Mutual Aid Societies – The Friendly Societies in Great Britain
David Green describes the higher virtues to which we should aspire in his 1993 Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics.
“Good character, honesty, duty, self-sacrifice, honour, service, self-discipline, toleration, respect, justice, self-improvement, trust, civility, fortitude, courage, integrity, diligence, patriotism, consideration for others, thrift and reverence are just a few.”
There arose in the British Isles a mechanism to accomplish the goal of nurturing these behaviors– the “friendly societies.” These were mutual aid societies, organized by workmen, not for charitable purposes, but to cooperatively secure benefits for their members. David Green writes, “In Britain the friendly societies were the most important providers of social welfare during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” [i]
Yet they did far more than simply provide benefits to their members. They were elaborate, sometimes very large, self-governing organizations. They instructed their members in the sort of virtues cited above, including cooperation, duty, self-sacrifice, mutual respect, civility, justice, and thrift. They also taught their often poorly educated manual laborer members how to chair meetings, write minutes, conduct fair discussions, balance books, make presentations, and perform all the other tasks required by a parliament or a large organization. These were men who had little power or respect on their jobs, but as lodge members they had the opportunity to be leaders and take responsibility for the welfare of others.
This sense of personal empowerment and responsibility were essential. These men were not passive recipients of charity or government largesse. They were owners, investors, and managers of an enterprise. They and their families received benefits they had paid for and saved for.
Green writes –
“During the nineteenth century and until early (in the twentieth) century most families took pride in being self supporting but wages were such that, if the breadwinner fell ill or died, hardship was the invariable result. The philosophy forged by this harsh reality was mutual aid. By the early years of (the twentieth) century the friendly societies had a long record of functioning as social and benevolent clubs as well as offering benefits: such as sick pay when the breadwinner was unable to bring home a wage due to illness, accident or old age; medical care for both the member and his family; a death grant sufficient to provide a decent funeral; and financial and practical support for widows and orphans of deceased members. Medical services were usually provided by the lodge or branch doctor who was appointed by a vote of the members, but most large towns also had a medical institute, offering the services now provided by health centres. The societies also provided a network of support to enable members to travel in search of work.” [ii]
These benefits were extensive, including sick pay, medical care, funeral expenses, financial support for widows and orphans, and even relocation assistance to find work. But importantly, it wasn’t just financial support. The friendly society members would visit the sick at home or in the hospital, they would help each other find work, they would intervene when a member was misbehaving. Green quotes the purposes given to new members by the Ancient Order of Foresters –
“We are united together not only for the wise purpose of making provision against those misfortunes which befall all men, and of assisting those who require our aid, but for the moderate enjoyment of friendly intercourse, and the temperate interchange of social feeling… We encourage no excess in our meetings, and enforcing no creed in religion or code in politics, we permit neither wrangling nor dissension to mar our harmony or interrupt our proceedings.
“In your domestic relationships we look to find you, if a husband, affectionate and trustful; if a father, regardful of the moral and material well-being of your children and dependents; as a son, dutiful and exemplary, and as a friend, steadfast and true.” [iii]
The Grand United Order of Oddfellows had a similar charge to new members –
“It is desired that you should make the event of your Initiation a time for strict self-examination; and if you should find anything in your past life to amend, I solemnly charge you to set about that duty without delay, — let no immoral practice, idle action, or low and vulgar pursuit, be retained by you.” [iv]
If this sounds like a 12-Step Program, it should. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, these societies were as much focused on self-improvement as providing mutual benefits. They were reinforcing the principle of virtuous behavior among their members. Who does that today, other than perhaps the church? But these organizations were strictly secular. While the churches focused on living out faith on earth and salvation and life in the hereafter, the friendly societies concentrated strictly on the here and now.
Regulating the Friendly Societies
The first legislation regarding friendly societies was enacted by Parliament in 1793, though of course they existed long before then. By 1801 there were some 7,200 societies in Britain with a male membership of 648,000 out of a total population of about nine million. By 1910, there were 6.6 million members of 26,977 registered societies plus an unknown number in unregistered versions. [v]
Green goes into great detail about the various organizational structures, but typically there were local lodges, a national federation, and some mid-level association.
All of this worked very well until 1911, when the National Insurance Act was passed. This was originally intended to extend “the benefits of friendly society membership to the entire working population.” That idea was killed by a combination of organized medicine and the commercial insurance industry. The former disliked the idea of working-class control over “medical gentlemen,” and the latter saw friendly societies as a threat to their business model. The British Medical Journal editorialized –
“We now resume our place as medical practitioners pure and simple, ready as sellers to give our services to the buyer, who is now not the poverty-stricken wage earner, but the solvent State Insurance Company.” [vi]
The insurance industry was even more ruthless. By 1910 it had 28.5 million funeral benefits policies in force, with 70,000 door-to-door salesmen, earning commissions of 20 to 30 percent on each policy. It was able to mobilize this force to influence the design of the pending legislation.
These two interests were able to shove the friendly societies out of any major role in administering the benefits of the National Insurance Act, while keeping their own businesses intact. The only room left for the societies was covering the wives and children of workers, since the Act covered only the workers, not their families. [vii]
By 1939, national insurance covered 19 million of a population of 46.5 million. About 15 million were covered by some form of organized care, including the friendly societies, and the rest would have paid cash. When the National Health Service was created in 1948, it standardized the delivery of care and eliminated any possibility of alternative approaches.
[i] Green, op. cit, P 25
[iii] Ibid. P. 39
[iv] Ibid. P. 40
[v] Ibid P. 26
[vi] Ibid. P. 81
[vii] Ibid. P. 84