Doctors / Benefits Clubs in Wivenhoe in the 1800s onwards

Self-help in Victorian Wivenhoe

Sue Glasspool

The Flag Inn circa 1905

A paragraph in Nicholas Butler’s book The Story of Wivenhoe [pages 94-95] refers to a ledger deposited in the Essex Record Office which records payments made to the Wivenhoe doctors, most of which was collected on a regular basis at local pubs. Looking at this ledger provides an interesting view of the way doctors clubs worked and who paid into them.

How the Doctors / Benefits Clubs came about

The purpose of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 was to cut the cost of poor relief, which had been rising nationwide. It set out that the able-bodied must work and poor relief would be given only in the workhouse where the conditions, which were to be standardised over the whole country, would be such as to deter all but the destitute from applying for relief.

This led to the formation of a number of types of ‘insurance’ club within local communities which would cover sick pay, medical attendance, funeral expenses and even clothing and boot/shoe clubs. The most ubiquitous club was the burial club. This was the one which most families paid into and would do so without fail even if they had to do without other necessities [½d to 3d per week each]; the fear of a pauper burial in a mass grave with no dignity haunted the poor. Even worse the corpses of paupers “on the parish” could be used for dissection by anatomists – this was allowed by the Anatomy Act 1832!  The clubs were held mainly in pubs because they were the only places where men from all walks of life could meet up and conduct business. Despite the propertied class’s belief that the working class were feckless and prone to idleness, they were actually providing for their own and their families welfare.

The Wivenhoe Doctors Ledger and the clubs

The ledger [ERO C227] gives us the doctors’ side of the story. The first page lists the clubs in Wivenhoe, Rowhedge, Alresford and Elmstead with details of the club night. There may be more than one club meeting at each pub – either through its purpose e.g. surgeon or benefits, or because the club was for a specific workforce.


  • “Black Boy “Prosperous” – 3rd Sat in month  
  • The Flag – last Sat in month
  • Black Boy “Durrells” [the ropemakers?] – 1st Sat in month
  • Ship at Launch Benefit – 3rd Sat in month
  • Ship at Launch Surgeons – 1st Sat in month.”

The figure 1s 6d appears next to some  club names – this is probably the amount each member paid per month i.e. 4½d per week.

Later entries which do not indicate that they met in a pub include Harvey and Co. Apprentices, Sainty Benefits, Great Eastern Railway Sick and Orphan, and the local branches of national organisations such as the Ancient Order of Foresters or the Buffalos. There are also amounts for specific doctors – patients could opt to pay in to be seen by a specific doctor.

The accounts are arranged by Quarter Days each year from 1855; this had been the business custom for centuries – when rents were paid and hiring, markets, fairs took place.  i.e. Lady Day 25th March, Midsummer 24th June, Michaelmas 29th Sept, Christmas  25th Dec.

The amounts received for each quarter vary according to the membership numbers and how many clubs were in existence at the time. The total monies received at Lady Day 1855 from about 20 clubs was £92-3s-6d [value today £10,000] – this would usually cover general medical attendance and medicine but not specialist treatments or surgery. Notes have been added regarding specific cases such as fractures which seem to have had a standard extra rate of £1-0-0 in the 1870s.

The Rowhedge Women’s Club

One of the most interesting entries is Rowhedge Women. All the clubs listed above would have been for men only, although their families would have benefited indirectly. Most women’s paid work supplemented the man’s wage and would not have been enough to enable a subscription in her own right and regular childbirth and its complications just could not be covered. Some statistics in the Victoria County History of Essex Vol 10 may give us the reason why there was a doctors club for women in Rowhedge – there were a large number of women, married and single, regularly working in the clothing industry. In the 1871 Census for East Donyland [Rowhedge] the occupation of 101 women is listed as “tailoress” and in 1891 there are 133.  As they are listed as female tailors rather than dressmaker or seamstress they were probably skilled workers for Colchester factories making Army uniforms, possibly outworkers. The women’s club would have had comparable benefits and may have had a childbirth allowance. Sick pay would only be granted if they were too ill to do cooking and housework, and a check would be made! The Rowhedge Club is an early example of women gaining some independence.

How the clubs were organised

The other side of the story is how the clubs were organised – again independence was the watchword. They were set up outside the constraints of employers, parish, poor laws etc. and even when a government department – The Registrar of Friendly Societies – was set up and clubs were encouraged to join, they remained staunchly independent. Unfortunately we do not have any specific records from local clubs but must assume they were run on similar lines all over the country. [See Sources – books by Kidd and Gosden give much detail]

There would be stipulations regarding membership such as being in good health at time of joining, of good moral character, of regular employment or at least the means to pay the subscription at each meeting and there may have been a minimum wage clause or an age limitation. Apart from those clubs formed within a particular workforce it was usual to have men from all trades as long as they could afford to join. Meetings would be held regularly and members must attend; this would promote a social network and a loyalty to the club. Because of this build up of camaraderie there was suspicion amongst the upper classes that the clubs were possibly subversive and also that, as the club night was held in the pub, it was an excuse for excessive drinking. But pubs were often the only place that business meetings could take place.

A committee would be appointed to administer the relief according to the rules of the club; all members would have to take a turn at being on the committee. The funds would be kept in a padlocked box with two or three separate keys needed to open it, each being held by a different committee member. Of course, there could be problems with the clubs as the members were unlikely to have any actuarial experience and could become insolvent. This could cause hardship as older members, who may have paid in for many years and may now be more prone to sickness, would find they could not join another club because of their age. Sickness benefit would be one third to one half of the average weekly wage for the first six weeks and then a smaller amount. Local clubs which ceased are recorded in the ledger e.g. Michaelmas 1879 Ship at Launch “broken up”; any money left in the coffers would have been divided between the current members.

As well as these local clubs, some national organisations grew up with a similar remit, such as the Ancient Order of Foresters (branch, known as a court, in Wivenhoe) and the Oddfellows. These suited those who had occupations which involved travelling the country to find work as they did not have to attend meetings in the same place and would be welcome at other branches. These “affiliated orders” became somewhat like Masonic lodges, with initiation ceremonies, intricate rulebooks , regalia etc and because of the committee roles and the need to report back to the Head Office, could become monopolised by skilled workers with good literacy skills. These organisations were unlikely to become insolvent but would probably cost a worker more as they would be paying for the administration; it was a question of peace of mind – and possibly some elevation in local society?

The demise of the clubs and closing of the ledger

Although the ledger continues until 1935 the number of clubs dwindles as various health and welfare Acts are passed. In 1908 means tested benefits came in for those aged over 70. In 1911 The National Insurance Act, which only applied to wage earners was passed; this covered sick pay and treatment by a doctor, plus unemployment benefit.  The entry for Lady Day 1913 says “National Insurance is free Jan 15 Not on Parish”.  In 1925 the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributing Pensions Act was passed; gradually the state began to organise a welfare system although for some time it was still being administered by the larger ‘affiliated’ clubs.

The last entry referring to a pub-based club in Wivenhoe is in 1928 at The Flag although there are village entries for all four villages covered by the ledger for the next two years. The entry in March 1930 reads “Joined Essex Public Medical service. Patients transferred to this except a few old patients and Alresford”

The accounts cease in 1935 with “Dr Edward Skinner resigned from practice in Wivenhoe Lady Day 1935”.

Links to other pages on this website:

General Sources:

  • Essex Record Office C227- Account book of monies collected from doctors clubs on behalf of successive doctors in Wivenhoe.
  • Gosden, P.H.J.H. The friendly societies in England 1815-1875.  Manchester U.P. 1961.
  • Gorsky, Martin. Self help and mutual aid: friendly societies in 19th century Britain. ReFRESH [Recent Findings of research in economic and social history] No.28. Spring 1999.
  • A history of the county of Essex. Vol. 10: Lexden Hundred (part). OUP for the Institute of Historical Research, 2001. Also available through British History Online
  • Kidd, Alan J. State, society and the poor in nineteenth century England. Macmillan, 1999.


This page was added on 14/09/2020.

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