Neston Female Friendly Society
The first hundred years
Neston Female Society was established in 1814 as the Neston Female Friendly Society and is known locally as Ladies Club. As a mutual society it provided financial assistance for its members but the Society’s annual walk quickly became a day of festivity not only for Neston but for surrounding areas. The name was changed to Neston Female Society as it is no longer a ‘friendly society’ in the legal sense.
The Society’s records were lost at some point in the 1990s but the original rules are kept at Neston Parish Church and a copy is displayed there.
The progress of the society can be followed through reports in local papers and they also provide some information about members and officials. Biographical information about original and early members has been traced using genealogical resources such as Ancestry and Find My Past both of which may be accessed free of charge in most Cheshire libraries.
Any errors are mine.
The Neston Female Friendly Society was founded during the Regency period, in the year Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba and the Napoleonic Wars were slowly drawing to a close.
There was no National Health Service, no sick pay, unemployment benefit or old age pensions. Childbirth was a risky for both mother and child and death in childbirth was common.
From Tudor times, up to the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, provision for the poor was provided by local parishes through a system of Poor Rates as determined by a series of Poor Law Acts.
Parish poor rates were levied on landowners and householders within the parish, administered by parish Overseers and used to support poor, sick, unemployed or elderly members of the parish. This was in addition to a compulsory tithe to maintain the church and clergy. Poor Law legislation was as hotly debated then as the benefit system is today. Some politicians argued that they encouraged dependency and large families and kept wages low whilst others felt that what was provided was not enough and was in any case badly organised and inconsistent across the country.
The cost of the wars with France and the impact it had on the price of food put the Poor Law provisions under increasing pressure. The same householders were required to contribute financially, to pay for the war, at first voluntarily but eventually, in 1799, as a formal tax (the first ‘income tax’). At the same time the price of food increased as French blockades prevented the importation of grain from the continent and series of poor harvests made the situation worse.
In this climate Friendly Societies were welcomed as they provided working men with the means to make provision for themselves and their family without recourse to Parish relief. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the benefits that such societies could offer women were increasingly recognised as societies were established across the country: York (1788), Barwick in Elmet (1778), Lichfield (1794), Bristol (1795) and Stowey (1806).
In 1800 Mrs Catherine Cappe, who had been instrumental in establishing the Societies in Barwick and York, published ‘An account of two charity schools for the educations of girls: and of a female friendly society in York : interspersed with reflections on charity schools and friendly societies in general’
In 1804 a sermon by the Reverend John Lowe was published entitled ‘The advantages of female Friendly Societies considered. . A sermon, preached at the anniversary meeting of the Female Friendly Society, at Campsall, on Thursday, November 11th, 1802’ . He appealed to the wealthier women in the congregation to support the society, pointing out how meagre wages made it impossible for their poorer ‘sisters’ to save for the ‘day of calamity, even with the most laborious industry and the most rigid economy’. He referred in general terms to the particular difficulties facing these women, ‘the peculiar weaknesses, the trials, the dangers to which they are exposed’. The biblical text he used in sermon was Galatians, vi, 2 – ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’.
In 1805 an article appeared in the Chester Chronicle for Friday 22nd March with the title ‘Female Friendly Societies: admirable institutions! It was an account of Wiltshire society which, when it began in 1793, had decided to provide a benefit not only for the men who were members but also an addition benefit ‘to support their wives in childbed’. This was prompted by the realisation that ‘many poor women had suffered severely, and that many children had probably been lost for want of assistance at that critical period’. The cost of providing care for their wives would have been the equivalent of a fortnight’s wages and ‘a poor labourer ‘ would have difficulty paying for it ‘without troubling the parish.’ The society therefore paid 7s6d after the birth of any child (born in wedlock) whether the child was born alive or dead and a further 7s6d after a fortnight to cover the cost of a midwife and nurse. After ten years the mortality rate of children within two years was reduced to one seventh compared to between one quarter and one half in the past.
Closer to home Societies were established in Sandbach (1806) , Ellesmere (1811) , Llangollen (1813) and Wrexham and accounts of their establishment and annual meetings appeared in the Chester newspapers. A common feature of the societies sometimes included in the description was the annual walk, a band, the carrying of staves bearing laurels or flowers and a dance in the evening.
Neston Female Friendly Society was formally established in January 1814 and it has been suggested that the Reverend Thomas Ward, the then Vicar of Neston, was largely responsible for setting it up.
Certainly both his daughters, Frances Mary Ward and Anne Elizabeth Ward were members (Frances Mary was one of the Honorary Stewardesses of the Society) and his mother- in-law, Eliza Bayley, was the first Lady Patroness.
The Society’s rules were registered with a Justice of the Peace, as government legislation required, in January 1817. A transcript of the these articles, which also bears the signatures of the original members, is on display in the Neston Parish Church and shows how the Society intended to carry out its purpose of ‘raising fund by voluntary subscriptions towards the support of the old, sick, lame and infirm members thereof and for other purposes hereafter mentioned’.
The Neston Society was organised in a similar fashion to other Female Friendly Societies and was financed by contributions from both Honorary and Benefit members.
Honorary Members paid money into the Society to support it but did not draw any benefit from it,
‘ten shillings and sixpence or upwards annually or benefactresses of five guineas’
Benefited members paid in a regular amount, increasing with age, and could draw on society funds for certain purposes specified within the rules.
‘if under twenty, sixpence: if above twenty and under twenty five, eight pence: if above twenty five and under thirty, nine pence: from thirty to thirty five, ten pence: if above thirty five and under forty, years, one shilling: if above forty and under forty six, one shilling and two pence: from forty six to fifty, one shilling and two pence, per month’
Mindful that misfortune could befall anyone the articles allowed for an honorary member to claim benefit if they fell on hard times and wished to do so providing they had been a member for ten years.
Members were required to go to the monthly meeting held on the first Monday of the month between 10am and 11am. Money and Society papers were kept in the club box which was fitted with three locks so all three Stewardesses had to be present with their key.
Members received payments if they were sick, after being unable to work for one week
‘four shillings weekly…such allowance to be continued six months if ill so long; if longer only two shillings and six pence’
In old age, superannuated members were to be paid 2s 6d.
When they died their relatives were entitled to at least £2 and more if they had dependants, depending on how long they had been members.
‘if a member six years two pounds: eight years, four pounds: if ten years, six pounds, provided she shall have a child or children, born in lawful wedlock, or other relative dependent on her support, otherwise in no case more than two pounds’
When they had children members were entitled to 5 shillings, which was intended to pay for the services of a midwife.
A major benefit was the provision of surgeon, Mr J. Cliffe, to treat members and provide medicine for which he received a salary of £15 per year. The articles recognised that it would be necessary to increase this amount as membership increased and stipulated that, when membership reached 100, Mr Cliffe’s salary should increase to £30. The doctor would then undertake to attend the Society’s members at childbirth instead of a midwife and the 5s payment would then be discontinued. This point was reached in 1818 as an addition to the regulations notes. However accounts of the society later in the century indicate that at some point the society returned to the original arrangement of a payment made directly to the women members.
As well as a Lady Patroness, the Society had 3 Stewardesses, two honorary and one benefited who would be elected annually at the first meeting after Christmas Day.
The Lady Patroness in 1814 was Eliza Bayley. The Honorary Stewardesses were Frances Mary Ward, daughter of the Rev Thomas Ward, and Arabella Monk, daughter of Parkgate customs officer William Monk. The first Benefitted Stewardess was Sarah Pinnington, wife of joiner John Pinnington.
The rules were signed by all the members but there is no indication of which were honorary and which benefit members. The honorary members would have been the wives, daughters or widows of Neston’s more prosperous citizens. Mary Eliza Bond was the widow of local surgeon Stephen Bond and Ann Bond was his sister. Phoebe Cliffe was the wife of the Society ‘s doctor John Cliffe.
The benefitted members included married women and single women. They possibly included teachers Jane Downward and Maria Butler and her sister, Margaret Sophia Wilson. Ellen Pyke, Sarah Pinnington’s sister, was a member as were farmers’ wives Catherine Cooke and Martha Dawson.
Members had to be in good health and under the age of 50 and proof of good character was required.
‘.. register of their baptism or other satisfactory testimonials (honorary members accepted) to be provided at their admission..’
Rude and improper behaviour at the meetings meant a fine of 1s but more serious misdemeanours meant expulsion.
‘…be known to steal, or be of bad character or have a child out of wedlock…’
‘…be in violation of any articles, refuse to pay her forfeiture…’
The Society thus provided them with medical care in sickness and childbirth, an income if they were too ill to work and in old age when they would otherwise have to rely on family or parish relief.
Three gentlemen acted as Trustees with power of attorney to invest and draw money on behalf of the society and a male secretary, who received a salary, was appointed. Women at that time were not allowed to engage in business. There is no indication in the original articles as to the identity of these men, although it seems likely that Reverend Ward would have been one of the trustees.
Whenever the money collected amounted to £20, over and above immediate requirements, then the money was to be invested. Since no payments, for sickness at least, were made in the first two years, this allowed the Society to accumulate some funds and in the years that followed the fund sufficiently to allow benefits to be paid from the yearly interest.
Ladies Club – The Walk
The benefits of the Society to Neston went much further than just the benefits paid to the members. It is the annual walk, which first took place in 1814, that came to be known as Ladies Club and remains an important day for the people of Neston and for much of its history for it was popular event in the surrounding area of Wirral and Cheshire.
The 1817 regulations stipulated that on the first day of June members meet at the Clubroom at ten o’clock in the morning and walk in orderly procession to the Church, where an appropriate sermon shall be preached’ this to be followed by taking tea together
‘…on the first day of June every year the members do meet at the Clubroom at ten o’clock in the morning and walk in orderly procession to the Church, where an appropriate sermon shall be preached, and at four in the evening of the same day, the members shall meet again when they shall drink tea together..’
Some ten years later the rules showed some additions and changes to the arrangements for the day.
‘that on the first day of June every year the members do meet precisely at two o’clock in the afternoon, that the stewardesses may be elected and all other business be transacted before the time of going to church, which is to be exactly at four o’clock; that the members shall walk in orderly procession to church where an appropriate sermon shall be preached; they shall afterwards return to the clubroom in the same order and drink tea together.’
And the provision of a dance for members and non-members was then included in the rules.
‘at six o’clock in the evening they shall be provided with a convenient place where they shall be allowed to dance until ten o’clock, at which hour they must break up and return home in an orderly manner; that the expense of the dance be paid out of the funds of the society and that any respectable person (not being a member of the society) may be admitted to the dance on their paying the sum of one shilling at the door, which money shall go to the funds of the Society.’
By the time the Society reached its 50th anniversary the structure of the day was essentially the same. By then dance in the evening on the bowling green of the Golden Lion was an established custom.
And it attracted visitors from far afield.
‘…hundreds of people were attracted to Neston from Parkgate, Heswall, Birkenhead and other places…’
(Cheshire Observer, June 1864)
In the final decade of the century it continued to be popular throughout Wirral without the need for advertisement. In 1894 over 800 people came into the town from Neston Station, without taking into account those who came via Parkgate Station, with more people coming in by bus and car (Cheshire Observer, 3rd June 1894).
For the people of Neston it was a day in the calendar which was almost as important as Christmas. The visitors always included ‘shoals of old Nestonians’ who ‘travel from all parts of the kingdom to be present’ (Cheshire Observer, 6 June, 1896)
Some of the features which are associated with Ladies Club today may not have been envisaged by its founder members but they were in evidence from the middle of the nineteenth century.
The newspaper report of 1862 (Cheshire Observer, 14 June) makes the first reference to the flowers which have remained an important and unique feature of the day.
‘ members on white distaffs carried beautiful bouquets of the most choice flowers..’
A report in 1883 (Cheshire Observer, June 1883) refers to the day as ‘ever associated with flowers’ and goes on to contrast the ladies’ wands of flowers with the more warlike emblems of the Foresters and Druids, describing them as ‘emblematic of peace-fitting and potent weapons for the army of gentle ladies by whom they are borne’
At the beginning of the1880s the staves were placed at the upper end of the nave during the service but some five years later they were left at the end of each row.
Bands led the procession to church as early as 1857 and played for assembled crowd at the Cross after the service. They were most often the bands of local volunteer regiments however the Society’s relationship with the band of the Neston volunteers was not always cordial. When the Society decided to engage the band of the 1st Cheshire Militia for the 50th anniversary in 1862, the Neston band being considered not good enough for the occasion, the Neston band retaliated by playing loudly and cacophonously outside the church during the sermon.
There was an even more acrimonious falling out in 1897 that divided opinion in the town. The local band had asked for an increase in their fee to cover the cost of ‘raising a bandstand’ which they usually provided themselves. When this was turned down they hired the Town Hall for a dance in opposition to the customary Ladies Club dance on the bowling green of the Golden Lion. The dispute went on for some time with a furious exchange of letters in the Cheshire newspapers.
1883 the banner is described in the Cheshire Observer (June 1883)
‘the beautiful banner of the society, having as its emblem a portrait of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, with the words ‘Long may she live in the hearts of people’
In 1901 the society had a new banner drawn by Mr Coulthurst of Chippenham , a former resident of Neston, payed for by the Lady Patroness, Mrs Russell.
The fair was a well-established feature of the entertainment on offer by 1883 though not popular in all quarters. The report in the Cheshire Observer paints a poetic picture of the scene in 1883.
‘Never tiring hobby horses…ringing bells of boats about to start skywards….sharp crack of the rifle at the shooting gallery…Aunt Sally, decked out in a new crinoline: nymphs with nuts and oranges tempting shy countrymen…’
Other papers (Birkenhead Advertiser, 9th June 1883) looked less favourably on these activities, suggesting that the day would be improved if they were abandoned and not only the ‘dangerous’ swinging boats, shooting galleries, roundabouts and hobbyhorses but also ‘the tribes of nut barrows, cake stalls and such like indigestible commodities’. The decision to move them to a field on Raby Road improved matters but, in the opinion of the writer, if they were stopped altogether ‘Ladies Club anniversary’ would be ‘far more respectable and reputable and give it a higher tone in public opinion’; and even the dance on the green should become a thing of the past.
The 1817 articles, perhaps not wishing the day to become one of unnecessary expenditure and display, limited the gowns which could be worn to ‘ stuff, printed linen or cotton gowns, on forfeiture of one shilling to the box’ .
This rule was still being observed when the Society celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1864.
‘All [members] dressed in a neat and becoming manner, there being no attempt on the part of the honorary members to outshine in style and appearance their poorer sisters.’
However as the Society approached its 100th anniversary the rule seems to have been abandoned.
‘Miss Roberts wore black, and carried a wand decorated with pink roses and white asters; Miss Lyon, in black, carried red and white geraniums; Mrs R. L. Price wore a black and white striped gown, and carried a prettily arranged wand of pink gladioli; Mrs Ariel Gray, in black, carried lovely pink pelargoniums and sweet peas; Mrs Pemberton, in green, carried pink roses; Mrs F. Jones, in black, had a dainty wand of mauve and white flowers; Mrs Yeoman wore cream, and carried pink pelargoniums; Mrs P. N. Stone, in brown, had a beautiful wand of pink and yellow roses; Mrs McCubbin, in white, carried pink and white gladioli; Miss Richardson wore pale pink and had a pretty wand of pink peonies; Mrs Lewis Grant had a green and white dress and carried a wand of pale irises; Miss Seagar, in Saxe blue, carried purple and white gladioli; Miss Carlisle wore white, and carried some lovely William Allen Richardson roses.
Cheshire Observer, 6th June 1908’
The centenary of the Society in 1914 is described in some detail in the Cheshire Observer, 6th June 1914. All the elements which marked the previous years were present on that day. The crowds thronged to Neston so that ‘by noon the streets were practically impassable’. The flowers in this year were all blue and white, the colours of the Society as were many of the decorations around the Cross. The walkers were accompanied by the Bromborough Pool Silver Band. The tea was provided by Mrs Youds of High Street and was followed by a dance in the Town Hall. Present at the celebrations was centenarian Mrs Ann Turner.
During the years of World War I and World War II the usual celebrations were abandoned although the service in church and the annual meeting still took place.
In June 2014 the Society celebrated its bicentenary. As far as is known it is the only such society still in existence though annual walks, commemorating earlier societies, are still in held some parts of the country.
Stella Young 28th August 2015