The Ancient
Society of
Est. 1637

Early Society Annual Dinners

by Christopher J. Ridley, December 2018

This article looks at the early records of the Society's Annual Feasts as recorded in newspaper extracts and other documents. It further incorporates material from an earlier article on Society Dinner tickets previously published in 2004.

Although not the Annual Feast, an early mention of the Society's fondness for social events can be found in the following extract:

Daily Journal (London, England), Saturday, March 11, 1732; Issue 3490

The holding of an Annual Feast is mentioned in the Society's rules drawn up in 1776. While an actual copy of these no longer exist we are fortunate they were transcribed and can be found in the Osborn Manuscript (Vol 1, British Library MSS 19368). Rule 12 states 'That the Master and Stewards [shall] cause tickets to be printed and directed to the several Members to be delivered by the Warner of this Society, and that all Members contribute One Shilling [5p] each for the Benefit of the said Warner; such Collection to be made immediately after Dinner on the Feast Day, according to annual custom.' It was the practice to appoint a number of Stewards each year to support the Master and guarantee the Society against financial losses on the Annual Feast. Whether the Annual Feast was initially held on or near its foundation date of the 5 November is unknown, but a copy of the rules from 1866 state that 'The Company in the last century for many years held its meetings at the St Paul's Head, Cateaton Street (now Gresham Street, City of London, and on the anniversary of the Society (Nov. 5) its members went in procession, headed by the beadle (an officer of the Society) in his livery, with his silver headed staff, to hear divine service at Bow Church, Cheapside, and afterwards returned to the Tavern to dine'. .

An early report of the Annual Feast in the London Daily Post and General Advertiser (Thursday 7 November 1734) says that 'On Tuesday last, the 5th of November, being the Anniversary Feast of the Ancient Society of Ringers call'd College-Youths, the same was held, according to Custom, at the Castle-Tavern in Fleet-steet, where an elegant entertainment was provided for the said Society. There was a very great Appearance of Gentlemen on that Occasion; and the Evening was concluded with drinking the Healths of all the Royal Family, the honourable Members of the said Society, and others; and an extraordinary Peal of Cinques was perform'd on the Hand-Bells'.

By 1744 the venue appears to have moved to the Globe Tavern, situated on the corner of Fleet Street and Shoe Lane, which was to host the Annual Feast on many future occasions.

Daily Advertiser (London, England), Wednesday, October 24, 1744; Issue 4369

London Evening Post (London, England), Saturday 3 to Tuesday 6 November, 1764; Issue 5775

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (London, England), Saturday, November 6, 1773; Issue 1391

The silver Society Mace, already referred to in the description of the annual procession to Bow Church prior to the Annual Feast, was purchased by the Junior Society in 1762 after the original Society split into two factions. This first split of the Society was to last from 1757 until 1788. They may also have commissioned a specially engraved dinner ticket around the same time. The original design, reproduced on current Annual Dinner menu cards, was the work of Thomas Kitchin, a noted cartography whose offices where situated at 59 Holborn Hill. The earliest known example is from 1763 and represents the oldest original printed document to exist for the Society. This example is held within the Osborn papers in the British Library. It provides details of the Master and six Stewards and invites the member to attend the event at the Half Moon Tavern in Cheapside. It is thought that the first two names represent the elected Stewards, with the other four names being members who were responsible for organising the Dinner.

A blank copy of this design together with a further copy for the 1772 Feast are both held in the Guildhall Library. The 1772 ticket shows the venue as the Globe Tavern in Fleet Street, with a manuscript note at the foot of the invitation to attend St Mary-le-Bow beforehand. Unlike the other copies it has not been pasted on to card, allowing the name of the invited member to be seen. The ticket is addressed to Mr William Croft via Mr Evans, Attorney in Nottingham. A third and final copy from 1775 is known to exist. The Globe Tavern is the venue again, and like the 1772 copy contains a postscript inviting the member to attend St Mary Le Bow at one o'clock precisely, prior to the dinner at 2pm. Of greater interest are the names of the Master (John Tidd) and six other Stewards (Tame, Sherwood, Holdsworth, Palmer, Chapman and Ramsbottom) shown on the ticket. These names were not previously known. It is interesting that John Tidd who came from Isleworth, had only joined the Society in 1772.

The Osborn papers written in the first half of the 19th century provides an interesting glimpse of the event in those days. It includes an account by William Eversfield of Gravesend, which supports the account given in the 1866 Rules, who recalled that members walked in procession from the Barley Mow (Salisbury Court, Fleet Street) to the church appointed for Divine Service. The procession being led by the Beadle, who wore a black silk gown and gold laced hat, and carried the silver mace acquired by the Society in 1762.

According to Osborn, William Eversfield:

'once had the honor to dine with these Gentlemen - the Festival that year was held at the Pauls Head Tavern, Cateaton Street [now Gresham Street] in the City of London - and the cause from which he so well remembered it, was, that there was not a joint of Meat upon the table, all poultry [an expensive treat in those days] and the number that dine was just about 200 - Tickets 15/- [75p] each.'

With the emergence of the reformed Ancient Society of College Youths a new Annual Feast ticket was commissioned from the eminent designer Francesco Bartolozzi in 1788. The Society still holds the original copper plate for printing these tickets (restored in 1923), with the design now being used for the membership certificate. The original engraved plate cost 15 guineas at the time [£15.75] - a significant sum in those days - and 300 copies were printed at a further cost of £1-19s-0d [£1.95]. Copies of these original tickets are again held in the Osborn Collection in the British Library and at the Guildhall Library.

The Kitchin ticket design measures 19cm by 25cm and appears to have been printed on paper measuring 21.5cm by 32.5cm. The later Bartolozzi design is the same size as the current membership certificate measuring 23.5cm by 33cm.

Newspaper extracts advertising the Annual Feast from the period match the venues recorded on these invitations and in other historic accounts.

Daily Advertiser (London, England), Thursday, October 31, 1776; Issue 14312

Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England), Wednesday, October 30, 1782; Issue 1879

Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London, England), Saturday, November 2, 1799; Issue 22132

The performance of songs and ringing of hand bells were a feature of the Annual Feast at the time. While hand bells continue to be rung today, the performance of songs no longer takes place, although a performance took place at the 350th anniversary dinner in 1987 in homage to these earlier events. Examples of the poems and songs that may have been performed can be found towards the end of the Clavis Campanalogia compiled by William Jones, John Reeves and Thomas Blackmore, who were all members of the Society, in 1788. Two of these songs have been ascribed to William Woty, also a member of the Society, who published them in Campanalogia, A Poem in Praise of Ringing published in 1761. These include 'An Ode to be Sung at the annual Feast' in which it is implied that hand bells were rung at the Annual Feast.

The Society's 2014 Annual Report and Newsletter included an article on the former society known as the Liverpool College Youths, which together with other provincial 'College Youths' societies may have had close links with the London based Society. A newspaper extract from 1803 reporting the Anniversary Dinner of the Hertford College Youths is interesting in that it mentions a select party from London who attended and then rang a peal the following morning. As the peal was rung for the Union Society it suggests that like the Liverpool based society, the links to the London Society were tenuous.

The Morning Post (London, England), Tuesday, August 09, 1803; Issue 10872

The first half of the 19th century also saw the Society change its Annual Feast venue more frequently. Newspaper extracts show the venues to be:

1806: 'COLLEGE YOUTH - The ANNIVERSARY FESTIVAL of this Society, usually held on the 5th day of November, is unavoidably POSTPONED until WEDNESDAY the Twelve Day of November next, at the King's Head Tavern in the Poultry, where the Company of every Member and well-wisher to the Society is particularly requested. By Order, JOHN POVEY, Beadle. Dinner on table at Three 0'Clock - Tokens 10s 6d [53p]' (Morning Advertiser, Sat 25 Oct 1806)

1813: 'A few days ago, the ancient Society of College Youths, held their annual Feast at the Ship Tavern, Stepney, which was well attended by the senior members. The Company amused themselves witth[sic] double hand-bell change ringing, and many excellent songs were sung.' (Morning Chronicle, Mon 25 Oct 1813)

1838: The Ancient College Youths, of bell ringing notoriety, dined together on Monday, at Treherne's Hotel, Leicester square, to commemorate the 281st [should be 201st] anniversary of the Society. During the evening several excellent courses were rung on the Society's famous cup-bells, and many tunes were also played by the members.' (Bell's Life in London, Sun 25 Nov 1838)

A second split of the Society in 1832 left it at a low point - the Osborn papers record that meetings were badly attended by practical ringers. It was saved from falling into extinction by Richard Mills, a respected retired tradesman of Oxford Street, who was elected in 1836 and made Master in 1837. To help restore the health of the Society he offered inducements to competent ringers to become members. These included numerous costly entertainments and sets of silver medallions to College Youth bands who were first to ring peals of Treble Bob, after his election as Master, on eight, ten and twelve bells, Examples of these medallions are currently used as regalia for the Immediate Past Master, Senior Steward and Junior Steward. The Society Library formerly held Society Anniversary Dinner Tickets from 1839, 1840 and 1842 which Mills may have subsidised financially. The first two of these showed the Annual Feast was held at Mr Treherne's, Royal Hotel, Leicester Square on Monday 11 November ('on Table at Two o'Clock') and Monday 23 November (at four o'Clock') respectively. In 1842 the venue moved to Mr Elements, the British Coffee House, Cockspur Street and was held on Monday 28 November.

Around the middle of the century the tradition of the Annual Feast held near to the 5 November fell into abeyance, being replaced by a social event during the summer outing. These outings were typically held a few miles away from the centre of London and took place on the second Saturday in July. In addition to ringing at one or two towers the social event appears to have remained a vibrant occasion given the following report from 1852.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, July 25, 1852; Issue 505

The Annual Dinner remains a high point of the Society's calendar and currently attracts around 300 Members and guests. This brief article shows it follows a long tradition with only minor adjustments to the format over the years.

In compiling this article I have drawn on my own researches together with information from The Society of College Youths 1637-2005 by William Cook; newspaper extracts published in Order and Disorder in the Eighteenth Century (2 volumes) and Order and Disorder in the Nineteenth Century (3 volumes to date) compiled by Cyril Wratten, John Eisel et al.