I don’t have time to visit every place I’ve catalogued (see my post on East Hendred and the Lavinia Smith Collection), but I feel I’ve been getting to know Somerset (and the surrounding counties) through the Shickle Collection of Friendly Society poleheads (search ‘Shickle’ under collection in the online catalogue). MERL holds four collections of poleheads – the Shickle Collection, the Allen Collection, the Jardine Collection and the Forster Collection. The Shickle Collection consists of about 250 and occupied a happy week of cataloguing from the year 1951. It’s definitely Felicity’s turn to catalogue the next polehead collection!
Friendly Societies were village clubs formed to provide insurance for members in the case of sickness or death, and they also played an important role in the village social life. A government act was passed in 1793 to encourage their foundation, and they were common until the late-nineteenth century. Most Friendly Societies held an annual meeting which was followed by a church service and a procession, or ‘walk’, around the parish. In many areas, simple poles were carried in the processions, but in Somerset and the adjoining counties brass poleheads, like those in the Shickle Collection, were commonly used.
There are two basic types of poleheads in the Shickle Collection – the ‘spear’ type, which is essentially flat, and the ‘bedpost’ type, which is bulbous. These are often embellished in various ways – with cut out designs, curved edges, projections, differently shaped and sized bulges and so on. Common motifs include crowns, oak leaves, clasped hands, birds, diamonds, triangles, hearts etc. and in some cases the motif represents the interest of the Friendly Society or the place where they met. The Society at Frome in Somerset met at the Ring of Bells pub and their polehead is spear shaped with cut outs of five bells and two crescents (51/913). Unfortunately the Shickle Collection poleheads are all packed away in boxes so I couldn’t take any photos, but the Allen Collection is on open display in our stores.