|Birch Friendly Society
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - February 2009
With the social welfare provisions available to us today it is difficult to imagine the hardships endured by our ancestors when struck by unemployment either due to lack of work, physical difficulties or bad weather conditions. We have written of the dread in which terms such as "the workhouse" were held. We know, from census records, of the proportion of people listed as "invalid" "crippled" "blind" and so on. With assistance from central funds today available as of right we can have little idea of the stigma attached to seeking charity years ago, or of the attempts people made to hide their plight in order to avoid something far worse coming their way.
Down the centuries trade guilds not only controlled working practices, and standards, but they also provided charitable assistance within their craft. In the seventeenth century, when industry started to become more mechanised and organised, some of the measures developed by the old crafts guilds were adopted and expanded by the larger employers. Later still employees became organised and trade unions were formed
In rural areas, with smaller populations, such measures were more difficult to organise but friendly societies were founded in various parts of the country by the late seventeen century. They appear under a variety of names but, generally, they were formed as a societies composed of a body of people who joined together for a common financial or social purpose. They were the forerunners of our modern social welfare services. Unlike the guilds, society members did not necessarily share a common profession and so lent themselves to the rural economy. Among the papers, in the Essex Record Office, is a document, "Printed by J Fenno, in the Fish Market, Colchester: where the Printing Business is executed with Neatness and Dispatch on the most reasonable Terms."
The Articles of Agreement
made and confirm'd by
The Friendly Society of Birch
Meeting at the House of Mr Cortman,
At the Angel, Heckford-Bridge.
WE, whose Names are entered in the BOOK hereunto belonging, (for the Promotion of AMITY, and True Christian CHARITY, and upon all just Occasions to assist each other) do bind ourselves by the following ARTICLES
The intentions were all embracing as the 26 Articles listed, and the seriousness of the situation, can be grasped from the NB at the end - "A box is provided by the Society, with three locks and three keys, which are kept by the Stewards and the master of the house; in which is kept the money and book and what other things belong to this Society." There is provision for the Stewards signatures but the preserved copy has not been signed.
Members were required to meet on the Monday before every full moon at the Angel at seven in the evening "and continue until nine; in which time the roll shall be called over, and if any member be absent, he shall forfeit two-pence to the feast, and shall spend four-pence if present."
Every person wishing to join had to be in perfect health and under 35 years old. The entry fee was 2 shillings and 6 pence (12.5p); 3p for his articles and 4p to the house. Every club night they paid 1s "to the box". All monies had to be paid quarterly or they were excluded. If a member became a soldier, or "faggot" (in this context a form of militia) they were excluded.
Members were entitled to draw from the "stock" of the society only after their first year of membership and then, only after notifying one or both of the stewards. If the illness continued for one week their entitlement was 7s. a week for up to 3 months, beyond that the payment fell to 4s. If, however, the sickness resulted from quarrelling, or drunkenness, no benefit was allowed. If the member fell sick within 5 miles of the Angel he was to be visited each week by a steward but if sickness occurred outside that limit the benefit could be paid to anyone he nominated provided the sickness was certified by a minister or churchwarden where the sickness occurred.
Articles covered circumstances in which local justices could resolve disputes as to whether benefits were deserved and illnesses were genuine. Payments were allowed, at 4s per week, for infirmities of old age and a death benefit of £2 was payable by the stewards for funeral charges and £3 paid to the widow or fatherless, "or to any friend he shall before his death leave the same; but if he shall be decently buried by any friend, without any expense to this Society, £5 shall be paid out of the box the first club night after the funeral, to such person as the deceased has left the same; at which time every member of this Society shall pay into the box one shilling each; the stewards shall give notice of the death of such member, if it happens within five miles of Birch; if so, all the members shall attends the corps (sic) to the place of burial, or forfeit one shilling."
The stewards were chosen according to their seniority after each quarter day once they had been members for a year. Refusal to serve met with a system of fines. An annual sermon was preached in Birch Church on the feast day, for which the Society paid half a guinea and every member was required to attend.
The Society was an entirely male domain even to the extent of fining a husband if his wife entered the club room. Members were forbidden to promote the breaking up off the society. Should they be cast into prison for debt they were excused dues, and were not required to pay dues incurred when discharged. Given the strictures imposed on members - and the limitation to only 31 members - many questions as to finances and management could be raised and might reveal some very interesting answers but, unfortunately, no other records appear to have survived.
As the note above shows a box and form of secure storage was acquired, agreement was made with the landlord of the Angel, and his wife, as to the administration of the Society. The fact that the Articles were printed is taken as evidence of the intent of the members themselves. Clearly "J Fenno, in the Fish-Market, Colchester: where the Printing Business is executed with Neatness and Dispatch, on the most reasonable Terms" was a man who was impressed in the early nineteenth century and it is a great pity that, so far, nothing has been found to reveal how the Society was run and for how long it existed.