From its inception in Bristol in 1657, the Gloucestershire Society raised charitable funds by holding an annual church service for its membership. This was followed by a feast, at which a collection was taken. There is little doubt that the early feasts were orderly affairs. This was partly because of the fragile religious atmosphere in the City during the Commonwealth and partly because of the Society’s own rule that “if any man misbehave himself … at the time of the meeting, the Steward admonish him for his first offence and for the second offence to be expelled the Company.”
By the early 18thcentury, the annual meetings had become gradually more relaxed. Church bells were rung in the city as the members processed to their feast. Gloucestershire Society apprentice boys carrying white staves walked ahead of the Society’s President and musicians attended. At some unrecorded date it seems, the company also took to singing at the feast and adopted one Gloucestershire folk song in particular, named “George Ridler’s Oven”. It has been sung annually by the Society ever since.
While the Society’s 18thcentury Minutes make no mention of the song, a broadsheet version of it, published by Farley & Cocking in Small Street, Bristol, in 1771, suggests that it was current at that date. A slightly later version, in exaggerated dialect, was published in 1796 for the Gloucestershire Society of London, a sister charity that shared many of the same members. This claimed to be “corrected according to the Fragments of a Manuscript Copy found in SPEECH HOUSE in the Forest of Dean several centuries ago, and now revived…” and was sung at the monthly meeting of the London members at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. A sculpture on wheels was made of Ridler “reclining on a barrel with a pipe and jug, emblematical of his conviviality”, to serve as their charity collecting box.
These events seem to coincide neatly with the late 18thand early 19thcentury enthusiasm for gathering, recording and studying folk songs. The consequence of this was that an antiquarian attempt was made to make sense of “George Ridler’s” apparently meaningless verses. The scholarly decoding relied on the mistaken assumption that the song was peculiar to the Society. It resulted in the improbable but romantic conclusion that the Society was not founded as a charity, but was a secret cell set up immediately after the English Civil War, with the aim of restoring the monarchy.
Recent research however, has revealed that this could never have been so. “George Ridler” is in fact a mixture of the verses from three quite separate popular songs. The first three verses are most likely to be a celebration of the Ridler family of Bussage, near Stroud, whose Blacknest Quarry (corrupted to “Blakeny’s Quar” in the song), was for two hundred years a notable source of “oven stone”. The eighth verse appears to be borrowed from a Scottish ballad, named “Todlen Hame”. The rest is derived from a (very) bawdy song “My dog and I”, probably first published in London in 1675, but possibly of Elizabethan origin. Many other theories surround what has certainly been the Gloucestershire Society’s anthem since the 1770’s and these can be found on a plethora of current folk-song websites. It is unlikely that the true history of this ancient folk-song will ever become fully clear.