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One day in 1849 the Chairman of the Witheridge Union Society, Mr H Davey, was visiting Thorverton, where he had been told that a member of the Society, William Elworthy, had been seen selling shoes on three occasions at a time when he was drawing Sickness Benefit from the Society of which he was a member. Naturally, working while drawing sickness benefit was against the Societies rules. The doctor who signed Mr Elworthy's sickness certificate had meant to indicate that he was incapable of hard labouring work, but the Society's rules said that any work done must invalidate benefit. The Society cancelled Mr Elworthy's membership and claimed the money already paid him. Mr Elworthy denied any wrongdoing. The Society's lawyers had to tell them that they could only reclaim money from members, and that, as Mr Elworthy was no longer a member they could not get a penny back. The case went to the Magistrates, who rejected the Society's claim, and also Mr Elworthy's counterclaim against the Society. Even the Registrar of Friendly Societies could not help the Society, and each side ended up meeting their own costs. A year later Mr Elworthy took the Society to court for damages and lost. This case shows how far the Witheridge Union Society was prepared to go to recover money that they believed was rightly theirs.

For centuries the village poor were the responsibility of the Parish Overseers if they could no longer work through age and sickness. Medicines, a room in the Poor House, a re-thatched roof, a floor repaired, clothes, and at the end a decent laying out and burial - all this could come from the Parish rates paid by those whose property required them to do so. Parishes looked after their own, but any from elsewhere who became a burden were sent back to their home parishes.

By the end of the 18th century however there had come a new development whereby working men (and only men) could make a weekly contribution to a fund, on which they could draw in time of sickness and which at the end would contribute towards a decent funeral. This new system meant that men were entitled to draw from a fund to which they had themselves contributed and were no longer at the mercy of the Parish Officers. Such a fund would be legally registered and managed by the contributors themselves and by the Vicar or Lord of the Manor. The members were responsible for dealing with fraudulent claims for seeing that the finances were properly managed and that the rules were obeyed. Each year two stewards were appointed to check on claims and no member could refuse this task without being fined.

In the early days of 'Union Societies', or 'Friendly Societies' as they were sometimes called many failed because they lacked the actuarial skills needed to establish the proper relationship between age at joining, weekly subscription rates and extent of benefits. If the rate was too low, there might not be enough money for benefits; too high, and there might not be enough members to make the Society viable. If benefits were set too high and too many members joined in their 40s and 50s there might not be enough money to meet eventual claims. Acts of Parliament in 1819 and 1829 established guidance and rules for Societies to avoid these pitfalls.

The Witheridge Union Society was formed on June 19th 1839 and a set of rules adopted. These rules were very thorough - there were 35 of them. Among the points covered were the classes of membership. At the start there were only two classes of membership. Class 1 was for tradesmen earning not less than ten shillings a week, and class 2 was for farm workers earning not less than seven shillings a week. In 1867 an extra class was added, namely 'Tradesmen, mechanics or yeomen earning not less than fifteen shillings', a sign of popularity and success. At the start the subscription was one shilling per four weeks for Class 1, and eight pence per four weeks for Class 2. 'Month Nights' were held in the Club Room for subs to be paid. Stewards, elected by members, were fined if they missed a Club Night; their most important task was to check that claims were genuine. Stewards were elected annually from among the members, and any member refusing the duty was fined. The Society was indeed run by the members for the members. Once a steward had verified that a sickness claim was genuine, then if confined to bed ten shillings per week was payable, or if capable of walking then five shillings per week. Once payment began stewards had to visit each claimant 'at uncertain times' to prevent fraud. When a member died £8 was paid towards his funeral expenses, raised not from subscriptions but from a levy on all members. An extraordinary feature of the Witheridge Society was that, instead of banking a year's surplus against a possible future run on funds due to an epidemic (as most societies did) the bulk of Witheridge's annual surplus was distributed to members. It is not surprising therefore that the Society became popular and drew its membership from a wide area.

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In 1843 they threw out a member, John Barnes, 'for drinking in a Public House at West Morchard Fair being under sick pay at the time'. Another was excluded for being more than 4 months in arrears with his subscriptions. By May 1844 they had 171 members, of whom 156 attended the annual dinner, which had become a feature of the Society. In the same year they appointed Mr G H Pullen as Treasurer, a post he was to hold for 47 years. He was succeeded by his son for a further 22 years. G H Pullen was a Witheridge grocer and tea-blender who had in 1840 built the eight houses of Pullens Row that exist today. In 1845 they expelled Samuel Foxford for applying for a medical certificate and going to work on the same day. Soon a new rule lay down that new members must be between 20 and 25, but that after the age of 67 paying members would have their monthly subs returned to them, provided they had received no sick pay in that year. Retirement ages were as yet unheard of.

In 1846 Joseph Tucker became Clerk to the Society, and eventually the South Molton Gazette would report that in 43 years of membership he had never drawn a penny of sick pay. Providing the annual dinner was put out to tender, and in 1849 those who tendered were W Rippen (Commercial Inn) at 1/4 per head, Mr J Brawn (The Angel) at 1/2, Mr R Churchill (Bell Inn) 1/4, and a non-landlord Mr W Bulled whose price of 1/1 won the day; he presumably would have hired a marquee. Later history suggests that The Black Dog Inn would have been too small, and The Mitre's short career as a pub had already come to an end.

By 1854 the Society had already been troubled by fraudulent claims for burial money. Two safeguards were introduced; there had to be a medical certificate confirming death could not be attributed to "Poison, violence or criminal neglect", or a Coroner had to certify that the dead man "had not been deprived of his life by means of any person beneficially interested in obtaining Burial Money from any Society". This seems to suggest that it was not unknown for next of kin to hasten a member's end to get their hands on the burial money.

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In 1858 it was decided to commission a flag "to be made of silk, red with a Union Jack in the corner, made of blue and white". This would be carried in they by now well established May 29th Procession. Before the annual dinner in 1867 a group of members called a special meeting they included Joseph Churchill (saddler and landlord of The Bell Inn), William Crook (miller at Bradford), James Dinner (wheelwright) and William Western (boot and shoe maker). As a result an extra class of membership was added, namely "tradesmen, mechanics or yeomen earning not less than 15 shillings per week", another sign of success. By 1869 it is clear that members could transfer from one class to another, and that membership from outside Witheridge was increasing. Places of residence included Birmingham, Torquay, Weston-super-Mare and London - clearly members who had left Witheridge still valued the benefits. One unlucky member had gone further afield, for William Vickery sent his claim for sick pay from America, but it was refused on the grounds that his medical certificate had not been received within the time limits. In view of the time taken for his letter to cross the Atlantic, this ruling seems harsh. Another member went further; in 1881 the War Office told the Society that one of their members, George Docket, of the 2nd Battalion the Foot Regiment, had died in Kandahar in the Second Afghan War.

Attendance at the annual dinner rose from 170 in 1853 to 240 in 1855, 270 in 1859 and 300 in 1863, 440 in 1884; and over 500 in 1886. By 1890 it had reached its peak of "about 1000". The existing committee structure could not longer cope with these numbers and an "Extra Committee" was created, with one representative each from no less than 25 parishes in the area, from Brompton Regis in the north to Tiverton in the east, Crediton in the south and George Nympton in the west.

After meeting for years in Mr Davey's house in the Square, they moved two doors along to "Mr Churchill's". He had been landlord of "The Bell" when it and the whole row along the north side of the Square had burned down in 1886, to be rebuilt in the style seen today (2001).

Expansion brought a touch of pride and defiance to the Society, for in 1881 they decided to inform the Registrar of Friendly Societies that they no longer thought it necessary to complete the 5 yearly valuation required by law. For this however they were brought to heel and in 1883 they did send in their valuation. They had already defied the Registrar by refusing to deposit the required bond in 1875 with Trustees as security for the money of which their Treasurer had charge. This defiance lasted 8 years before a Bond was finally deposited in 1883. Even then they were at fault for The Society could give the Registrar no reason why large sums remained in the Treasurer's hands without being invested for Society's benefit. Two more years passed before they changed their rules to allow spare funds to be invested in the Post Office Savings Bank. It is doubtful whether the Registrar ever approved of the Witheridge Society's policy of distributing to members on May 29th each year nearly all the year's surplus funds, but perhaps the law tied his hands in this matter.

The Club Walk

Like many similar societies Witheridge's annual celebration included what became known as the Club Walk, This took place on May 29th and took the form of a procession round the village. In the 1840s there were strict rules; members had to walk two by two and in the order that their names stood on the roll. A band took part in the march - in the years when Witheridge had no band of its own one was usually hired from South Molton. The route seldom varied. A start would be made outside the Club Room (near today's paper shop) and, then cross the Square, rounding the Pound House and passing up West Street to Trafalgar Square. From there they went to what was described as "the head of the village", which was probably the Congregational Chapel. From there the procession returned past The Mitre to the Church. Reports suggest that there were times when they covered this course twice. After they acquired their banner in 1858, this was carried high at the front of the procession. As the years went by, the two by two formation was abandoned for something less formal, although fines could be imposed if behaviour became disorderly.

As for the dinner on the day, from 1883 they hired a marquee, as the inns could not accommodate the numbers. In 1892 Mr George Cutcliffe of Coombe gave them their own marquee. A favourite site for this seems to have been "Mr Selley's field" (now the Sports Field). It was of course impossible to have a dinner without speeches, and so the Chairman and the clergy of all three dominations usually obliged. Sometimes they would be joined by the local Member of Parliament, and one year the local member, George Lambert took time off from this ministerial duties as Civil Lord of the Admiralty to come down and address the gathering. Another function of the dinner was to elect the Committee and Extra Committee for the following year.

By the eighties May 29th in Witheridge had become a major attraction for the surrounding area, and hundreds came to enjoy the roundabouts, shows, shooting galleries, swings, highfliers and coconut shies. A good deal of cider was drunk but a suggestion in the Gazette of June 1886 that they day ended in "drunkenness and excess" was indignantly denied the following week by the Chairman and all the Ministers of Religion.

The Last Years

In the 1890s commercial insurance companies began to make their presence felt, particularly with their lump sum payments on death, which guaranteed a good deal more to widows and children than the simple funeral expenses offered by Societies. One effect was the reduction in membership of the Witheridge Society. From a peak of about 1100 in 1892, it fell to 719 in 1904, a drop of 381 in 12 years. It was ominous that in 1904 £348 was paid out in sick pay, the same figure as in 1892, although membership had fallen by a third. In 1904 £210 was paid out in dividends, leaving so little in balances that a special meeting had to be called to deal with the problem. A sudden epidemic could have crippled the Society, and in any case the Friendly Societies Act of 1896 had called on Societies to keep balances in hand for emergencies. The Witheridge Society had ignored this advice for eight years. They were also perhaps unaware that medical science was helping to prolong life, leading to more sick claims in old age. In addition the national birth rate was declining with the effect of reducing the number of young workers who might be expected to join societies. This was not all. In 1908 National Old Age Pensions began, and the National Insurance Acts of 1911 and 1920 brought in health and unemployment insurance.

By 1900 there were nearly 24,000 societies in the United Kingdom with about four and a quarter million members; the two largest, The Oddfellows and the Foresters, each had over 700,000 members. The 1911 Act allowed Societies to act as the channels for the National Insurance Scheme, and in 1913 the Witheridge Society was given these responsibilities. In the same year the Society's funds were placed in Fox Fowler's Bank In Witheridge. In 1914 membership was down to 540, with only 180 at the dinner. In 1917 funds were so tight that a new rule restricted the total amount of sick pay a member could draw in one year, and allowed permanently disabled member to benefit for a maximum of eight years only. By 1918 only Tiverton, Oakford and Morchard Bishop were represented on the extra committee. The annual dinner had not taken place during the war, and in 1920 they discussed reviving it, but it did not take place.

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In April 1922 what they must have long dreaded came to pass. There was not enough money to met claims. In May members were called on to pay an extra levy, and again in December. In 1923 sick pay rates were reduced, but a further levy had to be called in for January 1924. Members could not be expected to pay levies as well as subscriptions, and they could not continue in a society with no future, nor could a society continue with a dwindling membership. On March 18th 1924 it was resolved to dissolve the Society. Assets were realised and divided among the remaining members. In April they sold their marquee to the Horticultural Society for £22. April 30th was the last pay night, and the final AGM was held on May 29th 1924.

For 85 years the Society had played a major role in the life of Witheridge; it had been the members themselves and their involvement in the management of their own Society that had given it strength. It had lasted until a combination of commercial and national insurance made it redundant.

It has been said that "The Societies were overwhelmingly democratic, with the vast bulk of the movement in the hands of working people themselves", and so it was with Witheridge. The members made the rules and saw that they were kept; the members set the rates to be fair to all and finally the members saw to it that May 29th and the Club Walk was a highlight of the year.

Witheridge Union Friendly Society

A summary of the report of the Annual Festival in May 1892, from the South Molton Gazette.

The members of the Society held their annual festival on Monday. The Society extends over several parishes and the membership is about 1, 100. At noon the town was paraded, the music being supplied by the Crediton Volunteer Band under the conductorship of Mr Benellick. Divine Service was held at the Church of St John the Baptist, the sacred edifice being crowded. The dinner was held in a large marquee in a field lent by Mr Hill Partridge. Mr Whitfield provided a capital dinner; a number of toasts were drunk, beginning with "The Queen". Archdeacon Seymour spoke and hope the Club would continue to be successful. The Chairman proposed "The Lord Lieutenant and Magistrates of the County". He was glad that Mr Cutcliffe resided in their midst, and they could not wish for a better Magistrate than he had proved himself to be. He had shown the greatest interest in the Club, and the large and expensive tent in which they were met had been presented to them for their benefit. Whenever Mr Cutcliffe made a promise they were sure it would be fulfilled. In rising to respond Mr Cutcliffe was greeted with loud cheers. The Chairman told the gathering that their Club was a progressive and prosperous one; this could be testified by the balance sheet. Over £616 had been expended in sick pay during the last year. Mr J Greenslade was then elected the new Secretary. Mr Pullen Jnr was re-elected Treasurer. Mr Pullen, in returning thanks, said he was the third generation of his family to hold the Treasureship. Parish Committees were elected for Witheridge, East and West Worlington, Morchard Bishop, Cruwys Morchard, Puddington, Templeton, Rackenford, Washford Pyne, Thelbridge, Meshaw/Rose Ash, Sandford, Oakford, Tiverton, Kings Nympton, Poughill, Wollfardisworthy, Chulmleigh, Knowstone, Stoodleigh, Crediton, Bampton, George Nympton, Cadbury, Withleigh, and South Molton.

During the afternoon and evening the band of the Crediton Volunteers and the Witheridge Brass Band under the conductorship of Mr S Hill played through the town and also gave selections of music in the Square. Roundabouts, shows, shooting galleries and swings occupied the greater portion of the Square, and during the evening many hundreds of persons visited Witheridge from the adjoining parishes.

(O.V) The Club Walk: Always took place on Oak Apple Day, May 29th. Mrs baker always put a big branch of oak on each side of the Angel door and the girls wore a spray of oak apple and if they didn't, the boys pinched them. For the occasion, a band came from South Molton at 8 a.m. and prepared in the Square with an old chap called "Jack, the Biscuit Burner" from the South Molton Workhouse, who was "a bit simple." The Square was "full of shows", coconut shies, bags of confetti for throwing, roundabouts, swing boats, "Try Your Strength." There was a big tent in "The Globe" (Bell Close). All came for miles to the Witheridge Club Walk. "The Walk" itself was just the procession to the church. Bill Greenslade was Club Secretary. All the sideshows paid a toll to church funds.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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