Penybont and District History Group Notes 4th March 2019 Main Topic: Friendly Societies and their Contribution to our Community – Dr Marion Evans

MGeraint welcomed another full house to this month’s gathering.

Before handing over to Marion he brought members’ attention to the up and coming meetings planned for the next few months.

In April, on April Fools Day, we will welcome Roger Coward who will be talking about the recent research into the history of Abbey Cwmhir. Abbey Cwmhir is just outside our district but it had enormous influence on the area as a whole.

On 6th May Richard Rees will talk about the Dams that did not happen in the area. This fascinating topic will explore what might have happened to Penybont and other local areas if plans that were drawn up had come to fruition.

Shirley will be presenting on the Insall Family and the history of the Royal Flying Corps, a subject that she ‘might or might not devote the rest of her life to’, on June 3rd.

Judy made a plea for any information, photos, etc., for her talk on Llanbadarn Fawr School. She has plenty of information from over 100 years ago, and from her own time at the school, but from 1919 the information in the Powys Archives cannot be released.

Derek said that he had been asked, or another member of the group, to talk to the Rhayader Local History Group about the Penybont Group. This group is being facilitated by Elan Heritage and Stephanie Cruise the Heritage Officer. The meeting will be on 2nd April at 7.30 p.m. at CARAD. Alan who has been to their meetings said that they did need some help. Maureen said she had modelled the Painscastle Group on Penybont and that this had worked very well. Geraint said that Brecknockshire had a group in almost every village but Radnorshire was just beginning to catch up. He felt that there were many ways for groups to run and be supported. He felt that Penybont was almost too small for a group going into the longer terms and it might be useful for villages to club together in the future.

Mary had her daughter home last week during half term and they visited the Penybont graveyard. They were particularly drawn to an unmarked grave of Mrs Cowley who had been evacuated to the village in the early part of the 2nd World War. She died in her first week in Penybont. When she was buried a promise was made to the family that there would be flowers on the grave as she had loved flowers so much. Mary and her daughter were delighted to see the grave a mass of snowdrops.

Main Topic – Friendly Societies and their contribution to our Community – Dr Marion Evans

  1. Marion started with a confession – this was not a topic of her choice. She would agree that historically Friendly Societies are of great interest but the research is largely about accounting and this in itself does not make for a great presentation!

However, Marion had done a considerable amount of research into the social position of Friendly Societies and she would then, in conjunction with Geraint, lead a discussion on how this applied, or might have applied, to the situation locally.

Friendly societies date back a long way but they began to play a more significant role in Victorian life from around 1830 onwards. They were/are mutual aid societies where people put money into the society in order to be able to take money out at times of need. The primary needs were an insurance against burial costs, sickness, child birth, pension. Friendly societies became popular in village life before there was a welfare state to support people but these positive benefits have to be seen against the challenges within small communities to manage the bookkeeping.

Poor Law and the Workhouse

In earlier times the monasteries were responsible for giving aid to the poor of the country but when Henry VIII dissolved them this source of aid came to an end and there was a noticeable increase in poverty with people found begging and homeless.

In 1601, in the reign of Elizabeth 1, a Poor Law was passed making each Parish responsible for the poor in its own area through the imposition of a Poor Law Rate. It was not long before people realised that some Parishes were richer than others and this led to considerable migration to these richer Parishes. In 1662 a Settlement Act tried to deal with this and made Parishes responsible for people who were born in their Parishes. Pauper relief was largely mitigated by expecting people to work. If visitors to a Parish had not shown sufficient industry within 40 days they could be sent away. In 1697 the Law required visitors to a Parish to show a ‘settlement certificate’ showing the Parish that had responsibility for their welfare.

Alongside the management of the Poor by labour the Workhouse Test Act 1723 gave Parishes responsibility for establishing Workhouses for people who were less able to work, people who were ill, elderly, and children. However, workhouses were often too expensive for single parishes to afford. Neither Presteigne nor Rhayader built on under this act. There was one in Kington but the governess there was noted as being incapable of maintaining control of the unruly inmates!

The Poor Law Rate was set and managed through the Vestry in each Parish. Some Parishes were clearly much wealthier than others. Poor Parishes often meant that the money raised was insufficient to cater for the needs of the Poor. There were other anomalous challenges in the management of the rates. A story that had emerged from Rhayader than considered the needs of two women with very similar backgrounds and requirements. One woman received significantly more than the other. When asked why this was the case it emerged that one woman would shout louder and make a scene and so she was given more to keep her quiet.

There were particular pressures by the middle of the 18th century. There was a significant rise in the population combined with rising food prices as a result of the French Wars; enclosures were taking place depriving people of the means for subsistence living; and changes were taking place on farms with early mechanisation; and improved fodder crops: – such that less labour was needed.

One of the most significant changes came as a result of the increasing availability of the humble potato. More children survived as a result of this availability and this drove the increase in the population. In some parts of Britain these extra mouths were soaked up by the early industrial revolution, but research shows that this was not the case in Radnorshire where a permanent cadre of unemployed began to build up. This put extra pressure on the poor rate and provided an extremely low standard of living for the unemployed. This was amplified by the fact that working men were often paid part of their salary by being allowed to grow a few rows of potatoes on the farmer’s land. Once they lost their jobs, even this small form of nutrition was lost to them.

 If families could no work they were in deep crisis. Sometimes Parishes that had no work available for the Poor would agree with a neighbouring Parish to give people work. The alternative was the workhouse. But as noted, only Knighton built one in this area – and it was described as riotous!

Emphasis on the Workhouse as the solution to the problem of poverty became more extreme following a Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws in 1832 that led to the New Poor Law of 1834. Interestingly the Chair of the Commission was Thomas Frankland Lewis, who had been M.P. for Radnorshire. The focus of the Commission’s investigation was to cut the costs associated with the Old Poor Law of 1601. The Commission put the emphasis on the Workhouse and away from expecting the Poor to work for landowners.  It is perhaps interesting to note that in contrast to cut costs in this situation, it was Thomas Franklin Lewis who had complained so bitterly about the cost of the tolls between his home in New Radnor and Hereford.

Friendly Societies

Alongside this Poor Law system people planned to offset the risks common to many people and to avoid falling into the Poor Law system. Friendly Societies evolved to provide mutual support by insuring against sickness, child birth, and old age.

Some of the early Friendly Societies in this area were:

Knighton 1787

Nantmel 1787

Presteigne 1805

Rhayader and Llansainffread Cwmtoyddwr 1824

It would appear that most had an association with a Public House in their area. They generally covered quite a small area and therefore were vulnerable to going bust. Actuarial tables were not available to the people running them and this also led to their vulnerability. The factor that began to increasingly put them under pressure evolved as young members, (the average age of the members who set them up was just 32 years), got older and the demands on the funds increased.

Penybont Friendly Society

New Friendly Society of Rhayader and Llansantffraid Cwmdauddwr was the largest in the area by 1906, but the Society in the Penybont area had 466 members.

Penybont Friendly Society Banner

“This painted silk banner was made by George Tutill.”

The information given within this website is:

“In 1879 the society had 466 members and £1,928 in funds. The Society was dissolved in May 1885 and a branch of the Ancient Order of Foresters was formed in shortly afterwards Description

Established on 1 September 1826, members of this Friendly Society paid a shilling a month into the funds. They could pay additional contributions to cover the costs of meals. They could also receive fines of sixpence for cursing, being indecent in dress, being rude, noisy or drunk and for divulging society business to non-members.

The most important event of the year was the “club feast “, which was held in Pen-y-bont every May.”

The Friendly Society Movement represented a huge change in the way assistance was provided to people in need. The ideas of self help were considered to be a very positive move by the ‘establishment’ or Ruling Classes. They were also viewed with suspicion by the same people as employers. While it was good to see the working classes taking responsibility for their own welfare, this coming together of the labour market was seen as the possible beginning of Trade Unionism and they did not want that.

The Poor Law Act of 1834, as discussed above, led to a significant increase in the number of Friendly Societies but by the turn of the 20th century and a number of Acts these small societies at parochial level gave way to larger more national bodies. In the 1895 Act the Societies and their activities were defined as:

“societies for the purpose of providing by voluntary subscriptions of the members thereof, with or without the aid of donations, for the relief or maintenance of the members, their husbands, wives, children, fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters, nephews or nieces, or wards being orphans, during sickness or other infirmity, whether bodily or mental, in old age, or in widowhood, or for the relief or maintenance of the orphan children of members during minority; for insuring money to be paid on the birth of a member’s child, or on the death of a member, or for the funeral expenses of the husband, wife, or child of a member, or of the widow of a deceased member, or, as respects persons of the Jewish persuasion, for the payment of a sum of money during the period of confined mourning; for the relief or maintenance of the members when on travel in search of employment or when in distressed circumstances, or in case of shipwreck, or loss or damage of or to boats or nets; for the endowment of members or nominees of members at any age; for the insurance against fire to any amount not exceeding £15 of the tools or implements of the trade or calling of the members”

This is taken from:

This article gives an in-depth insight into how legislation evolved during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries as recorded by the Encyclopaedias Britannica in 1911.

As we move into the 20th century the small societies died out and were replaced by larger and national societies such as the Foresters.

Some of the smaller societies grew out of particular areas of common ground. There were Temperance Societies, and Maureen was able to tell us about a Welsh Language Friendly Society in Painscastle that was formed in 1846. This only survived a few years but it is interesting to note that the Welsh Language was still spoken in Painscastle in the middle of the 19th century.

In many ways the Friendly Societies modelled themselves on the Free Masons. They were ‘secret societies’, they had handshakes, and other rituals. There was regalia and banners, as seen above for Penybont.  Even their names mirrored the Masons – The Ancient Order of Foresters was formed in Rochdale in 1834. The making of banners and other regalia could be expensive – banners in the region of £30 – and this led to criticism about how money was managed.

There was definitely a social element sometimes leading to riotous behaviour.

“All who are familiar with friendly societies know very well that they mean   a   great   deal   more   than   the   mere   payment   of   certain   premiums and  the  reception  in  time  of  need  of  certain  equivalent  benefits.    They know  that  they  are  clubs  in  another  sense  of  the  word  also.    The name is associated in their  minds  with  bands  and  banners,  and  processions  with  scarves  and  rosettes,  with  public  house  dinners  and  all  their  natural  concomitants.    Too  often  the  Club-day in a village means a day of drunkenness, a day on which respectable people shut up their houses and keep indoors, or take the opportunity of paying a visit to friends at a distance”

In Penybont the Friendly Society would gather at the Severn Arms on their ‘feast day’ in May and they would march under the banner to Llandegley Church. After a service they would march back to the Severn Arms. Percy Severn might be there for the meal but would withdraw to allow the riotous behaviour to take over.

Even in later times the Foresters and Oddfellow Societies would hold a ‘bash-up’ at Crystal Palace where they might host 70,000 people. According to Marion a certain amount of canoodling went on.

As we look ahead to the beginnings of the Welfare State, Friendly Societies would consult a panel of Doctors, and the larger societies would have such panels all over the Country. The Doctors would advise in health matters and ascertain whether someone claiming to be ill and unfit for work was really ill. The downside to this was that the Societies wanted to protect their funds and would often dispute the Doctors’ opinions.

Another downside for some people was the need to pay their dues every month. This could in some instances lead to debt, and debt could lead to fines and a vicious circle. There was nothing for people in this self-help system of they could not pay their dues.

Most societies were entirely male but a small number of women’s societies did come into existence, some in South and West Wales where there were some ‘independent women’.  There is an article on ‘The Fraternity of Female Friendly Societies’ at:

“Although the  returns made following a survey of friendly societies in 1803–04 are inaccurate in  regard  to  women’s  societies  (which  were  not  always  distinguished  from  those  for  men)  Bohstedt  noted  that  6000  of  the  9000  women  in female friendly societies in 1803 lived in towns where riots occurred. He Daniel Weinbren concluded that while the men were turning to more quiescent political activities, the female societies may have served as ‘a source for cohesion in riots.”

So, while Friendly Societies increased in number throughout the 19th century the concerns over the administration by these small organisations led to consolidation and one or two of the Societies began to absorb the smaller groups and as we move into the 20th century the Foresters, Oddfellows had become national organisations with the ability to manage their investments and liabilities in a much more professional way. This professionalism had a significant side effect in that some people became employed locally and even developed careers within these organisations that took them out of poverty. The Friendly Society Acts of 1875 and 1895 consolidated these trends, and this led to more regulated insurance opportunities including Old Age Pensions and Child Welfare insurance. An Article in the Times in 1889, written by a London Coroner criticised child welfare insurance suggesting that parents might maltreat or neglect their children to get insurance pay-outs!

There was also a growing governmental interest in Friendly Societies in the latter part of the 19th century following the Crimean War. The need to recruit troops to fight on behalf of the Crown highlighted the very poor health of the nation. Alongside the increasing population, brought about partly by potatoes, the nation’s died was extremely poor.

The beginnings of a Welfare State emerged in 1911 with the National Insurance Act and some friendly societies, alongside Trade Unions, and commercial Insurers became Approved Societies in the administration of the funds obtained through employers being required to pay into the insurance fund.

A Punch Cartoon of the time indicates some ambivalence about the Act:

‘Patient (General Practitioner) “This treatment will be the death of me.”

Doctor Bill “I dare say you know best. Still there is always a chance”’

Beveridge had a somewhat romantic view of Friendly Societies as fostering brotherhood and self-help but as the 20th century progressed things were changing and although even in 1942 Beveridge seemed to be supporting the voluntary status of Friendly Societies in the administration of National Insurance their status as Approved Societies was removed in 1943 and in 1944 the National Health Service was proposed and came into being in 1948.

Marion rounded off her talk by reminding members that it is often thought that National Insurance Contributions go to the Poor, but this is a misunderstanding, as it never did work that way.

  • Geraint thanked Marion for her comprehensive survey of Friendly Societies and the huge amount of research that she had done. Marion and Geraint then together opened up a discussion about how this impacted on people in Radnorshire and in Penybont.

As we have seen from above the Society in Penybont was formed in 1826 and by 1879 had 466 members. It followed the national pattern with the Society being dissolved in 1885 leading to a Foresters group being established.

There were about 15 Societies in the area and in Presteigne, the New Friendly Society had 300 members. The Penybont Society clearly drew people from a wide geographical area. What is remarkable is that in an area where there was not great wealth that in order to avoid the challenges of Poor Law administration that so many people were able to may the 1 shilling a month dues but they could also face fines for:


Being indecently dressed


Being Noisy

Being Drunk

Divulging secrets of the Society to non-members

A comment was made this could be seen as a fine for ‘living’!

A newspaper report of 1876 commended the Society for its membership of 430 members. Having assembled at the Severn Arms members marched to Llandegley Church for a Service. The members then marched back to the Severn Arms for the annual Feast. J.P. Severn addressed the meeting and gave £463 for the death and sickness fund. One can only speculate that it was after Percy Severn withdrew that the fun and games began! These annual events were quite significant in the area. The Schools would be closed. They had a status similar to other days such as the Agricultural Fairs.

Geraint was able to give us an example of how people benefitted from the Society. A lady, Hannah Jenkins, who paid in 1 shilling a month for her dues but she then had payments of 10 shillings when a child was born in 1864; 10 shillings for another child in 1865; and £1 for her husband’s burial in 1866.

Neil was able to tell us of his relative Evan Richards who was a member of Foresters for 54 years when he died in 1943.

  • Girls Friendly Societies

Discussion moved on with some photographs, see below, supplied by Joy of the Girls Friendly Society in New Radnor. Though they use the same terminology Girls Friendly Societies had nothing to do with Friendly Societies as we have discussed above.

Concerned by the plight of young women and girls leaving home to work in-service and in urban factories Mary Elizabeth Townsend officially established Girls Friendly Society on 1st January 1875 with the support of the Anglican Church. At the start girls could join by the age of 12 years but this was reduced to 8 years in 1882 when girls were allowed to be associate members.

There were some similarities to the Friendly Societies above in that they encouraged mutual support amongst the girls. Elizabeth Townsends main focus was on prevention, she said:

‘When we see what wonders are accomplished in worldly matters, by the power of organisation, association, and cooperation, when we know how strong are the links that bind together the members of Freemasons’ Clubs, of Benefit Societies, the members of different professions, and the like, surely we cannot but feel that this mighty lever should be used for the purpose of moral and spiritual benefit, that the children of this world should not be wiser in their generation than the children of light, and that every means should be tried, if only we may, by God’s mercy and blessing, save some.’

An important element of the Societies work was in proving hostel accommodation. One of these was located in Ithon Road in Llandrindod Wells and it was run by Miss Partridge.

Joy remembers that the Society in New Radnor was linked to the Church, it was run by a Mrs Griffiths, and she particularly remembers a train trip to Swansea.

More locally Geraint asked Judy to talk about her experience of the local group at Llanbadarn Fawr. Her most vivid memory was making rabbits out of some blue material.

Shirley remembers meeting regularly at the church and she remembered that Geraint had a hand in running it. Geraint could remember the three ladies sitting together Judy, ……. All those years ago sitting making rabbits and sitting together just like today!

Liz had been involved in setting up a group in Worcestershire.

  • Old Poor Law in Radnorshire

Marion brought us back to reflecting on the Old Poor Law and how this impacted on the people of Radnorshire. In 1740 Radnorshire had the highest illegitimacy rate in Britain. In Wales the rate was 1 child in every 13, in Radnorshire it was 1 child in every 7. This on its own had an impact on the Poor Law Rate. The reasons for the high illegitimacy rate are uncertain but there is some suggestion that there was a courtship practice in this part of Wales known a ‘bundling’, caru ar [or yn] y gwely, or ‘love on [or in] the bed. 

Bundling entailed a young couple spending an evening, and frequently an entire night, together, unsupervised, in bed, typically in the home of the young woman. If and when the woman conceived, marriage was the expected outcome.’

This practice could have been a type of ‘trial marriage’ but in some cases it led to children being born out of wedlock.

From about 1837 onwards, for unknown reason, the illegitimacy rate began to fall.

Geraint took us back to the humble potato which can be challenging in the poor soil conditions in Radnorshire. It was however a crop that would grow and give reasonable yields. While this did not give poorer people a healthy died, and there was much malnutrition, poorer people were often given access to a land to grow a row of potatoes. This even applied to Vicars. Geraint remembers when he first came to Llanbadarn Fawr Church that the Griffiths family at Church Farm told him that it was traditional for Vicars of the Church to cultivate a row of potatoes on their land. As a result, Geraint did have his own row on their farm.

Marion reinforced her previous concerns that the enclosures put a stop to this practice.

Liz had researched experiences in Worcestershire where illegitimacy had a link to the lack of housing and it was often only when housing became available that the marriage would go ahead. In Radnorshire there was a shortage of housing and to avoid financial penalties a couple might not declare the name of the father until they were ready to marry. In a more general sense, the feeling that comes through is that illegitimacy in Radnorshire in the 18th and early 19th centuries did not carry the stigma that came along in the Victorian era, and the word ‘bastard’ similarly did not carry stigma with it.

Reference was made to the Mr Wilding looking at the Severn Arms with a view to Managing it and recording in his diary that it ‘seemed like a good place’ and that ‘he would talk to his girlfriend about the accommodation there and maybe ‘they could now get married’.

In the closing minutes there was reference to family situations only a few generations back whose lives reflected the challenges of child birth and experiencing an accident that made working impossible. Marion finished by saying how a man living in Llandegley, quite well with 8 hounds, was claiming from the Poor Law Rate but as he was born in Llanbister the Llanbister Parish had to pay for him.

It had been an excellent session and Geraint thanked Marion again for preparing such an interesting talk.

The next meeting will feature Roger Coward who will be talking on the Recent Research into Abbey Cwmhir on 1st April 2019.