Like many of the great British inventions, Friendly Societies seem to have developed over a pint in the local pub. They were groups of people who got together to provide a form of insurance cover for one another. This cover could be for very straightforward things, such as cover against funeral costs or the loss of a farm animal, or for more complex issues such as sickness and the loss of wages or other costs that an individual might struggle with. It was also a way of saving. Stoke Club was one such society.
The first record we have of the annual Club Day is a report by the Western Gazette on June 29th 1867:
“On Tuesday last the members of the Friendly Benefit Society, held at the Loveridge’s Royal Oak Inn, had their annual dinner. At an early hour the bells of the parish church sent forth their merry peals and the villagers were actively engaged in making preparations for the day’s enjoyment. The weather being propitious, there were a great number of persons present. In the course of the morning the members, bearing banners, garlands &c, headed by a brass band, perambulated the village, returning to the parish church, where an excellent sermon wa preached by the clergyman of the parish. Shortly after the service the members repaired to a spacious tent in an orchard near the club house, where an excellent dinner which gave credit to the host and hostess was provided. After the meal the usual loyal and complimentary toasts were given &c and the day passed off both peacefully and agreeably.” No fights that day, then.
In 1884 the Club members met at the school. The roll was called by Mr George Chedzoy and 70 of the 76 members answered to their names. The Othery Brass Band headed the procession that year, which called in at various farms for refreshments (cider). After a meal at the school, provided by Samuel Loveridge of the Royal Oak, more visits were made - tea at the vicarage followed by cider at Slough, the home of Thomas Hembrow.
Reports continued to appear in the local press, the solvency of the club often dependent on the number of death benefits (none or maybe 6) that had been paid out during the year. The following appeared in the Somerset County Herald in 1920, reporting on earlier contributions to the ‘Notes & Queries’ column:
“Stoke St. Gregory Club was always held on the second Tuesday after Whitsun Day, and was for many the only holiday during the year. Its observance was practically identical with that described by Mr. Willis Watson with one or two additions. On that day the villagers always partook of ‘whit-pit,’ for which the milk was given by the farmers. Also ‘Stoke Club pudding,’ which was of the baked plum variety. After the service in the church the members of the Club, who wore blue streamers on their poles and round their hats, walked three times round the Churchyard, headed by a brass band, which generally came from Othery.” The term ‘whit-pit’ has been identified as a phrase meaning to ‘eat like a dog’, so it was presumably some ‘speed eating’ contest.
We do not know when the society was disbanded and the only personal memory we have is from Floss David (Patten as was). She remembered, as a young woman, driving a local farmer round the village. He was claiming sickness benefit from the society, and if he had been seen driving himself he would be deemed to have been working. Not only would his benefit have been stopped, but he would have been fined. The picture below is outside Ash Grove, Meare Green. Arthur Squire, the baker who lived there, is on the left. On his left is Samuel Chedzoy, Sexton.
The Friendly Societies or Clubs were common in the west of England between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The use of brasses as emblems was particularly prevalent in Somerset. Those used NE of Bridgwater and Yeovil were flat and cut from sheet brass. Those SW of the line were usually three dimensional casts, as in the two examples we still have in the village. These photos are courtesy of Trevor Boon and Yvonne Foley.
The Langport and District Friendly Society still exists today. The objects are: "The encouragement of Thrift, Self-help and Sobriety of Conduct in each individual member, and the promotion of a Spirit of True Comradeship, Friendliness and Brotherly Love towards all." Rather than a club for individuals, it now provides donations from its funds to local organisations which provide useful services to the community. Some customs are maintained: "Following the service the society made their first stop of the day at ‘The Rose and Crown’ (Eli’s). The club and the band then made their way through the roads and streets and visited both public and private houses of Huish Episcopi and Langport."