The Malta Independent 18 June 2024, Tuesday
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The Dockyard Benefit Society: The state of the economy during the late 1920s

Sunday, 6 August 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 12 months ago

At the height of British rule in Malta, the Dockyard and naval establishments employed thousands of skilled workers considered as the crème de la crème of the Maltese working population. When sick, injured or made redundant, the workers suffered long months of poverty and deprivation. Written by Anthony Zarb Dimech

The Dockyard Benefit Society was established on 1 October 1908 to assist those workers in sickness and/or injury on duty and when they were afflicted by contagious disease. This society was one of the earliest benefit societies in Malta to cater for some of the needs of the labour force, which was mainly employed at the dockyard.

During the 1920s, Malta was governed by a diarchy, made up of the Maltese Local Government and of the Maltese Imperial Government. Each had its sphere of action, responsibilities, contingencies and functions. The dockyard personnel were not within the remit of the civil government and were governed by the imperial government and considered as imperial employees. As such, little was done to assist them when they were laid off. Mass redundancies were commonplace, especially when the British Empire was not at war. Hence, from a social and financial standpoint, the workers had to fend for themselves.


Since most of Malta's employment depended on employment at the dockyard and other naval establishments, failure to procure the livelihood at the dockyard meant hardships not only for the breadwinner but all his family suffered. The drydocks were either closed or reduced to its bare minimum and this meant laid off workers for long months  This situation was perceived as potentially dangerous as it could also give rise to social troubles such as the Sette Giugno riots in 1919 which were still fresh in the minds of the authorities.


A moral obligation to help

It is noted that up to the 1920s, the British Empire had been well served by the Maltese people in connection with epoch-making events, such as the Crimean War, the bombardment of Alexandria, the South African War and the First World War. What Malta had done for the British Empire in more than 100 years of British rule, though very seldom was put to Malta's credit by the British authorities, was immense and impossible to estimate.

In this sense, the Maltese expected from their British masters protection in times of lack of work by ensuring them the sacred right to an honest and decent living considering that in past times the people of Malta had given all they could for the Empire.


The NAAFI and other institutions

It was not only the dockyard employment question that irked the Maltese. Maltese ship chandlers, naval contractors and others who owned bars and shops and who had invested their capitals in these businesses were facing the introduction of organisations such as the NAAFI, the Vernon, the White Ensign, the YMCA, the RAOB, the Connaught House and other institutions which were making Maltese bars and shops silent and useless rooms or force them to become dens of clandestine prostitution.


Feats, saints and fireworks

The British authorities, especially the dockyard authorities, could not understand (or pretended not to understand) and misjudged the true financial position of the masses. When visiting Maltese churches British people could see golden altars, candlesticks and other sacred utensils in silver, marble statues, fine paintings and richly embroidered damasks. They could see the bands playing, the streets beflagged and decorated, the bells ringing, in the evening the glorious illumination, fireworks and petards. They were truly impressed to the extent of misjudging these costly festas as meaning that the Maltese are financially well off and used it as a "pretext" not to assist the laid off workers.

The dockyard authorities failed to understand that these festas were not put up only by the dockyard employees since every section of the population gave its contribution towards them according to their level of income.


Migration and other economic woes

Maltese workmen were leaving Malta in search of virgin land due to unemployment. This meant that the would-be emigrant, who was too poor to have the money to emigrate, had to remain in Malta.

Also, the possibility of foreign capital being invested in Malta to stimulate employment was remote, although it had been rumoured that the American Ford Company would invest in Malta. But the British empire wanted Malta to be financially dependent on it. Besides, the local market was small and hence consumption levels were small. Ultimately, it was in the British Empire's interest to keep Malta financially dependent on Britain.

Moreover, economic interests have always been known to play a very important role in the dynamics of war. For instance, one year before Italy joined the allies during the First World War, Italy had most of its industries backed by Germany and Austria. Many contend that Italy would not have entered this war if its economy had remained tied in such a manner. With the passage of time, Italy's economic and financial mobilisation became ever more dependent on allied loans.

Migration is considered as a necessary evil and many countries are forced to take it on as a policy. Migration from Malta up to the 1920s meant giving to Australia and Canada the best agricultural hands. Maltese men and women were described as nice, smart, sun-coloured, stalwart fellows, sound in physique and in their moral standards.

Emigration to these two countries meant that the men discharged from the dockyard could not emigrate to these countries because they were mostly mechanics and other work related with the dockyard. In the early 1920s, the United States was still short of manpower, but had imposed strict and harsh migration rules where the migration quota conceded to Malta was very small.

Interestingly, it was pointed out that the quota should be increased. The reason given was that of morality and expediency. The argument used was those husbands in America away from their wives and children in Malta, and children and wives in Malta away from their heads of families in America were the cause of evil consequences which morality and expediency were clamouring stop.

South America was also considered as another option for dockyard personnel since the demand for mechanics in that continent was high. There again, a great financial sacrifice was required because the migrant had to take his own equipment and pay for the passage to South America. Sacrifices in this sense meant forcing on himself and his family privation and debt.

The emigration prospects were indeed dull and the creation of a Reserve Fund for unforeseen emergencies amounted to about £60,000 for which it was suggested that £5,000 or £6,000 out of this fund should be earmarked to help in sending emigrants.

A dole was not in question after the discouraging disclosure which had come out before the Commission which was nominated to investigate on the question of the dole in England. The Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 was an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom that created the dole (weekly cash unemployment benefits) system of payments to unemployed workers. Historian Charles Loch Mowat calls this legislation Socialism by the back door and notes how surprised politicians were when the costs to the Treasury soared during the high unemployment of 1921.


The Dockyard Benefit Society

The Maltese workers at the Dockyard sought to find ways and means to establish for themselves a benefit society to help themselves in difficult circumstances in cases of injury at work or sickness, disease and when death hit the family breadwinner or his wife.

The economic climate after the First World War was one where the cost of living continued to rise. The flour mill owners believed they should keep making profits even in the post-war climate when the cost of living was rising faster than wages. In this context, the fees payable for membership to the Society, in comparison to the wages, were reasonable.

In 1921 there were 16,270 employed in agriculture and their average rate of wage was £54 per year. Manufacturing employed 29,074 people, while another 20,340 earned a living in commerce. The average yearly wage in these two sectors stood at £90. Rates for domestic service were a meagre £18 per year.

Going through the rules of the Dockyard Benefit Society, interesting information can be extracted as to the kind of "insurance" benefits provided. This society may be considered as a fine example of an early voluntary welfare organisation.

The Dockyard Benefit Society's membership was open to those workers employed at the dockyard or naval establishments. The aim was to collect funds to help its members when sick or injured and to assist family members when the worker died.

The society's administration was composed of a president, vice-president, secretary, assistant secretary, cashier, three collectors and three deputies. In addition to these, but not forming part of the administration of the society, were the following:

-                  A visitor to the sick

-                  A provisional visitor

-                  Two revisors

-                  One supplementary revisor

The rules contained in the Regulations of the Society for 1922 were passed and approved at a General Meeting on 9 November 1922 and were applicable to the society as from 1 January 1923. On 30 December 1921, the following gentlemen made up the society's committee:

-                  Peter Bugelli - President

-                  Giuseppe Calleja - secretary

-                  Emilio Archer

-                  Riccardo Calleja

-                  William Hammett



The requirements for membership were as follows:

-                  Employment in dockyard or in naval establishments

-                  A wage of not less than 15s per week

-                  Aged not less than 20 years and not more than 40 years

Apprentices and trade boys could also become members but were required to have a wage of 10s per week and that storehouse assistants were allowed as members when their wage reached 12s per week.

Membership fees were based on age as follows:

-                  Up to 20 years            2s 6d

-                  From 20 to 30 years    3s

-                  From 30 to 40 years    3s 6d

The committee, when in difficulty, could ask for a medical certificate from the prospective member showing that he was healthy. Apart from the membership fee, the member was to pay 3d for the Regulations booklet.

Members who continued to receive their wage, when sick and in employment, could also become members but the health subsidy from the society was only granted after their wage employment sickness benefit stopped.

Any member who did not continue working with the dockyard or naval establishments or was made redundant could no longer remain member of the society. Any member who was laid off from the drydocks or naval establishments due to age or invalidity (health reasons) would still enjoy all the benefits of the society both in sickness and after his death up to a month from the date he was made redundant. If the workman remained alive after this month, the society gave him a one-time sum of £2 and his membership would cease.



Members of the society could benefit from the Society after six months of their membership. In addition, those members who benefitted from the society could do so if their sickness or injury was through no fault of theirs and not due to drunkenness, venereal disease or any other abuse. Those entitled members received 9s per week or 1s 6d per day, except on Sundays.

When the wife of a member passed away, the member was to inform the secretary of the society and was eligible to receive £2 out of the £5 that his family would receive if he passed away.


Contagious disease

If any member of the society was ordered by the drydocks doctor to remain out of the drydocks premises or any other naval establishment due to contagious disease that was present in his home or any dwelling in the vicinity of his home was to receive 6s per week or 1s per day except on Sundays. This rule was applicable only for 40 days per annum of contagious disease. The member was to inform the society if he fell ill due to the contagious disease at his home or dwelling close to his home.

Fines and penalties were contemplated for those sick (not with contagious disease) or injured members who left their house if they did not leave a notice at their house about their whereabouts. No sick member was allowed out of the house before 6am and after 9pm. Those sick members who were ordered by the doctor to change their dwelling due to the presence of bad air, had to inform the secretary of the society by means of a note signed by the doctor and inform the society of the new address.

With no social security system in place, life was hard for the sick, injured or unemployed drydocks workers. The British authorities were not very forthcoming in alleviating the situation and the road was long and arduous for social services to be introduced in Malta. The Dockyard Benefit Society was one of the first steps in providing some form of insurance to the drydocks workers.


References and sources

The Dockyard Question by Patriot (Carm. Mifsud Bonnici 'Il Gross', printed at the Malta Herald office (1926)

Dockyard Benefit Society, Regolamenti, Stampat ghand C. Cachia, L'Isla, 1922

Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 - Wikipedia

How we were 100 years ago ( - 27 August 2021

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