The Foster Society was a mutual improvement society founded in late 1848 by "about a dozen or twenty young men of the town associating themselves together for the purpose of pursuing the investigation of truth on social, moral, political, and religious questions" (Hampshire Independent, 12 July 1851).

The society was named after John Foster (1770-1843), a celebrated essayist, Baptist minister, republican and political radical (see entry in Oxford dictionary of national biography). His Southampton protagonists thought him one of the most profound and original thinkers that the world ever produced.

The society met weekly during the winter months, originally in a room in the house of Henry Gaze, a boot and shoemaker in the High Street. It was not a debating society. Members spoke on pre-arranged subjects, each "contributing his quota to the elucidation of truth" (Hampshire Independent as above). The president, William Goddard Lankester, summarized the aims of the society in 1851: "It tended much to strengthen individual conviction, the promotion of an intellectual taste, and the advancement of the oratorical powers of many of its members" (Hampshire Advertiser, 12 July 1851).

It was a quiet and unostentious society, little known outside its circle. One of its most stalwart members was Ebenezer Daniel Williams, recorded as secretary in 1851, chairman in 1867, and representative of the members at talks with the Hartley Institution council in November 1862 on relations between the newly-established college and local societies. Fellow members of the Foster Society presented him in October 1868 - on the eve of his departure for Chatham on promotion as postmaster - with Dean Alford's four-volume New Testament for English readers.

Supplementary information on the Foster Society is rare. We know that in April 1867 there were arrangements for the establishment of a manuscript magazine (following the example of the Southampton Society for Mutual Education) and of a boating club. The entry for the society in the Report on the organization and management of the Hartley Institution, compiled by its principal Francis Bond in 1863, is sparse: "The Foster Society consists of 40 members: no income; no books. About 12 or 14 members meet, but pay no rent. Require a small room, once a fortnight, and would pay a small sum for lighting, etc".

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