A Starr Bowkett Society is a cooperative, non-profit financial institution that provides interest-free loans to its members and operates on the principal of mutual self-help as espoused byDr. Thomas Edward Bowkett in 1843. It has been popular in Australia from the late 19th century through the early mid 20 th century, and it was possibly an inspiration for modern micro-credit movements, but they are all but non-existent to-day. Dr. Thomas Bowkett was a London surgeon as well as a vocal proponent of a number of progressive and unionist ideas. His scheme was to provide low income people with a means to become landholders, and thus have a greater influence on government. He first proposed this during a series of lectures and articles in 1843. Bowkett believed that his new societies would avoid the worst facets of existing building societies, such as lack of control by members, the high levels of subscription required, and the charging of interest.
In 1862 Richard B. Starr, ‘entrepreneur extrordinaire’, made some changes to Dr. Bowkett’s scheme, including a slightly increased subscription fee and shorter subscription time amongst others. The changes made the scheme more palatable to potential subscribers and Starr promoted his now copyrighted system aggressively. The Starr changes made running a Starr-Bowkett Society more profitable for management. Concerns over the "lottery" system, as well as unscrupulous managers, led governments in the United Kingdom to outlaw Starr-Bowkett Societies there. However they had spread to the Australian Colonies and became a popular option for a burgeoning middle class there to afford their own homes. A graph of the growth/decline of Starr-Bowkett Societies in New South Wales compared with other Building Societies for the years 1894 to1929 is shown in Figure 2.
A registered society is formed with a limited number of memberships available. New members are assigned a number and select the amount of a loan for which they wish to apply. Members then pay a monthly subscription for a set time period, for example 200 months. The amount paid each month is based on the amount of the proposed loan, generally 0.25% of the loan. Once the society has accumulated sufficient funds from subscriptions, ballot meetings are begun and held on monthly basis thereafter. Loan recipients are chosen by random lottery. Once a member has received a loan, they then pay back the loan and any amount that is still owing on their original subscription commitment. Once all members have had opportunity to take out a loan, the society is closed, and the original capital returned to its members.
Some societies have transformed over the years into mainstream banks (for example Newcastle Permanent of Newcastle, N.S.W.), but many closed in the 1960's due to unscrupulous operators. One traditional Starr-Bowkett society still exists in Newtown a suburb of Sydney, but is no longer taking on new members, for it only remains to pay out the existing pool of subscribers. A pamphlet for the Newtown & Enmore Starr-Bowkett Building Society is shown in Figure 3.
I wish to acknowledge that this paper relies heavily on Maxine Darnell's paper on 'Attaining the Australian Dream. The Starr-Bowkett Way', and she would welcome your comments at her email: firstname.lastname@example.org.