Foot note on the past

By Daniel Cossins, 8 July 2009 - 2:50pm

There’s nothing like a bit of enforced rest to get you thinking.

Usually, all we have time for is to rush about our daily activities trying to keep body and soul together (along with cooking the dinner, mowing the lawn and, in my case, getting a magazine to the printers each month). Thinking is a luxury we have to do without.

However, I have broken my foot (not a glamorous football injury - the metatarsals were not involved – I just mis-judged a step and down I went) and it has resulted in me spending many hours on the sofa with my foot up ruminating. It wouldn’t surprise me if Newton was nursing a broken foot under the famous apple tree when he came up with the idea of gravity – otherwise, I suspect he would have got up and carried on with the gardening.

My time has been spent rather less usefully thinking about my ancestors – how would they have coped with a broken foot? It’s all very well me not being able to get to the office but, with my laptop, I can work from home – and I still get paid. I may complain about sore hands, but at least I have crutches that get me from A to B. And when my plaster comes off, in a week or so, I’ll get physio if I need it.

For most of our ancestors, if you didn’t go to work, you didn’t get paid. Simple as that. And if you were living a hand to mouth existence, a broken foot could be all that was needed to drive your family to the workhouse. Of course there were other options to help those with short-term needs, informal ones where friends and family would help out and formal ones such as parish or outdoor relief, help from trade guilds if your ancestor belonged to one, and friendly societies.

I didn’t really know much about friendly societies until I read Robert Burlison’s feature on them in our April issue. It has been estimated that, at their peak, more than 80% of working men belonged to a friendly society. Membership provided a kind of health insurance for a small weekly fee.

Although surviving records can be patchy I can’t help wondering whether there is any record of my ancestors paying into such a scheme – I assume that some of them will have done. I would love to know if any of them ever made a claim for a broken foot.

And if they did, I wonder whether they too would have sat as I am, with their foot up, thinking ‘hasn’t life improved’.

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine team

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Crisis at the National Archives?
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