Richard Locke: The Burnham Society

The Burnham Society: Founded by Richard Locke in Burnham in 1772.

A serious illness, which afflicted Locke in 1769, led him to make plans for such an organisation, in compliance with a vow to which he had formed, that “Upon recovery to do such good as lay within my little sphere of action”.

A building, which he had intended for a malt-house was converted into a small chapel for religious worship and he resolved to establish a Benefit Society that would hold its meetings here. By 1772, articles had been formulated and printed [some copies are in a private collection on MSS reprinted in Mate’s “Illustrated Burnham 1903”]. In the following year the Society began in a modest way: 13 neighbours and relations joining the founder, who paid the monthly contribution of 8d for 10 of them!

Once a month they gathered together for discussion and had access to Locke’s library of over a thousand books. The meetings proved popular with the result that there was a rapid increase in membership, which at one time reached 500. Some of the debates were published by Locke in 1798 under the title of “The Pre-Existence of Souls”

Membership was open to all men in Burnham, Huntspill, East Brent, South Brent and Mark. Among the members were clergymen, dissenting teachers and literary characters. John HENDERSON BA of Pembroke College Oxford; a son of Dr. Chapman of Bath; a son of James Hindmarsh and a High Priest of the Swedenburges, were three specially mentioned by Locke.

Gradually the enthusiasm of the members for religious discussion seemed to diminish and by 1796 the once famous debating society had degenerated into a mere benefit club of which the chief objects were to relieve the sick and lend sums of money free of interest to distressed members.  The latter now totalled 100 and included labourers, fishermen, carpenters, rig-drivers, cordwainers, tailors, joiners, millers, blacksmiths, innkeepers, and a butcher. (The club was now limited to 100 members; 40 others enrolled at the Highbridge Club to be worked on the same principles.  – Accounts 1795-96).

The candidate  paid the Treasurer 3/- to be put into the fund and  gave the warden 2/8d to be put into the convivial stock and bought 4 gallons of cider, so that members could drink his health, and he, success to the society.

Officers  were elected at yearly meetings on June 6th,  the birthday of the founder.

Locke, the first President, was re-elected to this office for 20 years in succession. [Noted in pencil (1772-1792)]

The Society  held Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly meetings.

The flourishing state of the society necessitated the investment of some of the money and £222: 7: 0: was spent purchasing land in the parish of Burnham. In 1789 the name Burnham Club first appears on the parish rate book, the society owning three and a half acres rated at £1. By 1800 the number of acres had increased to 6, though the rate was still the same. The trustees built 8 separate tenements for their offices with a library, 30ft by 20ft, in the centre, to be used as a lounging room by members and as a Sunday School.

Locke must have financed this project, for in his will he bequeathed some tenements, called The Burnham Society Houses, to his son on condition that he would pay 8/8d to 12 of Locke’s nearest relations, who would gather annually at or send agents to, the Society’s room on June 6th. If, however, the Trustees of The Society would agree to pay his son £400, he was to convey the houses to the society.

The Society took advantage of the Friendly Society Act of 1793, and its articles were recorded at the Quarter sessions held at Wells on April 30th 1794. Locke said “That to have placed 100 fellow citizens in a state of independence so securing them from the heavy hand of the parish officers, and at the same time reducing the burden placed upon the Poor Rate, overbalances any little expense or trouble”

It has not been possible to ascertain when this Society was dissolved, but during the 19th century, a Society registered under the title “Burnham Friendly Society” was formed. The members of this Society had their headquarters at the Crown Inn and followed the precedents set up by the Burnham Society in hearing the annual sermon and attending an annual feast.  The similarity in some of the customs led Mr Churchill to state in 1902 that “We have no doubt that the B.F.S. which existed until quite a recent date, was a direct lineal descendent of the B.S. founded by Mr Locke”, but no definite connection between the two has as yet been established.



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