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The Insurance Society



Matthew Boulton was unusual among eighteenth (or later!) industrialists in combining a healthy regard for his own commercial success with a regard for the health and well being of those workers who created that success. This was expressed by means of the Insurance Society, for those employed at the Soho Manufactory, later including those working at the Soho Foundry.


Although the exact date of its establishment is uncertain, it must have been some while before 1782, as in that year a copy of the Rules was sent by John Hodges from Soho to Dr Thomas Percival of Manchester, who had enquired into the workings of the Society, at which time the Society was in a thriving condition with a balance in the 'Treasure Box' said to exceed £120. Dr Percival was engaged in studying the demographics and mortality of the cotton workers in Manchester with a view to improving their conditions and life expectancy, and took a wide interest in social matters.


Whatever the precise date of its foundation, the Soho Insurance Society was certainly among the earliest schemes for workmen's compensation. The scheme covered temporary injury and sickness, though chronic sickness and long-term disability were not covered with quite such generosity. Grants for the costs of members' funerals were also made.


Remarkably for its time, workmen who left Soho after seven years or more service could remain members of the Society, paying in, and drawing out, from their new place of abode, though earlier versions of the Rules apparently did not contain this provision as shortage of labour, and measures to prevent mobility, were significant concerns during the 1770s and 1780s.


The Insurance Society was also a means of regulating the performance and behaviour of the workforce, setting out fines and forfeits for various acts of omission and commission. Noteworthy is the fact that the fines and forfeits were paid into the Insurance Society's funds, not into the owner's pocket! Josiah Wedgwood, a fellow member of the Lunar Society, visited Soho on several occasions to see how his friend dealt with the question of workplace discipline.


The Rules of the Society, in a version dating from after the opening of the Soho Foundry in Smethwick in January 1796, are set out in full, below.

Heading from the Rules of the Insurance Society


That every male person (except as provided by the 19th Article) who is employed in the SOHO MANUFACTORY and SOHO FOUNDRY, and earns two shillings and sixpence per week, or upwards, shall be a member of this society, subject to the approbation of the elders.



Each person becoming a member of this society not to be entitled to receive pay, unless from an accident met with in his employ, until he has been in the club three months.



Each member shall pay to the treasure box agreeable to the table following, which is divided into eight parts, viz. the member who is set down at two shillings and sixpence per week, shall pay one halfpenny per week; five shillings, one penny; seven shillings and sixpence, three halfpence; ten shillings, two pence; twelve shillings and sixpence, two-pence halfpenny; fifteen shillings, three-pence; seventeen shillings and sixpence, three-pence halfpenny; twenty shillings, four-pence. None shall exceed twenty shillings per week; and if any member sets himself down for more or less than he earns on an average, with an intent to defraud, he shall forfeit five shillings to the box; but the committee shall have power at any time to inspect his average earnings, and to fix the weekly pay to the box.



That the affairs of this society be managed by six elders and a committee, the elders to be appointed by Mr Boulton, for the purpose of inspecting the conduct of the acting committee, and determining in any material cases that may from time to time happen. The Committee to consist of six member of this society, three new members to be chosen by the committee existing at the time of their election.



The name of every member shall be registered in a book, in which their payments shall be regularly put down every Monday morning; and if any member omits paying his due more than two Mondays, he shall forfeit to the box as much as is then due, viz. if four-pence is due, he shall pay eight-pence, and so on in the same proportion.



The committee shall visit the sick every day in their turns, and any one making default shall forfeit sixpence to the box, unless he shall be prevented by a sufficient cause, in which case he shall, under a like penalty, give notice to the next in turn, who shall visit for forfeit sixpence, and so on. The committee to be allowed half a day each week for visiting the sick.



If any member is sick, lame, or incapable of work, he shall give one clear day’s notice to the committee, and immediately after such notice expires he shall be entitled to receive as follows during his illness (except as provided by the second article) viz. if he pays in the box for two shillings and sixpence, he shall receive one shilling per week; if for five shillings, two shillings; if for seven shillings and sixpence, three shillings; if for ten shillings, four shillings; if for twelve shillings and sixpence, five shillings; if for fifteen shillings, six shillings; if for seventeen shillings and sixpence, seven shillings; and if for twenty shillings, eight shillings. According to these rates shall every sick person be paid by the committee-man every Saturday, so long as the fund is upwards of one hundred pounds. In case of neglect of such payments by the committee-man on each Saturday, he shall forfeit one shilling to the fund for every such neglect.


If on representation the stipulated allowance is found insufficient for the sick, the committee, with the consent of the elders, shall allow an extra sum for such time as they may think proper.



If the committee can make it appear that any member feigns himself ill, he shall forfeit five shillings to the box, besides being publicly exposed; or if they can make it appear that his illness proceeds from any intemperance, such as drunkenness, debaucher, quarrelling, or fighting, &c. he shall not be entitled to receive any pay from the society until ten days after he has given notice to the committee; or if any one be found drinking at an alehouse during the time he is on the box, he shall no longer be deemed worthy of pay; and members not declaring themselves off the box immediately on returning to work to be fined one shilling.



One of the committee, in turn, shall attend every Monday morning to receive the money, and he shall be assisted by an accomptant appointed by the elders, who shall pay such accomptant for his trouble out of the funds of the society.



All money received every Monday morning shall be recorded in a book kept for that purpose, which book the committee shall at all times have free recourse to, to see that the accounts are fairly kept; and such money so received shall be immediately paid into the hands of a treasurer appointed by the elders.



When any member dies belonging to this society, every person in the club shall pay an extra week’s club money, if found necessary, and there shall be allowed for the funeral expenses of the deceased according to the following table, viz. he who paid one halfpenny per week shall be allowed thirty shillings; one penny, forty shillings; three-halfpence, fifty shillings; two-pence, sixty shillings; two-pence halfpenny, seventy shillings; three-pence, eighty shillings; three-pence halfpenny, ninety shillings; and four-pence, one hundred shillings.



Any member who employs hands under him, shall give an account of them to the committee, or on default shall forfeit one shilling to the box; further, if any fresh hands are employed, the committee knowing thereof and neglecting to enter their names, shall forfeit one shilling to the box.



When any member goes away, or is not employed at or for this manufactory, it shall be optional for him to continue a member, subject to all the laws and regulations of the society, provided he has been employed in the manufactory seven years, and has not been discharged by his employers for misconduct. – The subscriptions of absent members to be paid monthly, and if at any time his arrears amount to more than three months’ subscription, he shall no longer continue a member. The absent member must produce a satisfactory proof of his illness form a surgeon and minister, or churchwarden of the parish, and that it does not proceed from any of the causes specified as exemptions in article No.9 – the date of his relief to commence from the date of the above named certificate.


Any new person who comes to work at or for this MANUFACTORY shall have one of these ARTICLES, for which he shall pay, if a man, one shilling; if a boy (from 14 to 18 years) he shall pay eight-pence; and all under that age shall pay sixpence, which shall serve as entrance-money for becoming a member of this society.



As there are some who work at this MANUFACTORY who do not earn two shillings and sixpence per week, in case they are ill, or in distress, the committee, with the approbation of the elders, may allow them a present out of the box for their relief.



Any member having been sick for six months, and received his allowance during that time, and shall still continue ill of some distemper of which he is not likely soon to recover, his weekly allowance shall be reduced as the committee and elders may think proper.



If any member continues ill for the space of three months, or less, and it is found that he has been sent from an hospital with an incurable disease, then he shall be liable to be expelled this society upon paying to him the amount of all the money he has paid into the club.



Any person having attained the age of 45 years, who shall come to work at the SOHO MANUFACTORY, or SOHO FOUNDRY, shall have the option of becoming a member of this society ; but in case he shall become a member, he shall not, under any circumstance, be allowed out of the funds of this society more than four times the amount of all the money he shall have paid in; and should the fund be reduced under one hundred pounds, he shall only be allowed three times the amount of what he paid in; and if under fifty pounds, only twice the amount.



The committee to meet every Thursday in a room at Soho (at such hour as they may agree upon) to deliberate upon all occurrences, and to minute the same; and either of the committee making default in attending, to forfeit sixpence to the fund, unless a sufficient cause can be given for his absence, which shall be adjudged by the rest of the committee.



Each elder in turn shall attend the committee every Thursday meeting, during one quarter of the year, or in default to forfeit one shilling, unless any unavoidable incident happen to prevent him; and at the expiration of each quarter, the elder who shall have attended such quarter of the year shall, within fourteen days from that time, balance the books, or in default thereof forfeit five shillings to the fund.



The committee for the time being shall be responsible for all arrears that shall become payable during their appointment.



As it has been a frequent custom for workpeople to ask money of the gentry going about the MANUFACTORY, it shall be deemed a forfeit of one shilling or more (as the committee may allot) for anyone found guilty of this misdemeanor. And as it has been too general a custom with the conductors of the gentry to receive money to themselves instead of putting it into the box, it shall be deemed a forfeit of five shillings for any one found guilty.



As it is for the health, interest, and credit of the men as well as masters to keep this MANUFACTORY clean and decent, it shall be deemed a forfeit of one shilling to the box for any one found guilty of any indecencies, or keeping dirty shops, which indecency &c shall be adjudged by the committee, and the forfeit made either more or less than one shilling, according to the greatness of the indecency &c.



At the end of each year a statement of the funds of this society shall be made out by the secretary, and examined by the elders, and then posted up in the club-rooms of Soho, and SOHO FOUNDRY, for the inspection of the members.



If it should be found necessary to add new laws, or repeal old ones, the committee and elders may, in majority, make such alteration as their prudence may think fit, observing that all these laws, and such as may from time to time be enacted, shall be subject to the inspection and controul of MR BOULTON.

The Rules of the Insurance Society appeared, in facsimile, in 'The Great Silver Manufactory - Matthew Boulton & The Birmingham Silversmiths 1760-1790' by Delieb & Roberts, published in London in 1971

Silver Manufactory

Until decimalisation in 1971, British currency consisted of three units. The largest, the pound, comprised twenty shillings, and each shilling comprised twelve pence. There were, therefore, 240 pence in one pound.

It is difficult to give an ‘average’ wage, but at the end of the 18th Century, most industrial workers would receive between ten and twenty shillings per week.



Shillings & Pence..

Just to make matters more complicated, the standard gold coin, introduced in 1660, had started off being worth twenty shillings, but fluctuations in the gold price meant that by the end of the 18th Century, it circulated for 21 shillings. It was generally known as a ‘Guinea’ Most industrial workers would hardly ever see or handle one, being dependent on worn-out silver and copper instead.

..and Guineas!
The Insurance Society

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1787 Shilling

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We know the denominations of the coins and tokens in circulation at the end of the 18th Century, but what were they worth in terms of purchasing power?

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