A safe and friendly way to socialise

A copy of the Morpeth Unanimous Society's schedule of fines.
A copy of the Morpeth Unanimous Society's schedule of fines.

“Last week the Club-box belonging to a Benefit Society, held at the Angel Inn, Monmouth, was ftolen from a chamber out of the house; it contained 14 10l. Bank bills, and about 60l. in cafh – Ipswich Journal, June 14, 1800.”

Box clubs, as they were sometimes called, were first founded in the early 18th century. The Registration of Friendly Societies Act, 1793, allowed a club’s rules to be ‘exhibited’ before the Justices and, if approved, certified by the Clerk of the Peace.

Working men and small tradesmen could no longer assemble or form societies, especially trade unions. If they wanted to meet socially on a regular basis, the only safe way was in a friendly society.

Registered societies had certain useful protections and reliefs, and the Act was intended both to encourage and regulate the movement.

The Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle has a bound collection of rulebooks of several local societies from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Many were for particular groups of people defined by occupation, including joiners, pilots, journeyman tailors, pitmen, tradesmen and mariners.

Some had straightforward names, like the Benevolent Society of South Shields, 1794, or the Benevolent Association in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1795. Others were quirkily eccentric, like Pot’s Box, 1731, later known by the more formal title of Pott’s Box Society.

Pot’s Box is, I think, the earliest, but ‘The Civil Female Society, begun April 3, 1735, now held at the house of Mr Stephen Johnson, the Scotch Arms. Newgate Street, Newcastle upon Tyne’, runs it a close second.

A surprising number were for women, including The Civil Benefit Society of Women, at the house of Mr John Fife, sign of the Black Boy, at the Black Gate, head of Side, Newcastle, 1760, and the Friendly Society of Matrons at Newburn, 1804.

Other examples are Castle-Garth Box, 1753, the Liberty Johns’ Association, 1784, the Free and Easy Johns, 1785, the Love and Unity Society, 1797, the Good Design Association of Seamen and Landsmen, North Shields, 1799, and the Colliers’ Box of Byker Town, 1801.

Most belonged Newcastle, but others were also found in Wallsend, Blaydon, Swalwell and Gunnerton.

They were very localised, and despite rules designed to limit their liabilities, did not have the reserves to withstand a general catastrophe, such as an epidemic or a down-turn in trade.

They all, without exception, met in public houses. There was, of course, hardly anywhere else where they could meet, but pubs were ideal for the purpose. Friendly societies in those days really were friendly.

They were all, again without exception, interested in more than drinking, collecting subscriptions and paying benefits. They promoted temperance, in the sense of moderation, and good behaviour both in and out of meeting.

One obvious reason for the existence of all these sets of rules is the Act of 1793. There are no examples of any issued before that date, and that despite many of the societies being founded earlier.

Another, but less obvious, is the French Revolution. It was widely regarded as a good thing at first, but the Reign of Terror and the revolutionary wars led to a reaction, which, coinciding with a heightened fear of the mob, led to the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800.

Working men and small tradesmen could no longer assemble or form societies, especially trade unions. If they wanted to meet socially on a regular basis, the only safe way was in a friendly society.

One of the sets of rules is that of the Morpeth Unanimous Society, founded in 1789 and registered in 1794. Whereas all the other societies printed theirs in book form, Morpeth’s is a single large sheet of paper.

It was founded by “Tradesmen, and Others...Who for the better fupport of ourselves and families, when it fhall pleafe God to afflict us with sickness, decay of strength, or inability of our several trades or callings, have...entered into a firm league, covenant, promife, and agreement, to set up and establish a fure, lasting, and friendly Society, to be held and kept at the house of Mr Robert Fenwick, senior, in Morpeth, or elsewhere; the Box not to be removed under seven years, if the Society find good usage...”

Article II says that they will only admit “such as are healthy, of a good character, and...above sixteen, and under forty years of age; and after the Society is become one hundred members, no person to be admitted above thirty-five years of age.”

The Society was not to be broken up, nor any part of its money or stock parted (i.e. divided up) without the consent of five-sixths of the members, including the sick and infirm.

They met every six weeks, on a Tuesday, from 7pm until 10pm.

There was also a half-yearly meeting on June 26, or on the Monday if it fell on a Sunday, when ‘every member shall spend three-pence whether prefent or absent’. It began at 6pm, and the main business was to elect two stewards and two deputies.

The Annual Meeting was on December 27, with the same proviso as to Sunday. They assembled at 9am, the main business of the day being a Dinner. Every member had to pay “one shilling and four-pence, viz. one shilling for meat, and four-pence for liquor...No liquor to be called for by any member till Dinner is on the table.”

On both occasions, members who neither attended nor sent their money were fined twopence.

A Committee, ‘chosen by Seniority’, was responsible for lending out the Society’s money at interest, and calling it in again as necessary. The Society could not lend out money in its own name. It was done in the names of three Trustees.

The stewards were ex officio, but the rest of the committee stood down at the Annual Meeting, and a new one was elected.

Any member who ‘appeared in liquor’ at a meeting or a funeral was fined sixpence, and likewise any who used bad language, laid wagers, or ‘keep not silence or his station, when demanded’.

There were, in fact, so many fines that they were collected into a schedule at the end. Twenty-four different ones are listed, the last being the twopence for not attending the annual and half-yearly meetings.

Here is Article III:

“A Box shall be made and prepared with three different locks and keys; one for each Trustee, one for the Mafter or Mistress of the house where such Box is kept, he or she giving proper fecurity for the fame; the Box never to be opened but when such Master or Mistress, or their Deputies, are present.

“Each member shall pay, at entrance, two shillings, that is, one shilling and six-pence to the Box, two-pence spent, two-pence for Articles, and two-pence to the Clerk; and every member each six weeks after shall pay into the box one fhilling, and two-pence to be spent in the house where the box is kept.

“Any person or persons, that shall enter into this Society, that is a member of any other such Society, or if any member of this Society doth enter into any other such Society, he shall not be allowed any emolument or benefit from this Society.”