Benevolence and Self-Reliance in Leigh in the 19th Century

BENEVOLENCE AND SELF-RELIANCE IN LEIGH IN THE 19th CENTURY – the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society, the Leigh Coal Fund, the Leigh Prosecuting Society

See article entitled: Leigh Poor and the Leigh Poor House
See article entitled: Leigh Prosecuting Society

Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society
Leigh Coal Fund
Leigh Prosecuting Society

The Poor Law Act of 1601 put the responsibility of caring for the poor, sick and destitute of a parish on the Church and its Vestry, paid for by a poor rate levied on wealthier parishioners.  The money raised was distributed by the appointed Overseers of the Poor to needy parishioners, whether their poverty was as a result of sickness, unemployment or old age.  The relief generally came in the form of outdoor relief – that is the provision of money, food, clothing and other goods to paupers who continued living in their own cottages or with relatives.  The able-bodied would sometimes be given work.  In the 18th century there also developed a system of indoor relief with the establishment of workhouses which were mainly intended for the sick, the elderly or orphans.  This system of poor relief operated until 1834.  In Leigh, as well as offering outdoor relief, the parish also had a small Poor House – or Workhouse – built on land that had previously been given to the parish to provide for the poor.  There were also three further tenements on this land again specifically to house the poor of the parish.  The Poor House and these tenements were located where Saxby Wood is today (see Leigh Poor and the Leigh Poor House).  Of course, some who fell on hard times could be helped by their own families, if they fell ill or had an accident and could not work but this would never be the case for everyone.

This system of poor relief continued well into the 18th century, but with an increasing and more mobile population, it became inefficient and very expensive and there were various attempts to reform it, but without much success.   Finally, in 1834, a new Poor Law Act came into force, which established a system of Poor Law Unions covering several parishes (in the case of Sevenoaks Poor Law Union it consisted of six parishes).  This Union would run a Workhouse to house the area’s paupers.  However, this new Poor Law Act brought about a more draconian system, distinguishing between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor and the Sundridge Workhouse was not a place you would want to end up.  The censuses for the Sundridge Workhouse show very few people ‘born Leigh’ being housed there, although having said that, we do not know whether there were other people there who had lived in Leigh at some point but where Leigh had not been their place of birth.

The Leigh Poor House continued for a while after 1834 but eventually it was converted into three individual lodgings by Leigh Vestry and along with the other three tenements on the land, they were rented out to Leigh’s poor.  The meadows on which they had been situated were also rented out.  In the 1850s the Poor House tenements and the three parish tenements were replaced by two blocks of cottages which were purchased by Samuel Morley in 1879. The Vestry also had other parish cottages available through bequests left to it, such as three cottages located in what is now the garden to the east of South View, later exchanged for two cottages on the south side of the Green.1   Thus Leigh Vestry continued to try and look after its poor although now instead of appointing overseers of the poor, the parish appointed Guardians of the Poor, but only the most destitute would end up in Sundridge Workhouse.

Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society
In addition to the Church’s continued role in helping Leigh’s poor, better off parishioners took measures into their own hands and introduced another way to help those who might fall on hard times.  In fact, the village in many ways attempted to remain self-reliant and to look after itself at a time when there was no social security or welfare outside that provided by family, Church, the various charitable bequests or as a last resort the provisions of the 1834 Poor Law Act. In addition, in the late 1820s the village had decided it was time for Leigh to have its own doctor and Dr Charles Foster Gregory arrived in the village.  We find Dr Gregory’s name involved in many aspects of village life and among those who, in 1849 decided to create a society to help alleviate hardship, ill health or accident and the effect that these things may have on a family’s income.  There was an awareness that anyone could be affected by unforeseen circumstances, in particular to their health.  It is possible that the changes that had taken place over the previous 15 years since the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834 had prompted Leigh to take some action.  The Society which was set up was known as the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society (later changed to the Leigh Good Intent Friendly Society), intended for the benefit of its members – not for the village as a whole.  As its later name suggests, it was a friendly society – which was a form of mutual insurance to which members subscribe in exchange for old age, sickness and unemployment benefits and, although the first friendly society was set up in the 16th century, most were established in the late 18th or early 19th centuries.  In Leigh, the establishment of their society came slightly later, on 11 June 1849 at a meeting at the Porcupine Inn.  It was set up under the provisions of an Act of Parliament2 “for raising by contributions and donations, a stock or fund for the mutual relief and maintenance of the members thereof, in sickness old age and infirmity.”3   Its aims were:

‘Whereas divers persons did in the year one thousand eight hundred and forty-nine, form themselves into a Society, to be called “THE LEIGH GOOD INTENT BENEFIT SOCIETY” and to be held at the Porcupine Inn Leigh, in the county of Kent, for the purpose of administered relief to such of its members as might be afflicted with sickness, lameness, blindness or any other infirmity to which human nature is exposed, which presses with great severity on those whose incomes are limited, and derived from their own personal exertions, and who in time of calamity must severely feel the want of such provision, unless by their industry, prudence and economy, with the blessing of providence they have been able to provide for such an event.”4


Opening page of the rules of the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society on its foundation in 1849.
From pages from the Rules of the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society 1868



The Rules of the Society defined how it would be managed and how its money would be used.  They go into considerable detail, listing how its management committee would be formed and the roles allotted, and how they would be elected and removed; the duties of the principal stewards and the secretary of the Society; how to join, the fees, dates of meetings, how the monies would be kept, the benefits determined and paid, and a list of fines and forfeits if rules of the Society were contravened; there were rules which determined exclusion from the Society and what would happen if you found yourself in the workhouse or you died.

The meetings of the Society would be held at the Porcupine Inn (in the 1860s its name changed to the Goat’s Head Inn) on the second Monday of every month – in the evening when the books and accounts would be open for inspection by the members. There was also a General Meeting of the Society on the third Monday in July at the Porcupine which would be followed by attendance at church.  The Society also allowed itself an annual dinner in July.  It could not be dissolved without the consent of five-sixths of its members.

The Officers of the Society consisted of three trustees (or treasurers), two stewards, two deputy stewards, a secretary and an elected chairman (or president).  There was a committee of management of eleven members (the principal stewards and one of the trustees initially to form part of the said committee of management). The first secretary was Robert Humphrey (1806-1855).5  We do not know who took over this role after his death in 1855, but in 1867 and 1868 the role of secretary was performed by his nephew, another Robert Humphrey (1839-1869), the son of his brother, John.  This Robert died in March 1869 – and in April 1869, Leonard Martin is given as secretary.

The number of members of the Society was unlimited, although looking at the accounts of 1867 and 1868 it appears that the members were only men, although there were funeral payments made to the wives of members. It would be the men of Leigh who would be considered ‘working men’, although the census does show that women also had occupations, primarily in the domestic field.

The Rules specified annual elections of the trustees and secretary at the annual meeting to be held on the third Monday of July.  The stewards would ensure that the sixteen very detailed pages of rules were kept.  The fines and forfeits ranged from 3d to 2/6d for various offences – absence or lateness at meetings, for swearing, cursing, laying wagers, for ‘bad’ behaviour such as not going to church on the day of the Annual Meeting in an orderly and decent form, for communicating what is mentioned in the club room, respecting the approving or disapproving of any person presenting himself to become a member, for refusing to serve the office of deputy steward, to name but a few.

Members had to be between 18 and 40 when joining the Society and paid 5s entrance money and 1/6d per month – members had to be admitted by a vote.  They could remain members after the age of 40 if they continued to pay their subscriptions.

The amount paid out to a member if he suffered an illness or injury was defined in the Rules, but a member had to have belonged to the Society for more than six months.  Thus if a member was unable to follow his occupation, he received 10s a week, but if the infirmity was caused by a fracture, there was a further one guinea.  The payment could last up to a year (or 12 months of payments within 18 months): then the payment went down to 5s a week.  “If any member be afflicted with blindness or any other permanent affliction, not brought on by his own misconduct, which shall render him incapable of following his employment, the same being declared by a medical man, he shall be allowed 3/6d a week during his incapability but this article shall not preclude such member from following any other employment, whereby his earnings do not exceed five shillings a week”.  The “medical man” whose judgement was to be given would be Dr Gregory who was also one of the three founding members.  Dr Gregory, surgeon of Leigh, received an annual fee of £2.0.0 for examining any sick member of the Society. It is not clear whether this sum included his charge for treating the patient or for just for checking that the Society member really was ill.

However, if the illness was “occasioned by quarrelling or any other conduct that is repugnant to good morality, no benefit shall be allowed.”  Furthermore, if a member who was receiving benefit was caught earning money without the stewards’ permission or caught more than a mile from his home or caught  “addicting himself to immoderate drinking or gaming, quarrelling or being guilty of any other immoral conduct; or being absent from home after six o’clock in the evening during the winter months or eight o’clock during the summer months; or refusing to accompany the steward to be examined by a medical man”  or various other naughtinesses, then he could be “fined, suspended or excluded as the Committee think proper”.

If any member of the Society was reduced to the workhouse, then he was allowed 1s a week; and if a member died – either in the parish or even in the Workhouse – his funeral expenses were paid.  The funeral benefit was £4 for a member, or £2.10.0 for the wife of a member in 1849, but in the amended Rules of 1867 this had increased to £6 and £4 respectively.  However, under rule XXX “any member suffering from, or illness arising from, the veneral (sic) disease, shall not receive any benefit or pay whatever from the society, and in the case of death therefrom, the funeral allowance to be withheld.”

The Rules of the Society were amended several times but in 1867 the Society also changed its name to the ‘Leigh Good Intent Friendly Society’.   Some rules were amended.  One notable change is that under the rule that had previously listed details in respect of death of the member, and the payment to be made to the widow or next of kin or assigns of the deceased member towards the funeral had increased as mentioned above, but there was an added paragraph that said “no sum of money shall be assured to be paid on the death of a child, under ten years of age, except the actual funeral expenses not exceeding £3 to be paid to the undertaker; and no sum shall be paid on death without the production of such certificate of a surgeon or coroner …”.

In the accounts for the year ending 30 June 1867, benefits paid out were £103.15.10 to members (their incapacity having been assessed by one of the stewards or by Dr Gregory), with expenses of £37.1.0, while income from the subscription of one hundred and sixty-six members amounted to £154.5.6 with a further £9.12.0 in donations from prominent parishioners such as Thomas Baily, the Rev. May and Dr Gregory himself. Mr William Crandall who had sold Dr Gregory land on which to build his house, ‘The Limes’, features as a donor.   The contributions from the twelve donors – who include one lady, Mrs Porter – show a generosity among the more well-to-do of the village but the main basis for the Society was a practical one – a scheme of sickness benefit.   After running for eighteen years, the Society’s accumulated assets amounted to £1,317.4.11 – today that sum would be about £107,000 based on the retail price index6.   This figure included £1,258.12.6 in stocks, 3 per cent Consols, and cash in the hands of Treasurer and Stewards of £58.12.5.  In general, members were off work for two or three months but it varied from a few weeks to John Jenner who was off for seven months in 1868, receiving £13-16-0 (today that figure would be about £1,120 based on the retail price index7), a reasonable sum for an “ag lab” who might hope to earn £20 a year if he were lucky and employed for the whole twelve months.  It was inevitable that not all those who fell ill recovered.  In 1867 Richard Shoebridge died, as did the wives of William Gasson and Edward Offin and their relatives were paid £6 or £4 (£487 or £325 in today’s terms8) as a funeral allowance.  Although it is not a perfect comparison to use – being forty-three years later – in February 1910 Harry Faircloth, the Leigh ‘Wheelwright, Smith, Carpenter, Undertaker & C.’ charged the Fitzjohn family £4.11s for the funeral of Susan Fitzjohn and £4.0s.6d for the funeral of James Fitzjohn a couple of weeks later. [see FITZJOHN Family].   So, in 1867, payments of £4 and £6 were not unreasonable amounts.  The names of recipients are shown in the June 1867 and June 1868 accounts.

In the year to June 1868, the accumulated assets had increased to £1,409.17.7 and annual income from members’ subscriptions was down to £148-10-0 as there were fewer members – namely one hundred and sixty for that year.

The two years, for which we have the accounts, show that the scheme was a success – not only for those who benefited by receipt of payments but also for the Society itself which appeared to be prospering.

By looking at the censuses for the period, we can determine some of the occupations of the Society’s members and hence their position in Leigh society.
Henry Hope:                  Gardener
Edward White:               Labourer
George Hitchcock:        Labourer
Richard Shoebridge:      Agricultural Labourer
Thomas Humphrey:       Agricultural Labourer
William Wicking:            Shoemaker
Henry Groves:               Brick maker
John Jenner:                 General Labourer
John Cherriman:            Ball maker
David Chantler:             Agricultural Labourer
John Bamblett:              Gunpowder maker
William Martin:               Cricket ball maker
Joseph Stone               Agricultural Labourer
Jesse Lidlow:                Gunpowder Maker
Therefore, even agricultural labourers, whose earnings were among the lowest in rural communities, were prepared to pay to be a member of the Society.  They saw the benefit in looking after their own affairs and looking out for their welfare and that of their families.

Unfortunately, the papers we have on the Society in the Leigh Historical Archives are few and we do not know how long the Society continued, when and why it stopped and what happened to the funds.  There appear to be no records on the Society at Kent Archives either.  It was proving very successful in 1868.  Perhaps it lasted until the Liberal Government introduced a contributory scheme of sick pay with their National Insurance Act of 1910.

Below are pages from the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society Accounts:

Good Intent Benefit Society June 1867-1868 – name of members and amount of benefit received.
Good Intent Benefit Society June 1866-1867 – name of members and amount of benefit received.



Accounts of the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society year to June 30, 1867
Accounts of the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society year to June 30, 1868


Resolutions of the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society 27 April 1868 at meeting held in the Leigh Club Room at the Goat’s Head Inn (formerly Porcupine Inn)
Resolutions of Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society at their meeting of 26 April 1869



Leigh Coal Fund
Another Society that was set up in Leigh was the Leigh Coal Fund and shows another way the village looked after itself.  The Leigh Historical Society has only one set of accounts for this particular ‘society’, for 1848/499.  Again it was funded by subscriptions and some familiar names appear on the list of subscribers, including the Rev. May and his sister, Lord de Lisle and Sir J S Sidney (who still owned a fair amount of the west end of the Parish of Leigh) – each giving between £5 and £1 – Dr Gregory, H. Constable (the builder), T. Waite (baker – plus owner/occupier of the beerhouse) and Robert Humphrey, each of whom gave five shillings and even Mrs Fuller, the brickworks owner who gave half a crown.  The Baily family do not feature amongst the subscribers.

The Accounts show a balance brought forward of £16.11.4 and subscriptions of £11.2.6, with a total for various receipts coming to £47.7.4.  The accounts mention a disbursement to Mr Waite for allowing the depositing of coals for the last seven winters – thus we can assume that the Fund was set up in about 1841/42.  (In 1842 the railway had come to Penshurst and before then coal had to  be brought from the pithead to the coast, then by ship to Rochester, then by barge to Tonbridge: by the time it reached Leigh it would have been too expensive for all but the most wealthy).

However, we do not know how long the Leigh Coal Fund continued but whilst in existence it was funded by subscriptions from the wealthier residents and was able to provide coal either free or at subsidized prices.   According to Lawrence Biddle’s item in the parish magazine in July 1994, the Churchwardens appear to have ordered 24 tons of coal to be delivered at a cost of 23 shillings a ton and this would probably have been delivered to the Goods Yard at Penshurst Station for onward transportation from Penshurst to Mr Waite’s yard in Leigh.   Leigh parishioners helped with the scheme, for the accounts show that eight local farmers each “gave carriage of coals” of 33 tons without making any charge: presumably they all had carts and Mr Waite, mentioned above, held the main supply of coal in his yard.  These farmers were Mr Usherwood of Ensfield Farm, Mr Potter of Prices Farm, Mr Wells of Priory Farm, Mr Searle of Great Barnetts, Mr Gasson of Charcott, Mr Jeffery of Cinder Hill, Mr Legg of Wickhurst Farm and Mr Bellingham of Leigh Park Farm.  Then 145 bushels of coal, about a fifth, bought by the Fund were given “to the most needy and sick poor” for free and a further 595 bushels were sold at 6d per bushel to parishioners.   This was just about half price and the deficit was made up by the subscribers as named above.



Leigh Coal Fund Accounts 1849




Leigh Prosecuting Society
Another Society set up in the 19th century in Leigh was known as the Leigh Prosecuting Society [See Leigh Prosecuting Society].  This Society is another example of Leigh’s self-reliance, although its aim was more for the protection of the well-to-do, particularly farmers in the community, than providing help to the poor.  Parishes had had to rely on their own parish constable for centuries.  In 1839 the Metropolitan Police Force had been set up in London and in 1835 Boroughs and 1839 Counties were empowered to create local forces, but only in 1856 were they required to do so.  Therefore, there were those in the village who decided they needed to look after their own interests when it came to apprehending those responsible for wrongdoing.  It did this by means of offering membership by payment of an entry fee and subscriptions based on the rental value of the member’s property/land.  The income would be used to defray the expenses of the Society enabling it to offer rewards to those who apprehended wrongdoers, such as their own appointed constable or a member of the Society, and also to pay costs towards bringing a criminal to justice.

Again, the accounts of the Society give the names of the members and in effect their position and wealth in Leigh society as well as those caught and the types of offences committed.  Some familiar names appear as members, including those who were members of the other societies mentioned above, or who were members of the Church Vestry or its churchwardens or overseers.  We do not know when the Society was founded but it had existed from at least the mid-1830s and was dissolved in 1856.


Leigh in the 19th century was still a farming community, its life and activities – particularly for the poorer in the society – very much centred around the village, Church and the local towns; a time still when people did not necessarily travel very far afield, where life was precarious and sickness could lead to unemployment and poverty, where there was no welfare state to fall back on, and until 1856 no national police force. But it appears also that in Leigh in the 19th century there was a social awareness and moves by many of the better off in the village – who had the time, motivation, the money and also the education – to help improve the lot of those less fortunate as well as protect members against crime.  The examples given above are some ways in which the village sought to be both self-reliant as well as benevolent towards its inhabitants.

JOYCE FIELD (July 2017)

The Leigh Historical Society Archives: “Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society” – rules and accounts
Leigh Coal Fund Accounts
Leigh Prosecuting Society Account Book and miscellaneous papers (Leigh Archives)
Lawrence Biddle:  Leigh in Kent 1550-1900
Ancestral Trails: Mark Herber
1 There used to be three cottages located to the east of South View.  In 1665 they had been sold to William Saxby (of Ramhurst) In 1676 he (William Wood) created a trust for the poor of Leigh and transferred these cottages to the trustees.  By mid-19th century they were in poor condition and pulled down and replaced by three attached cottages.  In August 1913 Samuel hope Morley gave the charity trustees two cottages on the south side of the Green in exchange and had the three attached cottages pulled down.  (See Lawrence Biddle “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900 p. 133, although note date given of 1765 for William Saxby creating a trust for the poor should in fact be 1675 – see Leigh Parochial Charities on LHS website)
2 Act 10 Geo. IV c.56 as amended by 4 and 5 Wm IV., c40
3 Rules and Regulations of the Leigh Good Intent Benefit Society: established 11 June 1849
4 Ibid.
5 Robert Humphrey, according to his Will dated 21 September 1855 was the blacksmith on the Green.  However, in the 1841 and 1851 censuses he is also listed as a grocer.  Robert Humphrey was involved in many of the village’s organizations, such as clerk of Leigh Vestry and he was also secretary of the Leigh Prosecuting Society and Leigh Coal Fund.
6 Website: Measuring Worth which gives a range of £107.000 – £2,636,000 depending on the criteria for the comparison.
7 Ibid. Again the calculated amount depends on the criteria for the comparison, the retail price index comparison is the lowest figure.
8 Ibid.  Again ‘Measuring Worth’ gives a range of figures, but the lowest values it gives are:£4 today could be worth £325, £6.00 today could be worth £488 using the retail price index.  However, the average cost of funeral today could fall between £3,000 – £8,000.
9 In Leigh Historical Society Archives