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Whilst the role of friendly societies over the years is generally well known, the records indicate that these institutions were very much a male preserve.
Only one in about 175 friendly society members belonged to a female society, and 17 counties in England did not have a female society at all. It is of particular local interest, therefore, that recently traced archive documents provide evidence of a female benefit society farmed in Barwick over 200 years ago.
At that time there was understandable concern regarding the distress to which labouring people were exposed in times of illness within the family. The womenfolk of the area also took account of, and were encouraged by the beneficial effects ensuing from the men's Brotherly Society, then in existence in Barwick. It was in these circumstances that the Barwick Female Friendly Society became established, and it was the expressed hope of the promoters that:
|"an association of this kind may have a further tendency to promote charity, good will, and piety amongst the member, and that it may, by this means become a more essential blessing to all, in proportion as the interests of the next world are of greater importance than the interests of this."
The society was formed on 3 November 1778, at the house of Mrs. Horner, and under the patronage of the following women who were duly registered as honorary members.
|Mrs. Green of Lenthorpe
||Mrs. Shipley of Barwick
|Mrs. Emmonson, Lazencroft
||Miss Harrison, Stanks House
||Mrs. Dawson,Carr House
|Mrs. Schofield, Stourton
|Other members came from Scholes, Coal pits and Whitkirk
The main object of the new society was the establishment of a benefit fund, maintained by regular subscriptions, to provide financial assistance in times of sickness and family distress. A comprehensive set of rules was drawn up, and revised over the years, to ensure the orderly running of the society's affairs.
The membership was limited to eighty; new candidates being elected by ballot at the quarterly meetings, which were held on Whit Tuesday and the first Tuesdays in August, November and February. Prior to admission, entrants were required to produce a certificate of health from a regular medical practitioner, and upon payment of a 5/- entrance fee "to the box", the new member received a copy of the society's rules. Thereafter regular subscriptions were paid into the fund at the quarterly meetings.
Admission to the female society was limited to women over 18, and under 35, years of age, and to those reputed to be of sober life and conversation
. Two stewardesses were appointed, from the honorary members, to preside at meetings, and to see that members "observed proper decency and order
". They also attended to the collection of subscriptions, sickness notification forms, and the payment of benefit allowances.
The certificate, used to notify an illness, was normally signed by the sick person,or one of her neighbours, but those members living more than one mile from the residence. of the stewardesses were allowed to have the form signed by either the minister or churchwarden of the parish or the apothecary in attendance. On receiving a certificate, the stewardess was expected to visit the sick person to verify the benefit entitlement. After paying a year's subscriptions, any member who became sick, or lame, and was unable to work, was entitled to receive an allowance of 4/- a week for the first six months of her illness, and 2/- a week for a further six months.
Members who had paid 30 years subscriptions were regarded as fully superannuated and if anyone in this category became disabled or blind, and unable to help themselves, they received 1/- a week for the duration of their disability. Any member admitted to hospital as an in-patient was allowed 1/-a week during her stay, and the sum of 10/6 was paid at the time of a member's confinement. On the death of a member who had paid 14 years contributions, the sum of £5 was allowed for funeral expenses, and half this amount was paid out on the demise of "one lawful husband
If a member of the society, in receipt of sickness benefit, was found to be undertaking any kind of work, other than giving orders to servants, or signing her name, or was known to have walked more than half a mile, she was liable to be summarily dismissed from the society. A similar fate applied to anyone found guilty of feigning illness, procuring a false certificate, or to those charged with lewdness, drunkenness, dishonesty or swearing.
The Rector of Barwick (for the time being) was invited to be treasurer of the society, and a clerk was also appointed to keep records of accounts and meetings. The clerk was paid annually and any neglect in attending meetings, or failing to arrange a deputy, cost the offender a fine of 2/6. William Batty was appointed clerk to the Female Society in June 1821, and in May 1857 his son John Batty took over these duties.
On the day of the Whit Tuesday meeting, the society held an annual dinner, when a pint of wholesome beer was provided for each member
. In the morning the members assembled at Barwick church to hear a sermon preached by the local minister, and such
an occasion is described in the following extract from The Leeds Intelligencer
dated 16 June 1794.
|" On Tuesday last the annual meeting of the Female Friendly Society was held at Barwick-in-Elmet when the members went to church and heard a most excellent sermon preached by the Rev. John Graham, their chaplain. The public fund of this most excellent society (which is meant solely for the relief of distressed female servants and poor female housekeepers) now amounts to £317. There was a dinner provided on the occasion at which upwards of sixty members attended."
In 1817 there appears to have been a decline in the number of women joining the female society, as the archive documents include a public notice prepared by Catherine Cappe of York (who describes herself as aged member and one of its first promoters). This
notice is addressed to the inhabitants of Barwick and the neighbouring villages, and conveys an expression of concern on the lack of new members entering the Barwick Female Society. Young women in particular are reminded of the ever threatening ravages
of ill-health and the relief and comfort that can be gained from being a member of a benefit club.
And the message continues
|"or as they walk through a neighbouring church yard, do they never read on a tomb-stone the names of those who but a short time before were as stout, as healthy, as thoughtless, and as presumptious as themselves; and to whose recovery the rest and medicines to be procured by the sick pay of a Benefit Club might have contributed.
Besides, young women and others should consider, that thus becoming Members of a Benefit Club is a great recommendation of their character, and not merely for prudence and discretion, but also for general good conduct, because no who had been known to have been guilty of any vice, would be admitted a Member."
It may be assumed that this stirring message had some effect, as the Female Society prospered for a further 84 years. The society eventually became a registered institution under the Friendly Societies Act of 1896, which was designed to consolidate the law governing the activities of friendly societies and benefit clubs generally.
Regular returns, giving full details of the finances and membership of the Barwick Female Society, were submitted to the Registry of Friendly Societies in London, and the records for 1899 show a membership of 61 at the beginning of the year and 59 at the end.
Of these -
- 18 were aged between 20 and 50 years
- 17 were aged between 50 and 65 years
- 24 were over 65 years of age
The registered office of the female society was the Schoolroom, Barwick, and the Rev F.S.Colman signed the official returns as treasurer, and also as one of the two trustees.
Balance sheets of financial receipts and expenditure were published annually and a copy of the statement for 1891 is shown below:
Gosden in "The Friendly Societies of England" quotes figures of 4 million as the membership of these societies in 1972, only 22691 of these belonging to the female societies. These figures reflect a situation where the main limitation on the formation and activities of female societies was the fact that women were not usually the breadwinners of families; a housewife could hardly insure against loss of earnings when sick. Moreover in the days of large families and frequent pregnancies the cost of sickness insurance for married women was apt to be expensive. In women's societies the number of lapsed members tended to be high, form soon as there was any financial difficulty within the family, the
woman's subscription to the female society would stop. Female societies could only thrive where there was a good deal of regular employment for women and stable employment for husbands - the latter was vital as her membership would lapse when the wife's earnings were used to tide over the husband's period of unemployment.
A Royal Commission on Friendly Societies (1871-74) found against women's societies and quoted, with approval, Sir George Young's recommendation of 1801 "that the proper provision for a working class woman was the man's own club which should include a subscription for medical aid to the whole family"
. In these circumstances of economic difficulty (and male prejudice) the forming of a female society at Barwick, and its survival for over 120 years, was a remarkable achievement.
The society was wound-up in 1901, most likely for financial reasons, as the latest returns show a fall in income from subscriptions. The residual funds of the benefit club, amounting to £1190, were distributed among the 55 members, and the following are examples of the payments made out -
|Elizabeth Perkin received £29.15.0 at 6 pence in the pound
Mary Robshaw received £28.10.2i at 5 3/4 pence in the pound
Mary Knapton received £24.15.10 at 5 pence in the pound
Mary Knapton was born in November 1823, and joined the benefit society, at the age of 19, in June 1843. She would be 78 years old when the distribution of funds took place, towards the end of 1901. The affairs of the society were wound up under the supervision of the two trustees - the Rev. F.S. Colman and the Rev. H.T. Young (of Sittingbourne), and the formal Dissolution Notice was published in the London Gazette in July 1901. The documents indicate that Colman was directly involved with the Barwick Female Society for a number of years, yet, surprisingly, he makes no reference to the institution in his book, "History of the Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet".
It was mentioned earlier that the promoters of the Female Society were encouraged in their efforts by "having observed the good Effects that have flowed from the Brotherly Societies amongst the men"
. Under the circumstances, the following extract from "The Leeds Intelligencer
", dated March 1792, makes interesting reading.
|"On Tuesday last the President of the Brotherly Society at Barwick-in-Elmet, near this town, by some means got into his possession two bankers' notes value sixty pounds, belonging to the members thereof, for which he obtained cash, and with a favourite Dulcinea set off in a post-chaise immediately for the South. This should be a caution to Societies to take care into whose hands they entrust their money."
The outcome of this item of intrigue and what the female society (with its strict code of conduct) made of it, is not revealed, but we now look forward to discovering more about the activities of the Barwick Men's Brotherly Society.
Addenda to the original article published in Barwicker No.92
Edition No. 7 of The Barwicker published an article written by Tony Cox on the Barwick Friendly Society. Whilst the article described the purpose and function of the society, another aspect of the society has come to light which we did not know at the time of the original research.
We have received an email from Liz Alsop, who we believe lives in Australia. In the email she says "we have a Bible that was The gift of the Barwick Female Society
1804 to Dinah Nettleton (an ancestor of ours) born on February 20th 1777." We do not know whether it was a normal practice to give members a Bible on their 21st birthday or whether the gift was for some other reason. We know that there were strong ties between the society and the church; the Rector was the treasurer during the initiating stage of the society. Members were required to be " reputed to be of sober life and conversation."
Following this notification, we have had further evidence from Priya Mehta, Archive Assistant at the Warwickshire County Record Office who informed us that:-
In the rules for Kenilworth Female Friendly Society, 1798, it says that bibles and five shillings were given to "members of good character, for modesty and industry, on the day of her marriage."
It may therefore be a wider practice of female friendly societies to give bibles and/or money to mark special occasions and good conduct.
We are very grateful to Liz Alsop and Priya Mehta for drawing our attention to the Bible and to other evdence of awards.
If any readers have knowledge of the existence of further copies of Bibles inscribed ‘The gift of the Barwick Female Society’ or have knowledge of similar practice in other Female Friendly Societies, we would like to hear from you.
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