Members of Kingston Debating Society in The Spring of 1901: A Study


In the Spring of 1901 Kingston Debating Society [KDS], founded in 1886 and still in existence [see], had 48 members, although not all attended the debates held in that season. All were male: women were not allowed to join until 1947. They represented the various sections of middle-class society at the time and no manual workers were identified.  All were well-educated.  Only four members were born in Kingston, 41 members were born elsewhere in the British Isles, one was born in Australia, one was born in Germany and one was born in Switzerland.  Just under 70% of members were heads of household.  Roughly 60% of were married and of these about one half had resident children.  Roughly 50% lived in a household with at least one resident servant. Some members had annual salaries that would have made them much better off than a skilled tradesman at the time and some, when they died, were considerably wealthy, as evidenced by probate records.  When elected to membership, the age range was 21 – 72, with a mean age of about 33 years.  Roughly 50% was under 30 years of age and most was under 40 years of age, when elected.  Of the 42 whose age upon death was found, the range was 50 – 93 years of age, with a mean of 71 years of age.


KDS  members had a greater life expectancy at birth than 40 – 45 years, which was usual for most of the population of England and Wales at the time. However, this cannot be attributed solely to their membership of KDS. Other factors need to be considered when accounting for the finding. Perhaps simply being middle class was the biggest determinant of increased life expectancy and this needs investigation.

The only stated qualification for membership was a good reputation and election was by secret ballot.  About 40% worked in business as employers or employees. The remainder included medical and dental practitioners, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, local government officers, three Roman Catholic priests and a trained Presbyterian minister.  The Town Clerk, Clerk to the Justices, the Medical Officer of Health and a former Mayor were members: arguably they were among the leading men of Kingston.  All but one appeared to be in full time work but nevertheless they were prepared to attend debates that started at 8.15 pm and extended until late in the evening.  This suggests that they still had sufficient energy left after a day’s work and welcomed the intellectual stimulus that an evening debate provided.

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The Author

David A. Kennedy, PhD

About 20 years ago, I accompanied my late wife to some talks on the use of computers in historical research and began to help her with her genealogical studies. Later, I took part in a project, organised by the Centre for Local History Studies at Kingston University, to digitise the Enumerators’ Books for the Kingston Census of 1851-1891. This rekindled my interest in history, especially that of Kingston upon Thames, where I live. This website has been set up so that I can share my research findings, some based on digitised material, with others who may be interested in them.

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