On December the first 1657, fifty “Gloucestershire Gentlemen that Inhabit within the City of Bristol” met and drew up a set of rules for a county charity. Their intention was to look after those of Gloucestershire birth, both inside the city and beyond its walls, who had fallen on hard times. Their charity became known as the Gloucestershire Society. Their idea was not unique. A Somersetshire Society and a Wiltshire Society were also founded in Bristol at about the same time.
The structure of the Society was very similar to that of a trade guild or livery company, the common interest of its members being county-based charity, rather than commerce. Its rules required one Steward, two assistants and one treasurer to be elected annually at the Society’s Feast, though the post of “Steward” became that of “President” in 1682. The Feast was to follow a sermon preached to the Company by a Gloucestershire minister, after which “every person, according to his quality, will walk two and two with the Steward to dinner.” Members were entitled to invite other Gloucestershire-born gentlemen and therefore introduce them to membership. Most importantly, a collection was to be taken “before the Company depart, for such Charitable uses to Gloucestershire Men as shall present themselves.”
The uses varied as the years passed. At first funds were devoted entirely to the relief of poverty amongst Gloucestershire men, their widows and their children. The emphasis changed to the binding of young Gloucestershire apprentices as the 17th century wore on and became the main focus during the 18th century. The “Gloucestershire Guinea” was devised in about 1768, which was a payment of twenty-one shillings to “lying-in Women, Wives of poor men, Natives of Gloucestershire.”
While the original membership was grounded in manufacturing trades, it was not long before the cream of Gloucestershire society were attracted to the charity and began to subscribe annually. Wealthy merchants also became involved, not least because from time to time, the annual meetings of the Society were held in Bristol’s Merchant Venturers’ and Merchant Taylors’ Halls.
The list of Presidents in the 18th century included the Duke of Beaufort, the Earl Berkeley, Lord Clare, Lord Apsley, Lord de Clifford, Lord Sheffield and Lord Charles Henry Somerset, later Governor of Cape Colony. Lord Bottetort, the Governor of Virginia promised to serve on his return to England, but his death prevented it.
Antiquarian research in the early 19th century mistakenly concluded that the Society had originally been formed not as a charity, but as a cover for a Royalist plot following the English Civil War. This hypothesis was based on an attempt to explain the meaning of an old Gloucestershire song “George Ridler’s Oven” which was sung in exaggerated dialect at each of the Society’s annual fund-raising feasts. It has since been shown that this jolly song is an amalgam of verses from three wholly unrelated folk-songs and cannot in itself make any sense at all. But the concept of a society formed to return King Charles to his throne suited the mood of the 19th century and it stuck. No doubt the romance contributed largely to the continuing support for the society’s vital charitable work, not only into the 20th century, but also onwards, to the present day.