Negotiating a pay rise – 18th-century style!

In my last post I talked about letters from medics who were seeking jobs. Another second day in the archives yesterday yielded another crop of prospective employees, some of whom this time didn’t even know if there was a vacancy, but applied for it anyway. But another aspect of employment that we don’t often get a glimpse of in the past is that of pay-bargaining.

What happens when, after several years of work, you feel that you’re no longer getting paid what you deserve? Actually there are whole websites devoted to the etiquette of negotiating a pay rise with your boss. There is always the union to fall back on if it all goes wrong. How, though, did people do this for themselves. It was a tricky process. Don’t ask and you risk being stuck with your menial salary. Push your luck and you might end up by offending your employer and losing your position.

A letter from Dr Cockayne, surgeon-apothecary at the Bamburgh infirmary, gives us a brief insight. It’s 17th October 1782, and the doctor has been employed at the Infirmary for a little over six years. Up until now he has been paid regularly but on an ad hoc basis for his attendance on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In the ten years since its opening, the infirmary has witnessed a massive jump in from 206 in 1772 to 1500 in 1782. Small wonder that Dr Cockayne felt a little underpaid! His letter to the Reverend John Sharp reveals the delicate path he had to tread. He began on safe ground:

“Honoured Sir,
I hope you will pardon my boldness in addressing you upon this occasion, nothing but the consciousness of my own insufficiency, and your known candour, and continual kindness shewn to me upon every occasion could ever have induced me to ask so great a favour. At the same time it meets with your Disapprobation that alone will be sufficient to make me think no more of it.

It is now five years since by your kind patronage I was appointed surgeon to your dispensary. I hope during that time I have not neglected my duty but endeavoured to discharge my trust to the best of my abilities. The duties of the dispensary have continually increased year after year, and the vast number of patients admitted this year will shew to every one its great utility and at the same time the increas’d [need] and trouble so great an increase of business must necessarily give me.

If these considerations are of any weight, the favour I am going to ask will not I hope be look’d upon as presumptuous in some addition according to your better judgement in my salary. It was my duty to beg your advice upon this matter. I intended several times to have spoken to you of it when I was at the castle, but had always found myself incapable without some previous notcice to you of my intention. I therefore take this opportunity of addressing you.

I believe entirely upon your goodness and wisdom as to the fitness of my Request which if gained will be an addition to the many undeserved favours already confer’d upon me and a meanes of making me happier and easier in life. If not, I am content and shall still retain for ever a greatfull sense of your goodness in the mean time I beg leave to subscribe myself, honoured sir, your obliged humble servant, W. Cockayne.”

This was a skilful piece of negotiation and the relationship between employer and employed is interesting here. In the first paragraph, for example, he indulged in a little ego-stroking but was swift to mention that he would stop at once if he thought that Dr Sharp would be aggrieved. Sharp is almost a paternal figure, whose approval is continually sought.

Then he moved on and set out his grievances, pointing out the strains that the sheer volume of extra patient numbers had put upon him. The last part of the letter called for humility- and Cockayne had it in spades. Without “wishing to be presumptuous” and relying on Sharp’s “better judgement” Cockayne almost slipped in the fact that he wanted more money. Arguing that he had effectively been too afraid to ask in person, he tried to gain Sharp’s sympathy for his plight. If he got his money, Cockayne would he “happier and easier in life”. If not, he would “still retain a sense of your goodness” and would continue in his role regardless. Clever. But did it work?

No…at least not at once. For several years afterwards Cockayne continued on his ad hoc salary until, in 1785, he was granted an annual salary of £85 – a not insubstantial sum. Interestingly, though, he remained on that salary until at least 1810, the only increment being the addition of an extra 10 shillings in the 1790s – hardly enough to make a material difference.

So another story of the twists and turns of employment for medical practitioners in the eighteenth century. Who knows what other little gems are lurking in the archives.

Do you need a doctor? Applying for medical jobs in the eighteenth century

Filling in job application forms must rank as one of the world’s least rewarding pastimes…unless, of course, you get the job! There is the matter of displaying your own competence for the role, addressing your experience, evidence of your skills, ability to fit in with the recruiting organisation and, importantly, providing people who will attest to your obvious brilliance. It feels like a very modern thing to do. Whilst we increasingly acknowledge that people in the past could be ambitious, we don’t often get chance to actually glimpse the process in action – especially the further back you go. Some fantastic sources in Northumberland Archives, though, give us the chance to do just that. Better still, the aspiring job applicants were medical practitioners!

Bamburgh Castle

In 1774 a vacancy arose for the position of Surgeon-Apothecary at an infirmary in North East Britain. The infirmary was a charitable institution set up for the ‘relief of the sick and lame poor’, and was located in the magnificently austere Bamburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast. The post had become available on the departure of the previous incumbent and, on the face of it, might not have seemed an ideal move. But something about this job appears to have resonated with the practitioner population of late eighteenth-century northern Britain. Perhaps it was the chance to work with the Reverend Dr John Sharp – administrator of the Lord Crewe Trust and the man who established the infirmary. Perhaps it was a genuine desire to do good for the poor people of rural Northumberland, who were far the nearest hospital in Newcastle. Or perhaps it was the lure of a decent salary and some authority within in institution, with their own staff to command! Whichever it was, news of the job appears to have spread fast, and letters poured in to Dr Sharp. Typical of the speculative applicants was Arthur Gair from Alnwick. Keeping his letter short and to the point, Gair nonetheless threw his hat firmly into the ring:

“25th June 1774. Reverend Sir, As I am informed the place of Surgeon-Apothecary for the Charity of Bambro’ Castle is now vacant, I beg leave to offer myself as a Candidate for the same & till I have the pleasure of paying my respects to you at the Castle which I intend to do on Monday next, I take this method to declare myself , reverend Sir, your most obedient and humble servant”.

Dr Sharp

(Image from the excellent Bamburgh Castle Research Project blog =

Others were less circumspect. Only three days later than Gair, the good Dr Sharp received the following letter from a Dr William Rennick. Unlike Gair, Rennick was not one to hide his light under a bushel.

“I beg leave to signify, that as there are rather too many physical practitioners in this place, I should be inclined to settle in Belford provided I could be favoured with the benefit, lately possessed by Mr Edmonton, at Bamborough – If you are willing to permit me to succeed him on satisfactory recommendation I should ever make it my study to merit your approbation of my conduct, and to display a grateful sense of the solicited obligation. I have been settled here as a Surgeon-Apothecary & man midwife near two years; my qualification in which professions, as well as the tenor of my moral conduct will, I flatter myself, bear the strictest enquiry. I am a native of Berwick & married. My attendance on some particular patients prevents my being able to wait on you in person.
I am with respectful esteem, Sir, your most humble servant”

Rennick’s was a slightly unusual pitch; pointing out that there was too much competition in his area was perhaps a risky pitch. But the rest of his letter is a work of polite (if slightly oily!) genius. Stressing that he would ‘ever make it my study’ to make his boss happy, it is possible to overdo it…and Rennick overdid it!

Some applicants were keen to provide character references. William Stoddart of Alnwick endorsed John Wilson’s application, stating Wilson was a “young man of sobriety and diligence in his profession. I would by no means have given you the trouble of this, but I could not tell how to deny him what I thought I might say with so much truth”. One William Green also tried his hand with a ‘celebrity’ referee – persuading a powerful local gentleman, Sir John Eden of County Durham, to write him a reference. “As there is a vacancy in the Castle of Bambrough” Eden wrote “I am desir’d to recommend to your notice Mr William Green”. That Eden was ‘desir’d’ to recommend Green suggests that his reference was not given entirely without coercion.

It is also interesting, however, just how far news spread. John Sharp’s brother Dr William Sharp was a prominent surgeon in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and often advised his brother on medical matters relating to the infirmary. In September 1774, William was visited by a naval surgeon, originally from the Bambrough area, who had learned of the position and asked William to petition his brother on his behalf. Although William did not know the man personally, “appearances were in his favour”.
Ultimately all of these approaches, entreaties and salutations were in vain; the job was filled and the successful candidate was a Dr Trumbull, for a time, before the role was taken by the aptly-named ‘Mr Cockayne’!

The letters are fascinating though, as they add a further dimension to the process whereby practitioners actively sought new positions in the eighteenth century, and shed some light on the methods they used to bolster their chances. We don’t know how the post was advertised, if at all – there is some evidence that the infirmary used the Newcastle Courant from time to time to share news and progress – but it is clear that some sort of grapevine existed. Many of the applicants stress how they have ‘heard’ about the vacant position – another reminder of the power of early-modern social networks.

The next time you’re applying for a job, perhaps take a line from some of these medics. Will you try the ‘short and sweet’ approach of William Gair, or the florid prose of Mr Rennick?! In either case, may your applications be more successful than theirs!