Among those claiming exemption from military service during the First World War were members of a small religious sect, the Society of Dependents, more commonly known as Cokelers. The Surrey Advertiser, 26 February 1916, reported a case of a Cokeler who claimed exemption on conscientious grounds on a divine standpoint at Hambledon Rural Tribunal held at the Guildhall, Guildford. The applicant was Ralph Edgar Arnold, aged 28, a journeyman baker of Shamley Green, and he was accompanied by several of his fellow believers. He succeeded only in obtaining exemption from combatant duty.
The Society of Dependents was started in Loxwood, Sussex, by shoemaker John William Sirgood (c. 1822-1885) from Gloucestershire. Sirgood moved to London in the 1840s and became a disciple of William Bridges, founder of the Plumstead Peculiars. He married Harriet Coxhead (originally from Godalming) at Lambeth in 1845, and preached around south London. In 1850, Sirgood and his wife decided to move to the countryside and settled in Loxwood, Sussex, where he started to preach on common lands on the Sussex/Surrey border, his evangelism taking root among farm workers.
The Dependents or Cokelers believed in people’s ability to exercise free will and thereby achieve salvation. They were staunch pacifists, were encouraged (but not required) to remain unmarried, and did not allow wild flowers to be brought into the house. The origin of the name Cokeler is uncertain, although it may have derived from John Sirgood’s preference for drinking cocoa over alcohol. Unsurprisingly, the Cokelers were a source of curiosity in the local press.
The first Cokeler chapel was opened at Loxwood in 1861, and communities grew up in other parts of Sussex and Surrey, including at Shamley Green and Haslemere. The Surrey Advertiser, 29 May 1915, records the “Death of a Cokeler”, William Newman, aged 60, of Valewood Farm, Haslemere. The funeral took place in the chapel belonging to the sect, situated in King’s Road, Haslemere.
The Cokelers were active in Shamley Green from 1865 to 1967, building homes and establishing a combination (co-operative) store at Lords Hill Common. In Pevsner’s Surrey, the entry for Shamley Green states: “More minor cottages around the green at Lordshill Common to the W. (These were built by a local Nonconformist sect, the Cokelers; hence the name Lordshill).” The 1881 census records John Sirgood, by then a widower, living in one of the cottages at Lords Hill. He died in Loxwood four years later.
The Cokeler store at Lords Hill Common survived until the 1960s and, during the First World War, it traded under the name of Bradshaw, Foster, Street, and Co. Among the cases heard at the Hambledon Tribunal in May 1916 was that of Raymond Croucher, aged 30, foreman bread baker, employed by Bradshaw, Foster, Street and Co, Lords Hill Stores, Shamley Green.
Marion May, The Story of the Cokelers (Shamley Green History Society, 1987)
Donald MacAndrew, The Sussex Cokelers: A Curious Sect (1942)
Edward Turnour, Cokelers, a Sussex Sect (1931). Also available at http://scm.pastfinders.org/cokelers_1.htm
Shamley Green: a History of the Village (Shamley Green History Society, 1993)
‘The Cokelers’ letters in Sussex County Magazine (1931)