friendly societies

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friendly societies of working men can be traced back to the late 17th cent., but their rapid growth began about 1760. In return for a small weekly or monthly contribution paid into a common fund, they provided sickness and funeral benefits. The members met monthly in a local public house to transact business and have a convivial time. An annual feast was held, and the funerals of deceased members were usually followed by a supper. Ceremony and ritual were essential parts of the societies' life. They held open-air processions with bands, banners, and uniforms. Indoors they conducted initiation rites, using mystical symbols, grandiloquent titles, and regalia, similar to the freemasons. Originally friendly societies were local institutions with seldom more than 100 members. But in the 1830s and 1840s these were eclipsed by the affiliated orders, with their organization into a unity (headquarters), districts, and lodges: the Oddfellows, Foresters, Druids, Ancient Britons, Antediluvian Buffaloes, and Rechabites. From an estimated 925,000 members in 1815 they grew to about 4 million in 1872—more than any social organization except the churches. By 1892 probably 80 per cent of the 7 million male industrial workers were members of friendly societies. Governments had ambivalent views about friendly societies, on the one hand encouraging and regulating them as instruments of thrift and self-help, on the other suspecting them as independent working-class institutions similar to trade unions (with which in their early days they sometimes overlapped), and regretting the ‘waste’ of resources on festivities. After 1875 the insurance aspect of the societies became increasingly important; and under the 1911 National Insurance Act the societies were given a new role as agents in the state scheme of national health insurance.

John F. C. Harrison

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friendly societies Associations established in Britain to provide insurance against sickness, old age and funeral expenses. Started in the 17th century, they became a conventional alternative to parish relief and charitable assistance. They spread quickly, and in the Victorian age were the most important form of insurance for the working-class. In the USA, benefit societies filled a similar role.

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