The development of friendly societies is full of fascination for the social historian. PETER GRAY, looks at the movement which is still largely ignored despite its history that stretches back for 2,000 years. Early Legislation Friendly societies have been governed by legislation in the United Kingdom for more than 200 years.
Although the first Friendly Society Act was introduced in 1793, in 1773 a Bill was brought to the House of Commons by Mr Dowdeswell, supported by Sir George Saville, Mr Edmund Burke and others, entitled “An Act for the better support of poor persons in certain circumstances by enabling Parishes to grant them annuities for life, upon purchase, and under certain restrictions”. This Bill, it is believed, is the first instance where Parliament considered the active encouragement of properly-regulated institutions for the relief of the poor under insurance contracts.
But what exactly is a friendly society? A society can be either an unincorporated body of persons (or since the 1992 Friendly Societies Act may now incorporate as a legal entity in its own right), unlimited in number, who join together to achieve a common financial, or social purpose or both. The members voluntarily bind themselves to rules which are capable of variation in the future, subject to a majority of such members agreeing. The distinctive features of a friendly society are as follows.
A financial benefit is payable according to a table of contributions and benefits designed to assist members upon the happening of specified contingencies or in adversity. The rules engender a spirit of self-help and self-reliance and discourage dependence upon the state or charity. Government of a society is by members, for members, subject to the rules which are devised by the members There exists equality between each member, subject to the rules, irrespective of the size of a member’s individual stake in the society.
One member, one vote. The rules provide for variation by restriction or extension of the rights, privileges or terms of membership, thus the ability to preserve financial solvency exists provided there is a willingness among the members to make additional contributions or to reduce benefits, as circumstances may demand. The provision of benevolence and charitable grants to distressed members beyond that to which they are strictly entitled under the benefit tables provided for in the rules.
Early Societies From the earliest times man has recognised that it is easier to survive as one of a group. Most primitive societies were organised as tribes, or perhaps as small hunting groups. In many societies, groups were formulated as a means to defend the individual and spread risk among bodies with rules and structures which identify specific concerns and apply remedies. The earliest recorded society that I have been able to trace is referred to by Tessa Morrison in her book Safety in Numbers.
The society, known as The Hornblowers, was a mutual club, formed in the garrison town of Lambaesis, in what is now Algeria. The club, founded in AD 203, had as its members the legionary officers of the Roman garrison. They were paid monthly but had significant deductions for pensions and so on. The rules of their societies provided 500 denarii on promotion; 500 denarli on transfer plus travelling expenses; 500 denarii when a legionary became a veteran; and 500 denarii to his family if he died. Contributions from the members were collected monthly and paid into a central pool.
The culture of Roman society required that a Roman of worth had to receive a respectable funeral and, therefore, to meet the uncertainty of this call upon the family resources, mutual insurance was essential. It provided some measure of security from the unexpected. However, the members were not wholly preoccupied with the morbid aspects of life as they encouraged another vital ingredient of friendly society ethos: good fellowship. The rules of a club at Lanurium provided that on entrance to the club, prospective members were required to bring 100 sestertii and an amphora of decent wine.
The Guilds Saxon England appears to have appreciated the advantages of associations similar in their nature to friendly societies. It would appear that guilds were originally instituted by the mutual agreement of friends and neighbours and had no further object than the relief of the brethren in times of distress and perhaps the protection of the associated members against the lawless attacks of powerful neighbours. In his Linguarum Septentriolalium Thesaurus Grammatico-Criticus of 1703, George Hickes mentions some societies (or guilds) of this nature.
After the Conquest guilds were established for the express promotion of religion, charity, or trade; and it is from these fraternities, simple as they may originally have been, that the various companies and city corporations in this kingdom are derived. They were usually founded by licence from the King, and supported either by specific contributions from the members, in money or goods, or by lands assigned to them by the founder. The rules of several of these institutions are preserved. Among others, the following ordinances of St Catherine’s guild, at Coventry, founded in the reign of Edward Ill.
They are cited at length by Dugdale, who speaks of them as very memorable, and “manifesting the decent government, ceremony, devotion, charity, and amity of those times”. If a member suffer from fire, water, robbery, or other calamity, the guild is to lend him a sum of money without interest If sick, or infirm through old age, he is to be supported by his guild according to his condition. No one notorious for felony, homicide, lechery, gaming, sorcery, or heresy, is to be admitted. If a member falls into bad courses, he is first to be admonished, and if found to be incorrigible, he is to be expelled.
Those who die poor, and cannot afford themselves burial, are to be buried at the charge of the guild. The chaplain is not to frequent common taverns. The master of the guild was usually the person who had been Mayor of Coventry the year before. He seems to have been the treasurer, as he swore to pay arrears on quitting office, and to inspect the tenements of the society. Mass was said every day, and there were four solemnities or feasts every year. The guilds seem to have been encouraged by persons of rank.
The Earl and Countess of Northumberland, and their eldest son, were members of St Christopher’s guild at York, and paid annually each 6s 8d. They each received yearly from the guild two yards of cloth; but whether this was an article usually allowed to the members of such societies, or whether it was merely a compliment to a person of high distinction, cannot now be determined. The ancient associations, whether distinguished by the name of guild, fraternity, mystery, company, or brotherhood, seem to have been no less addicted to feasting and conviviality than the Roman clubs that preceded them or the friendly societies that followed.
They generally assembled once a year for the purpose of acting some interlude or pageant. There is a curious account in the Liber Niger of the anniversary feast of the guild of the Holy Cross at Abingdon, from which Blomefield, in his History of Norfolk, probably took the following account which he has given us of that festival. He says “the fraternity held their feast yearly, on the third of May, the Invention of the Holy Cross; and then they used to have 12 priests to sing a dirge, for which they had given them four pence a-piece; they had also 12 minstrels, who had 2s 3d, besides their dyet and horse-meat.
At one of these feasts they had 6 calves, valued at 2s 2d a-piece; 16 lambs, 12d a-piece; 800 eggs, which cost 5d the hundred; and many marrow-bones, creame, and floure, besides what their servants and others brought in; and pageants, plays, and May-games, to captivate the senses of the zealous beholders, and to allure the people to the greater liberality (for they did not make their feasts without profit; for ‘those that sat at dyner’ paid one rate, and ‘those that stood pay’d another’).
“These guilds also gave annual charity, stipends to poor persons; found beds and entertainment to poor people that were strangers; and had people to keep and lend the said beds, and did other works of charity. ” The recurrent theme which arises in connection with friendly societies is the combination of social and economic activities. It is perhaps best exemplified in the introduction to the first Friendly Societies Act of 1793, in which friendly societies were described in a rather homely fashion as being “societies of good fellowship”, a description which still applies to a very important aspect of their activities today.
Although relatively little survives from the Roman period until the seventeenth century, it is understood that many mediaeval guilds carried out the functions of societies as ancillary to their trade promotion and protection activities. The last recorded guild was in existence in 1628. Many of the ceremonies and customs which characterised the guilds, as well as their basic objectives, were to be found in early friendly societies. Some of the benefits available within the guild were undoubtedly similar to those provided both in earlier periods and subsequently by friendly societies.
Societies Societies of various kinds were clearly an important part of the fabric of life and met many needs, either as part of the activity of a business association, religious duty, or social consciousness. The breadth of benefits granted to subscribers were sometimes quite advanced for their time. The Clerk’s Society founded in 1807 in Newcastle upon-Tyne provided this comprehensive cover. Sickness benefit of one guinea per week for the first 52 weeks of incapacity, reducing by a half for the next 26 weeks and, thereafter, to seven shillings for so long as the incapacity continues.
Unemployment benefit of ten shillings per week for 26 weeks, extendible for a further 26 weeks at the discretion of the Management Committee. Total disablement, blindness, or other providential cause, i?? 30 per annum, payable quarterly. Loans of up to i?? 25 upon imprisonment for debt. i?? 100 upon death, payable as directed in the member’s will, or alternatively, a widow’s pension of i?? 15 per annum. There was a system of fines for nonattendance of meetings, for disorderly conduct, cursing, swearing, and quarrelling.
These were increased further if the impropriety continued after being called to order by the President or other official. Egalitarian principles were commonly incorporated in the rules of societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as illustrated by J. C. Curren in his book of 1809 On Friendly Societies. He cites the introduction of the Rules and Orders of the Honourable Society of Workington which commenced on February, 2, 1792, as an example which establishes clearly the ethos intended for members to adopt and follow.
“When we look upon mankind as being subject to an innumerable train of evils and calamities, resulting either from pain or sickness, or the infirmities of old age, which render them unable to procure even a scanty subsistence, when at the same time they are made capable of the noblest friendship, common prudence induces us so to form ourselves into society, that the insupportable condition of the individual may, by the mutual assistance and support of the whole, become tolerable.
It has ever been deemed a mark of the greatest wisdom, for those who live in prosperity, and are able to endure labour, and follow their several callings and professions, to make some kind of provision against the day of adversity; and it is evident that a man by uniting in the bonds of society, will most easily accomplish, and most effectually secure to himself, this important end. ” This simple, eloquent statement is as appropriate today as when it was written two centuries ago. Each person is still subject to the capricious whims of fate and relies upon a continued ability to support himself.
19th Century Legislation Early in the nineteenth century a number of Bills were introduced to “encourage friendly societies”, for, while protecting their members, the societies undertook “the promotion of the happiness of individuals and, at the same time, diminishing the public burthens”. Initially, at least, political expediency coloured judgment at this time so that Parliament concerned itself more with control of the population and their suspected motives for joining societies, than for the financial stability many actually sought from friendly societies.