Kilbarchan General Society, one of the oldest charitable organisations in Scotland, was founded in 1765 by 24 heritors, merchants and tradesmen. The wealthier members could choose to pay a lump sum on joining the society and others could pay an annual fee of one shilling. The money raised was ‘for maintaining such of their own number, their widows and children, as shall by misfortune be rendered incapable of maintaining themselves’
Charitable payments to the needy recorded in the first Minute Book included fifteen shillings per year for five years to a deserted wife with three children, a cart of coal to a member who had fallen on misfortune and fifteen shillings for the burial of a deceased member. In 1800, thirty pounds sterling of meal was purchased to be distributed within the village in a time of scarcity. In 1866 the society gave one ton of coal to a destitute member and paid the apprenticeship fee of one pound to a local dress maker on behalf of the daughter of a deceased member. In 1887 forty shillings was granted to the son of a late member for the purchase of a cart. Charitable payments to the needy continued to be made regularly well into the twentieth century.
To augment society funds in the early days the members ran a meal market at the Steeple from 1766 to 1772. By 1794 the society had a capital of around £400. In the next century it amassed a considerable income from investments in companies including Kilbarchan Gas Company in 1844 and Clyde Navigational Trust in 1877.
The society also supported local hospitals and sponsored village improvements and local events. It was instrumental in providing the village with its Public Park, opened in 1888, and has had a long involvement in Kilbarchan’s Lilias Day celebrations.
In 1932, when the original wooden statue of Habbie Simson on the Steeple was being repainted, it was found that the legs had deteriorated beyond repair. The estimated cost of replacing it with a bronze statue was between £400 and £600, but the society had raised only £114 for the purpose. However, Joseph Gorman, a brass founder from Glasgow saved the day. He became a member of the society and offered to create a bronze facsimile of the old wooden statue for only £100. The bust of the original wooden statue was preserved and is on display in the Steeple Buildings.
In 1935, at the bottom of Church Street near the spot where the Kilbarchan weaver-poet Robert Allan’s house once stood, a commemorative well was erected to his memory by Kilbarchan General Society. He is the only Kilbarchan weaver to have a monument in the village.
The first mention of Lilias Day in General Society Minute Books occurs in 1851 when the General Society was asked to join other village societies in a procession round the village. The society’s involvement in Lilias Day Celebrations continues to the present day when the Preses (chairman) of the society has a place of honour in the Lilias Day Parade. The society was especially active in Lilias Day celebrations in the 1930s. £1250 was raised from the 1930s Lilias Days, and was donated to the Royal Alexandra Infirmary in Paisley to install a bed in Ward 8 in 1935. The managers of the General Society were invited to inspect the commemorative tablet which had been placed over this bed.
In 1925 Kilbarchan General Society obtained absolute ownership of a room in the Steeple buildings known as the Ladies Room. The room houses a display of old photographs, an old painting of Habbie Simson and the head of the original wooden statue of Habbie which had been cleaned and renovated.
The society’s greatest service to the preservation of the old village was its efforts to force the County Council to carry out essential repairs to the steeple building. There was even talk of it being demolished! It was saved from demolition through the efforts of the General Society, when it was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1949. In 1954 the General Society agreed to contribute funds to the County Council towards the cost of repairs to the steeple and the Ladies Room.
Today the General Society has a membership of almost 400 and continues to give valued support to local organisations and good causes. To celebrate of the founding of the society in 1765, a 250th Anniversary Dinner and Civic Reception will be held in Johnstone Town Hall on the 14th of November, 2015.
© 2015 Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Society