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Didlums, susu, menage and tontines - savings for austerity

Being a Green councillor means running a monthly “surgery” in the ward, which is why the week before Christmas found me taking shelter from the vicious wind and copious rain in the chippy opposite the Ridge Community Centre.

Alongside me, indeed hauling me in out of the downpour were assorted members of the “Wild bunch”, a group of mature women who meet up every Wednesday for lunch and a chat and allow us to share the space for our “surgery”.   When no-one arrived that lunchtime with the key the Wild Bunch had no hesitation in improvising a meeting space and getting the lunch orders in with the chip shop owner.   Anyway, we’d hardly been served before the Baptist Church worker, Linda arrived, breathless and apologetic from prolonged domestic traumas in Blackpool and we decamped damply into the community area.

No-one came to the surgery so I took a seat round the Wild bunch table, and a cup of tea and a biscuit or two and got stuck in to the chat.  My fellow councillor Tim turned up with a Christmas box of Roses,

“Aah, pudding! “they said.  “He’s a good lad.  When I complained about the rubbish in the next door garden, it was gone the next day, the next day you know.  He’s a good lad …”

a number of older women sitting round a tableSomeone said “Didlums.”  Then there was a bit of shuffling and muttering amongst all those round the table and each person put a couple of coins in front of them.  Expecting it to be a charity collection of some kind, I proffered my £2.  It was refused. “No, no it’s didlums, you’re not part of it.”

“Get her to draw the number, then,”  

someone said and I was passed a very small plastic bag with some shreds of paper inside, I pulled out a small square and read it out .  The plastic bag went back into a margarine tub whilst the number I drew out was carefully destroyed.  All the coins were passed to one person.

“I’ll get something for my daughter, I think,”

she said gravely as she poured the coins into her purse. And that seemed to be that. 

Which left me looking from side to side, person to person, clearly mystified, saying,

“But what ..what’s this diddling thing?”

I think they were enjoying the moment really, prolonging the mystery, or maybe wondering whether I could be trusted with a secret.  Finally one person said,

“Didlums. It’s an old Lancashire thing. It’s a way of saving up.  If eleven of you all put in £2 a week that means every week there’s £22 in the kitty. Then whoever’s number comes out, they take the money home. When you get it, It’s like you feel a bit rich, you can spend it on what you like.”

Linda who is from east Lancashire explained it had been a way that the women in the mills had used to save money secretly for big expenses like holidays.  Since each week, all the money collected is immediately paid out, there’s no bank account, no one holds any money, no one makes any money out of it. Evidently it is still used in tight knit communities and in families as a painless way of saving. How much you decide each person puts in per week is agreed by the group.  You draw lots for your numbers though the order of the pay-outs can be varied if someone has real need of the money at a certain time.  She says she’s heard of business people in the Asian community who put in £1000 a month and use the money to pay for wedding expenses.

Didlums, it was like a delicious little mystery I had to find out about.  Google it and you find very little, trailing the word like an elusive phantom through threads about country village childhoods,  canal boatmen’s sickness pay, pub Christmas African man and woman examine record of savingsschemes to find it has many forms.  But in the UK always informal, based in a small community, based on trust, a way that people who were poor could provide for each other.  Paying out each week minimises the risks but small saving schemes that pay out for Christmas or holidays also thrive.  You might remember Farepak, the commercial equivalent that went bust in 2006.  In Scotland they call a didlum a ménage and they are still quite common because, as one thread put it,

 It gives people early access to a lump of money which they wouldn't be able to get otherwise (unless of course you're last on the list).

You can find the equivalent of didlums in the West Indian community, called pardners and it is particularly important in West Africa where it is known as susu and functions as a form of microfinance, either a rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA), just like the didlum I saw in operation or a savings mechanism in which the collectors pick up daily deposits from savers over an agreed period of time and they then return the savings, charging one day’s deposit as fees. The money collected may be deposited with a bank or lent out in between and though there is no formal regulation, security rests, as with the imposing brick hotel fronting onto bridgeLancashire pub Christmas club, on social control exerted by the community around.  Susu is used as a way to accumulate capital but also to keep money safe from other family members.  Sometimes these saving mechanisms are known as tontines, although strictly speaking a tontine was a scheme in which each subscriber paid an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter receives an annual payment. As members die, the value of each annual payment increases. Sometimes, on the death of the penultimate member the capital went to the last survivor. There are clearly some interesting drawbacks to such a scheme, especially the incentive to get rid of your fellow subscribers and there are episodes of everything from PG Wodehouse to the Simpsons which make literary capital out of this element.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth century local tontines raised large amounts of money from well off subscribers and were used to finance  developments that benefited a locality such The Tontine Hotel in Iron bridge, Shropshire built in 1780 by the owners of the bridge to accommodate tourists who came there.

So what relevance has eleven Lancashire women saving £2 per week in order that each in turn receives enough for a little treat, to the great work of Transition? We are professional in outlook, we work on bigger scales and we have a world of crowd funding and social media that allows us to access finance from near and far, not to mention FSA regulated share offers in renewable energy co-operatives, should we have money to invest.  But what about the small enterprises of Reconomy, where a group of people need relatively little finance to start up but have minimal access to credit?   The didlum/ménage/susu provides capital in a lump sum from savings each individual is committed to making – but unlike the cloud or the crowd also provides a supportive network of people who trust and look out for each other.   As we watch the dismantling of welfare and support systems for the poorest in or out of work and the reductions in wages and worsening of conditions then, unless the credit union is active close by, how will people provide for a marriage or a holiday or even a bicycle to get to work without being forced into payday loans? We should be encouraging the resurgence of the didlums  - and before you throw your hands up in horror at the insecure nature of a didlum, based as it is on mutual trust, just remember the queues outside Northern Rock. That’s insecure.

Pictures: Wild Bunch (CJ) Tanzanian susu members, The Tontine hotel (both creative commons)


Chris Hart's picture


Really interesting and great research. Amazing what goes on in my community that I know nothing about

Anni Kelsey's picture

Tontine Hotel

Hi Caroline

As always a very interesting and informative post.  I live five miles from Ironbridge and think I had heard something about the meaning of the name of the Tontine Hotel, but did not remember it.  It is fascinating how people have always found a way to accomplish things that need doing and I agree with you that such schemes can potentially provide a very useful alternative to more formal lending schemes.