The Hearts of Oak Benefit Society was established in 1842 to provide a means for persons to save into a mutual fund that could draw upon and provide financial protection in times of sickness. Criteria for membership were strict, for example around 1900 the Society expected all applicants to be of “good character” and earning a minimum weekly wage of 24 shilling (£1-4s-0d) which excluded the lower paid such as labourers, lower skilled artisans and unskilled workers. Membership therefore tended to comprise of the higher artisans, skilled mechanics, small shopkeepers and those who had newly risen into the growing ranks of the ‘middle classes’.
The Society was named in honour of Britain’s navy whose wooden ships of oak had become renowned for saving the country from invasion. With the passing of the Friendly Societies Act in 1850, the range of services and activities of Benefit societies increased and included maternity (lying-in benefits) and death benefit schemes. Following the 1911 Health Insurance Act, the Hearts of Oak Benefit Society were among the first to provide insurance and financial schemes.