Honest, sober and willing: Oxford college servants 1850-1939 (NR Online Session 3)

By Kathryne Crossley (University of Oxford)

This research is due to be presented in the third New Researcher Online Session: ‘Human Capital & Development’.


 

Crossley1
The library of Christ Church, Oxford from Rudolph Ackermann’s History of Oxford (1813). Available at Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Oxford colleges were among the earliest employers in England to offer organised pension schemes for their workers. These schemes were remarkable for several reasons: they were early, the first was established in 1852; they included domestic servants, rather than white-collar workers; and colleges were unlike typical early adopters of pension schemes, which tended to be large bureaucratic organisations, such as railways or the civil service.

The schemes developed from various motives: from preventing poverty in workers’ old age to promoting middle-class values, like thrift and sobriety, through compulsory savings.

Until the Second World War, college servants were often described as a ‘labour aristocracy’, and while there were many successful senior servants, equally there were many casual, part-time and seasonal workers. The experience of these workers provides an unusually detailed look at the precarity of working-class life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the strategies that workers developed to manage uncertainty, especially in old age.

My research uses a wide variety of archival sources, many previously unknown, from 19 Oxford colleges to consider why these colleges decided to overhaul servants’ pension provisions during this period, how retirement savings schemes were designed and implemented, and to try and understand what workers thought of these fundamental changes to the labour contract.

During this period, Oxford was a highly seasonal, low-waged economy. It was hard for many people to find enough work during the year to earn an adequate living, much less save for an old age they usually did not expect to see. Most men and women worked as long as they were capable, often past what we think of as a typical retirement age today.

It’s no surprise then that the protections against illness, disability, old age and death offered by these paternalistic employers encouraged a highly competitive labour market for college work, and the promise of an ex gratia, or traditional non-contributory pension, was one of the most attractive features of college employment.

For centuries, colleges awarded these traditional pensions to workers. Rights to these pensions, which usually replaced about a quarter to a third of a worker’s total earnings, were insecure and awards were made entirely at the discretion of the college.

In 1852, the first retirement savings scheme for Oxford college servants was created at Balliol College. By the 1920s, traditional non-contributory pensions had been replaced by contributory schemes at most Oxford colleges, shifting the risk of old age from employers to employees. Even though making contributions often meant a decrease in take-home pay, servants always preferred a guaranteed pension entitlement over traditional non-contributory pensions.

The earliest savings schemes mandated the purchase of life insurance policies. These were intended not only to protect a servant’s dependent family members, but also to limit the college’s financial liability in the event of a servant’s death. Servants were similarly risk-averse and often purchased multiple policies when they could afford to; many joined friendly societies and purchased insurance privately, in addition to employer-directed schemes.

The popularity of these schemes among Oxford colleges mirrors the growth of the insurance industry and the development of actuarial science during this period. By the 1870s, nearly all schemes included annuities or endowment assurance policies, which provided a guaranteed income for servants, usually at age 60-65, and facilitated the introduction of mandatory retirement ages for these workers.

Traditional paternalism remained influential throughout the period. Colleges insisted on controlling insurance policies, naming themselves as beneficiaries and directing the proceeds. Women, who were more likely to be in low-waged seasonal work, were nearly always excluded from these schemes and had to depend on ex gratia pension awards much longer than their male colleagues.

These early pension schemes offered no protection against inflation and colleges were usually slow to increase pension awards in response to rising prices. By the end of the Great War, dissatisfaction with inadequate pensions was one of several factors that pushed college servants to form a trade union in 1919.

 

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