The Ancient Order of Foresters

The Ancient Order of Foresters
The Ancient Order of Foresters date not known
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Ancient Order of Foresters (AOF) is one of the oldest friendly societies, with its origins in Yorkshire. The earliest verifiable evidence of the Foresters' existence is in 1790, for which date a list survives of the members of the of Court No.1 of the order, which met at the Old Crown Inn in Kirkdale in Leeds. It was already unequivocally a benefit society by the early nineteenth century and probably was so from its beginnings. The AOF flourished in the 19th century, by 1895 having 4899 courts and 731,442 members, with court funds amounting to £5,119,842, and engaging in general charity as well as providing financial support for its members. In the late 19th century, Forestry spread throughout the world, particularly to the British colonies but also to the United States. In 1892 the Order was opened to women with the formation of female courts. In the 20th century, between the war the AOF was an Approved Society operating within the National Health Insurance Scheme, so it had both voluntary and State members. Unlike many others, it survived the slump in friendly society membership after the creation of the National Health Service in relatively good order, and still flourishes, offering both financial services and social activities, just as it did at its inception (although the courts have been renamed branches), as well as supporting a variety of charity work, and also has an historical section producing publications on Forestric history.

The Ancient Order of Foresters date not known
The Ancient Order of Foresters date not known
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In Forestry the word 'court' is used instead of 'lodge', derived from the law courts of the of the royal forests , which since the Middle Ages had met to administer the special forest laws. Similarly the officers of the society used the titles of officials of the medieval forest courts, such as Ranger and Woodward. Thus the chief official was the Ranger. Courts were guarded by two Beadles, and a Senior and Junior Woodward, whose job was to serve all summonses, visit the sick, dispense allowances and take charge of all court property. The regalia of the Beadles included huge cow horns (real cow horns) slung from the left shoulder, and axes; each Woodward carried an axe. Officials, types of members are:
  • C.R. Chief Ranger
  • P.C.R. Past Chief Ranger
  • P.D.C.R. Past District Chief Ranger
  • S.C.R. Sub Chief Ranger.
  • D.S.C.R. District Sub Chief Ranger
  • S.B. Senior Beadle
  • J.B. Junior Beadle
  • S.W. Senior Woodward
  • J.W. Junior Woodward
  • Treasurer
  • C.T. Chief Treasurer
  • C.S. Chief Secretary
  • Sub Secretary
  • Assistant Secretary
  • Honorary Member
  • Trustee
  • Juvenile Society Officer
  • Juvenile
Examples of the ribbons worn by members of the Foresters - click image to enlarge
Examples of the ribbons worn by members of the Foresters (click image to enlarge)
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In 1815 the AOF emblem was devised. It consists of a shield divided by a cross and has an escutcheon in the centre with bugle horn and bow and arrows. In the top-left quarter of the shield is a pair of clasped hands; in the top-right hand quarter, three running stags; in the lower left is a chevron, a lamb and flag above the chevron and a bugle horn beneath; in the lower-right quarter is a quiver over a bow, arrow and bugle horn. Above the shield is a stag's head issuing out of a coronet; flanking it are the figures of two foresters ( both male before 1892, one male and one female after). The motto is 'Unity, Benevolence & Concord', sometimes given in Latin as 'Unitas, Benevolentia, Concordia'.Sometimes the All-Seeing Eye surmounts all, and there are variations in colours and details, and often extra symbolic decorations may be added. The form of the personal regalia includes a sash, sometimes known by Foresters as a 'scarf', 6 inches wide and 2½ long, worn over the right shoulder and tied at the left of the waist. The stag's head, the insignia of the order and the initials of the office held were embroidered in gold thread, or shown on an attached panel with the emblem woven or printed in colour or in black and white. Either instead of or as well as the sash was worn a neck-ribbon 2½ inches wide and 1½ long. By the 1980s the sash was no longer worn and the neck ribbon was being worn on its own with a tassel at the centre front ( two for Chief Rangers). All-black sashes and ribbons were prescribed for Forester funeral ceremonies.

Forester's Hall, Waterloo Road in July 1971
Forester's Hall, Waterloo Road in July 1971
Initially it was built in 1863 as a Wesleyan chapel but
it was later taken over as the meeting place of the Foresters.
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection (Links open in new windows)

The Ancient Order of Foresters became a registered Friendly Society in 1834. The Epsom branch of the Dorking, Epsom and West Surrey Branch was established in 1860. It was styled 'Court Wellington' (No.3449), because it originally convened in the Duke of Wellington public house, High Street, Epsom.

Epsom Foresters in full dress uniform
Epsom Foresters in full dress uniform
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Both men and women were entitled to become members provided that they were in work, over the age of eighteen and that their application had been proposed and seconded by a member of the Order. There were several grades of membership with accordingly varied levels of support. Members paid a monthly contribution which was apportioned to various funds, chiefly the Sick & Funeral Fund, the Management Committee (the salaried administrative body) and the Benevolent Fund.

An early photograph of the Epsom Foresters
An early photograph of the Epsom Foresters
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Men who had families or other dependants, and were the main wage earners, could pay a level of contributions which ensured that their families would be supported if they should die or become sick or unemployed.

The Ancient Order of Foresters date not known
The Ancient Order of Foresters date not known
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Epsom Juvenile Foresters Branch was established in 1871. Its members had to be between four and eighteen years of age.

Text courtesy of Jeremy Harte, Curator Bourne Hall Museum, also The Surrey History Centre


For general information on the history of the Foresters we suggest you contact The Foresters Heritage Trust.


The Builder 25 September 1863


Forester's Hall, Waterloo Road
Forester's Hall, Waterloo Road Date not known.
Initially it was built in 1863 as a Wesleyan chapel but
it was later taken over as the meeting place of the Foresters.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Epsom. - A new Wesleyan chapel is in course of erection at Epsom by Mr. E. Bassett Keeling of Gray's-Inn, London, architect. The design is Gothic with Continental modifications. The artistic elements of the design mainly depend on the degree and contrast of colour produced by the use of undisguised materials. The building will be constructed of local bricks, relieved by bands of black and blue Staffordshire bricks, with Bath stone dressings. The arches, both internally and externally, are of cut, and rubbed, bricks with a moderate use of variety in colour. The walls are neatly pointed in black mortar producing, in combination with the colour of the bricks, a pleasing picturesqueness and warmth of effect, relieved and counterbalance by the light tint of the plaster between the timbers of the open roof which will be but slightly stained. The judicious use of a little distemper colour on the chamfers of the main timbers, will assimilate the warmth of tone in the walls with the coolness and breadth which this treatment of the deep-pitched roof would otherwise have in contrast, with the lower portion of the building. This is the only position in which plaster is at, all used throughout the building, and obviates one of the principal objections to an open roof, while it gives a light surface to reflect the light ; and the intermediate rafters being also wrought and stained, relieves the monotony and baldness a mere plaster ceiling would present. The roofs will be covered with pink Bangor and green Westmoreland slates in alternate bands. The chapel is approached by a flight of steps at the west end flanked by two handsome standard lamps, and consists of a nave, semicircular apse for the communion, and transepts on either side, divided from the nave by light wooden screens. The south transept forms a school-room, rather more than 20 ft. square ; while the transept on the north side, which is half the depth, is divided into two vestries. The aisles, which run up the two sides of the chapel, will, together with the entrance, be paved with red and black Staffordshire tiles in pattern, the communion being paved with mosaic tiles in three or four colours. The chapel will be warmed by means of Parritt's ground stoves, and ventilated by hopper ventilators in the windows. The pewing, which will be of the most modern construction, of red pine varnished but not stained, will seat over 200 adults, in pews varying in accommodation from 4 to 8 persons. In addition to which bracket free seats will be provided, bringing the accommodation of the nave alone to nearly 250, while the provision made in the arrangements of the school-room so as to be ultimately included in the chapel itself would further increase the number to about 350. The lighting of the chapel will be effected by star-lights in coloured iron-work depending from each principal. The pulpit will be on the north side ; and the font, which is the gift of the architect, and to be of Cow stone supported on marble columns, will be at the south side of the communion. There is a separate external entrance to the school-room in the west front, which will eventually form an additional entrance to the chapel.

Interior shot of the Foresters Hall
Interior shot of the Foresters Hall
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum


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