Occasionally, glimpses of historic village life are provided by news reports and parish news items. They record details of events and institutions as though they were commonplace, as indeed they werein those days. Yet now, it is only by historical research that we can understand what part they played in villagers’ lives. Among such institutions were Preston’s Benefit Clubs.
Today, we are cushioned against the financial implications of illness, unemployment and old age. In the nineteenth century, the last-resort alternatives to loss of income from employment were the Parish Poor Law provisions and the Workhouse. Some villagers didn’t mind approaching Parish officials for Poor Relief - ‘They’re allus a flyin’ ter th’ parish; they goo tew ‘um at ever little tit an’ turn’ - but most villagers detested the thought of ‘going on the parish’ - ‘I ‘ad rather do anything ‘afore I’d ask for Parish money’. And conditions within the walls of the Workhouse were hardly salubrious, being deliberately designed to deter folk from passing through its portals. Many families at Preston were protected from financial emergencies by the earnings of straw plaiting wives and children. Some were fortunate enough to be able to put money aside for rainy days in Benefit Clubs . Though at Harpenden (a village ten miles south-west of Preston), Edwin Grey commented ‘I could hardly see how it was possible for them to save anything from their small wage’ until he noticed ‘that nearly all the thrifty ones were men with only one or two children or no family at all’ and those who were ‘not given to excessive drinking’. These Clubs were formed in the first half of the eighteenth century (the earliest reference found to one at Preston is in 1837) by labourers who collected savings regularly and paid sick, aged and unemployed members of Clubs from the accumulated funds. How else were labourers to store their little hoards? Walking to Hitchin to make deposits in banks took time and energy. If they stashed it about their hovels, there was the risk of fire or theft. Also, as the insurance industry well knows, there is protection in numbers - labourers bandied together could look after each other’s interests. Clubs were able to negotiate discounts for clothing and coal due to bulk-buying for their members. The comparatively better off - the rate-payers - welcomed this thriftiness by the herd. There were less demands on Parish Poor Relief and so their own onerous contributions were reduced.
The rules of a typical Club
1. Contributions to the Club were made usually each month - though in some villages, it was a quarterly arrangement. 2. Admission to the Clubs was limited to men aged between fourteen and forty and the sick and lame were excluded. 3. There was a starting contribution of 2/6d. The monthly contribution was 1/-. In addition, there might be a small levy for liquor on the the Club’s annual Feast Day and a few pence was spent on drink at the inn where the club was held (the weekly wage of a labourer in 1850 was around 9/-). This rule confirms that Clubs were not simply financial institutions, but an essential part of village social life. 4. Perhaps in view of the last rule, there were strict rules in place if men misbehaved at the Club meetings - hefty fines could be enforced if there was a disturbance or if stewards’ calls for silence were ignored and for being drunk at a meeting. 5. Clubs were held between 7 pm and 10 pm in the summer and 6 pm and 9 pm in wintertime - when the Clubroom was clean and warmed by a lit fire. 6. If a member of a minimum of one year’s standing fell on hard times, he would receive 8/- a week for six months, followed by 4/- per week providing his injury was not caused by fighting, drunkenness, gaming or poaching. 7. If a Club member died, 1/- was paid by each member to his widow or next of kin. If a member’s wife died, then each member paid the widower 6d.
The ‘Public House Club’ at Preston. This was held at The Chequers. On Saturday, 7 January 1837, my relative, John Ward, assaulted John Squires as he came out of the door of The Chequers (shown below) ‘where his Club had been held that evening’. This may indicate that the Preston Village club was held on the first Saturday of each month. It was as well that the disturbance was not within the public house - as well as the 15/- fine that Ward incurred, he might have forfeited a further 10/- to the Club!
Benefit Clubs at Preston
Notwithstanding this reported affray, Club night at The Chequers would have been a convivial occasion when the beer flowed - it was a ‘major event in village social life’. Grey writes this of the Harpenden Public House Clubs:
As well as the monthly meetings, each year it is likely that there was an annual feast day at The Chequers - at least there were reported feast days at Kings Walden and it is unlikely that Preston villagers would have allowed their neighbours to have all the fun. Feast days were ‘the fete of the labourer’ when there was plenty to eat and drink with singing, dancing and laughter. They were usually held around Whitsun - which tallies with the date of the reported affray below. In May 1845, Francis Sharpe of Preston, was charged with assaulting John Buck inn-keeper of the Fogmore Fox Inn, Kings Walden. Sharpe and others went to the public house ‘on a day when the club feast was held there and called for beer’. When this was refused, he assaulted Buck and threatened to put in his windows.We are indebted to two Preston school children for an insight into two other Clubs that were established in the village in 1910 - they wrote essays which were published in the Daily Mirror (See link: DM 1910). One wrote of an imaginary Mrs Tidy, ‘I pay into the coal club, so at Christmas I have it out and I have enough to last me through the winter and there is Mrs Untidy shivering with cold just because she won’t pay into the club and there is her husband at the public house spending all his money’. Another girl wrote as a fictional Mrs Tidy, ‘My husband gets £1 a week and I spend 4s for rent, 1/- for the coal club and 3/- for the clothing club. Then I also put 9d by each week in case of illness and the other 10/- I have to use for food. Whether these sums are accurate is a moot point, but they give an indication of what Clubs were in the village and the contributions made by their members.Members saved a small amount each week and collectively were able to negotiate a discount with coal merchants. Within the Club, widows and the infirm were given preferential benefits and occupants of cottages with low rateable values could buy coal at wholesale prices and receive interest on deposits. It operated in much the same way as the Coal Club. The Preston School log book records that on 10 December 1901, seventeen children were ‘absent in afternoon owing to children going to Hitchin to buy clothes with Club cards’. A relative recalls that Hawkins of Hitchin was one of the draper’s shops used by Preston Club. Grey observed of Clothing Clubs,’ These were of much benefit to cottagers, great consultations being held when the Club cards came out as to what material, household linen, or coat or suit could be procured for the amount of money deposited together with the little bonus added. These clothing things were not allowed to be taken home by the cottagers direct from the shops; the shopkeepers had first to send the parcels to the National Schools where each parcel was untied and the contents looked over (by local ladies).... to ensure that all the contents were good, warm, useful items and not so-called finery’.
Preston’s Club Reading Room was built after 1879 - it doesn’t appear on a map of that year - which indicates that it may have been erected by the Pryors. It was home to hundreds of books and newspapers and was built to promote community knowledge and learning. For obvious reasons, the Reading Room was not part of The Chequers inn! The building, which stood on the Kings Walden Road beside the Old Forge, still exists (below):
The Reading Room also seems to have doubled as a Church Hall after St Martin was built and was mentioned frequently in St Mary’s, Hitchin Parish newsletters: In February 1904, because of disappointing attendances at mid-week Services at St Martin, there were hopes that there could be ‘occasional Devotional Meetings in the clubroom. The Easter Vestry was held there in 1904 and it was the venue for the annual Vestry Meeting in May 1908. In 1911, Mr and Mrs Priestly provided ‘hangings’ and lamps for the Village Club and three years later, women who ‘took advantage of the Nursing Fund at Preston and Langley met at the Club and after a delightful tea, enjoyed a pleasant social evening’. The Sunday School had a summer treat there in 1916 when thanks were given to Mrs Ashton and her two daughters, Mary and Carrie (who lived next door), for ‘excellently and punctually preparing such a good tea’. As the grass was wet, a few games were played in the Clubroom followed by competitions and the distribution of prizes concluded the afternoon’s enjoyment. Meanwhile, in 1912, villagers were reminded that there was ‘an excellent library of books at the Club Room and Mr Ashton will be glad to issue volumes for reading at home’. Clearly the Ashtons were closely connected with the running of the Clubroom. The Preston and Langley Women’s Institute was formed at an open meeting of the Club Room on 3 January 1919, but the following year moved to a new location, The Institute Room, which had been newly built by Douglas Vickers at School Lane. It was presented to Mrs Vickers on her fiftieth birthday.
Preston’s Young Men’s Club
There were other clubs at Preston which were not ‘Benefit Clubs’. One is singled out because it had its own Clubhouse - the Young Men’s Club. It was first mentioned in 1903 and appears to have been a social club. Then, in 1908, new premises were constructed for this Club. With a fanfare, the St Mary, Hitchin Parish Newsletter announced, ‘The Club is now completed and very proud we are of it. We must defer any account until after the opening ceremony which is now being arranged. We ought, however, to express our thanks to Mr. Pryor for the making of paths up to the door and also the constructing of a new fence along the front. The whole surroundings will now be very nice and add much to the appearance of the village. Owing to the generosity of Mr. Pryor a site was available adjoining the School. Not only has he given sufficient ground for the building itself but has also given a nice piece of ground about it also fencing it in and making paths. That piece which faces the road has been nicely laid out by Mr. H. Seebohm and set with flowering shrubs. About a year ago the scheme was set on foot and the money collected so that only a deficit of £14 remains at the present moment. Our grateful thanks are due to Mr. Westwood who has built the Club practically with his own hands, doing all the work in his leisure time and charging only the cost of the materials used. The village has indeed been fortunate in finding that a man who had only been a resident for a few months, was willing and able to undertake this work for the sake of others and for the future benefit of this little community. ..... It has been decided that the opening should take the form of a benefit concert for Mr. Westwood and Mrs. Barrington-White very kindly consented to declare the building open.’ From the description above, this new Club House was built beside Preston School, near the road and on land given over to allotments. As it was virtually erected by one man, the edifice was probably less than substantial.
The demise of Benefit Clubs
Scrutinising Hitchin Parish Poor Law payments, it is noticeable that there were no hand-outs to Preston villagers among the several doled out to folk living in Hitchin town.Chris Reynolds, webmaster of Genealogy in Hertfordshire made these illuminating observations concerning this: “After 1835, poor relief was centred on the Union Workhouse so would have been controlled from Hitchin for all the parishes in the Hitchin Union, and the majority of references in any surviving records would have been dominated by Hitchin simply because that is where most of the poor lived.In addition it may be that the majority of the desperately poor lived in slums in Hitchin, and it was probably easier to get agricultural labourers back into work.Before 1835 it was definitely the case that villages looked after their own - and raised rates to pay for it. In bad times this could lead to difficulties in small villages - and I believe that one of the reasons for the post 1835 change arose when a village (Cholesbury, Bucks) went bankrupt because there were too few rate payers and an increasing number out of work.’on parish relief.£
Many of the village benefit clubs were rendered superfluous by the provisions of the National Health Scheme which was inaugurated in 1912. Others were absorbed into nationwide Friendly Societies such as The Ancient Order of Foresters.
“…each member when paying in his quarterly subscription was entitled to a pint of beer free; he could either drink this at the pub or he could take it home. It was all considered to be for the good of the house, and the fee for the so-called free beer was no doubt paid for out of the club funds.I have known cases where the men had become negligent and irregular in their contributions, so much so, that in some instances they have ‘run themselves out’. In other cases the wife very often had to bear the strain, contriving somehow to keep up the subscriptions, probably by money earned by straw plaiting or farm work.For many years I suppose these clubs did very well, the members having joined when young and in full health and vigour, but as time went on, enthusiasm died down, the entry of young members being very, very few: naturally as the members grew old, increasing sickness was experienced, and the funds began to seek fast. The death knell of these public house clubs was sounded on the establishment of a branch of the Ancient Order of Foresters in 1870 at the “Railway Hotel”. This order, with its scientific organisation and higher benefits, quickly absorbed most of the eligible men of the village and surrounding neighbourhood and a bit later on when a juvenile branch was opened, numbers of boys from the village and surrounding hamlets also joined - I, myself, being one of the juvenile members.It was not a great while after the opening of the Foresters’ branch when the “Old Cock Inn” Club broke up, the small remaining balance being divided up amongst its members; the “Silver Cup” Club, being much the stronger, struggled on for a good number of years, but eventually this also shared the same fate. The worst feature of these break-ups being that most of the disbanded members were above the specified age and so debarred from entering the Foresters’ Club - and in some cases the men instead of putting by their share of the balance simply frittered the money away.”