An exceptionally interesting mahogany chest from the Ovenden Female Society, Instituted in 1809

6th July 2023

Provenance: The Ovenden Female Benefit Society

This fine mahogany chest carries a brass plaque engraved with the name and date of est

ablishment of the Ovenden Female Society.  Benefit societies were established to provide a source of income for their members in times of trouble.  After payment of an initial membership fee, monthly or quarterly subscriptions were paid, often with additional “top ups” available if a member was saving towards a particular expense such as childbirth costs or a wedding.  Money could then be withdrawn when necessary to pay for a period of prolonged sickness, medical expenses or even for the member’s funeral.  Female-only benefit societies seem to have begun in Britain in the late 18th century and, according to the historian and author Peter Clark in British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World p. 364 “average membership size was only two-thirds that of male clubs”.  Due to the lower wages paid to the average female worker compared to her male counterpart, female societies had to make sure that the level of contributions demanded from their members was moderate and this in turn often led to financial difficulties for the organisation itself.

In 1808, John Graham, rector of St Saviour’s Church in York, published the text of a sermon that he delivered on the subject of female benefit societies under the title Female Benefit Societies Recommended: Or The Necessity and Advantages of Foresight : a Sermon.  Given that Ovenden is in the same county as Mr Graham’s church it is possible that his sermon and its dissemination may have played a part in the formation of this particular society but this must remain speculation at this point.

The Ovenden Female Benefit Society

An interesting article in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian, 15th of May 1951, explained the foundation of the Ovenden Female Benefit Society, its missions and its scope.  Founded on the 23rd of May 1809, the Society owed its existence to Miss Elizabeth Wadsworth of Holdsworth House, described by the newspaper as “a benefactress of the district”.  Membership was set at 2s 6d, with a quarterly fee of 2s and an optional 6d could be paid towards funeral expenses.  In the event of sickness, a defined rate was paid out-though the Society was keen not to be seen to be incentivising sickness and thus members who worked as servants and were allowed to stay in the homes in which they were worked throughout their illness were not entitled to claim.

Another optional payment of 6d per quarter could be made to cover maternity expenses but funerals were perhaps the largest of the outlays.  The precise amount that could be claimed depended on how long a member had been making payments to the Society but the maximum payout was capped at £3.  As part of the funeral expenses, a member could nominate fellow members or trustees to attend their funeral-at the expense of the Society-and the Society would also lend suitable funeral gloves which had to be returned the next day to the house of one of the trustees “at whose house the society box was kept”.  It is quite possible that the present chest is “the society box”.  It has a glove compartment and the three escutcheons on the front may indicate the number of keys provided to different trustees that might open the piece. 

According to newspaper reports, the society existed for some 100 years and the benefits to the local area over that time must have been incalculable.  This box is a truly fascinating piece of social history.

The Ramsden family connection

 This fascinating box is known to have been owned by a member of the Ramsden brewing family in Halifax and our research has discovered a long link between the family and the Ovenden Female Benefit Society. The Society’s founder, Elizabeth Wadsworth, chose the Reverend Edward Ramsden to conduct the early services for the Society’s membership. Extracts from Wadsworth’s diaries were published in a series of articles in the Halifax Evening Courier newspaper in 1945 and one such extract, published on the 1st of December of that year, records events from 1821 when Ramsden “preached at Illingworth Chapel both morning and afternoon” on the 3rd of June and on the 12th of June Ramsden “officiated again…drank tea with us at David Walton’s and gave a donation of £1 to the sick fund”. Later in her life, Miss Wadsworth sought to have a church built closer to Ovenden itself and this church was eventually completed in 1838-a year after her death. Edward Ramsden was executor of her will and was also given the role of reverend at the church upon its official opening later that year.

When Edward Ramsden died in 1853 he left no children of his own so his estates descended through other family lines to the Ramsden brewing family. The most successful member of this family was John Taylor Ramsden who was responsible for the expansion of the brewery in to a very successful national concern. A newspaper report published in the Halifax Evening Courieron the 12th of June 1911 records a “Mr J. T. Ramsden” as treasurer of the Ovenden Female Benefit Society and it is highly likely that this box was used as part of that role and was retained by the family upon the closure of the society. In 1911 the Society had 95 members and a cash balance for the year of £1423 0s 7d, with “the average worth per member” being £14 19s 6d.

The society existed for some 100 years and the benefits to the local area over that time must have been incalculable. This box is a truly fascinating piece of social history.

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