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Subscribers were the backbone of the English voluntary hospital system, contributing a fixed amount to the running of a hospital. Voluntary hospitals were established in England in the 1700s and spread throughout the English colonies and even North America from the second half of that century.

Averaging £1, subscriptions comprised the majority of income at voluntary hospitals for the next 200 years. In return for their annual contributions, subscribers were permitted to recommend a limited number of in-patients and a greater number of out-patients to institutions. Many did little more than recommending a few patients to the hospital. Most subscribers rarely turned up at hospitals, only attending the annual meeting and to cast their vote during elections of medical staff. Given subscribers’ interests in the financial management of their institutions, it was from their ranks that hospital governors and administrators were also recruited. When serving in such posts, their time was worth much more to hospitals than their cash subscription.

Most hospital subscribers in the 1700s were male. However, during the Victorian period, many more hospitals attracted female subscribers. Their numbers were greatest on the subscription lists of specialist hospitals for women and children. Other institutions were particularly popular with business owners, clergymen and workers, who often subscribed collectively.

Such variations in hospital donations have led historians to question the motivations of subscribers. While many people subscribed to hospitals for religious and altruistic reasons, others supported hospitals for more practical reasons. Local businesses, for example, could only bid for lucrative hospital contracts when they were subscribers. Some subscribed in an effort to access meetings and events where they might rub shoulders with influential and affluent members of the local elite.



R Porter, ‘The Gift Relationship: philanthropy and provincial hospitals in eighteenth-century England’, in L Granshaw and R Porter (eds), The Hospital in History (London: Routledge, 1989)

K Waddington, Charity and the London Hospitals, 1850-1898 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2000)