What Happened to the Friendly Societies?

Friendly societies were at one time a cornerstone of British working life. Encouraging self-development and education in many trades across the whole of Britain.

But an awful lot of them got rough treatment from the Hanoverians & Co, after they took over the Great British Royal Family franchise. History paints King George as a jolly fat man, and airbrushes out some of the autocratic, feudal and totalitarian tendencies he brought with him from Germany. Coincidently, an article on the Nazi's green roots covers some similar ground.

Historically, a rise in commercial activity is reflected in the growth of towns (towns are in essence markets). During this century the number of them in Germany increased by about ten-fold. But the towns in Germany were less of a liberating force than they had been in England. German feudal society was especially rigid. Professor of German history Mary Fulbrook describes how ‘Germany had a much more immobile social hierarchy and was more ‘caste-ridden’ than either England or France.’ The liberty of the towns was more bitterly opposed by the German nobles, the increasing wealth of the new commercial classes more keenly resented and the desperate attempts by the serfs to obtain their freedom more fiercely resisted.
In England, the success of the commercial classes was leading to the first Parliamentary democracy. But in Germany, there was to be a suppression of freedom. In its place would stand the world’s first modern, bureaucratic State. As Professor Fulbrook says, "In the course of the 1670s, the self-government of the towns was destroyed and they were subordinated to a body of officials appointed by and responsible to, the Elector".
Ref : Inconvenient history

A feudal cast-ridden Germany, not liking "trade", and fearing trade societies that encouraged people to develop or improve themselves. King George appears to have brought the same attitudes with him when he moved to England, not long after in 1714.

By the 1800's, the Hanoverian Georges still seem to have regarded the friendly societies as too damn libertarian and a threat to law & order. The friendly societies were viewed as radical free-thinkers, liberal and libertarian. And they proposed educating the working classes! This was seen as especially dangerous by a ruling elite that preserved a good education as something only fit for the fittest rulers. They'll be wanting the vote next! The attitudes of the friendly societies were frighteningly close, for our rulers, to what was happening on the mainland of Europe, where all hell broke loose with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Government suspicions of societies that 'administer oaths and correspond by signs and passwords' reached fever pitch, triggered by the French Revolution. So much so, organisations such as ours were deemed illegal and driven underground – exacerbating connotations of ‘secret societies’. When societies such as ours were deemed illegal, government informers were paid to infiltrate branches (lodges). Signs and passwords were essential to secure the safety and security of members. Many are still used as part of our Order’s business, to honour our heritage.
Ref : Oddfellows history

For a while, Freemasons were considered just as suspect as all the rest of the friendly societies, especially because of all the French Revolutionary goings-on. As far as I can tell, the Freemasons got a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card by swearing allegiance to King & Country. Basically, they promised to be good boys, and have nothing to do with the French masons - (cough, officially at least).

Promoting the Royal Princes as Honorary Grandmasters might have been part of the same plan to prove their loyalty and protect themselves. Still singing the National Anthem at the end of every Lodge meeting is probably part of the same historical baggage.

There are many overlapping themes between friendly societies and freemasonry. Many of the key values are almost identical. For example, the Three Great Principles in freemasonry are:

Brotherly Love, Relief (meaning charity), Truth

And that of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) are:

Friendship, Brotherly/Sisterly Love, Truth

They also both have lodges with officers with similar titles. The stated purposes of the IOOF might well have been written as a charter for the United Nations:

- To improve and elevate the character of mankind by promoting the principles of friendship, love, truth, faith, hope, charity and universal justice.
- To help make the world a better place to live by aiding each other in times of need and by organizing charitable projects and activities that would benefit the less fortunate, the youth, the elderly, the environment and the community in every way possible.
- To promote good will and harmony amongst peoples and nations through the principle of universal fraternity, holding the belief that all men and women regardless of race, nationality, religion, social status, gender, rank and station are brothers and sisters
- To promote a wholesome fraternal experience without violence, vices and discrimination of every form.
Ref : Independent Order of Oddfellows

It seems to me that the friendly societies (in Britain) didn't get such good royal patronage, and gradually went "down market" or out-of-London, marginalised, or moved abroad.

Following persecution in the UK’s capital, The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows relocated its Grand Lodge (HQ) from its Old Wych St (Aldwych) location to Sheffield.
Ref : Oddfellows history

A classic example in Britain in 1834 : the Tolpuddle Martyrs were convicted and transported for "membership of an illegal friendly society". A crucial part of the evidence of their "guilt" was their swearing of symbolic oaths. To an uninitiated outsider, symbolic oaths could and would seem quite sinister.

Groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs would often use a skeleton painting as part of their initiation process. The newest member would be blindfolded and made to swear a secret oath of allegiance. The blindfold would then be removed and they would be presented with the skeleton painting. This was to warn them of their own mortality but also to remind them of what happens to those who break their promises.
Ref : Tolpuddle Martyrs

Note : freemasonry continued to use many similar kinds of symbolic oaths. This gives rise to much misunderstanding. It is still to this day a favourite theme of some paranoid conspiracy theorists, who consider these oaths to be self-evidently evil or demonic. Unfortunately these theorists show little (or zero) appreciation or understanding of the history, context and meaning.

It wasn't until 1851 that the "illegal" status of friendly societies was overturned. A few friendly societies (in Britain) escaped the suspicion and managed a transition into healthcare, insurance and financial services.

From the 1870s onwards, another form of hospital provision sprang up, with its roots in the mutualist tradition, which flourished in some industrial towns from the middle of the 19th century. Often, with the encouragement of their employers, unions and liberal-minded politicians of the day, workers formed cooperatives, friendly societies and other mutual organisations to protect themselves and their families in case of high food prices, illness, unemployment or death.
Ref : Hospitals before the NHS

This was diminished again in 1948 when the NHS was founded, and the independent role of the friendly societies in direct healthcare by their own medical officers was nationalised. But this may yet go full circle:

Mutuals are by their very nature democratic and benevolent organisations and are perfectly placed to inclusively integrate patients’ needs with the capabilities of clinicians."
Ref : Independent hospitals in the NHS

It's still worth remembering what it was like for many working class folk of our grandparents' generation. Social mobility, self-determination, literacy and education are all things we take for granted. For them, it took guts and grit. You had to pull yourself up by your own bootlaces. Many men and women (who routinely left school at 14) would work a 10 or 12 hour day, then go to their local friendly society (or the local branch of the Working Men's Institute) to further their own education at their own expense.

A gritty attitude is still promoted by business psychologists as a key part of personal success.

Next : Druidic Revivals

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