is the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Widows and Orphans Aid Society. Founded in reaction to a storm on February 24, 1865, that decimated some seventy Gloucester vessels on Georges Bank, the Society’s Constitution began with the assertion that “To assist and relieve the distressed and unfortunate is a duty incumbent on all men, and the active exercise of charity is the noblest mission of humanity.” The Society was formed just in time: between 1860 and 1906, a staggering 660 ships sank, with 3,880 men lost. A single storm in 1879 took the lives of 159 men.[17] News of this loss reached a Manchester summer resident, Annie Fields (1834–1915), wife of the illustrious Boston publisher James T. Fields (1817–1881). Fields sent a donation of clothes from the Co-operative Society of Boston to the fishermen’s families, but in a brief letter to local publisher Joseph O. Procter, she voiced concern about how this aid would be distributed. To avoid the “good deal of misery” she had seen in Boston “because of too much giving of money” without proper administration, she hoped that Gloucester would appoint a person with “the ability to help some of these poor creatures to an honest independence.”[18] Questions of how best to serve those in need have led to many types of efforts and different kinds of aid, but the historical record of Cape Ann includes countless traces of local people caring for one another.


[1]. James R. Pringle, History of the Town and City of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts (Gloucester, Mass.: published by the author, 1892), 87.

[2]. John J. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: Including the Town of Rockport (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Bros., 1860), 322, 474.

[3]. Vital Records of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849 (Topsfield, Mass.: Topsfield Historical Society, 1917), 125.

[4]. The letter from Boston also mentioned Temperance Freeman, who is described as “insane.” That name is not listed in Gloucester’s vital records, but he may have been related to Robin Freeman.

[5]. William Bentley, Diary of William Bentley, 1811–1819, vol. 4 (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1907; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), 228.

[6]. Gloucester City Hall, Town Archives, Vault #3 / CC168: Abatement Voters List 1789/1857 (first folder: 1789/1812).

[7]. Sarah Dunlap and Stephanie Buck, Fitz Henry Lane Family and Friends (Lowell, Mass.: Church and Mason Publishing and Cape Ann Museum, 2007), 26.

[8]. Records of the Gloucester Female Charitable Association (1995–2005), Cape Ann Historical Association Finding Aid, processed by Peter J. Brown and Stephanie Buck, 2014.

[9]. As quoted in “Gloucester Lyceum & Sawyer Free Library Building Program,” accessed December 26, 2017,

[10]. Mary Rhinelander McCarl, “Samuel Elwell Sawyer and the Founding of Ravenswood Park,” Gloucester Civic and Garden Council Newsletter, 2005.

[11]. Thanks to the assiduous efforts of Mary Rhinelander McCarl, these diaries will soon be fully transcribed. I am thankful to her for pointing out this passage to me.

[12]. Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free State, 1790–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 247–279.

[13]. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1868), 251.

[14]. William Bentley, Diary, 386.

[15]. Steam Fire Association, The Gloucester Fire Department: Its History and Work from 1793 to 1893 (Gloucester, Mass.: Steam Fire Association, 1892), 6.

[16]. Grant Application from Annisquam Association to the City of Gloucester Community Preservation Committee Project, accessed January 28, 2018,

[17]. Peter K. Prybot, “Gloucester’s Own Fishermen’s Society Still Going Strong,” Gloucester Daily Times, January 3, 2009.

[18]. Annie Fields, “Letter to Joseph O. Procter, April 5, 1879,” MSS., Box P26 Folder 19 (Gloucester, Mass.: Cape Ann Museum).


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