Societies cover the whole range of human activities – sporting, pastimes, charitable, political and religious. When we index societies we try to do so by name and also by the type of society that they are – however this is not as easy as it may seem; sometimes the name of a society changes over time, sometimes the goals of the society are not clear from the name. Some particular types of society are indexed in a particular way – guides, scouts and women’s institutes for example are indexed under subject by the place and then by the type of organisation e.g. Subject = Milton Ernest and Subject = women’s institutes.
There are very few pre-1800 records. The account books of the Melchbourne Club (established in 1781; ref: P73/28/1-2) and the Eaton Socon Sick Benefit Friendly Society (established in 1785; ref: AD563) appear to be the earliest local society records. Although some records have survived, much has been lost. Often there are no main club records at all, just odd items of printed ephemera or reports hinting at their activities. Frequently there are unexplained gaps in runs of minute books, but occasionally surviving records explain the loss of others. William Abraham, secretary of the Leighton Buzzard Working Mens’ Mutual Improvement Society, resigned after a furious row over the accounts for a Society visit to Folkestone in 1880, and refused to surrender the minute book for 1871-1880 (ref: X388/29 p.7). More serious is the loss of the minutes of the Bedford Sunday School Union for 1871 to 1929. In 1959 an unsuccessful search was carried out for the records (see ref: X294/1/2) and it seems likely that they were either lost when they were borrowed to write a history of the Union in 1951, or destroyed by the housekeeper on the death of the secretary, Joseph Whiting, in 1953.
Records are often at risk when a society dies a natural death through changing circumstances. Many benefit and friendly societies folded after the 1911 National Insurance Act was passed or when the National Health Service was formed in 1948. Associations for the prosecution of felons flourished during the period 1790-1850, which saw intervals of war, economic stagnation, food shortages and political agitation. They became steadily less important when conditions improved and the Bedfordshire Police, formed in 1840, became more effective. The same can be said of the records of ‘pressure groups’ for once the campaign is over, the records may disappear.
Records can also be destroyed in a sudden disaster: all the Bedford Golf Club records went up in a clubhouse fire in 1953.
In spite of the risks to records the archives service does hold records of various societies, some of which are still active and others that have long since folded. Sometimes the records of the society will have their own unique collection and reference number, in other cases a branch or defunct society may be included as a subsection of a larger collection of a parent body or successor society. This depends on the circumstances that prevailed at the time of the transfer of the records to the archives service and the agreement made with the depositor. References to membership or activities of particular societies may also be found in all sorts of other collections, for example, there may be references to grants to a society in local authority or charity records. Where records do not survive, or even where they do, local newspapers can be an excellent source for finding out about the activities of a society.
There are links to various societies and groups covering a multitude of topics here but if you have any other suggestions as to pages we could add, please let us know!