“As the Great Creator of the Universe made Man not to live to himself, but to feel and bear the burdens of others, we think that the Law of Christianity calls upon us to associate together, for the purpose of raising Subscriptions among ourselves, and obtaining voluntary Contributions as a Fund for the relief of the Members belonging to this Society.”
Sowerby Bridge Female Union Society (1808)
“By mutual Aids we may increase the Blessings of Life – alleviate Misfortunes – and often secure Success.”
Ripponden Female Society (1826)
“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”
East Morton Female Friendly Society – 1845
We are often advised to learn from history. However, our ability to do so is limited by the kinds of history that make their way into popular consciousness. When history is invoked in public debate, it is usually about the ‘big moments’: about the warning signs from the worst chapters of our collective past, or (less usefully) about mythologised stories of national glories or individual figures. But we still don’t talk enough about the stories of ordinary men and women of past societies, and the multitude of ways in which ordinary people have come together to assert their own agency and take control of their own lives.
One such example in British working-class history is the friendly society movement. First established in the late seventeenth century, friendly societies became more mainstream towards the end of the eighteenth century, as working men and women banded together in the face of increasing industrialisation to form clubs through which they could be insured against sickness and old age. They were fairly widespread in the first decades of the nineteenth century, but had largely died out by 1850; only a few of the larger (almost exclusively male) friendly societies endured into the early twentieth century. As such, they usually merit a footnote in the history of the welfare state, but it can be hard to see their contemporary relevance. They also often deliberately rejected association with radical politics, making them appear even more firmly limited to the past.
So why are friendly societies worth remembering? Even when not consciously expressed, there is something inherently radical about groups excluded from power by class structures and gender relations taking control of their lives, and organising together for their mutual advancement. With popular knowledge of British working-class history still widely limited, this is arguably reason enough to celebrate the achievements of friendly societies. But they also hold potentially valuable lessons for modern society – about the ways in which communities can be organised and empowered, about the way in which marginalised groups can be given space to assert their own responsibility and agency, and about the values of solidarity and mutual aid which should be at the heart of our society.
The Friendly Society Movement
At their most basic level, friendly societies were essentially insurance clubs, with members paying monthly or quarterly contributions into society funds in exchange for insurance against hardship. Men and women formed separate societies, but their functions were generally the same: members would receive money if they fell sick and were unable to work (interestingly, female friendly society rules included housework and caring responsibilities within the economic category of ‘work’). They also received pensions, provision for funeral costs, and, in the case of female societies, payments at childbirth. The societies were usually community-based, rather than centred on a specific trade, with members expected to live within a few miles from the society’s premises. The very poorest in those communities were excluded by the cost of membership, with some disposable income required for participation; however, relatively low membership fees meant that the societies were widely accessible to those in work.
These economic elements were only part of the appeal of friendly societies: their social functions were also crucial. The societies held regular meetings throughout the year, usually based in a local pub (a source of much middle-class disapproval, especially in the case of female friendly societies). They would also hold an annual day of celebration, the itinerary for which included a public procession by members and a feast held at the pub frequented by the society. The bonds of community and solidarity reinforced by friendly societies could extend throughout a member’s life and even beyond: some societies made provisions to ensure that a number of members attended a deceased associate’s funeral.
While the practical support offered by friendly societies is now (at least theoretically) fulfilled by the state, it is from the social and emotional aspects of their work – and the values underpinning them – that lessons can still be drawn. The limitations of the surviving evidence on friendly societies means we cannot recreate with absolute certainty the lived experiences of their members. Furthermore, it may seem anachronistic to attribute certain values and ideas which were never actively expressed to individuals and groups operating in very different social, cultural and political conditions from our own. However, the important thing for the purpose of this article is the spirit in which the societies conducted their activities, and the unconscious assumptions they reflect about how we should live our lives.
One of the notable features of the friendly society movement was the way in which the societies were embedded in their local communities. Their inclusivity meant they could include a reasonably broad cross-section of local society – female clubs accommodated both married and unmarried women (with some even allowing unmarried mothers to remain members, in defiance of prevailing contemporary narratives of morality). This is particularly significant because it meant that a key service – provision in times of hardship – was intertwined with community networks. While the surviving evidence for friendly societies only points to the practical support they offered, they also theoretically provided ready-made networks of emotional support at times of crisis or isolation. For instance, elderly members receiving pensions also had access to society meetings and celebrations, with opportunities for continued participation in both decision-making and socialisation.
These networks of community support can often be missing in modern Britain. A study in 2014 ranked Britain as one of the loneliest countries in Europe. Large numbers of people described feeling isolated within their neighbourhoods and communities, while many noted a lack of strong friendships on which they could rely in the face of any serious problem. Charities warn of an epidemic of loneliness amongst elderly members of society and other vulnerable groups. Meanwhile, cuts to public services since 2010 have resulted in fewer and fewer public spaces, as hundreds of libraries, children’s centres and other community centres have closed across the country. All this amounts to what George Monbiot has dubbed “the age of loneliness”, with technological change, changing patterns of work, and shifting political and social philosophies producing a society that is increasingly atomised and disconnected. There are still many examples of strong community engagement and organisation, particularly during times of crisis. However, too often these are responses to failures in state support. Rather than providing an argument for voluntarism, the example of friendly societies suggests that we should think about how community networks can be co-ordinated and supported in conjunction with institutional provisions, and how investment in community spaces and activities could start to strengthen and rebuild these networks.
This empowerment of local communities can also draw on the example of friendly societies in another respect: the power given to their members through the administrative structures. All members could participate in society meetings, voting on the admission of new members, airing any grievances and making decisions about the running of the society. Stewards and stewardesses, responsible for the running of the societies, were either nominated by the outgoing officeholders or chosen based on rotation; with positions usually only lasting a year and most societies having a number of stewards, there was a reasonable chance that members would hold an administrative role at some point during their participation in the society. Because of this, working-class men and women, excluded from formal politics and marginalised within broader society, were able to assert their own agency through friendly society structures.
The empowerment of marginalised groups by giving them a direct say in the provision of services vital to their everyday existence is something that can still be resonant today. It is a reminder of the value of ensuring that those most in need of reform are placed at the heart of community activism, and are able to play a key role in decision-making. Ultimately, friendly societies were a rejection of philanthropy in favour of organisation, with those in need of support also responsible of how that support was directed. These principles of democratisation and community empowerment should be central to any social justice programme: rather than simply focusing on how individuals’ lives can be materially improved, it is vital to consider how these improvements can actively involve the most marginalised, and give them a vocal role in changes intended to shape their own lives.
Finally, arguably the most poignant legacy of friendly societies lies in their fundamental ethos. As mentioned above, friendly societies generally did not consciously challenge the structures and assumptions of nineteenth-century society. However, their very nature represented a refusal to conform to individualistic values of self-help which were increasingly promoted by middle-class reformers, choosing instead to put their faith in the principle of mutual aid. At the heart of the movement lay the idea of solidarity – on community, class and gender lines – and a basic assertion that it was only through collective association that individuals could survive and thrive.
Though it can seem clichéd and trite, the conviction that we do and should depend upon one another is worth reiterating. Ideas of universality and mutuality have been increasingly undermined over subsequent decades – from the demonisation of those on benefits and attacks on migrants, to the systematic decimation of social support for the most vulnerable members of society. In the face of divisive political debate and policies, unity can be hard to find, with the weakening and splintering of many organisations and movements intended to defend to collective interests. The principle of solidarity is a fundamental one, which should form the basis of all activism and social organisation. This is something that friendly society members, for all their apparent conservatism, understood – and if only in this respect, the friendly society movement is part of a vital tradition that is worth remembering.