‘You are not here to cross examine me’: a magistrate condemns a Friendly Society’s failure to support an elderly member

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In October 1889 the secretary of the Hope Teetotal Friendly Society* was summoned before Mr Montagu Williams at Clerkenwell to explain why he was refusing to pay sick money to one of his members. His argument, which was rejected by the magistrate, reminds us that until 1908 there was no statutory relief for the elderly, no Old Age Pensions as there are today. As a result very many working-class men and women had to keep working well into their 70s and 80s, however infirm or incapable they became.

Indeed William Cox was too ill to attend court and so the complaint was brought by his wife, Caroline, herself ‘an old woman’. She told Mr Williams that her husband had been paying his dies to the Society since 1857 and now, at the ripe old age of 82, she believed he was entitled to weekly payments. He was suffering from ‘bodily infirmities, aggravated by old age’.

In defense of the decision not to pay William the Society’s solicitor, Rendall Moore, said that he was not suffering from any disease so they were not obliged to pay. He didn’t believe ‘old age’ was an illness and a similar request from Cox had been dismissed only five years earlier.

The magistrate declared that just because the complainant was not entitled to payments previously he clearly seemed to be entitled now and he ordered the Society to pay William Cox 15s weekly from now on. A solicitor for Mrs Cox now requested that the Society also pay the costs of the case and when even the Society’s own doctor admitted that William had been left ‘broken up’  by the delay in paying his relief Montague Williams was happy to award them.

The Society’ s lawyer now unwisely chose to question the decision asking the magistrate ‘whether he considered that mere old age was sickness?’

‘You are not here to cross examine me’, thundered the magistrate and the order to pay was immediately entered into and Mr Moore left court with his tail between his legs.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 30, 1889]

*amusingly the Society held its meetings in the local pub.

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