From The Archives

Roehampton Club Member involved in the origins of the State Pension 

The history of the State Pension is well summarised by the Pensions Archives held at the London Metropolitan Archives, in which the first state pension in the world was introduced in Germany in the late nineteenth century. The origins of the state pension system here in the UK date back to the same period, when the British government established two committees to investigate a similar scheme. The Rothschild Committee on Old Age Pensions in 1896 and a Select Committee on the Aged Deserving Poor in 1899 which began their investigations. Around the same time, the matter was also covered by two Royal Commissions examining the Poor Laws between 1893-1895 and 1905-1909, but it was not until 1908 that the first state pension was introduced to the UK.

Against this background, the role of Sir Alfred William Watson emerged as a key figure in the origins of the State Pension. He was born in Bristol in March 1870, to parents Alfred Reuben Watson, a violinist and composer, and Emily Morris Hobro. He studied at Nottingham High School before joining his grandfather Reuban Watson’s actuarial practice R Watsons and Sons. He became a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries in 1893 passing his final examination with the highest mark in his year. He was appointed to the Rothschild Committee in 1896 and continued his career as an actuary as a consultant for Friendly Societies. These groups were formed as a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions or co-operative banking also described as a body of people who join for a common or financial purpose. 

In 1903 he published an article for the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows in the journal of the Institute of Actuaries, in which he demonstrated an increase in sickness and a reduction in mortality, with links between occupation and sickness and between region and mortality, and that sickness benefit claims had risen for all groups of members, but most significantly for members over 65. He began consulting in London from 1910 and gave a series of lectures on the subject of Friendly Society finance to the Institute of Actuaries in 1911 and 1912. Watson was also a contributor to the writing of the National Insurance Act of 1911. In 1917 he was appointed as Britain’s first government actuary gaining influence with the expansion of National Insurance with particular regard to pensions. In 1919 he was appointed Head of the newly formed Government Actuaries Department (GAD) working inside HM Treasury. He used this position to strengthen the department’s desire for more control over social policy. During his time in the role, no social policy could become law without his approval role and was often consulted by all government departments on many subjects outside of his specialism. 

It was at this time at the peak of his powers that Sir Alfred William Watson was elected to Roehampton Club on 31st December 1919. He was proposed and seconded by the Miller brothers and lived locally on Putney Hill. His application form simply showed his occupation as a ‘Civil Servant’, clearly understating his role now described as a ‘driving force’ behind the introduction of contributory pensions in the UK. 

One of the early recipients of the state pension reported in the British newspapers in 1913 was an elephant carrying Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India when a bomb was thrown from a housetop in the streets of Delhi. Both the Viceroy and the elephant were injured in the blast. Lord Hardinge was thought to be lucky to be alive although he did sustain a deep wound to his shoulder and other superficial wounds to his neck and hip. In one particular report published in the Western Evening Herald in July 1913 under the heading ‘State Pension for an Elephant’, the article refers to the Mahout responsible for handling the animal during the attack with ‘remarkable steadiness’ and was handsomely rewarded while the injured elephant was to be made a state pensioner. The newspaper article represents an unexpected consequence of the considerable efforts made by a Member of Roehampton Club who deserves much credit for his contribution to the foundations of the welfare state and the introduction of contributory pensions.

Steve Riedlinger – Club Archivist