On Tuesday 6 October, the first of this season’s Henley Archaeological and Historical Group lectures was given by Shaun Morley and entitled ‘The Wise in Heart should be called Prudent’ or ‘Drunk and Riotous: an account of the Oxfordshire Friendly Societies’.
The Friendly Society movement got under way in the mid eighteenth century and only ceased with the advent of the First World War. The movement was formed by common men coming together to form groups to provide mutual benefits, namely medical and hardship relief to men and their families in the immediate vicinity of their parish, village or town. At first they were viewed with suspicion by local authorities as possible hotspots of trouble, especially after the French Revolution, and later all groups had to register their presence.
Oxfordshire had many hundreds of ‘Clubs’ as they were known, more to the north and centre of the county but Henley did manage a respectable quota. Club nights were usually on a Monday evening and almost invariably held monthly in a private room of a public house with no admittance to non-members or women. Membership was by proposal of an existing member and subscriptions were levied e.g. one shilling monthly or two and sixpence quarterly; if you didn’t keep up your subs you lost your benefit no matter how long you had been paying in.
On Club nights once any formal business had been conducted and subs collected, the steady consumption of ale seemed to take priority, the landlord was paid threepence a head, known as ‘wet rent’ to provide ale. The top social event of the year was the ‘Club Day’ which often took place just after Whitsun. This Day commenced at the Club House (pub) at nine o’clock in the morning with the first of many ales being downed A procession through the town followed, calling at several wealthy dignitaries looking for a donation to their benefit chest. This culminated back the Club House or hall where an enormous dinner was served with more drinking. Women were allowed to serve at tables for this event.
As club membership aged, the costs of benefits increased and some clubs folded through insolvency, some were wound up and restarted by younger members with the exclusion of the former old timers, who lost the benefits of the subscriptions they had paid. Clubs were quite strict in policing their members to ascertain whether the recipients were genuinely in need. The majority of Clubs closed when the Reform Acts were brought in by the Liberal government in 1906, giving state benefits for the first time.