In London, as in many other diaspora locations, the commemoration of Scotland’s patron saint on St Andrew’s Day preceded the official establishment of ethnic associations, but they soon grew out of the celebrations. The earliest Scottish society that formalized its activities in this way was an association initially known as the Scots Hospital or Corporation. The association was proposed by a Scottish merchant in the mid-seventeenth century and, with backing from other Scots at court, received a Royal Charter in 1665. The roots of this association, however, lay earlier in the seventeenth century, when a so-called Scots Box was set up. This essentially served as a mutual benefit society—with the aid coming out of the box, so to speak, which was kept to collect funds for relief purposes. The Scots Box was set up to provide support for Scots in London who had fallen ill or were otherwise in need of support. In part this was a direct result of the fact that Scots who lived in the city were not entitled to parish relief.
The 1799 account of the Corporation’s establishment provides a clear view on this motivation behind the Scots Box, noting that while the number of Scots in London had increased significantly with the ascension to the throne of James I, they ‘were still aliens in the land which they were helping to people and enrich. … No claim to parochial assistance had been established, and of course no provision made for the dark season of life. To beg, or to perish, was the dreadful alternative’. The situation was perceived to be so problematic, ‘was sensibly felt and deplored’, that ‘the more affluent of the Scottish Nation, resident in London, found themselves prompted by compassion to take the case of the poor into serious consideration, and to devise a remedy.’ The Scots Box was a first step in doing so. While there is no surviving manuscript evidence relating to the early operations of the Scots Box, it has been suggested that the box was used by 1613.
Whatever the exact date, it is clear that members of the Scots Box association met at the King’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden in the late 1650s to discuss the idea of the further formalization of activities and incorporation; subsequent lobbying work then led to the formation of a new voluntary association—the Scottish Corporation—and the granting of its first Royal Charter in 1665. This Charter also provided for the establishment of a Hospital ‘for the maintenance of old or decayed artificers of the Scottish Nation, and for the training up their children to handicraft employments’. This hospital was destroyed during the Great Fire of London, but new premises were opened in 1673. Shortly afterwards, in 1676, the Corporation received its second Royal Charter, which was designed to facilitate better government of the organization, and ‘for an enlargement of the Corporation’s numbers, powers, and privileges’. The idea of establishing a hospital, however, proved unworkable, and hence ‘was abandoned, almost as soon as adopted; and in its place was substituted the wiser mode of assisting and relieving the poor objects at their own habitations. Thus the slender funds of the Corporation were rendered more extensively efficient’. With the third Royal Charter, which was granted in 1775, however, the Corporation was ‘re-established under the ancient name and style of The Scottish Hospital’. This was the result too of the Union of 1707, which had a direct impact upon the number of Scots making home in London, increasing the overall volume of that migration and, by extension, the volume of Scots requiring support.
The Scottish Corporation pursued a broad spectrum of philanthropic initiatives that included the provision of pensions for the elderly—which, in the first decades of the twentieth century, customarily included ‘gifts of lucky heather from Scotland’—and relief for the destitute and sick, but, at times, also funds to enable a migrant’s return to Scotland. At the same time the Corporation also served sociability, but generally did so to meet a benevolent end, particularly to augment its funds for the types of charitable endeavour outlined above. The most notable events for the generation of capital for those funds were connected to St Andrew’s Day, which also served to celebrate the associations’ anniversaries. In 1823, nearly 200 gentlemen came together at the City of London Tavern, with the Duke of Clarence in the chair. Songs were sung, many a toast was given and ‘[s]ubscriptions and donations to a considerable amount were announced’. At times these meetings also provided details about the activities pursued and the aid dispensed. In 1849, for instance, it was noted at a meeting that £2,227 had been given out in money to the poor. Subsequent to the meeting a dinner then followed at the London Tavern and, at 10:30 pm, the hall was cleared so that a dance could commence: ‘the joyous party did not separate till an advanced hour this morning.’ Communal dinners and banquets had emerged as essential to festivities, and played a critical role in cementing and enhancing relationships and networks between those present.