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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Manchester's Clarke family helped bring aid to the destitute

February 17. 2014 4:59PM

The men of the Clarke family of Manchester certainly made their mark in the world. There was the steady William Cogswell Clarke (1810-1872), a successful lawyer and well-regarded Attorney General of the state and his brother, newspaper pioneer John Badger Clarke (1820-1991).

John's sons, Arthur Eastman Clarke (1854-1921) and William Cogswell Clarke (1856-1933), followed in their father's footsteps as editors and managers of the Mirror publishing company. The Daily Mirror and American was at the center of their professional lives. The newspaper was an opinion leader in the worlds of sports, politics and the arts. Its influence extended far beyond Manchester's borders. And admirably, William found time to serve his city as mayor for four terms.

Despite the waves of prosperity Manchester enjoyed in the 19th century, there were many societal challenges to overcome. By 1873 the city was experiencing the stress of high unemployment. There were no hospitals and the public and charitable aid available was inadequate to meet the pressing needs of the poor.

Many people suffered in silence, too proud to ask for assistance. Reverend William J. Tucker, pastor of the Franklin Street Congregational Church, urged the women of his congregation to find a way to help. His friend and parishioner, the formidable William B. Clarke, heartily encouraged the women, telling them, "Here, ladies, is a field for you to work in. There is, and will continue to be, great suffering among the poor unless systematic measures are taken for their relief."

William suggested that the women create a city-wide organization dedicated to helping the poor and destitute. He outlined a plan to get the operation off the ground: "Invite influential ladies from every church in the city to meet to organize a society. Have one lady from each church in the list of officers whose duty it shall be to solicit memberships and funds in her own church....When the people understand that women of character and capacity are engaged in the work of relief there will be no trouble about raising funds."

Several women from the church readily agreed to take on the job. A circular was distributed to the Christian religious groups in the city announcing that the organizational meeting of the new society would be held at the home of Mrs. J. G. Cilley on Jan. 21, 1875.

At the meeting, 24 women representing the 11 Protestant churches of Manchester, signed the constitution, thus officially establishing the Manchester Women's Aid and Relief Society.

Among the founding organizers and first officers was John B. Clarke's wife, Susan Greeley Moulton Clarke. Another was Olive Rand, who would become John Clarke's second wife after Susan's death in 1885. Olive was elected as secretary, a post she would fill for 47 years.

The new Society's purpose was, "…to seek out the poor and the needy of this city, relieve their necessities, and aid them so far as possible to help themselves and better their condition." Membership in the Society was set at 50 cents per year. If a well-wishing person could not become actively involved, he or she could contribute $5 a year as an honorary member and anyone who donated $50 would become a life member. The income from these memberships would be invested in a perpetual fund.

Three women at the first meeting immediately agreed to become life members. Within days 77 women joined as active members, and 53 men and women became honorary members.

The Society's organizers divided the city into 19 districts, which could include a particular neighborhood or street. A volunteer was assigned to each area, whose job was to visit the homes of the poor, determine their needs, and provide food, supplies and money. By Jan. 26, the ladies were ready to start field work. Remarkably, it had taken only five days to get the operation up and running.

By Feb. 9, the women were reporting success. One of the first cases taken on was that of a family on Massabesic Street. The mother of five was sick with tuberculosis, and her husband was making only 75 cents a day cutting wood. The volunteer supplied the family with flannels, and reported the case to the County Commissioner who provided fuel and food.

Next week: A Valley Cemetery story — More about the Manchester Women's Aid and Relief Society.

Aurore Eaton is the Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. Contact her at


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