Monday, 12 May 2008

Voluntary action: Mutual Aid and Self-Help

Mutual aid started spontaneously on a local level. It became a custom for groups of men to meet in the local inn for a drink on payday, and to contribute a few pence a week to a common fund. From these simple beginnings, friendly societies, trade unions, housing associations, people's banks and co-operatives were all to develop.

Rose's Act of 1793 required friendly societies to register and laid down rules for their operation. The provision made by friendly societies varied. Some were primarily burial societies, protecting the working classes against the feared pauper's funeral. Some provided for widows and children, or for sick or aged members. Some were 'collecting' societies, pre-cursors of the People's Banks. Some were 'dividing' societies that had a share-out from time to time, often at Christmas. It was almost exclusively a male movement, though there were three 'female' clubs in the villages of Cheddar, Wrington and Shipham in the 1790s.  The first housing society was founded in Birmingham in 1781 and by 1874 there were some 2,000. They developed in two rather different ways:

  1. Housing associations that had a philanthropic element, and built for the working classes.
  2. Building societies that were mainly a means of investment for the middle classes.
  3. Many subscribers made quarterly payments -- they were not weekly wage earners. Building societies were not friendly societies and their legal position was obscure until the passing of the Building Societies Act 1836.

People's Banks grew naturally out of the collecting societies. As wages improved for some classes of skilled workers, they needed a safe place to keep their limited reserved. By the second half of the nineteenth century there were village banks and municipal banks among many other forms of savings institutions. The Post Office Savings Bank dates from 1861 -- an innovation by Sir Rowland Hill, who introduced the penny post in 1840.

The co-operative movement had its origins in the eighteenth century and in the pioneering work of Robert Owen. But the idea of linking labour directly to the sale of goods without the intervention of the capitalist class survived until in 1844 a group of flannel weavers in Rochdale set up a shop in a warehouse in Toad Lane to sell their own produce. They sold at market prices but gave members of their society a dividend on their purchases that could be reinvested. This encouraged 'moral buying as well as moral selling'. Co-operative production did not last more than a few decades but co-operative retailing flourished.

'Heaven helps those who help themselves'. Samuel Smiles announced at the beginning of Self-Help published in 1859[1]. An example of his own philosophy, he was apprenticed to a group of medical practitioners at the age of fourteen after his father died of cholera and studied in his spare time gaining a medical diploma from Edinburgh university. He abandoned medicine, first for journalism and then for the exciting world of the developing railway system. From 1854 he managed the South-Eastern Railway from London. His experience provided Smiles with his main theme: 'The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual.... help from without is often enfeebling, but help from within invariably invigorates.'

Bad luck or lack of opportunity was no excuse. There were many examples of development by men who started from humble beginnings and achieved wealth and fame: Isaac Newton, James Watt, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Smiles preached a gospel of social optimism. Self-Help was followed by a series of other books with similarly promising titles: Character [1871], Thrift [1875] and Duty [1880]. These never achieved the overwhelming success of Self-Help and over the years the message became somewhat repetitive; but it had made its mark.

In Victorian Britain, philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help were contrasting and often competing philosophies. The three voluntary movements were in many respects complementary to one another, providing different pieces of the jigsaw of future social service provision. Philanthropy was tender-minded, stressing the extent of social misery. At worst it was patronising and snobbish, but at best, it had the merit of reaching the poorest and most disadvantaged classes in a divided society and developing a public conscience about conditions. Mutual aid was an intensely practical movement for the better-off sections of the working classes. It was not a way out of poverty, but it was a means for supporting and protecting members of society against sudden financial disaster. Self-help was tough-minded, of greatest use to the individualistic and hardworking who were prepared to strive in order to further their own ambitions.


[1] On Smiles see the chapter in Asa Briggs Victorian People, Penguin, 1975 for a short introduction. Adrian Jarvis Samuel Smiles and the Construction of Victorian Values, Alan Sutton, 1997 considers the issue of respectability from a revisionist perspective

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