Deposited on one of the many archive shelves in Norfolk Record Office is a gem of a printed booklet titled Articles: Agreed and made by the Amicable Society at Bressingham and dated 21 January, 1804. The 36 Articles codify the conditions that entitled the 31 members, aged between 18 and 41, to financial benefits following sickness or death.
Members met monthly “at the Sign of the Chequer in Bressingham”, paying 4 pence beer money each meeting and 2 shillings on the annual Feast Day. Attendance by non-members had to be approved by the Stewards and included a condition that non-members must spend 6d in the “club-room” and 3 shillings on the Feast Day. However, the Amicable Society was much more than simply a club and drinking society; a contribution of one shilling per month ensured members who fell “sick, lame, or blind, so as to be incapable of doing any work” received 7 shillings 6 pence per week for any illness lasting up to six months, and long-term debilitating ill health merited 3 shillings 6 pence per week for life.
But support was conditional; the Society valued thrift and discouraged drunkenness. There was a strong moral code: men “disguised in liquor” were fined, members with “venereal disease” and fathers of illegitimate children were excluded from benefits, and “counterfeit” claims of illness resulted in exclusion.
Written during the Napoleonic Wars and at a time of rapid price inflation, members of the Amicable Society of Bressingham would have experienced profound agricultural change as a result of land improvement schemes such as the Parliamentary Enclosure of common and ‘waste’ lands in Bressingham and Fersfield and developments such as threshing machines. In the new age of Enlightenment and reason, self-help was deemed a greater virtue than Providential guidance. Hence mutual societies had emerged during the eighteenth century to insure and protect members against the vagaries of life, especially individuals without recourse to other forms of relief. Whereas the ‘deserving poor’ could appeal to the Poor Law when they were unable to work due to ill health, the ‘middling sort’ had fewer options. Members of the Amicable Society of Bressingham were apparently relatively well off as they were sufficiently affluent to employ “servants, workmen, or assistants”, and were therefore unlikely (and undoubtedly unwilling) to rely on the Poor Law handouts.
Waveney Valley Studies, 1963, records a similar Society called the “King’s Head” club of Dickleburgh, which was established during the late eighteenth century. The “King’s Head” and Bressingham Amicable Society had much in common, such as monthly fees which were safeguarded in a chest or box – and holding meetings in pubs. Interestingly, the Bressingham articles mention a “box or chest with 5 locks and keys (for safe keeping the money, books and papers)”. Diana Burroughes, Churchwarden for St John the Baptist Church, Bressingham wonders whether the heavy, centuries-old chest with five locks in St John the Baptist is the very chest once used by the Amicable Society. And finally, the Bressingham Amicable Society articles (and the “King’s Head”) are a poignant reminder of the important role pubs have played in English life for so many centuries. Diana has also pointed out that her late husband, Eric, always referred to the room most recently used as the main dining room in the Chequers pub as the ‘club room’ - the Amicable Society articles refer to the “club-room” as their meeting room. History surely reminds us of our important links between past and present which should not be discarded lightly.
Please note the following references for the 'Amicable Society':
'Articles agreed and made by the Amicable Society at Bressingham on the 21st day of January, 1804'', Norfolk Record Office,
'Dickleburgh's 18th Century friendly society' , 1963, in Pursehouse, Eric, Waveney Valley Studies: Gleanings from Local History (Diss)
Overton, Mark: Agricultural Revolution in England: The transformation of the agrarian economy 1500-1850 (Cambridge, 1996)