Police stopped the traffic on the main road from Bridgwater to Minehead. The bemused motorists had to wait as a long procession of women crossed the road from Nether Stowey to the church. Wearing their smartest clothes and pretty hats, and holding posies of flowers, they were led by a brass band playing lustily and a group of little girls in their party dresses, also holding posies and flower baskets. One little girl proudly carried a banner.
What was going on? This was the Women’s Walk, or more formally the 207th Club Day Service of the Nether Stowey Female Friendly Society, founded in 1806 by Tom Poole.
Thomas Poole, born in Stowey in 1765, is perhaps best known as the loyal friend of Coleridge, who found for the Coleridge family the Stowey cottage in which they lived from 1797 to 1800, and whose book room in his Castle Street house witnessed the talk of the poet and his friends, including Southey and Wordsworth. A self-educated man, Poole was also firm friends with the Wedgwood brothers and Humphrey Davy. His memory is kept green in Stowey because of all the good he did here. He ran the family tannery shrewdly and profitably, giving employment to many; he was a magistrate, constantly consulted for advice; he founded a free school, one of the first in the country; and as the tribute at his funeral stated, ‘his house and heart were open to all alike, and the memory of the poorest was cherished as much as that of the most illustrious.’
The Female Friendly Society was founded because Poole realised that women needed help in times of sickness, in childbirth, in widowhood, and in old age. Every member subscribed according to her means, and thrift and self-help were encouraged. The Society throve, and did much good. Elizabeth Sandford, a member of the Poole family, records in her book ‘Thomas Poole and his Friends’ (first published in 1888) that it was Coleridge, visiting Poole in 1807, who wrote the motto for the banner that was carried to the church on the Society’s first anniversary:
Foresight and Union linked by Christian Love
Helped by the Good below and heaven above.
Those words can still be read on the banner that we carry to the church today.
So last Saturday we met at Stowey’s clock tower, and led by the band and the flower girls we processed to the church. First we gathered round Tom Poole’s gravestone. Some of us left our posies there, while some kept their posies to give to friends, or to those too ill or infirm to join the walk. Then we went into the church for a brief service. After it was over, we processed back across the road (the police stopped the traffic again!) and up Lime Street past Coleridge Cottage – busy with visitors – to the Village Hall, where we sat down to a lavish cream tea.
In his sermon, taking as his text the parable of the sower, the Rector reminded us that although the Female Friendly Society no longer exists, the seeds that Tom Poole sowed have grown to a crop of friendship and mutual help that still flourishes here in Stowey. The spirit of Tom Poole lives! Let’s hope that the Women’s Walk will still be taking place in another 200 years’ time.