Artifact Profile: Sons of England Benefit Society Ceremonial Altar & Certificate

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George Clatworthy founded the Sons of England Benefit (Benevolent) Society, or SOEBS, in Toronto, Canada, on December 12, 1874, incorporating the organization on February 18, 1875. Unlike the Benevolent Irish Society, or BIS, a non-denominational, but largely Roman Catholic, fraternal charity for the Irish in Newfoundland, the SOEBS was a British, Protestant patriotic organization which assisted people in need. The BIS, too, had existed far longer in Newfoundland–for example, Harbour Grace’s BIS formed in early 1814; 83 years passed before residents formed its first SOEBS branch. In Newfoundland, the BIS found its equivalent in the British Society, formed in 1837.

Assistance from the SOEBS largely came through insurance, provided to members in need because of family illness or other problems. However, its patriotic, fraternal nature was written into its constitution: the SOEBS was an organization to explicitly “foster the British connection and love of Empire.”

In Newfoundland, the SOEBS existed in St. John’s and Harbour Grace. On the invitation of John Coffin, a St. John’s resident, Clatworthy visited the capital to inaugurate the first SOEBS on the island, Lodge Dudley No. 227, on July 16, 1896. Its second branch, Lodge Empire No. 270, later inaugurated in 1905.

Harbour Grace inaugurated its SOEBS branch on May 25, 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the celebration of her 60 years on the British throne. William Oke, former justice of the peace and newspaper publisher, was its president.

The SOEBS ceased its operations in Canada in 1971.

Altar and Certificate of Initiation

Mrs. Mary Sheppard, of Harbour Grace, donated this ceremonial altar to the Conception Bay Museum in August 2017. The donation included the ceremonial altar (pictured above) and a certificate of initiation (pictured below), granted to Graham Ash on January 28, 1918, by William Oke.

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The certificate reads:

The Sons of England Benefit Society / Established Dec. 12, 1874 / Incorporated Feb. 18, 1875 / This is to Certify That Graham Ash was duly initiated a Member of this Society on the 28th day of January 1918 in the Lodge Diamond Jubilee No. 236 in the Dominion of Newfoundland and is now duly entitled to the Benefits and privileges as a Member of this Order according to his Obligations and the Society’s Constitution. William Oke[,] President. A. W. Heath[,] Secretary. 

The certificate bears the hallmarks of fervent British patriotism: the Royal Coat of Arms is in the centre, the English lion, left, the Scottish unicorn, right; the Three Lions, top left; Saint George’s shield, top right; a British sailor, middle, left; a cavalryman, middle, right; and the SOEBS logos, bottom, left and right. The opened text at the top, centre, reads: “Fear God / Honor the King / Love the Brotherhood.” The French script around the Royal Coat of Arms is the motto of the chivalric Order of the Garter: “Honor soit qui mal y pense”–“May he be shamed who thinks badly of it.” Appropriately, roses, the national flower of England, border the certificate, displayed in a well-worn wooden frame.

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The ceremonial altar bears an labelled inscription, displayed behind glass. The inscription reads:

Lodge “Diamond Jubilee,” No. 236, / S.O.E.B.S. / Instituted May 25, 1897 / Honor / Purity / This Altar is dedicated to the memory of those Members who volunteered, fought and died in the Great European Conflict, 1914-1918. 

This altar can be dated to around the time of Ash’s initiation, 1918. Again, roses border the inscription, and the colours are bright, prominent red and white–the colours of Saint George.

Author’s note: The written names on Graham Ash’s certificate–those of the president and secretary–have faded significantly. The president’s first name is “William,” leading me to assume “William Oke.” The secretary’s name appears to be A. W. Heath, though I could be wrong here.

If you have any further information about the Sons of England Benefit (Benevolent) Society, or SOEBS, in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, please contact us.

Come see the altar when we reopen in the spring!

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