Few societies can boast such longevity as that enjoyed by the Cirencester Society in London, which holds its 300th annual general meeting and dinner on May 20. Charlotte Shepherd met with a steward of this illustrious society.

ONE evening this May the bells in Cirencester Parish Church will toll and the church will throw open its historic doors to welcome around 200 members and guests from the Cirencester Society in London for their 300th recorded annual dinner.

“There are not many societies around that can say they have had a 300th anniversary,” said Derek Waring, one of the six stewards of the Society. “This is a big year for us. This Society is helping to keep history alive.”

Many people in the area may be unaware that such a society, currently chaired by Lord Apsley, exists or that it is busy behind the scenes every year handing out cash grants through the John Edmonds charity to help the young people of Cirencester.

The Society was established in the late 17th century by several men including John Edmonds and was set up initially to pay for young Cirencester boys who took up apprenticeships in London.

“In those days it would have been incredibly difficult for a local boy going up to London,” explained Mr Waring. “Originally one of the aims of the Society was to pay for boys apprenticeships so they could be looked after properly in London.”

The all-male Society is not a charity but is associated with the John Edmonds charity and continues with this ethos of helping today, running a bursary scheme that is now open to boys and girls.

Bursaries have been provided over the years for a whole range of things, from the purchase of musical instruments, books and equipment for university, to the funding of trips abroad to teach or work in orphanages or hospitals.

“In today’s economic climate young people need to make themselves stand out from the crowd more than ever,” said Mr Waring. “Our bursaries can help to give youngsters that chance.”

However, the Society does not have queues of youngsters knocking on its door for a bursary. “I don’t know why but we do not have an excess of applications. Applications only dribble in. We would love more youngsters to apply, because a typical bursary can be worth many hundreds of pounds,” he said.

As well as helping young people, the social side of the Society is traditionally very important to members.

All members are invited to an annual dinner. Four times out of five this is held at a prestigious venue in London and once every five years in Cirencester. “This is the first time to my knowledge that the Parish Church has ever been used for a dinner,” said Mr Waring. However, the history of the church is the perfect backdrop for a Society with such a long heritage.

The sense of tradition that runs through the Society means that women are unlikely to be invited to join, although they are able to attend a drinks party held every other year.

Membership of the Society is by invitation, although certain holders of an office such as the Town Mayor or the Vicar of Cirencester are automatically eligible for membership.

“Normally you have to dine with the Society twice before you can be admitted,” Mr Waring stressed.

London links are still a part of the society and many members live in the Capital but have parents or grandparents who come from Cirencester. And some members live in Cirencester but commute to London.

Membership is diverse and from all walks of life, with some members in their late 20s and some in their late 80s. “We have some tradesmen, shopkeepers and many professionals alongside solicitors and a judge,” explained Mr Waring.

On May 20 this diverse group will gather as hundreds have done over the past 300 years but the hope is that more local people will understand what this Society does.

“We want the locals to realise what is in their midst and we want youngsters to realise that our bursary scheme is one of the hidden benefits of living in the Cirencester area.”

For more information go to www.csil.org.uk Applicants for a bursary should go to the Society’s secretary, Richard Mullings, 7 Dollar Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7 2AS. Or call 01285 650000.