top of page


Types of Documents in the Archive

Central Records
Executive Council Quarterly Reports
Annual Foresters' Directory
Foresters' Miscellany
General Law
Order Valuation Reports

District, Region and Federation Records
Valuation Reports

Court Records 
Cash Books
Proposition Books
Membership Registers
Balance Sheets

High Court Meeting Minutes

The fundamental concept underpinning the Ancient Order of Foresters in August 1834 was democracy. This was manifested in both participatory and representative democracy. The single most significant feature of representative democracy was seen in the annual High Court Meeting (HCM). Every Court in the Order was entitled to send a delegate to this meeting, to represent the agreed view of members within a Court. The importance of the representative body was that this was where what might be termed policy decisions were made.  It was the view of the High Court which determined the course to be taken, NOT the opinions of the members of the Executive Council. Initially this was merely the administrative body, implementing HCM delegates wishes, conducting relatively routine business.     

For this reason appointment to membership of the High Court Investigation Committee was a major honour for any member to receive. This influential body, elected from the floor of the High Court meeting, not by the EC, looked into the way that the EC for the year leading up to a HCM had conducted its business. If necessary, recommendations were made as to action to be taken.

So, supporting the representative democracy principle, delegates came from far and wide. As a source of names of active individuals, the real policy makers, the list of attending delegates and HC officers is invaluable.

General Laws

One of the principal activities by delegates to the annual High Court Meeting was to create or amend what were called General Laws. These were the set of rules which applied universally to all Courts, Districts and members throughout the Order in the UK. In General Law, as it was termed, ways and means of dealing with a range of issues was set out.  In the 1840 edition, for example, general Laws 50 to 53 dealt with the Business of the High Court, with General Law 53 reading  'That all Laws passed at a High Court Meeting become binding on and after the first day of October ensuing'.

Other General Laws related to the admission of members, that is the general conditions to be met. It was up to Court members to decide on the acceptance of a particular individual applicant, within parameters of age, health, character laid down centrally in General Law.  The Appeals procedure, an instance of the participatory democracy evident in the AOF at the period, was specified in General Law.  In this, an aggrieved individual could take

his case to be heard all the way from a Court

Meeting up to the High Court Meeting itself to

seek justice.  General Laws, much modified,

 remained as the bedrock of AOF operations

until the Society incorporated at the end of

December 2002.    

On its formation, the Trust took possession of a substantial collection of documents deposited over many years, mainly associated with the Ancient Order of Foresters.

The archive, when complete, will be arranged to provide an unrivaled collection of Foresters central, District, Federation, Region and Court primary source documents.

From the collection, a selection of types of record which will be available can be seen on this website, with accompanying explanatory text. To select from the gallery of available images, just click on any of the thumbnail images. The website will, in due course, contain a detailed index allowing searched to be made by geographical location for the existence of a Foresters Court in any part of the UK and records of it held by the Trust.

Samuel Shawcross

Executive Council Quarterly Reports

Initially the quarterly communication from the Executive Council to Courts was termed the Address, but in 1844 this became the Report. The reasoning behind the issue of the Address/Report was to ensure that members were aware of what the EC was up to.  With the memories of less democratic arrangements before August 1834, members wanted to keep a check on their administrative bodies activities. In particular, the EC was required to publish a quarterly cash account of income and expenditure. From this the members at Court level would see, and could then comment on, the business activities of the EC. 

The first Quarterly Report of each newly installed Executive Council contained the Minutes of the HCM at which they came into post. This was often achieved at great speed. The norm was for HCMs to be in the first week in August, and sometimes within two weeks Quarterly Reports were in the hands of members.  The first EC Quarterly Address in August 1834 was just 2 sides of a single sheet of paper.  By 1896, the first Quarterly Report of the Norwich EC was 152 pages long, with a further 126 pages of a Statement of the Financial returns of the Order. Despite its length, the instruction to each Court Chief Ranger was for it to be read in open Court, at least one regular meeting after receiving the same, or the Court shall be fined each 5s for neglect. Evidence of any member reporting a wayward Chief Ranger has yet to be found!

Foresters Directory

Samuel Shawcross believed that the greatest thing he did for the Order was to regularise Court Rules, but for researchers, and probably many contemporary users of the Foresters Directory, this annual document was his greatest legacy. Commencing in 1845, each year up until his retirement in 1889, the Permanent Secretary put his name to a steadily expanding set of details about Courts, Districts, Executive Council members, High Court meeting places, Widow and Orphan Funds, Juvenile Societies.


Anyone wanting to open a window onto the world of Forestry in the second half of the 19th century has only to look through copies of the Foresters Directory.

The Directory could only be as correct as information supplied to Samuel Shawcross, and his son Edward Bayfield Shawcross, who latterly did much if the compilation. Occasionally it is possible to spot an error, a clearly incorrect membership figure, a mis-spelt Secretary's name, but as a whole each Directory is remarkably accurate.


Originally intended to provide members travelling in search of work with a handy guide to Courts in distant parts, the Foresters Directory became the best reference document of its type in the friendly society movement. Fortunately for researchers The Foresters Heritage Trust collection contains almost every Directory published.

District Reports

The role of Districts varied within different friendly society Orders.  In the AOF, Districts were created by courts uniting for specific objectives, normally the establishment of a death or Funeral fund, the creation of a Widows and Orphans Fund, and facilitating communications between courts in the District and the Executive Council.  District Minutes, sometimes called Addresses or Reports, were the formal record of the proceedings of district meetings. At these delegates from Courts attended to consider business of common interest. District Rules, in conformity with General Law, were drawn up to provide the framework of operation.

The South Shields District, whose Quarterly Report for March 1842 is shown, was established in 1840. By 1842, 12 Courts were united in the District, contributing to a General Fund from which all disbursements, including funeral grants, were paid. Resolution 2 in the Report is revealing about contemporary local social and economic conditions.  'That any Person belonging to any Court in this District, who is not a miner, but is forced for want of other employment to go to the Mines and lose his life by explosion, he shall be entitled to the same benefit as any other Member'.

Court Minutes

Within the pages of Court Minute books lies the history of members endeavours to live up to the ideals of the founders. In these are names of the officers, the regular attenders, determined to be fully involved.


Those who fell sick, and were visited by the Woodwards who delivered their sick pay, and verified their incapacities, are listed. As also are those who, in due course of time died. In minute books are the statements of intent to organise social functions or sporting activities, and the subsequent reports on their success, or otherwise. Decisions made about Rule changes, variation of contribution or benefit levels, guidance to delegates attending High Court Meetings and many other items reveal the breadth of activity within a Foresters Court.

Illustrated is the first page of the Minutes of Court Stone Ezel, held at the Brunswick Tavern, Camp Road, Leeds. Over 175 years old, the original Minutes give details of the formation of the Court as branch of the Royal Order of Foresters in August 1832. The names shown are those of Officers and members of Court Perseverance, No 1 of the AOF, who conducted the formal opening of the new Court, numbered 224. Second

from bottom, in the second column, is the name of James Kitson, later to become the second High Chief Ranger of the newly formed Ancient Order of Foresters.  On its secession from the Royal Order in August 1834 Court Stone Ezel was assigned the number 146.

I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.

Health Declarations

Becoming a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters in the 19th century was not just a matter of turning up and signing on. Well defined procedures, including being proposed, seconded and voted on, theoretically at least ensured only those with acceptable qualities could join.  In addition there was the approval of the Court doctor or surgeon to be obtained. A negative bill of health from him meant rejection.

Candidates were required to complete declarations, such as is illustrated here. Frederick Miles, age 18, a single man, provided answers on the whole acceptable. Only his answer to the last may have posed problems. 

Q. Have any near relatives died of consumption?    A.  One sister.  I have four sisters and five brothers surviving.  All in good health.

For William Ebden, Surgeon to Court Duke of Edinburgh, No. 5967 of Bacton, Suffolk, this was good enough and on 25th October 1874 he recommended admittance of young Frederick Miles to the Court. Founded that very year, Court Duke of Edinburgh admitted 32 members, with an average age of 23, for this new venture at the Bull Inn.

Court Membership Register

And so we find them with their purpose in sight, on the evening of March 28th 1835, starting from the Bay Horse Inn, Lower Baildon, [Yorkshire], journeying by way of the stepping stones at Buck Mill with their lanterns and perhaps torches to light them through the dark lanes and woods, to Idle and being initiated members of the Most Noble Order.

These were the men whose names are shown adjacent, the founders of Court Three Virtues, No. 380 at Baildon near Shipley, Yorkshire. Key to the Courts foundation was John Walker, host of the Bay Horse Inn, Lane End, where members met for the first five years. Apart from the landlord, the remaining seven initial members were either weavers or combers. From the membership book other priceless detail gleaned includes age at joining, date of proposition and admission, residence, and the proposers and seconders names.

A successful Court, bearing in mind its location, in September 1889 the Court seceded from the AOF to pursue an independent existence. Fortunately, the Membership register survives in the Trusts collection.

Court Rules

Whilst General Laws applied to all Foresters Courts, each had its own set of locally agreed Rules. Prior to 1850, when the first Friendly Societies Act that the Orders acknowledged became law, Courts had freedom to include, within reason, what members felt was acceptable for their management.  After 1850 Court Rules were, in principle, supposed to be in conformity with General Laws.


However, at a later date, it transpired that no-one in the Registrars office actually checked this out! The great change came after 1875, when it became a requirement for Court Rules to be submitted to the Registrar of Friendly Societies through the office of the Order Permanent Secretary, Samuel Shawcross, who could, and did, bring uniformity to their content.

Perhaps the most important feature of Court Rules was the table of contributions/benefits. Analysis of these has shown variations in both geographical and chronological contexts. In some ways this should be expected. With different economic conditions prevalent in both variables, Courts in Cornwall were almost bound to have contribution/benefit tables different from Northumberland. By the time that Rules of CourtPerseverance, No. 1726 at Bristol (illustrated) were registered in 1901, the uniformity arising from the requirements of the Friendly Societies Acts and internally agreed processes meant that one set of Court Rules was becoming very much like another. 

Court Accounts/Balance Sheets

As a source of detailed information about a Courts, membership, sickness, financial position, Accounts and balance sheets are hard to beat.  The example illustrated comes from Court BRYN-Y-PYS 3080, whose members held their meetings at Llandrinio, Montgomeryshire. 


An slightly rare aspect of the history of this Court is that it was not attached to a District until the early 1950s when It joined the Shrewsbury District.

This particular document is full of valuable information, with details of Court Officers, Trustees and something that would be unlikely to crop up elsewhere, the Court Surgeon. An interesting analysis is given of the number of members in a given age range, something unlikely to be found elsewhere, and very uselful in appreciating the composition of the Court.

1930 directory (2).JPG

Listing of all the Courts in the world together with prominent members

bottom of page