Friday 27 September 2013

Nonconformity in Sussex: The Society of Dependants

The Society of Dependants
also known as the Cokelers

This was a Protestant dissenting sect set up by John Sirgood in Loxwood, West Sussex in the mid 19th century.  John Sirgood, born in Averring, Gloucestershire in about 1821, moved to London where he became a fundamentalist preacher initially with another sect - the Peculiar People - in Southwark.  He was against the Anglican church and disliked the inequalities within society, views which made him very unpopular with landowners and the clergy. 

Sirgood began preaching at Loxwood, Sussex which had the benefit of being an area outside the control of the large estates. Local landowners could not have him removed, although attempts were made to limit his impact but the end of the Conventicle Act gave Sirgood the freedom he needed.  Meetings were held initially in barns and outbuildings in and around Loxwood but Sirgood soon built up a substantial following amongst the farm workers of the area.

Eventually the Society of Dependants was formed, the name was chosen because the members considered themselves dependent on God for everything.

They believed in free will to achieve salvation and they preferred celibacy, although marriage was not forbidden, but it was believed that a relationship with a husband or wife was a barrier to their own relationship with God

Members were pacifists and became conscientious objectors during both world wars. Some sources say they also disapproved of any form of pleasure, they were teetotal, didn't take part in dancing, didn't listen to any music that was not religious and even banned flowers or ornaments in their homes although other sources suggest they were not so extreme.

Probably as a result of the poverty among their members, persecution (many members lost their jobs, whilst others became unpopular amongst neighbours & friends) and their preference for regular joint worship, the Society of Dependants set up shops which were run by members who also lived on site.  They flourished in places such as Loxwood, Warnham, Northchapel, Lords Hill (in Surrey) and South Norwood (near Croydon), soon they also set up and ran farms on a communal basis, the produce of which was sold through the shops.

The Society had about 2,000 members when John Sirgood died in 1885 and there were seven chapels but the numbers soon fell off and by the early 20th century had halved and by the 1980s only about 30 members remained.  The last surviving chapel in Northchapel is now a private house and so far as I can tell the Society of Dependants is no longer operating.

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