Supporting self-help: charity, mutuality and reciprocity in nineteenth-century Britain

Weinbren, Daniel (2007). Supporting self-help: charity, mutuality and reciprocity in nineteenth-century Britain. In: Harris, Bernard and Bridgen, Paul eds. Charity and Mutual Aid in Europe and North America Since 1800. Routledge Studies in Modern British History. Routledge, pp. 67–88.


Since at least 1697, when Daniel Defoe contrasted friendly societies and charitable institutions, friendly societies have been regarded as separate from charities. Many scholars have maintained the distinction. There is little on friendly societies in Roberts’s book on charities, nor is there much material about charities in Hopkins’s work on working-class self-help.1 Winter stressed that “mutual aid is not paternalism, neither is it charity nor is it philanthropy,” and O’Neill argued that “friendly societies were not charities.”2 Others too have not categorised friendly societies with charities, instead presenting them as linked to either trade unions or insurance companies.3 However, such a taxonomy, which obscures the overlapping range of activities, functions, members, and structures of friendly societies and charities, has not always been adopted.4 Gorsky has shown how in eighteenth-century Britain many charities were “coloured by mutualist sentiment,” and Prochaska argued that in the nineteenth century “the boundaries between religion, philanthropy and mutual aid were less marked than in the past.”5 Harris too has suggested a porous boundary in the nineteenth century, noting that because it was viewed with ambivalence by recipients, some charitable activity was presented in terms of mutual aid.6 In this chapter, the importance of networks of obligation for both friendly societies and charities are highlighted in order to illuminate the circulation of power within and between these bodies.

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