Medieval and Early Modern Periods

Medieval pensions

Pensions have a long history. In his book Pensions and Insurance before 1800 Chris Lewin outlines the range of pensions provided before the modern period, which included:

  • Royal pensions awarded for service to the king, either in the form of money, a grant of land or appointment to a lucrative office;
  • Corrodies purchased from religious houses and providing food, drink and accommodation;
  • Owners of tenements giving the use of their land to their children or a third party in return for a pension of cash or crops, an exchange overseen by the local Manorial Court;
  • Pension or almshouses provided by Guilds;
  • Pensions for members of the clergy (the earliest example from the medieval period identified by Lewin is an agreement reached at the Exchequer Court in 1180 that two clerics, who held the church of Black Bourton in Oxfordshire, should be dispossessed and consideration given to awarding them a pension); and
  • A pension scheme for maimed soldiers and mariners, established by Act of Parliament in 1601 and paid for by the parish.[1]

The first pension schemes: Chatham Chest and the Civil Service

In the early modern period, a small number of pension schemes were available for select groups. One such scheme was the Chatham Chest, established in 1590 to provide pensions to disabled seamen. This was followed in 1672 by a pension scheme for retired Royal Navy Officers provided by the state. More information on these schemes can be found here.

One of the first groups of workers to have pensions made available to them were government civil servants. The first civil service pension was provided to Martin Horsham, an official in the port of London, in 1684 . Further pensions were granted during the early eighteenth century in the Custom and Excise department, as a means of retaining staff and encouraging an ethos of duty and probity with the civil service. It replaced an informal system of government officers receiving payments from their successors, a system open to corruption. A Superannuation Fund for the lower ranks of the department was established in 1712, with officers receiving a third of their final salary on the conditions of making a regular yearly contribution, 7 years’ service and good behaviour, which was payable when staff were unable to continue regular employment. This system was extended to all grades of the department in 1806-7 and across the civil service in 1810. A separate pension scheme for senior officials was established in 1803.[2]

Poor Law

Prior to the twentieth century, which saw the establishment of the state pension and the widespread provision of occupational pensions by companies for their staff, most people were dependent on the support of family members, charities, or the parish poor relief system to support them in old age.

The 1601 Poor Law made parishes responsible for the care of their aged and needy, and until 1834 assistance generally took the form of ‘out-relief’ (payments or support enabling recipients to stay in their home) or ‘in-relief’ in a local workhouse.

However, the reforms enacted by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 led to a much harsher regime aimed at deterring the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor from relying on support from the parish. The Act grouped parishes together into Poor Law Unions, with Union’s operating central workhouse for groups of parishes. Inmates of the workhouse experienced harsh conditions, a plain diet and were expected to work, often at menial tasks, if capable of doing so.

London Metropolitan Archives holds many records relating to the operation of the poor law in London: for more information on these records and the operation of the Poor Law please see the LMA’s Information Leaflet.


[1] See C.G. Lewin, Pensions and Insurance before 1800, chapters 2 and 3 for more information.

[2] Information on Civil Service pensions from Pat Thane, Old Age in English History, pp. 236-239.


The Pensions Archive Trust - Registered Charity No. 1122633    

Chairman - Alan Herbert     Secretary - Peter Dawes