Friday, 24 December 2010

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[1], 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. Housing associations had a philanthropic element, and built houses for the working-classes. Building societies were mainly a means of investment for the middle-classes. 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 dated from 1861, an innovation of Sir Rowland Hill, who had 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. [2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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 and 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.

Poverty 17

Samuel Smiles, Sir George Reed, 1891

By the 1880s, Britain’s economic dominance was increasingly challenged by competition from Europe and the United States. A long economic depression from the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s stretched the Victorian welfare system beyond its limits. As a result, Jose Harris argued

Between 1880 and 1890 the uneasy synthesis of Poor Law, thrift, and charity which had relieved distress from want of employment since the 1830s broke down.’[5]

It was increasingly clear that philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help could not resolve the national problems of poverty and unemployment. The London COS provided caseworkers to help only 800 people a year; model villages accommodated barely a few thousand; and the Ragged Schools movement at its height only numbered 192 schools. Social reformers such as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree challenged the preconceptions that drove the COS and other charities. Pioneering work supported by charity and philanthropists was taken over by the state on a massive scale, including the provision of sanitation in cities. The debate on poverty had started to move on. George Sims’ poem Christmas Day in the Workhouse was not written until 1903, but social reformers like Dickens had long been pointing to the inhumanity of the system. Dickens had pilloried the ideas of Malthus in his character Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who justified his meanness on the grounds that he did not want to support ‘surplus population’. Ricardian economic had blamed idleness on ‘excess wages’ but this was undermined by Alfred Marshall, whose revolutionary concept of ‘unemployment’ caused by trade cycles, made poverty a product of the economic environment rather than moral degeneracy. As one of Kipling’s characters put it

...you can’t pauperise them as hasn’t things to begin with. They’re bloomin’ well pauped.[6]

By 1900, there was a growing political consensus in Britain that government needed to do more to address social problems and fear of political unrest pushed the ruling elite towards social programmes to ease the pressure. Winston Churchill argued

With a ‘stake in the country’ in the form of insurances against evil days these workers will pay no attention to the vague promises of revolutionary socialism.[7]

In Victorian Britain, philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help were contrasting and 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 highlighted the extent of social misery. At worst it was patronising and snobbish, but at best, it reached out to the poorest and most disadvantaged classes in a divided society and developed 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 value to the individualistic and hardworking who were prepared to strive in order to further their own ambitions. The problem for each of these approaches was that they could only address the symptoms of the problem of national poverty, not its causes.


[1] See, Cordery, Simon, British friendly societies, 1750-1914, (Palgrave), 2003.

[2] Brown, W.H., The Rochdale pioneers: a century of Cooperation in Rochdale, Rochdale, 1944 and Hibberd, Paul, ‘The Rochdale tradition in cooperative history: is it justified?’ Annals of Public & Co-operative Economy, Vol. 39, (1968), pp. 531-557. Jackson, John Platt, John, History of the Castleford Co-operative Industrial Society Ltd., 1865-1915, (CWS), 1925, Childe, W.H., Batley Co-operative Society Limited: A Brief History of the Society, 1867-1917, (CWS), 1919, Rhodes, Jos, Half a Century of Co-operation in Keighley, 1860-1910, (CWS), 1911 and Hartley, W., Fifty Years of Co-operation in Bingley: A Jubilee Record of the Bingley Industrial Co-operative Society Limited 1850-1900, (T. Harrison), 1900 for the co-operative experience in West Yorkshire.

[3] On Smiles see the chapter in Briggs, Asa, Victorian People, (Penguin), 1975 for a short introduction. Jarvis, Adrian, Samuel Smiles and the Construction of Victorian Values, (Alan Sutton), 1997 is a more detailed study.

[4] Smiles, Samuel, Self Help with Illustrations of Character, Conduct and Perseverance, (Ticknor and Fields), 1866, p. 15.

[5] Harris, J., Unemployment and politics: a study in English social policy, 1886-1914, (Oxford University Press), 1972, p. 51. This is evident in local studies such as Crocker, Ruth Hutchinson, ‘The Victorian Poor Law in Crisis and Change: Southampton, 1870-1895’, Albion, Vol. 19, (1), pp. 19-44.

[6] Kipling, Rudyard, ‘The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot’, in Many Inventions, (D. Appleton), 1893, p. 283.

[7] Cit, Addison, Paul, ‘Church and Social Reform’, in Blake, Robert and Louis, William Roger, (eds.), Churchill, (Oxford University Press), 1996, p. 62.

2 comments:

Susan Hawkes said...

Mutual Aid & Self Help - very interesting & useful to me as background information - I'm researching Cooperative stores in Rastrick, in West Yorkshire.

I would like to quote from this blog - if I could find a contact to request permission on copyright.

Thanks for the blog anyway!

Richard Brown said...

No problem quoting from Mutual Aid & Self Help, Susan.