The Barnsley Cordwainers Society

Check across to the ‘related sites’ tag on the right hand side and you will find a new site has been added to the list. For at least twelve years I have been researching the history of the Cordwainers Society of Barnsley. This is reputedly the oldest surviving local friendly society in England, having been founded in March 1747/8 by sixteen men from the town. Although they adopted the name ‘Cordwainers’, indicating a link to the profession of making (not repairing) boots and shoes and other leather goods, very few actually pursued this trade. There were two ‘gentlemen’ who acted as patrons and bankers in the early years until the Society was firmly established. There were several miners and assorted metal tradesmen and farmers, among others. The Society continued to include men from all backgrounds. It still exists today, though its welfare activities as such have long ceased to have any currency. Instead it functions as a social club, gathering once a year in the Spring to celebrate its survival on its traditional feast day, and at other occasional informal gatherings often including families.

The website will act as a means of publishing items from the Society’s history and create a focal point through which present day members, as well as family historians tracing links and social historians interested in friendly societies can access and contribute to. My own family name has links going back to the late 18th century, with several members serving on the committee over the subsequent decades. I stumbled into it by accident, having sought permission to use material from their archives (deposited with Barnsley Local Studies), attending a few annual dinners and being admitted as an honorary life member and historian. I am now pleased at last to be getting the history of this unique organisation better known in the 21st century.


2 thoughts on “The Barnsley Cordwainers Society

  1. Dear Martin,

    thanks for the post about the Barnsley Cordwainers. Do you know whether they had an initiation ceremony/oath ?

    In the extract below from my history of Hudds radicalism dealing with Trade Unions in 1834 I assumed that the ‘Operative Cordwainers’ referred to was a Union. It could have been a friendly society it seems. Any thoughts?

    ‘The deposition by Beaumont and Threppleton exposed in meticulous detail some of the more esoteric practices of the Unions. It describes move by move and verbatim the Union initiation ceremony although it purports to be that of the Operative Cordwainers . This must have been the standard ritual of the Clothiers Union and Fancy Union as it could only have been recounted by persons familiar with conducting the proceedings. All the elements known from other sources are present – the blindfolds, the sword ,the thunder, the Bible readings and the skeletal apparition. But Beaumont and Threppleton describe some other imagery which served to implant in the initiate some rudiments of class consciousness

    ‘But lately the transparency has been improved with The Skeleton of a Labourer in Chains -Another Labourer with a Hatchet,cutting the Chains in two Over their heads, is the Figure of a Carriage, with two Blood Horse s. At full speed – a large Factory before them ‘The Carriage contains the figures of two wealthy and portly men ‘Riding over the Skeleton of the Labourer’.

    This information was given before the revelations at the trial of the Dorchester labourers and before the defector John Tester made his exposures in July. He claimed that he had uncovered initiation rites in Leeds and Huddersfield which were the same as those of the Rochdale Flannel Weavers and ‘the death scene’ had been adopted by them from a Division of Oddfellows.’

    I hope you are fully settled in at Norwich and are keeping well, Season’s Greetings and Life, Liberty and Love Alan Date: Mon, 21 Dec 2015 17:07:15 +0000 To:

    • If they called themselves ‘Operative Cordwainers’ I would suggest that this was a trade union, most likely of people working in a boot and shoe factory or workshop, or maybe an association of journeymen cordwainers working for a variety of small employers, or a mixture of all of these. The Barnsley Cordwainers were most definitely a Friendly Society and never a trade union. There is unlikely to have been any kind of oath or initiation rite and none has certainly come down through the Society to modern times. There is a tradition of sorts that when a new member is introduced at the Annual Feast, when a large flask of ale is passed round for each member to make the toast to the Society [Success to the Club for the Next Forty Years!], that the flask is recharged and the new member has to drink it down in one. I have no idea how old that tradition is, but it seems like one of those fairly standard male rituals! The Society was helped in its early years by a couple of members of the lesser local gentry and, when the idea of national registration came up in the early 1790s, the Society actively campaigned for the idea. The culture of the Society was less one of radicalism than of respectability – which does not mean that individual members might not have harboured very widely various opinions on the world around them, as today. While there is an early adoption of a rule to exclude members of the militia, which might be interpreted as radicalism, it may have had more to do with the practicality that (during the wars with France) militiamen might be conscripted into the armed forces and put themselves physically at risk of long term disability or death.

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