A heart for the poor

Few people have done more to lessen human misery and increase human happiness than Lord Shaftesbury.



Why you need Christian neighbours


Few people have done more to lessen human misery and increase human happiness than Lord Shaftesbury.


SIMON SMART: This picturesque English village was once the scene of a tragic mining accident.

A freak afternoon storm on the 4th of July 1838 caused the Huskar Colliery, near Silkstone Common, to flood, trapping and killing 26 children. This shocking incident was emblematic of all that the working poor suffered in the process of industrialisation.

The politician Lord Ashley, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, was moved to act. He was a man of aristocratic background, but he had a real heart for the poor.

He called for a Royal Commission into the accident. This exposed the horrific conditions under which people worked in the mines.

Children as young as five were employed underground opening and closing ventilation shafts. It was incredibly dangerous work.

Shaftesbury managed to have legislation passed in 1842 that prohibited girls and women from working in the mines. It also excluded boys under the age of ten. The law aimed to prevent this sort of tragedy from ever happening again.

This action was typical of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who was a hero of 19th-century working class people. He used his parliamentary career of nearly 60 years to agitate for every kind of reform on behalf of the poor.

Factory reform; housing; sanitation; he was president of the London Ragged Schools for 39 years, providing free education for poor kids; he campaigned on behalf of chimney sweeps, farm hands, the mentally ill, and countless others. It’s estimated he had been involved with 197 organisations by the time of his death.

Christian faith was a hugely motivating force for Shaftesbury. The idea that every person regardless of status or rank was made in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect and care and compassion, meant that for him caring for the poor became something of a sacred duty.

ACTOR (7TH EARL OF SHAFTESBURY): Engaged more than ever. Small works compared to the political and financial movements of the day. A boarding-house, a ragged school, a vagrants’ bill, a refuge for thieves! No wonder people think me as small as my work, and yet I would not change it, for surely God has called me to this Career!

SIMON SMART: On the day of his funeral in 1885, the streets of London were packed with tens of thousands of working-class people who stood for hours in the rain just to get a glimpse of his coffin as it passed by.

Everybody knows this famous fountain in Piccadilly Circus in London, but not everyone knows it’s, in fact, a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury. And another interesting quirk in this story is that people think the statue is Eros – but, in fact, it’s his brother Anteros, the God of selfless love.

The sculptor thought it was a fitting memorial to the man whose biographer wrote that “No man has ever done more to lessen the extent of human misery or to add to the sum total of human happiness”.

Clearly, not every Christian is a Shaftesbury, but plenty of ordinary people have done their best to sing in tune with Jesus. You won’t read about them in books, but they’re out there, doing what they can to make a difference.