Bands of Brothers: The Roles of Friendly Societies in the 19th Century

Daniel Weinbren

Victorian
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For centuries men fiercely loyal to one another, united for a greater cause, seeking to transform their communities, support their families and improve themselves have formed bands of brothers.

These have taken many forms. The most popular in Victorian Britain were friendly societies.

Mutual aid and sharing risks

Although they have long roots, most British friendly societies were established in the 1800s.

Typically working-class men – there were relatively few working-class women in regular, well-paid jobs – would gather in the pub, chip in a few coins once a month.

They would also make specified payments from their kitty to a member who was unable to work at his usual job or to his widow when he died.

The pooled money helped protect members (and if appropriate their widows and children) against the consequences of ill-health.

The Order of Druids was founded in England in 1858 after a schism with the United Ancient Order of Druids (Credit: Chartix / CC).

In some cases employers would become patrons, as encouraging the poor to pay for their own health helped reduce the pressure on the richer members to provide relief.

Moreover, gatherings of working men aroused suspicion among employers. By becoming a society patron an employer could demonstrate his largess and keep an eye on his workforce.

Joining a society did, however, have its own dangers. The Society Treasurer might run off with the funds, although many societies held boxes with three locks and three key-holders.

A local place of work might also close, leaving members with large debts to one another and no means to pay them.

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If a contagious illness swept the community or if a sufficient number of young men could not be persuaded to join, then the elderly and sick membership might be left destitute.

As a result, national and international societies were established. These helped spread the risks and enabled members to move to other towns and countries and build bonds with new “brothers”.

Expansion and growth however led to anonymity. How could a fellow member be trusted?

Rituals, costumes and secret handshakes

Independent Order of Oddfellows Tent Ritual
19th century records from the Independent Order of Rechabites and Independent Order of Oddfellows (Credit: Public domain).

To bolster a sense of security, structures had to be developed. There were passwords and handshakes which only paid-up members would know, and elaborate rituals, dramas and oaths.

These served to foster fairmindedness, reduce freeriding and remind members of the importance of the values to which they had signed up.

Ceremonies, singing, parades, graveside duties, symbols and allegory promoted moral and social virtues and the principles of brotherly love, equality, and mutual aid.

Many societies claimed they could trace their roots back to Roman or even Biblical times to emphasise their robust continuity. The sense of history might have also reassured members that this was no shady fly-by-night operation.

The Nottingham Imperial Oddfellows’ dressed in full-length fake medieval costume; the Independent Order of Oddfellow, Manchester Unity specified that “death supporters” carry drawn swords to funeral processions; the regalia of the Ancient Order of Foresters included horns and axes.

The Senior and Junior Woodward – who served summons, visited the sick and dispensed allowances – each carried an axe.

Fostering a sense of community

A book of odes by the Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity (Credit: Public domain).

Members clearly enjoyed creating these sociable, masculine friendships forged over drinking away from the workplace and outside the female-dominated domestic sphere.

Once in the society, these men could develop their shared interest in financial security, trade or business contacts with like-minded people.

This cultural mortar bound members together through a shared sense of obligation, responsibility and commitment.

Members served the purposes of the societies for little or no pay, while the societies were a means by which members acquired a stake in their communities.

National friendly societies would send delegates to annual conferences, often at the seaside, giving men without the vote in general elections an opportunity to reach democratic decisions and demonstrate their civic credentials.

The fall of friendly societies

Oddfellows banner
Banner belonging to the Loyal Mansfield Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (Manchester Unity), dated 1875 (Credit: Peter Silver).

Membership of friendly societies rose throughout the 19th century. However, there were growing signs that these societies were becoming unsustainable.

From the 1870s people began to live longer but less able to work. Some societies made such generous provisions to older members (this was before the days of state pensions) that younger men felt disinclined to join.

Many societies promised generous payments and then went bust, leaving members with nothing.

Churches, businesses and a range of other bodies began to run their own societies while some friendly societies developed into trade unions.

Others campaigned for a range of causes, including temperance – one of the most popular societies was teetotal.

Some focused on specific religious groups while the main objective of the Philanthropic Order of True Ivorites’ was “to preserve the Welsh language in its purity”.

Many donated to charities, paying for lifeboats, hospital beds and convalescent homes.

Insurance companies, which had no banners and offered no opportunities for dressing up, began to promote health plans which rivalled those of the friendly societies.

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Introduction of the welfare state

The 1911 National Health Insurance Act led to a further growth in membership. ‘State members’ were created because the Act was largely administered through friendly societies and insurance companies that the government had approved.

However, the legislation altered the focus of many societies. Health provision for profit became a central concern of the ‘approved’ providers, while many new members showed little interest in the social aspects.

Many women did not like to attend meetings in pubs, preferring personal calls to the house by the “man from the Pru”.

Oddfellows Banner
Banner belonging to the Loyal Mansfield Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (Manchester Unity), dated 1875 (Credit: Peter Silver).

After World War Two, the creation of the NHS, grants for funeral costs and changes to National Insurance left societies out in the cold.

The friendly society lodge had been a haven where men found financial security, brotherhood, self-improvement and respectability.

But by the end of the 20th century, other routes to such goals had become more popular and the number of members and of societies had fallen.

Dr Daniel Weinbren is the author of a dozen monographs and numerous articles about history. His latest book is Tracing Your Freemason, Friendly Society and Trade Union Ancestors published by Pen & Sword Books.

Daniel Weinbren