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[SECT. II.—OF BENEFIT CLUBS, OR FRIENDLY SOCIETIES.]
In this review of the attempts which have been made for the relief of the lower orders, I must not omit to mention one, which originated first among themselves, and which promises more real and lasting advantages than all the others put toyether; I allude to the institutions commonly known by the name of Benefit Clubs, or Friendly Societies. The general object of these institutions is, to secure to the industrious from the surplus, or a part of the surplus, of their earnings, an equivalent resource during their incapacity to labour. This idea, although I have not the least doubt that, in this country, it was the genuine offspring of English good sense and sagacity, was not altogether unthought of by the ancients. Causaubon produces ample evidence to shew, that there were, among the Athenians, and also in the other states of Greece, associations where each member deposited every month, in the common chest, a certain sum, for aiding such of their associates as met with any misfortune. Gronovius, too, seems to prove that the same plan was followed in Rome. The truth is, that the general idea of such establishments, however happy in itself, and important in its consequences, is not of so difficult a nature but that it may be expected to present itself to mankind in every civilized society, where they happen to be pressed by the same evils. From a Memoir by M. Dupont de Nemours, it appears that various establishments of this kind had sprung np spontaneously in differents parts of France among the lower orders.
Since the commencement of the last century, such institutions have extended themselves to most parts of Great Britain. Sir Frederic Eden mentions some in the north of England that had existed for a hundred years, and their utility is now so completely established by experience, that the most enlightened friends of the poor in the southern parts of the island, seem, almost unanimously, to consider them as the happiest of all the expedients which have yet been devised for bettering the condition and morals of the lower orders. It appears, also, from the Statistical Accounts of our clergy, that similar establishments are multiplying fast in Scotland, and that they have been found of great service in preventing labourers and working manufacturers from becoming burdensome.
An Act passed in 1793, for the encouragement of Friendly Societies, removed many difficulties to which they had formerly been subject. By this Act it is declared, that such societies are lawful, and it is required that their Rules shall be confirmed by the Quarter Sessions. The advantages conferred by the Act on such societies as have their rules confirmed, are many and important.
Prior to this Act, it is said to have happened frequently, that the majority of an occasional meeting, which, by the rules of the society, was competent to make laws, expelled all the absent members, though superior to themselves in number, while the persons thus injured were left without the means of redress. A very extraordinary instance of this is stated to have happened lately, in the case of a society whose rules had not been confirmed:—“In the neighbourhood of Ealing, a majority, composed of the young men of a friendly society, agreed to dissolve the society, and divide the stock, and thereby, at once, defrauded all the old members of that provision for age and infirmity, which had been the object of many years' contribution. A new society was immediately formed of the young persons, and all the old members were left to the parish."* This very extraordinary fact is stated on the authority of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and may be found in the Notes and Observations attached to their First Report.
Another essential advantage conferred on such of these institutions as have their rules confirmed by the Justices, was the privilege of their members to carry on their occupations in the most convenient places, without being subject to be removed to the parish of their legal settlement; an encouragement, how
* (Reports of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, No. I.; Vol. I. pp. 10, 11, footnote, third edition.]
ever, which is in a great measure done away by the late Act preventing the removal of all persons till they become actually chargeable. A very respectable writer, accordingly, Mr. Rowland Burdon, has suffered his zeal for Friendly Societies to carry him so far as to censure this Act for granting an extension of the advantages formerly enjoyed by the members of such societies alone. “ The locomotive faculty derived from the certificates of Friendly Societies, is a very obvious advantage, and I was sorry to be obliged to give way to the authority of the Legislature, in the adoption of a general principle of this nature with respect to the poor, by the passing of an Act for the preventing vexatious removals, which has taken away, or at least diminished much, this inducement for entering into Friendly Societies."*
The beneficial tendency of these institutions is strongly and very judiciously stated in the paper from which the foregoing observation is quoted :—“The great desideratum, with respect to the maintenance of the poor, has always appeared to me to be the encouragement of habits of economy, and of a system of periodical subscription towards their own subsistence. Where men derive support in sickness and old age from their individual efforts, in conjunction with those of their neighbours, they pass through the various periods of trial without that degradation which attends parochial relief; being necessarily amenable to each other for a certain degree of forethought and good conduct, they learn insensibly to be regular in their attention to the earnings of their business, and by acquiring a permanent connexion with their neighbours, they become incapable of those acts of vagrancy which are so wasteful of that main source of national wealth, the labour of the lower orders of the people.”+ These remarks are extracted from a short Memoir, published in the First Report of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. The paper itself is worthy of a perusal, as it contains some interesting details concerning a Friendly Society at Castle Eden, in the county of Durham, on a scale adapted for general use; and exemplifies, strongly, not only how much the poor may be led to do for themselves, but to what a degree of kindness and good fellowship they may be habituated in the management of their common concerns. “I have learnt with pleasure that, in more instances than one, they have collected little sums among themselves to present to their sick and necessitous neighbours, over and above the allowance from the funds of the society, which, as far as I know, is an effect of philanthropy derived from the institution."*
* [Ibid. p. 10.]
+ [Ibid. pp. 10, 11.)
Numberless other testimonies in favour of these establishments might be produced from other writers who have turned their attention lately to the state of the poor ; and it is by such statements, founded on actual experience, and not by speculative reasonings, that our judgment may be safely guided in disquisitions of this nature. In truth, amidst the most striking discordancy of opinion on almost every other point relating to the maintenance of the poor, I do not recollect a single individual of note who has not acknowledged the beneficial effects of friendly societies, as far as their information has extended.
Impressed strongly with these considerations, Mr. Acland, who published in the year 1786 A Scheme for enabling the Poor to provide for themselves, proposed that a general fund should be established on principles in many respects similar to those which had suggested the institutions now under consideration. This plan is said to have received the approbation of Dr. Price. It has been strongly, though somewhat captiously, opposed by Mr. Howlett;t and is objected to for reasons not so questionable, by Sir Frederic Eden. Among these, there are two entitled to peculiar weight; in the first place, that it would operate, in many respects, like a poor-rate ; and secondly, that as the members would be governed by laws not made by themselves, it would want that recommendation
* [Ibid. p. 9.]
which the Increase of our Poor have been ascribed, &c., Part III. sect. iii. P. 109, seq.)
† (Insufficiency of the Causes to
from which friendly societies chiefly derive their popularity and usefulness.*
Among our later writers, some have proposed to extend more widely the beneficial effects of such institutions, by the encouragement of premiums; and others, to render them universal, by employing compulsory regulations to obtain subscriptions from labourers of every kind. But both measures are deprecated with great warmth by all those who have combined with their theoretical views, a proper attention to the feelings and prejudices of the lower orders of the state; the former, as it would create a new branch of public expenditure, the extent of which cannot possibly be foreseen, and the utility of which is far from being certain; and the latter, as it would, in all probability, counteract the ends in view, by converting into a tax an article of economy, which derives its whole value, and its most important moral effects, from the circumstance of its being voluntary. It is extremely remarkable, that the people seem to have felt peculiar jealousy at every legislative interference with this favourite institution; insomuch, that Sir Frederic Eden has expressed his conviction, that if Parliament attempts any farther interference, the spirit of the plan will be greatly damped, if not entirely repressed. Even the Acts already passed, he says, though they have been wisely framed, and do really confer a great benefit, have created much alarm, and have occasioned the dissolution of many societies.T
The only inconvenience which has ever been objected to these institutions is, that they encourage convivial meetings, and thereby occasion a waste to the labourer's family of the fruits of his industry. But it is no solid argument against their general utility, that they are attended with those partial evils which are inseparable from all the devices of human policy. Their aim is not perfection, but improvement; and it is a sufficient proof of their excellence, as Sir Frederic Eden very liberally remarks, “ that they have been found congenial to the social habitudes and prejudices of the labourer; and
* [State of the Poor, Book II. chap. ii.; Vol. I. p. 603, seq.]