Bourne Hall Museum has recently received a gift of furniture, regalia and records from Mr. and Mrs. Choney, lifetime members and officers of the Epsom branch, or Court, of the Ancient Order of Foresters. The foresters were one of many friendly societies founded by working people in the opening years of the industrial revolution, and even earlier, as a vital form of self-help.
Like the Oddfellows and many other societies, the Foresters offered a means by which working people could find financial help in sickness and bereavement. Right from the beginning, emphasis was placed on ceremonial; candidates did not just join, they were initiated, and a variety of sashes, medals and costumes were worn. In the early years these offered a measure of status to the poor, and emphasized the close knit bond between members of the Court. Nowadays they give proceedings a touch of colour and character which are missing in the more drab provisions of the Welfare State.
The friendly societies prospered through the nineteenth century. Nationally, the Oddfellows and Foresters both achieved half a million members by 1876. The Epsom Court of the Foresters was founded in 1860, and known as Court Wellington after the pub of that name where the first meetings were held. Afterwards they moved to the Foresters Hall off Waterloo Road. Some of us may remember this large building, originally intended as the town’s Methodist church, which stood until the 1960s.
In 1911 the friendly societies received the accolade of ‘Approved Society’ status under the new National Insurance scheme. People eligible for the new medical, disablement and maternity benefits, to which for the first time the state contributed, had to join an ‘Approved Society’ whose memberships in consequence flourished. But under the post-war welfare state the societies’ work was absorbed into a new Ministry of National Insurance and they returned to private benevolence.
The regalia of Court Wellington have been retained at the Museum (entry 2003.021). They include a fine throne-like seat of office for the Chief Ranger, or Chairman, and an Honours Board listing the Court’s officers. The archives have been passed to the Surrey History Centre, where they can be found under collection reference 6369 ‘The Ancient Order of Foresters Court Wellington (no. 3449) Epsom Branch: Records, 1860–1964’.