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A friendly, helping hand

Sackville College

In 1609, Robert Sackville, 2nd Earl of Dorset, left a sum of money to buy land and "build a convenient house of brick and stone" to be used as an almshouse - ‘an hospitall or collidge’ - for thirty-one poor unmarried persons at East Grinstead, Sussex.

The builders did a terrific job. Sackville College still stands and retains its function as a charitable foundation. Elderly people live in their own modernized flats and share communal rooms in the quadrangle.

Sackville College was built under the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Under these laws local parish people paid for the poor who lived in their parish. They knew them. Those who could work had to work. If necessary, the parish helped them to find jobs. There was a definitely negative feeling about helping "idle rogues" to be idle. In Sackville's case, there was the distinct ambition to do something really fine.

According to James Bartholomew, writing in The Welfare State We're In, the poor laws went through cycles. Sometimes they were benign; sometimes, tough; sometimes, as in the case of workhouses, beastly. In the early 19th century the poor laws were reformed after a Royal Commission thoroughly investigated what was going on, and published a report in 1834.

The report found 1) “welfare damaged the character of those who received benefits”; 2) created a "self-perpetuating dependency”; 3) destroyed self-dignity; 4) made recipients discontented and insistent on “right and income”; 5) enabled employers to pay less because they knew the difference would be made up by the parish; 6) increased rents, for the same reason; 7) discouraged savings since a person with savings could not receive benefits; 8) broke up families as men did not feel they had to support their children; and 9) encouraged fraud.

They recommended some effective, common sense changes.

In the meantime, on their own, British people were tackling the problem of what to do when catastrophe struck and people needed help. A few years earlier, in 1831, Samuel Tuke and Joseph Rowntree responded to the unexpected death of a teacher and the poverty of his wife and children by starting the first friendly society. The people who joined paid a regular sum. If they died, a lump sum was paid to their families. Over the years friendly societies were started to protect against old age, illness, and unemployment. Some catered to professionals. One society was set up by friends meeting in a pub. By 1892 millions of people were insured.

Friendly societies "grew up spontaneously and changed the world. They transformed Britain along with other mutual and cooperative societies. They spread to America, Australia, Canada and elsewhere” (Bartholomew).

The government destroyed them, and set up the welfare state.