I've just read a short but illuminating new book about the suburban demi-paradise that I call home - Living in Carshalton, 1865-1880, by Cheryl Bailey. I found it particularly interesting for the light it sheds on how people got by nearly a century before the coming of the universal Welfare State - rather well, it seems, thanks to such thriving institutions as the Friendly Societies, which in return for a small monthly subscription paid cash benefits in case of illness, accident or death of a breadwinner. Each club also appointed its own doctor to attend to members at no cost. And they were fun -
'Monthly meetings to collect subscriptions were held in a local pub, and the members could then stay on for a convivial evening of chat and drinking. A church sermon followed by parades, merrymaking and a dinner was held annually to mark the club anniversary. The success of such schemes depended as much on the feelings of comradeship and mutual support that were created as on the insurance offered. The regalia and secret initiation rites appealed to the working men's sense of belonging to a special group... The heavy consumption of alcohol at the clubs caused disapproval, but this was balanced by the commendable realisation of the ideals of thrift and self-help.'
Carshalton had two such societies, with a third of the village's working men belonging to the Orphans' Protector Lodge of the Odd Fellows, and many of the remainder to the Wallington Order of Foresters...
'Both chose a day in the first week of July to celebrate their anniversary, so that the village was thoroughly disrupted... The club day quickly grew into a village celebration, with bands playing in the streets, processions of club members with their banners and sashes, dancing, cricket matches and fireworks in the evening.'
There were also a Penny Bank, where workers could lodge small sums against future need, at no cost; a burial club to which even the poorest mostly paid in; and of course a wide range of charitable provision, including soup kitchens in hard times, clothing clubs and almshouses, all organised on a voluntary basis by the clergy and the better-off residents.
Of course it was not all cakes and ale - life was hard and often short, and for those on the precarious margins, the shadow of the workhouse always loomed (though notably few from Carshalton found themselves obliged to accept its hospitality). However, the picture we glimpse here is sharply at odds with the received wisdom that, before the coming of the Welfare State, there was effectively no systematic relief for those in need, that it was every man for himself and the weakest to the wall. And isn't there something rather fine about a system of welfare based on mutuality and conviviality - and with a moral dimension - when compared to a system of neutral entitlement, with no relationship between or among donors and recipients?
Two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Memoir on Pauperism, saw how - precisely because it was a system of neutral entitlement - the English Poor Law tended to demoralise, isolate and pauperise its recipients. He would surely despair to see how the modern Welfare State - the Poor Law writ monstrously large - continues to pauperise swathes of the population. Might we not have been vastly better off if the well-founded mutual and charitable institutions had been encouraged (and subsidised) to evolve along their own paths, rather than be swept into the margins as the monolithic State took over virtually all welfare provision? Certainly a system that celebrates itself with beer and bands, banners and cricket matches must be preferable to one marked only by a sullen, resentful sense of entitlement.
One beneficiary of a friendly society pay-out was a carpenter's widow (with three children) called Harriett Francis, who lived in a cottage on West Street. With the club's help, she retained her independence by converting the cottage into a beer shop called The Hope. It evolved into a public house, which is still there - a fine neighbourhood pub - and it was there that Living In Carshalton, 1865-1880 was launched last week.