Poor relief in Hitchin

A brief history

By Lewis Stockwell

Hitchin Poor Relief

The poor relief based in and around Hitchin had shaped the way in which the local area looked at obtaining relief and also how the relief givers viewed their role. On many occasions there has been evidence to suggest that a great amount of thought and effort went into relieving and securing some form of payment to the poor, but also to those who have become infirm, lame or had died.

Societies within the town had much to offer the people who needed poor relief, Hitchin had a full range of insurance type societies that would help businessmen and other societies that were mainly aimed the relieving the poor and in some cases educating them. 

Without any great discussion, from archived evidence it is a sure fact that Hitchin was a village that eventually became severely over crowded during the early to mid-nineteenth century and it was this that shaped much of the poor relief being given from societies within the town. The archival evidence that I have had the pleasure to look at has dated back to the 1760s right through to the 1850s and the surprising change of the town, and also the surprising level of poor throughout this long period.  

Article 1

Article 1: “Articles of Agreement, made, concluded and agreed upon, by the Amicable and Brotherly society, to be holden at the house of David Dimsey, and the sign of The Three Horse Shoes, in Hitchin, in the county of Hertford” -J.F. Hennington, Hitchin, March 5, 1762 (M.DCCLXXXIV), Hitchin Museum Archives, Viewed 2010.   This article is the guidelines and rules for joining the “Amicable and Brotherly Society” and this did not go without its strict regulation. The main overview of this society was to act as a primitive pension scheme when members being ill and also when they died; as with other societies found in later years in the county. This was very much a merchant club, with strict rules, and ‘do’s and don’ts’ concerning everything from the gentleman’s behaviour to their expulsion when concerning the failure to pay. It can be ascertained that this was a merchant/businessman’s organisation due to the amount of money expected from each member when joining and when attending.

“Admission into the society shall cost two shillings and a monthly charge thereafter of one shilling, non-payment for three months shall result in expulsion, and any stock of money forfeited as a result” (p.I).               

“Admittance will not be given to over forty years, no lame, fickly, infirm and no men of wicked and disorderly nature or diseased and offences and those whom do not have sufficient fund” (p.V).  

These two above extracts show just some of the aforementioned observations about this society. This society was concerned with ensuring that these business people had funds available in time of illness and when over the age of 65 to be able to live just above subsistence level. As long as the members kept up with their payments it was possible that if they were to become ill, lame, bed ridden or over 65 they would earn 8 shillings a week. This was comparatively more that the average labourers earnings for two weeks. Thus showing that this form of relief was open to a select type of person. However it could be argued that this is not what has been known as poor relief but it is important to show that such societies, that have similarities to modern day health and pension plans, where in existence in the mid-18 century. However the “Amicable and Brotherly” society set out further rules to create a level of etiquette between the men having debates and handling themselves with disagreements.            

“Any violence or known hypocrisy shall result in expulsion, rendered incapable of ever returning” (XIV).

Along with these sanctions came a large amount forfeiting for wrong doing, so not only did these peoples moneys go into a chest to spread the wealth when it was needed. The monetary stock grew and grew each time a member did something wrong, such as speaking out of turn, not addressing stewards correctly, not attending meetings, all this would be at a price of a forfeit worth 2 to 8 shillings and then potentially expulsion. However all of this cash was used for those members who became unwell, aged, or died.   

A Modern version

For the mid-1700s this is quite a modern version of a conjoined masonic order and insurance policy. This is definitely a way of instilling etiquette within local town merchants and also a surprisingly modern way of spreading wealth in times of change.

I was surprised to see, when reading through the article to see 18 century ink beside each paragraph, where the meeting had obviously gone through the rules and standards expected, and further to this to see that some annotations had been added to some of the paragraphs. 

The Hitchin Friendly Institution

“The Hitchin Friendly Institution – Est. May 1827″ – This society had a policy very much like that of the 1762 Amicable and Brotherly society. However the Hitchin Friendly Institution a closer similarity between a health shield insurance policy and the way in which it would be run at a directors level, with 1 chairperson, 16 directors and members of different levels due the amount of funds that were placed by individuals into the accounts. The object of this society was to “raise funds by means of subscriptions and by voluntary contribution; a fund for the mutual relief and maintenance in sickness, old age and infirmity”. 

What is quite important to note about this institution was that everyone within 6 miles of the parish of Hitchin was a member by default as long as they were of good character. The Subscription cost were of £2 a year for benefaction and no less that 5s for to be an honorary member of the institution. What is important to note however, is that by this time, the institution was using the Bank of England to handle its finances and deposits “for the greatest benefit of the institution.”

Lord Dacre

This may be due to Lord Dacre who was the President and the Esquires as directors. The institution was held in the committee room of the Workhouse in Hitchin, with four appointed stewards who’s job it was to ascertain who was ill, investigate the state of fund and the overall management of the institution.

Payments to Members:

First Class 2s weekly bed lying pay
1s weekly walking pay
2s weekly for 65+
£2 upon death.

“For any payments to occur a membership of one year is mandatory and no subscriptions to other organisations”. Admissions were subject to certificates of character, age and health.

Society for bettering the conditions of the poor

The third article I analysed was the “Society for bettering the conditions of the poor, first meeting – 15 November 1832”. This article shows the lengths at which some societies would go to ensure a greater level of support for the poor in the local area. The committee decided to divide the parish into sub districts with appointed sub-committees and female visitors. It was the females role to have general superintendence of their inhabitants by doing the following things:       

  • Better observation of the Sabbath
  • Education of Children
  • Cleanliness of house and person
  • Furnishing with books and instructions and distributions of clothes and necessities. 

It could be argued that this was an evangelical organisation, but I think it was more than that. This was not just preaching, this organisation was given sums of money, making libraries and it even started a school in the village of Langley with subsidised cost a week of 1d a week, and the society would pay the teacher, Mrs Jackson 3d a week for each child. The society paid for supplies and for the general outfit of the school. The society tried other such things as subsidised soup kitchens at 3d for for a quart of ‘high quality’ soup. This failed however because there was not enough people to “warrant the expense”. The society supported a working man’s library based mainly on mechanics and also a cottage garden where the most productive workers would be given rewards for their labour.    

Brief Costs – Treasury£Sd
Subscriptions105     86
Clothing  4500
Library books3150
Book case2100
 - Langley School outfit1100
 - Payment to mistress610

These accounts show the extent that societies were going to to provide support of different kinds to the poor in Hitchin and the surrounding area. The society was deeply concerned with the moral and intellectual conditions of the poor throughout the districts. 

This page was added on 03/03/2010.

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  • Is there a source for Society for bettering the conditions of the poor? I have looked for this in the Hertfordshire Archives & Library Services catalogue and not found anything. I would like to consult it for my research on soup kitchens. Thanks

    By Phil Carstairs (18/03/2018)