Any society has to make some provision for the very young and the very old, for the sick and the disabled. In primitive societies it falls largely to the family to make such provision, and in medieval Britain the Church shared with the family and the guilds the responsibility for doing so. From the 16th century, the increased importance of economic causes of distress and the declining authority of the Church resulted in the trans­ference of this burden to the community as a whole. The factory system, which destroyed the home as an economic unit and the parish as an instrument of government, ushered in an era of cyclical unemployment and urbanization, with concomitant new problems of sanitation and new dangers to community health. Thus the social forces, which encouraged the glorification of self-help, also promoted a notable extension of state legislation concerned with social security.

The origin of such legislation lies with the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. Until then the almshouses and hospitals of the Church had dispensed charity to those who did not benefit from what protection the craft guilds could guarantee to their sick and aged members, or to their families left destitute by the death of the breadwinner. Bread giving was in fact a major charitable tradition in Halesworth. The Reformation itself coincided with a variety of circumstances that increased the numbers incapable of supporting themselves by their own efforts. In a loosely knit society with primitive communications, re-employ­ment could not keep in step with unemployment during the economic up­heaval accompanying the expansion of foreign trade, the beginnings of capitalist farming and an influx of precious metals from the New World. The lists of town paupers highlight the scale and how it was clustered in areas like Chediston St and Pound St. Relief, however, was directed not at the population at large, but at the poor and disabled. The method employed was to place responsibility on the parishes, which were helped by a poor rate levied on its working inhabitants. The building of the great poorhouse at Bulcamp was the dread, not only of Halesworth’s poor, but also clouded the lives of those of villagers for miles around.

In the Halesworth of the 1851 census, the needs for charity were focused on unskilled and casual workers struggling with low wages, the fear of accidents and diseases, and the dread of slipping into that 'sunken sixth' of the workforce so close to the criminal underworld, which Dickens wrote about. However, even in that period, there was a resurgence of private charity and a resentment of state paternalism. To many merchants, particularly those who had risen from little or nothing, paternalism was an anathema. Paternalism produced the poor laws, but this generalised form of relief was no more acceptable to the town merchants than indiscriminate monastic almsgiving had been. They set an example by contributing more than half of the vast sums of money provided for private charities, which were, in the long run, probably more effective than state aid for the poor. Nevertheless, an increase of vagrants, beggars and petty criminals forced itself on the attention of the authorities, which responded with hard labour in Ipswich prison.

The original administrative unit for Halesworth was the ancient pre-Norman unit of the Blything Hundred. The assimila­tion of Poor Law and Sanitation within a single framework, followed by the transformation of the Local Government Board into the Ministry of Health, defines the emergence of an essentially modern outlook on the functions of government. This is an outlook that transcends the traditional conflicting claims of social justice and social privilege. It focuses on the satisfaction of basic human needs as the yardstick of good government. An expanding knowledge of the nature of human needs, also discloses vistas of unrealised possibilities for rational co-operation between human beings. The latest expression of human needs is ‘sustainable development’, with its requirement for local and global cooperation to protect the goods of environment for future generations.

A modern overview of ‘giving’ demonstrates that the medieval concept of charity is equated with what is now organised as the machinery of social security. However, people in the modern world are still embedded in a complex system of giving, which involves government agencies, insurance companies and charitable trusts. We are surrounded by a network of cultural organisations set up to provide safeguards not only against poverty, sickness or accident, but also to protect local and global green/built heritage assets. Halesworth’s charity shops indicate how the desire to give can permeate a community.