Meet The Philanthropists: the Indiana Jones of philanthropy, John Howard

In this series, we explore some of the most prolific, trailblazing or notorious philanthropists in history, taken from ‘Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain’. Today, meet the Indiana Jones of philanthropy, John Howard.

John Howard (1726–1790) was one of the most remarkable philanthropists of his — or indeed any other — age. Rarely can an individual have been so celebrated, both during and after his lifetime, for his good works, and yet seemingly cared so little for this adulation. He exemplified the contradictions and idiosyncrasies that make philanthropy both an incredibly potent force for change and a maddeningly difficult beast to harness.

The defining incident of Howard’s life, which shaped his philanthropic work, was when he was captured by French pirates during a journey to Portugal in 1756, and thrown in jail. This experience of the inhumanity and depravity of prison life sparked his lifelong interest in prison reform in England. When he was elected High Sheriff of Bedford in 1773, he came into contact with the law court and prisons, which kick‑started his real philanthropic efforts.

John Howard bringing water and fresh air into a prison in order to improve the conditions for the inmates.

Howard’s approach to philanthropy was rigorously methodical: rather than leaping to conclusions, he set about carefully gathering information to get a complete picture. He had long been known to be a patient and stoical observer, and it was even said that ‘. . . on the frost setting in, he used . . . to leave his bed at two every morning, for the purpose of observing the state of a thermometer which was placed in his garden at some distance from his house’. Howard brought the same slightly obsessive approach to his philanthropic research. He travelled extensively around the UK, visiting prisons to gather evidence on their failings, and also criss‑crossed the Continent, visiting jails in other countries to get ideas for best practices and things to avoid.

While his detached scientific approach and his relentless pursuit of data might give the impression that Howard’s philanthropic work was somewhat dry, the way he went about doing this work blows that assumption out of the water. His approach to rigorous data gathering seems to have been a decent approximation of Indiana Jones’s approach to archaeology. To take one example: Howard developed an additional interest in plague treatment, and devised a plan to tour the continental plague quarantine stations (lazarettos) to learn more about disease prevention. He travelled without a servant because he thought it unfair to ask another man to accept the level of risk. He inquired of the French government if he could visit the lazaretto at Marseille,
to be told that he would probably be thrown in the Bastille if he entered the country. Despite this, he sneaked into France and visited the site in Marseille; narrowly escaping the attentions of the authorities in Paris, who had been alerted by a spy among Howard’s travelling companions. He then toured a number of other lazarettos around Europe, ending in Constantinople. Here, in 1786, he conceived an even bolder plan — to take passage from Smyrna to Venice on a ship carrying plague victims, so that he would himself be put into quarantine. His plan succeeded, although it was nearly scuppered when the ship he was sailing in was once again attacked by pirates (this time Tunisian), and he narrowly escaped capture.

These exploits in the name of philanthropy made Howard a heroic figure in the eyes of many, and a byword for how philanthropy should be done. Nearly a century later, The Times was still invoking his name to criticise the way that ‘modern’ philanthropists went about their business, arguing: ‘John Howard, like an apostle of old, went to the places and mixed with the people that he wished to reform, and he had his reward in an early grave and the admiration of the world. But modern philanthropy does not run such dangers and will hardly excite such gratitude.’


John Howard, like an apostle of old, went to the places and mixed with the people that he wished to reform, and he had his reward in an early grave and the admiration of the world. But modern philanthropy does not run such dangers and will hardly excite such gratitude

However, there was a less appealing side to Howard’s personality. Even those who lauded his charitable works sometimes acknowledged that the very traits that made him such a successful philanthropist made him a rather difficult person because ‘he had many of those qualities and those vices which made for greatness: single‑mindedness, unflinching tenacity, ruthlessness and even a streak of cruelty. He was not popular among the people he met, a certain coldness and inhumanity precluded affection, but he appealed to the public’s imagination’.

A Sea View of the Lazaretto (or plague prison) at Genoa, taken from Howard’s 1789 book, An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe.

Some of these traits were present in his philanthropy too. We should not assume, for instance, that because Howard strived so hard for prison reform, he was some sort of humane liberal. He was a strict disciplinarian, and believed strongly in the use of manual labour and solitary confinement for inmates. Likewise, he was not shy to moralise on his own austere beliefs, and unafraid of enforcing these views in a distinctly authoritarian way. Like many middle‑class philanthropists of his time, Howard ‘disliked the fairs and the holidays, the dirt and the drunkenness, the squalor and the merriment of village life in England at that time’.

He was happy to help the poor, but thought that this was best done by telling them how to live. He gave generously to support the local community near where he lived, but stipulated that ‘as well as having to attend places of worship, they had to refrain from going to public houses, or partaking in such amusements as Howard thought wrong’. And just to make sure they followed his advice, Howard threatened to evict any local residents who failed to meet these criteria. This resulted in an unsurprisingly mixed response: some viewed Howard with great affection for the help he had given them, but it is also reported that a group of locals plotted to kill him and were only foiled when on the given day he walked a different route.


Some viewed Howard with great affection for the help he had given them, but it is also reported that a group of locals plotted to kill him and were only foiled when on the given day he walked a different route.

John Howard (‘The triumph of benevolence’) by James Gillray, published by Robert Wilkinson. Stipple and line engraving, 1788.

But while this unbending conviction in his own views made him a difficult man to like, it was also one of the characteristics that made him such a successful campaigning philanthropist. He disregarded the views of others, and this enabled him to speak truth to power in a way that few could match. He was able to do this precisely because ‘he placed little value on the favours of kings or emperors; he would refuse to bend the knee to anyone, and he never hesitated to speak his mind plainly . . . Whether he was at home or abroad, he never hesitated to reprimand strangers if, as often happened, he disapproved of their behaviour, and many anecdotes are told of his forthrightness’.

Howard was not remotely interested in public acclaim. Ironically, he got more recognition and praise than many philanthropists who actively seek it could ever dream of.


Howard was not remotely interested in public acclaim. Ironically, he got more recognition and praise than many philanthropists who actively seek it could ever dream of.

In fact, Howard had to go out of his way to avoid public honour. The University of Dublin conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, but he steadfastly refused to use the title. And when he heard of a proposal in the pages of The Gentleman magazine to raise funds for a statue of him, Howard disapproved strongly of the idea and most of the donated money was returned.

Although he shunned public profile in life, Howard could not escape the plaudits of others once he was gone, and this began almost immediately when ‘his death was announced in the Gazette, an honour never before conferred on a private person. Articles in magazines, funeral odes and sermons from many pens praised “God‑like Howard”, “the consummate philanthropist” and “God’s Minister of Good”’.

But despite the fantastic nature of his efforts and the admiration of his peers, Howard’s work had little immediate impact on the prison system in England. It would have to wait until the next century, and the efforts of Elizabeth Fry and others, for true reform to take place. But those later campaigners all acknowledged that John Howard’s work had paved the way for their own successes. And his name lives on today in the Howard League for Penal Reform, which continues to be one of the leading voices on prison reform issues.

For your chance to win a copy of Public Good by Private Means: How philanthropy shapes Britain, visit the CAF website.

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