A Brief History of the Society of Old Friends
At the turn of the last Century, a small group of booksellers and publishers used to meet in the City at Anderton’s Hotel. They called themselves “The Odd Lots”.
Soon stationers began to join the number and in 1909 about 30 agreed to meet for a supper at The Clachan Inn, Kingley Street, W1 to discuss the formation of a Society. A committee was formed and it was agreed that membership should be confined to 80, being 70 wholesalers and 10 retailers.
Over time, the membership limit was increased as high as 175 before being reduced to 150 when country membership was introduced for those members who were retiring, relocating too far away to attend events or who through loss of income were unable to pay a full membership fee.
It has often been the case that there is a waiting list of people eager to join the society.
The first dinner was held at the Old Bell, Old Holborn on 18th November 1910. A ‘very distinguished man’ in the Publishing Trade, Mr Arthur Waugh, was the Society’s first Guest of Honour. The event was the start of more than a century of fine dinners and interesting and distinguished speakers from all walks of life.
The success of the early years was due mainly to the character of the first President, Mr W J (Jack) Barwick, Director of Truslove & Hanson in Knightsbridge, now part of W H Smith. He was a very well known, ebullient character and remained President for 16 years until his death in 1925.
The long-term growth of the society, was due to the first secretary, Mr Frank House, who occupied that position for an incredible 36 years until his death in 1946. Although Jack Barwick provided the dynamism that created a prestigious society in the 1920s, to Frank House must go the credit for establishing the Society of Old Friends as a permanent organisation in the stationery (now business supplies) and publishing trades.
A major feature of the functions has been the quality of the Guests of Honour. The list of over 200 who have spoken at Society events chronicles the history of this country across business, publishing, politics, entertainment and the parts. At the core are writers, the list of whom is a veritable who’s who!
In the early years, the art of oratory was still flourishing, and the published reports of the meetings wax eloquently on the quality and number of the speeches.
The society continued to function through both World Wars, changing to luncheon meetings. In fact, it was reported that the Society’s first luncheon with music during the Second World War was the first event of its kind held anywhere in London.
Throughout its history, the Society of Old Friends has organised many different types of events in many prestigious venues. From members’ dinners to ladies guest dinners, dances and children’s parties. During the 60s attendance at some of these events touched almost 400 people.
Over the years, the Society has maintained several traditions. The President is encouraged to conduct the business at the Annual General Meeting in as quick and efficient a manner as possible. In recent years, the record stands at 18 minutes.
In the archive, there are reports of disgruntlement amongst some members when the business of the AGM began eating into drinking time!
Another tradition at the AGM is that the menu always features soup followed by steak and kidney pudding. The earliest mention of this choice seems to have been in 1925, more than 90 years ago.
The handshaking ceremony has been carried out at the Members’ Dinner every year since it was first introduced in 1945. At that time there was a full membership of 150, and many members were returning from fighting in the war. It was decided that to ensure that all Old Friends knew each other, they would in turn introduce the member on their right by saying “On my right…” followed by the name and company of the member. Whilst originally this was a serious process, more recently a certain amount of levity has been introduced by certain members when introducing their Old Friends.
The 9 o’clock toast has been a tradition from the very beginning. Whatever else may be going on, this toast is always observed. The toast is “to absent friends” so that members present may think of those members unable to join them and those who have sadly passed away. It is hoped that absent members will at 9 o’clock also raise a glass wherever they may be.