Friendly Society Discipline and Charity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England
Prom, Christopher J., The Historian
IN 1889, DR. WILLIAM ROBINSON proposed a seemingly radical plan to his fellow members in the Stanhope Agricultural Oddfellows Lodge, a Durham County friendly society of which he was the medical officer. Would they, a group of miners, artisans, and agricultural laborers, help raise 3,600 [pounds sterling] to build a convalescent home? Although the sum seemed exorbitant, the lodge, like many others in Durham and Northumberland, agreed. The lodge members diligently passed the hat around at their meetings. They sponsored summer carnivals. They organized church parades. They waited upon mine owners and landlords, patiently asking for donations. And in 1897, after eight long years of labor, they opened the doors to a sixty-bed seaside home at Grange-upon-Sands, Lancashire, replacing a rundown cottage loaned by a wealthy Lancashire widow. (1) In 1904 they added a new wing, effectively doubling the number of available beds.
This incident illustrates a phenomenon rarely discussed by scholars of Victorian England: organized charity established and administered primarily by members of the working class, in this case a group of miners, iron founders, and laborers. (2) These men belonged to a friendly society, a mutual-aid organization providing a rudimentary form of sickness and life insurance. Friendly society charities played a subtle role in propagating the average working man's desire to provide for himself and preserve social order and peace. They exercised this function by offering a means to enforce intra-class discipline and an outlet for collective effort toward shared charitable goals. The history of the societies illustrates a relative absence of class conflict among their members, who were drawn not merely from the working class, but also from among the middle classes. The charitable work that the societies did, meanwhile, calls into question the Gramscian notion that members of the working class adopted middle-class cultural values in adjusting to the hegemony of liberal, industrial capitalism. Rather than aiming for middle-class respectability, they took an active role in shaping notions of self-discipline and charitable work.
Friendly societies made up the most common and highest-enrolled workingclass organizations in late-Victorian Britain. Although some societies enrolled women and children, the movement was dominated by adult men. By 1905 the friendly society movement reached truly gargantuan proportions, when approximately 5.8 million English men (61 percent of the adult male population) belonged to a friendly society paying sickness benefits, a near doubling since 1872. (3) In general, the societies enrolled men from a variety of working-class occupations, with a smattering of members from the lower middle class. Table 1 shows the results of a membership analysis conducted for a typical Yorkshire friendly society.
Most societies were organized on a lodge system, whereby local clubs managed their own funds, elected officers, and ran their own affairs. In turn, lodges grouped themselves into districts, whose leaders were also elected; from the district officers, a president and other national officers were elected by the membership at large. In the case of the better-funded orders, a manager and actuary were hired to assist in the society's management and develop contribution/benefit tables.
In addition to the insurance benefits that the societies offered, they also provided their members a social outlet in the form of monthly lodge meetings, parades, and other events. (5) Contemporaries (such as the Fabian socialists Sidney [1859-1947] and Beatrice Webb-Potter [1858-1943], or J. M. Baernreither [1845-1925], an Austrian academic who studied working-class organizations) argued that they overlapped with trade unions in both form and function. The societies held secret meetings, binding members together with shared rituals, regalia, and obligations. While the movement was hierarchical in nature, it followed electoral principles.
British friendly societies have often been cited as exemplars of working-class self-help (or mutual) aid, embourgeoisement, and conservatism, while the organizations are often seen to have achieved their greatest influence and popularity in the mid-Victorian era. (6) In this view, they illustrated the working man's desire for respectability, social cohesion, and conformism; their members have been portrayed as labor aristocrats who accepted existing social relations and middle-class leadership in economic and financial matters. (7) More subtle accounts emphasize that the societies provided working men with an outlet for personal initiative and a chance to practice public-speaking and leadership skills, facilitating their movement into more active forms of social and political activity. (8)
Much previous work relating to the societies has focused on their role in providing a form of rudimentary social welfare and, to a much lesser extent, on their political involvement in shaping a political movement that eventually resulted in state-provided old-age pensions and social insurance. Many of the society's leaders espoused a liberal political ideology, encouraging individual responsibility and resisting government intervention into the realm of insurance or social welfare. (9) The societies emerged as political actors during the 1880s and 1890s, at the moment when they faced a potential financial crisis. (10) Friendly society leaders organized an active political lobbying campaign, opposing government-sponsored old-age pensions. (11) In this campaign, the leaders supported voluntarism, an aspect of working-class politics that has often been overlooked in studies that focus on other forms of working-class political action, such as the cooperatives, trade unions, and the emerging Labour Party. Local friendly society records detail the specific ways working men manifested this voluntarist impulse in their charitable activities.
Relatively little systematic research has been conducted regarding workingclass charitable efforts. Most studies of Victorian welfare center on middle- and upper-class philanthropic phenomena. (12) Only a few authors have discussed working-class charities, focusing on the governance problems associated with charities that ostensibly included some working-class involvement. (13) Other authors have investigated the spontaneous and informal helpfulness which characterized most neighborhoods or informal working-class charities, and the ways in which representatives of middle-class charitable, social, and political groups befriended people in poor neighborhoods. (14) But the friendly societies, practicing the ideas of voluntarism and mutual aid that their movement articulated, directly engaged members of the middle class on their own terms. In doing so, these working men used friendly societies to create a distinctly Victorian response to economic, social, and political conditions.
At least initially, much of their philanthropic work was an extension of the medical benefits and insurance that the societies provided. In the administration of their medical benefits and associated medical charities, members of the working class generated a distinctive social and moral milieu based on private discipline and public mutualism. Discipline and mutualism reinforced each other in a dynamic fashion, both within the working class and between the working class and other classes. These relationships developed as mutually reinforcing instances of respectable public and private behavior.
Although the topic of respectability is far from uncontested or completely understood as it concerns the British working class, we do know that it cannot be regarded as a universal normative mode. Historians have recognized that the doctrine was produced, reproduced, and revised over time and within specific social and cultural contexts. (15) In friendly societies, the elements of respectability promulgated by local leaders and members of friendly societies differed greatly from those of the national leaders (even though they ostensibly shared the membership's working-class background), as well as from members of the middle class.
This phenomenon can be seen first in the societies' administration of their medical benefits programs, out of which many of their charitable efforts evolved. (16) Under most circumstances, medical care was administered flexibly and liberally. Although national leaders tended to discourage the practice, members were usually granted sick pay and medical attendance even if they had fallen weeks behind in their payments. (17) And although most clubs banned drinking, being outdoors, or working while receiving sick pay, more than one "sick visitor" (that is, the fellow member sent round to offer moral support for the ill member, or to investigate suspected fraud) turned a blind eye to rule breaking. Others, like …
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Publication information: Article title: Friendly Society Discipline and Charity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England. Contributors: Prom, Christopher J. - Author. Journal title: The Historian. Volume: 72. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2010. Page number: 888+. © 2009 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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