England Friendly Societies (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Development of Life and Accident Assurance (cont.)[edit | edit source]

Friendly Societies[edit | edit source]

The growth of Friendly, Benefit, or Provident Societies was a direct result of the industrial and agricultural revolutions. Formerly agricultural labourers had usually worked on small farms and had a personal relationship with their employer, with some sympathy and practical assistance in times of illness, disability or death in the family. As farms became larger and machinery took over, relationships were more impersonal and eviction from tied cottages common, with starvation and the poor house very real possibilities.

Parishioners, and other groups such as railway workers, began to organize community self-help and so the friendly societies were formed, democratically choosing their own rules, contributions and benefits. There were thousands of such societies, some registered, others not; some local, others with branches all over the country. Some were linked with churches, especially Primitive Methodists, but most were not. Many did not last very long as the members gradually aged and drew on the box, but other societies were formed all the time. The government social reforms in the early to mid- 20th century obviated much of the need, often absorbing such societies into the state-administered schemes, but some societies are still very viable and do much good community work.

Friendly Societies filled the gap left by the demise of the social or religious guilds at the end of the Reformation and the craft guilds at the beginning of the eighteenth century. They would bury their dead, look after widows and orphans and relieve members in distress, especially as they moved around the country from lodge to lodge seeking work. The Act of 1793 formalized the rules under which Friendly Societies could operate, but many had been in existence for over 50 years already. By 1803 about 38% of all families were involved with such a society but this varied between regions from 10% in Hampshire to 79% in Lancashire (Logan). Individual local groups started affiliating with similar ones to form Orders with a central elected coordinating body from about 1813; the local branches being then called Courts or Districts. The two largest were the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Independent Order of Oddfellows.

Friendly societies attracted respectable working class men and were ostensibly set up to provide benefits during sickness and at a death. They would not have survived, though, without the social activities and feelings of comradeship engendered amongst groups of similar people. Membership not only gave security in time of need, but dignity and skill in the democratic running of branch affairs long before most men had a parliamentary vote.

There was a tendency for skilled workers to join certain groups and unskilled ones others, with the high fees charged by some of the former effecting a bar against ordinary labourers. Most friendly societies met in pubs, as these were often the only facilities available for meetings, with some inevitable problems ensuing. Horn (Pleasures and Pastimes in Victorian Britain, 1999) has a lengthy discussion on these issues. Many held annual parades where they wore their sashes and held up banners, often culminating the day with a dinner to which their wives were invited.

As government social and health provisions were started so Friendly Societies declined in numbers, slowly during the first half and rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. They played an important role in the lives of the majority of the working-class and their records have been undeservedly neglected by historians of all stripes (Hey). Contemporary trade directories give particulars of local friendly societies, such as theFakenham Provident Society noted in White’s Directory of Norfolk 1836 and shown here.

Chart: Directory Information on a Friendly Society 1836
(from White’s Directory of Norfolk)

The Fakenham Provident Society
The Society was formed in 1795 for the benefit of widows and orphans of deceased members, under the management of four trustees, a committee of 22 members, assisted by sub-committees in Norwich, Lynn, Yarmouth, Dereham, Holt, Swaffham, North Walsham, Downham and Docking. Treasurer: Gurney and Co. Secretary Mr. N. Raven of Whissonsett. The widows of deceased members of the Society who have subscribed for a space of two years are each entitled to an annuity. In 1834 annuities were paid to 245 widows and 44 orphans. At present there are 1,190 members.

Records of Friendly Societies may be with them if they still exist, or could be at local or county record offices, (for example the Hampshire and General Friendly Society Collection , and some are undoubtedly still in private hands.

Guildhall Library has records of a number that have flourished in the City of London and their website has a list of these. Some friendly societies converted into insurance companies thus their records will be held in company archives. Lists of members had to be submitted to the quarter sessions from 1793 (see Gibson 1995), and TNA has the Registry of Friendly Societies 1784-1999; these provide useful entry points for the researcher.

The kinds of records available for friendly societies include:

  • Candidate’s declaration of health.
  • Lists of members, occupations and addresses and regular subscriptions paid.
  • Minute books showing date of election of members, their addresses, occupations and sponsors.
  • Trustees’, landlords’ and secretaries’ names, addresses, occupations and bonds given.
  • Certificates of membership which had a similar function to the poor law indemnity certificate, allowing the person to reside in a parish in which he was not settled; Logan (An Introduction to Friendly Society Records , 2000) has an illustration.
  • Membership contribution cards.
  • Nomination forms and other records concerning payments for sickness and death benefits.
  • Records concerning the parts played by those serving in administration, particularly for long-serving ones.
  • Medals, later known as jewels, awarded to those who performed valuable services, were engraved on the obverse with the recipient’s name and reason for the award.
  • Annual/quarterly/monthly reports/magazines/directories giving information about courts or lodges and their officers, with biographies and engraved lined portraits of prominent members. Logan (An Introduction to Friendly Society Records , 2000) gives an example of such an illustrated biography. Births, marriages and deaths may also be reported in some detail.
  • Published histories such as that for the Broadway (Somerset) Friendly Society 1836-1936 (Gibbery).
  • Policies for Life Assurance in later years as the societies changed their focus; one for 1919-1929 is illustrated by Cole and Titford (Tracing Your Family Tree, 1997).
  • The Articles upon the founding of the society give an idea of how it was run and the participation of members, as at Lindfield Sussex .


Chart: Articles of Lindfield Friendly Society circa 1757
[from Gosden]

ARTICLE I

That a society shall meet at the house of Thomas Finch at the sign of the Tiger in Lindfield town in the county of Sussex, the first Monday in every month, or where the majority shall think fit to keep the common stock. And their hours of meeting shall be from seven to nine in the evening from Lady Day to Michaelmas, and from six to eight from Michaelmas to Lady Day.

ARTICLE XI

That there shall be two feasts every year, and those feasts be holden on the first Thursday in July and January, and whenever the same shall be kept, each member shall pay one shilling; [that is to say] sixpence for their dinner, and sixpence for liquor.


Pat Lewis’ guide to freemasonry also has illustrations pertaining to friendly societies, and Andrew Wood has written about friendly societies for agricultural labourers, sailors, construction workers, the chemical industry, boot and shoe making and iron and steel manufacture. Dennis describes the badges and regalia of Friendly and Faternal Societies.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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