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Friendly societies

In 1950 there were estimated to be around 30,000 friendly societies in the United Kingdom. By 2000 there were around 150. Friendly societies were not-for-profit mutual aid associations providing benefits and pensions to their members. The introduction of the Welfare State and universal benefits removed much of the reason for their existence.

The second half of the 19th century was their heyday. Societies ranged in size from a few dozen to over a million members. The smaller ones usually had strictly limited aims, like Innerwick Funeral Society that paid £3 to the estate of a deceased member to cover the cost of a funeral. The largest bodies had colourful names and sometimes equally weird and wonderful practices. So we find Orders of Oddfellows, Ancient Foresters, Loyal Shepherds, Hearts of Oak, Buffaloes and even Druids!

It must not be forgotten that behind the arcane names and peculiar sashes and dress was an important purpose. Until the 20th century the State kept its distance from welfare. Every working man had to provide his own pension and take steps to have reserves to tide him over any period of sickness.

Friendly societies spread risks amongst a large brotherhood. An individual's regular small payment provided him with insurance and eventually a pension. Branches were often autonomous at the local level. Anyone who was interested could take office - either as a collector or a committee member. From there one could progress right to the top of the organisation. In most instances a ruling body (often called Grand Lodge) comprised delegates from the regions. They decided the policy of the society that was implemented by salaried actuarial and financial staff - at branch level treasurer was often the only paid post.

To attract members each of the large multi-branch friendly societies marketed itself through an elaborate mythology - hence the funny names. To encourage participation large friendly societies offered a wide range of social activities from sports and concerts to education. Many provided libraries and reading rooms. They took a full part in public life and often supported charitable causes from funds that they raised over and above their members' dues.


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