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From My Rechabite Grandmother to Fit Bits

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

I remember my grandmother, Alice Parrish as a fierce old lady. In my childhood she lived with my grandfather in an Agricultural tied house owned by Cecil Smith’s farms at Spinney Farm at the bottom of Twenty Drove between Bourne and Spalding in Lincolnshire. Nowadays the houses are still there with the farm owned by R Stevenson and Son. It was a drafty old house miles from anywhere down the bottom of a very bumpy and ill kept drove with frequent weeds growing through the tarmac.

When we visited, usually on a Sunday, she would say very little to my sister and I. Indeed, I reckon my sister was a little afraid of her, and understandably so as she could be a bit fierce. Sadly she died an early death from liver cancer. But after her death there was a bit of mystery added to her as my father kept going on about her being a Rechabite and that her parents had signed the pledge for her. Now to my child like ears this painted a picture of her belonging to some sect or religious group and perhaps accounted for her fierceness. Furthermore, what was “the pledge”? The whole thing had an air of mystery, intrigue and even menace about it.

The “pledge” I was shown took the form of a colourful certificate signed by her parents at the beginning of the 20th Century and in its wording was a pledge of abstinence from alcoholic drinks. It had a six pointed star on the certificate that gave it the air of a masonic like organisation.

Did my grandmother keep to this pledge? I believe she did. I only ever saw her drink a small sherry at Christmas. She mainlined tea with a pot of loose leaf tea stewing throughout the day so strong that my father used to joke that if you let go of the tea spoon it would stand upright in the middle of the cup. Her husband, my grandfather, Frank , on the other hand had a tea spoon of Lambs Navy rum in his tea every day.

But what were the Rechabites? Well, they were Friendly Societies with a religious motivation inspired by the Old Testament story of abstinence and compliance in Jeremiah 35

“Go and speak to the Rechabites, bring them to one of the rooms in the house of the Lord and offer them wine to drink. So I fetched Jazaniah son of Jeremiah, son of Habazinah, with his brothers and all his sons and all the family of the Rechabites. I brought them into the house of the Lord to the room of the sons of Hanan son of Igladiah, the man of God……..

.. I set bowls full of wine and drinking cups before the Rechabites and invited them to drink wine; but they said , “ We will not drink wine, for our forefather Jonadab son of Rechab laid this command on us: ‘You shall never drink wine, neither you nor your children. ‘”

Thus Jeremiah was using the Rechabite’s abstinence and compliance with other rules as an example to others.

Similarly the Rechabites were formed from the Temperance movement of the early 19th Century. At that time there was little or no welfare and few ordinary workers had bank accounts. Death and illness rapidly descended into destitution. To insure against this Friendly Societies formed where people would pay a small sum such as a penny a week into a fund that would pay out in the event of death or illness. Often these premiums would be collected weekly at a pub or beer house. However, groups of businessmen, many of them Methodists, became highly concerned that the collection of these premiums in pubs was encouraging the over consumption of alcohol and all the evils that entailed.

So in 1835 The Independent Order of Rechabites was founded accepting adults and children, initially from the age of five, but later from birth provided they would completely abstain from alcohol except for religious or medicinal use they could belong to the Friendly Society and in return for a small fee enjoy health insurance and death benefits. Children could be included in this cover by their parents, “signing the pledge”.In some areas the Rechabite founders even went as far as buying up pubs, inns and beer houses and doing away with alcohol in those establishments replacing it with coffee and tea so as to provide alcohol free venues for the travelling worker and alcohol-free venues to collect premiums.

The Friendly Society became the Rechabite Friendly Society and still exists today, albeit with a new name in 2004 trading as Healthy Investment. It still offers low-cost savings and insurance solutions as a mutuality for the benefit of its members.

Today we see adverts for insurance with a “free” apple watch or fit bit that will monitor how much exercise you do and pay for the device or even provide discount on your life cover as you exercise. I wonder as I see these adverts is exercise the new temperance movement? Is the Fit Bit life insurance equivalent to the Rechabite order of 1835?

If you wish to find out more about the temperance movement listen to this edition of Melvyn Bragg’s brilliant “In Our Time” on this link:

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