We’ve talked a good bit about the importance placed on being part of good Society in the nineteenth century. Your family, your friends, and the company you mixed with all combined with your personal attributes (beauty, wit, presence) to make you popular or not so popular. But as the nineteenth century progressed, another type of society proved popular: the society of a cause.
The Protestant churches urged members to do more than simply learn about their Creator. Christians were to show their devotion through good deeds. Urged on by the likes of evangelical writer Hannah More and encouraged by the successes of people like William Wilberforce (who helped abolish the slave trade in England), the middle and upper classes of all ages sallied forth to help the less fortunate.
Generally, someone with a passion for a subject would start a society and enlist like-minded souls to join up. They’d meet monthly or more often, decide their actions, solicit donations, and try to make a difference. Sometimes these societies accomplished great good. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Climbing Boys, for example, helped eliminate the practice of forcing small children to climb up into chimneys to clean them. Until that time, these children regularly suffered from burns, falls, and smoke inhalation, and many died.
The Society for the Relief and Discharge of Persons Confined for Small Debts sought out people in Debtor’s Prison and worked to either pay their fines or get those fines eliminated so the prisoners could be freed. Through donations of money as well as provisions, they were able to get released about 800 prisoners a year.
Then there were the various societies that worked to make sure certain types of stories and songs were preserved in book form. For example, the Percy Society strove to publish books of rare poems and songs, using manuscripts in the British Museum and their own collections as sources. They strove to recreate the text exactly as they found it, although they tended to censure out what they considered as obscene terms or lyrics. They took the name of their society from Thomas Percy, who had previously published similar works, although he liked to add lines or combine versions to suit himself. Some of their work is now being made available online, such as this one about the legend of Reynard the Fox.
So what society would you start if you could?