It’s always fantastic when somebody researches a Blantyre subject in detail and shares those words here. Dave Barry had Blantyre ancestry involved in the pawnbroking business and has taken time to share his research here. The well written words are Dave’s and he’s given me permission to share them here.
“In 1886, Blantyre had two pawnbrokers, Hugh Fegan and John McCluskey. What did they mean to the community? Records for the area are poor, but we can get clues from the general picture in Scotland. Nationally, pawnbroking began with an office in Glasgow in 1806, rising to 19 in the city in 1830, 33 in 1840 and 40 in 1850. Their influence was strong; in 1830, each office dealt with about 1800 pledges per month, meaning that, on average, each Glaswegian – all ages – used a pawnbroker twice per year! Obviously, the majority didn’t use pawnbrokers, so the minority used them frequently.
Although quite startling, this statistic makes sense in the light of how the poor survived then. In those days, poverty was defined as destitution, and Scottish society dealt with the problem harshly. Even after the Poor Law was enacted in 1845, the impoverished could expect only meagre payouts, repatriation for immigrants, the misery (often fatal) of the workhouse or, if able-bodied, usually nothing at all. As layoffs were frequent, and as wages were very low, poverty was always a threat, and there had to be other ways to survive. One source of bridging money was Friendly Societies, which raised voluntary contributions for the mutual relief and maintenance of members who fell on hard times, but had the significant drawback of being limited to families of their members – people of a specific trade or movement; the poorest families had no access. A more prevalent safety valve for the poor was pawnbrokers. Later, Credit Unions arose as a fairer type of source, which they remain to this day. Pawnbroking and Friendly Societies began to decline with the advent of the National Insurance Act in 1911, and most notably with the social revolution of the Welfare State in the 1940s.
Despite this safety-net role in Victorian society, pawnbroking has always had an element of pariah status. That is not surprising, given the contrast between the poverty of its clients and the prosperity of its brokers, who were not in business for charitable purposes. The brokers were acutely aware of their reputation, as can be seen in two histories of the Glasgow Pawnbrokers’ Protection Association (written by its members) in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow; the very name of the Association is revealing. This society’s longstanding aim, “to protect its members from the numerous frauds of designing individuals”, was aimed at not only fraudulent clients, but also regulatory authorities. Fraudulent clients – thieves offloading stolen goods – were a constant problem, against the consequences of which the Association often defended its members successfully in the courts. Apparently equal antipathy was directed towards the other type of “designing individual”, the regulators, which included people such as prominent city councillors, lawyers, and chief constables, who are referred to as “otherwise intelligent individuals”. Siege mentality indeed.
The modus operandi was, and is, that a client would lodge a possession with the broker in return for a cash loan (the “pledge”). There would be a small fee for the transaction itself, then interest would accrue on the pledge. For example, in 1858 a small pledge had a fixed rate of interest of one farthing per month per shilling, which is 28.32% APR. If the pledge was not “redeemed” within a given time period, the possession would be retained by the broker. The level of interest was a bone of contention, as it always is with the moneylending business, and several Acts of Parliament were enacted over the years to control the industry [e.g. in 1872 and 1922].
So, in a mining village like Blantyre, how did a pawnbroker fare? Very well. Hugh Fegan had initially set up as a broker with his sister and brother-in-law in Holytown, but within 8 years, in 1879, had opened a brokerage independently in Stonefield. By 1885, he owned
a house, two shops, a store and stables. His will, written when he died in 1893, reflects a materially very comfortable life. Over the next 50 years, his descendants continued the success. Of interest, Hugh’s will contains the following list of debtors, individuals who had borrowed from his moneylending business. To put their debts in perspective, a miner then would have been paid 5s 3d to 6s (26 – 30p) per day. All those on the lists received a windfall, as the debts probably were repaid only in small part…. or not at all!”
|List of debtors, and what they owed, on the date of Hugh Fegan’s death, 14th November 1893|
|It was not considered that anything more than 5s per £ would be recovered on the following:|
The following debts were all considered bad:Debtor£sd£.pMary McGuinness5865.43John McKelvie101010.05Mrs McGlane41264.63John Brogan11361.68Francis McCummiskey21362.68Patrick McKenna5605.3James Conner21002.5Matthew Killalea21002.5Arthur Crosgrove11201.6John Mulholland1001Rodger McGuire4264.13William Heron11661.83Mrs Girvan11901.95Patrick Berry41504.75Matthew Walsh2902.45Francis McCormack2602.3Michael Flannigan 1260.63James McCormack3003Mrs Cairns1301.15William Irvine4004
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Elaine Hunter Even when my mum was a wee girl in Farm Road after the war many people were still pawning their sheets before the next pay day to get them through, so she tells me. For some people it was the difference between eating and starving.