England Benevolent Societies, Life Assurance Companies (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Benevolent Societies[edit | edit source]

There were thousands of local benevolent groups during the 18th -20th centuries, some allied into national societies. Just a couple of the wide variety are noted here, but systematic survey of local sources in your area will uncover records of several which may be relevant to your family.

Co-operative Societies[edit | edit source]

The Co-operative Movement grew from one small shop with four staple foods for sale and open two nights a week in Rochdale, Lancashire in 1844. The 28 weavers who started the co-op were committed to economic democracy to collectively operate it. Each member had one share and one vote. They concentrated on pure, unadulterated foods, a safe home for small savings, sharing in profits and finding work for unemployed members. The number of co-op stores grew quickly, and by 1900, 1,700,000 people in England were members of consumer co-ops like Rochdale. In the days of resale price maintenance, larger retailers like the co-op could make a good profit so cash refunds (dividends) were given to the members. My mother bought as many items as she could at the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) as divi was earned on everything from fruit juice to funerals. Up to the mid-1950s after the days’ purchases you lined up at a small booth where thin metal checks were issued for the total amount. Twice a year the divi rate was announced (about 10%) and the housewives lined up again for their cash, or saved it for a rainy day in their share account.

Records of the co-operative societies include:

  • Lists of members’ names, addresses and share account numbers.
  • Records of participation in co-op sponsored cultural and educational activities.
  • Magazines, for example The Wheatsheaf (later the Co-operative Home Magazine).
  • CWS Annuals.

The original shop in Rochdale is now a museum for the movement and its history can be found at their website. The Library of the Co-operative Union is at Holyoake House, Hanover Street, Manchester M60 0AS and Lazell (A Check at the Co-op. Family Tree Magazine Vol. 9 #2, page 44-45 ) and Abraham (Co-op Check in Readers’ Letters. Family Tree Magazine Vol. 9 #11, page 18.) are useful sources. For local societies do an online search with your town name and co-op or co-operative society, and contact the local archives and public library for the many histories that were written at the 150th anniversary in 1994.

Dorcas Societies[edit | edit source]

Dorcas Societies, named after a benevolent needlewoman in the New Testament, were not officially friendly societies as they were women’s groups who assisted the sick and destitute. Typically led by the minister’s wife, sisters and daughters, Dorcas groups sewed garments and linens for confinements and other needs. A detailed examination of a Dorset village Dorcas Society is presented by Hunt (The Dorcas Society. Religion, Philanthropy and Community - The Interrelationships in a Dorset Fishing Village in the 1880s. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol. 26 #2, page 49-53).

Life Assurance Companies[edit | edit source]

The profitability of a life assurance company depended very much on its collection and analysis of data. An analysis of mortality rates for Northampton allowed the Equitable Company, founded in 1762, to be successful, and understandably, life assurance companies were enthusiastic supporters of population censuses.

Life assurance companies were different from commercial insurance ones, as they tended to be organized as mutual societies, with the profits distributed amongst the members after paying administration costs.

The companies employed hundreds of local agents who visited homes at a regular time each week to collect the premiums, much as the friendly societies and industrial assurance companies had done. The curious reader will ask Where did the early life agent (or census enumerator) keep his pen and ink? From the late 1850s home delivery boys had used indelible pencils—you could always tell one by his black tongue! Writing policies on the doorstep required pen and ink and, in the absence of an expensive (and unreliable before the 1880s) fountain pen, the agent would use a steel nib pen with ink held in a thin piece of horn held by a clip in his lapel. This would be replenished with the eye-dropper top from his ink bottle carried in his pocket, a practice continued until the First World War (Shirley).

Types of Life Assurance[edit | edit source]

Life assurance policies are contracts requiring the insuring office to pay a sum of money after a certain period has expired or when the policy holder dies. The certainty of payment makes life assurance different from other kinds of insurance. The main types of policies the researcher will see are:

  • Term (temporary) assurance for payment if the insured dies within a fixed term.
  • Whole life assurance for payment at death of the insured.
  • Endowment assurance for payment at the end of a fixed period or earlier on death of the insured.

Life assurance companies also sell annuities where, for a payment of a lump sum or by installments, the company will make regular payments for a specific period, either starting immediately or at a later defined date (deferred).

Records of Life Assurance Companies[edit | edit source]

This large and little-used source of information on policy holders can give details not available elsewhere such as their health, movements, progression of their careers and habits. Extra premiums were charged for corpulence, intemperance, opium-eating and during residence overseas. Some records date back to the 16th century and the most well-documented early company was the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, chartered in London in 1706.

Life Assurance was available for many special groups such as clergymen, doctors and lawyers. In 1845 the Inland Revenue Life Assurance and Benevolent Fund Society was set up to grant annuities and allowances to widows and orphans of Excise officers, and from 1849 it was extended to all Inland Revenue staff. This Society lasted until 1972 and membership registers from 1843-1966 are at TNA in class IR 92, see their website.

Cockerell and Green (The British Insurance Business, 1994) have a history of the various companies catering to all kinds of needs in the UK. Palgrave (Insurance Records in Readers’ Letters and Queries. Practical Family History Vol. 39, page 29. See follow-up in PFH #45 page 22) discusses the Pearl Life Assurance company’s records.

Accident Assurance[edit | edit source]

The term accident insurance is used to cover all other types except marine, aviation, fire and life insurance. These include personal accidents, burglary, farming losses, glass windows, boilers and engineering, electrical plant, liability and many others. A succinct history of accident insurance is given by Cockerell and Green (The British Insurance Business. Sheffield Academic Press., 1994) who also list the records and archival depositories of most of the companies involved in life and accident insurance.

Risk of accident to persons as well as to property has been insurable since the late 17th-century, with such schemes as assurance against ransom, venereal disease and impressment into the navy. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a permanent market for personal accident insurance was developed. Since the business developed later than other forms of insurance it involved a wider geographic and social variety of people.

One of the perils of life in the mid-19th century was steam railway travel as shown in this interesting document evocative of the period:

Railway Insurance Certificate issued by the Railway Passengers Assurance Company dated July 25th 1864, printed document with manuscript insertions, issued to Edward Wright, a commercial traveller, with an attractive engraved titlepiece featuring an early steam train, fine condition.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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