A Short History of the Society
Records exist which indicate that as far back as the 17th century there were friendly meetings of Dorset men working in London and on the 2nd December 1690 a sermon was preached in the church of St Mary le Bow on "The Revival of General Meetings of the Gentlemen and Others of the County of Dorset" but it is not known how long these meetings continued.
The next positive move was when a Mr G. R. Crickmay organised a successful dinner and meeting at the Whitehall Rooms in London in 1898. He was the famous Weymouth architect who had built many of the town's buildings (including a number of pubs). This meeting was attended by a number of Dorset men and was chaired by Lord Portman whose country seat was then at Bryanston. It would appear that this meeting moved the idea forward and those who attended went away with the firm intention of spreading the word amongst the other Dorset men living and working in London. Therefore, on Thursday 7th July 1904 at the offices of Mr William Watkins at 62, London Wall a further meeting was held to promote the idea of forming a Society. It was well attended and supported by letters from many prominent Dorset men including Thomas Hardy and the Editor of the Dorset County Chronicle. At the time there were many men from the County living in London who seldom met a brother Dorset and there were many young people moving to London from the County seeking employment. It was felt, therefore, that one of the principal objects of the new Society should be to assist young people to find employment and to make them feel that they were not separated from the County. It should also aim to establish a feeling of brotherhood between Dorset men residing or visiting London and to improve their knowledge of their native County. On the 2nd December 1904 the first Annual General Meeting of the Society was held at the Inns of Court Hotel and Mr John Castleman Swinburne-Hannam, a barrister, became the first Chairman of the Committee, a position he held until his death in 1935. By this time 125 members had joined the Society and it was agreed that it would be known as "The Society of Dorset Men in London" It is interesting to note the comments made by some of the members at that meeting.
Mr Taylor-Hallett "It seems to me that Dorset, being in a corner of England, was overlooked and a County with so many interesting features should not be left out in the cold"
Mr Montefiore-Brice. He agreed that Dorset had been rather overlooked. The railways were developing seaside resorts in Devon and Cornwall but Dorset was being passed over.
Mr Rogers - "I speak for the working man and I think the subscription should be kept as low as possible. I represent men not in the high walk of life but thought that the leading men of the County should welcome them"
Mr Barrett - He hoped that ladies would be admitted and would like them to be included as Honorary Members.
Sir Frederick Treves GCVO, CB, LLD, the eminent surgeon became the first President of the Society. He had been born in Dorchester and attended the school run by William Barnes. He became a professor at the Royal College of Surgeons and achieved some notoriety when he saved the life of King Edward VII when he operated on him to remove his appendix two days before his coronation. He also cared for Joseph Merrick who was hideously disfigured with elephantitus and he visited every part of Dorset on foot and cycle for his famous guide "The Highway and Byways of Dorset" published in 1906.
A number of eminent and distinguished men have been President of the Society over the years and these have included Thomas Hardy, Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Llewellin. Sir Anthony Jolliffe GBE DL D.Sc D.Mus a Weymouth man who became the 655th Lord Mayor of London, served as President from 1984 until 2011. He also presided over the Society's Centenary celebrations in 2004 at a lunch held in the Officers Mess at Blandford Camp. Lord Fellowes of West Stafford became our present President in 2011. He was educated at Ampleforth College and then Magdalen College, Cambridge and then pursued a successful career as an actor and writer for the stage, films and television. He was awarded an Oscar for the film Gosford Park and has won further acclaim for the highly successful television series Downton Abbey.
The inaugural dinner of the Society was held at the Trocadero Restaurant, Piccadilly, London on the 27th February 1905 attended by 230 members and there have been annual dinners ever since. The last London dinner was held in 1991, the numbers attending making it no longer a viable proposition. Over the years many eminent guests had been invited to speak at the dinners and these included Winston Churchill, Lord Trenchard, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard and many others. The County Dinner as it is now known, continues to be held within the County and for the past four years at the George Albert Hotel, Warden Hill, Evershot near Dorchester.
The Society's emblem on the Coat of Arms is a silver tower which is said to date from Agincourt and bears the wording "A Silver Tower Dorset Red Banner Bears" whilst the familiar motto "Who's a-feard" was chosen by Thomas Hardy. There is a also flag based on the description given in a poem written by Michael Drayton 1605 and carried by the men of Dorset at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
One significant event of the 1930's was a vote taken at an extraordinary general meeting on the 28th April 1931 when it was decided that the title of the Society should be shortened to The Society of Dorset Men to reflect the fact that the majority of members were now living in the County.
A Year Book has been published annually since 1904 and is an important feature of the Society year. From the very beginning the Society has encouraged the use of dialect in a number of ways to ensure that it is not lost to future generations. In all the Year Books there continues to be articles, poems and stories written in dialect and it is a tradition to feature dialect at the County Dinner.
The Society was instrumental in promoting the Dorchester group of amateur actors who put on stage versions of Thomas Hardy's novels. In 1907 William Watkins invited them to perform to the Society in London where they became national celebrities as "The Hardy Players" attracting large audiences as they presented each new production of Hardy's famous books.
Today, the Society has a membership of over 900 and this includes members living overseas all of whom have a common bond in that they have a love of Dorset and support all that is important and in the best interests of the County.