Archive: Before the Welfare State


We take the NHS for granted these days, even if some parts of it, and of the Social Services, seem to be creaking a bit. It is hard to imagine what it was like even a hundred years ago for the ordinary person in South Mimms or Ridge. If you were ill you had to pay for a doctor. If you were wealthy, you could afford one: if not, you were just ill. If you were unable to work because of illness or disability, there was generally no provision for sick pay. You and your dependents had to go without. It was harsh and uncomfortable.

Sometimes you were fortunate enough to have good neighbours. Maybe the church set up some provision. Maybe a local landowner was helpful to his tenants. Maybe someone endowed money so that the poor, sick or elderly should not have to suffer too much.

In South Mimms a charitable organisation was set up by St. Giles Church: it was called The Slate Club. A membership card was handed to me by Mrs. Molly Campbell recently, which had come from her grandmother, who in 1916 was its President. The card shows that the club was in existence in 1899: that date is printed on the card’s booklet of Rules and Contributions. This date was crossed out and “1916” put in its place in ink, and beneath it is written “President The Viscountess Enfield”. This was the title used by the wife of the 6th Earl of Strafford, Edmund Byng, of Wrotham Park, until 1918.

The Vicar of St. Giles was the Club’s Chairman, and as well as two Auditors and two Trustees (Mrs. Hay, the Vicar’s wife and Mrs. Hamilton), the Club retained a Doctor (Dr. Thomas Baldwin in 1916). The objects of the Club were “to provide assistance in sickness and death to all members in benefit”. Any person “of sound health, proposed and seconded by two members, and paying an entrance fee of one shilling” could become a member. Members then contributed 7d. a week, and a levy of one shilling on the death of a member or member’s wife.

A member could only receive sickness benefit after 5 weeks, and then claim a gradually reducing level of finance for up to 18 weeks. While receiving benefit members could not go out at night; but they would be entitled to visits from the Doctor or a Sick Visitor. “Should a member’s illness be caused through drunkenness or immorality” they could not receive sick pay. If found intoxicated while on the funds, they were fined or expelled, as the Committee decided. There were fines for being in arrears, and for members who neglected to visit the sick.
It all sounds very authoritarian and judgemental these days, but it was a local attempt to alleviate the plight of people in great need. Before that, we can find some clues to the way social welfare was delivered in Dr. F. Brittain’s history, “South Mymms, The Story of a Parish” (1931). He quotes (p. 77) from an old Vestry (i.e. PCC) account book.
“1816: Releif (sic) to a Man, Woman & 5 Chn. – 1 shilling”.
“1821: To Ann Swain, for the Care of Children in Poor House, 4 weeks, 4 shillings”.
“1823: Releif to a Man, Woman & 6 Children, 1 shilling”.
“1826: Paid T. Chesher to get rid of a troublesome Man, 1 shilling”.

There were various charities set up by wealthy men for the relief of the poor. The one we still enjoy today is the “Bread Service”, set up according to the will of John Bradshaw, who was buried at South Mymms in 1698. “He left £2 a year to be distributed in bread to all who should attend Evensong in the church on Christmas Eve, and £1 for a sermon to be preached at the same service. The bread was to be in penny and twopenny loaves” (Brittain p. 44). Today we still continue the custom, though now we celebrate the start of Christmas with a short service at 3.30 pm on Christmas Eve. It is a lovely family occasion, with lots of children and their parents and grandparents collecting a bread roll each.

In 1941 Bradshaw’s charity was consolidated together with nine other local charities (including that of John Howkins, 1677, who had almshouses built next to the church – now demolished) into a fund known as The Parochial Charities. Two of the charities were to supply coal ”to such poor persons resident in the Ancient Parish of South Mymms who are not in receipt of Poor-law relief other than medical relief, as the Trustees may select”. The rest of the charities were to supply pensions to “poor women of good character” of South Mymms (they had to have lived here for two years) “who from age, ill-health, accident or infirmity, are … unable to maintain themselves by their own exertions”. The investments behind these charities still produce an income, which is used by St. Giles PCC for charitable purposes. A recent example is the installation of a hearing loop system, so that those with impaired hearing can take part fully in services.

To return to another predecessor of the NHS, Molly Campbell has also sent me a Rules booklet for the “South Mimms, Potters Bar and Bentley Heath Nursing Association”. Its president was her grandmother, The Countess of Strafford (i.e. the same person whose title had been the Viscountess Enfield till 1918).

Fees were slight higher than those of The Slate Club, so it is likely that this Association was active in the 1940s. Six shillings a year entitled the subscriber to 30 visits if necessary by the Nurse. After that a payment of 3d. per visit was required. There were fees for confinements (childbirth) of up to 10 days attendance without, or (more expensive) with a Doctor. Here the Association would support non-subscribers, though at a rather higher rate. This set of rules was more lenient than those for the Slate Club: “the primary duty of the Nurse shall be to attend in their own homes, and without distinction of creed (my italics), those who are unable to employ a private nurse”. Nothing about being drunk and disorderly, then!

In 1948 the National Health Service was brought into being, supported by national taxation and National Insurance schemes, and its glory was (and still mainly is) that medical care was free at the point of delivery. Social Security arrangements have become rather more varied, however, with some employers having sick pay schemes for their staff, while other people rely on private insurance. We regard such Social Welfare as normal, a right, and indeed take it so much for granted that parts of the services are put under great pressure. It is useful, therefore, to see how people managed before the Welfare State, and to recognise the contribution made towards the alleviation of suffering (however patronising or judgemental some of it might seem nowadays) by those with resources to endow, and who recognised their social responsibilities, the Church and the Gentry.

I am indebted to Molly Campbell for producing the evidence on which this piece is based. The cards will be deposited in St. Giles Church, along with other records.
William Marsterson

Note: The fees quoted are all in “old money”: pennies (d.) and shillings (s.). When decimal currency was introduced in 1971 a shilling was equivalent to 5 new pence. But in 1971 a pint of beer cost about 10p, or two shillings, so the figures for 1919 of 7d. a week, or in 1940 of 6s. a year, represent much higher values in today’s money. Even to join these clubs you could not be destitute!