Friendly Society Discipline and Charity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England

By Prom, Christopher J. | The Historian, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

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. …

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