One of the many fears that troubled the Victorian working classes was ending up in the workhouse and the shame of a pauper burial. Another worry was falling ill and being unable to work to feed their families. Before the advent of the welfare state, these were very real possibilities for much of the working population. An untimely accident or a debilitating illness could easily rob a man of the ability to earn a living. However, there was a ray of hope, as both these potentially catastrophic life events were covered by friendly societies. These were mutual-benefit organisations, many of which still exist today.


Run ‘by the members for the members’, they date back to the 17th century when they were linked with trade guilds, but their heyday was in the Victorian era when the urban population was expanding rapidly. Members paid weekly sums into a common fund from which sick benefits and funeral expenses could be covered. Some societies also paid benefits to widows. If your working-class ancestor was in regular employment, there’s a good chance that he was a member of a friendly society.

There were thousands of different friendly societies across Britain; some were large, others were small, and many were short-lived. They included tiny cow clubs that insured a rural worker’s cow for a year, burial societies that covered funeral costs and friendly societies that offered a wider range of benefits. In the 1870s, there were roughly 32,000 such organisations in the UK with about five million members. By 1910, membership had risen to 9.5 million. The six main ordinary large societies were the Royal Standard, the United Kingdom, the United Patriots, the London Friendly, the Royal Oak and the Hearts of Oak. The largest was Hearts of Oak, which only admitted those with a weekly wage of at least 22 shillings, and a large number of trades were excluded with the disclaimer “or any other occupation that the committee may conceive dangerous or injurious to health”.

Friendly societies could be divided into three different categories: trade societies, local societies and interest-group societies. Trade societies were linked to particular occupations, such as the Friendly Society of Operative Stone Masons, the Locomotive Steam Enginemen and Firemen’s Friendly Society, and the Liverpool Coopers’ Friendly Society. Local societies were established specifically for the people from that particular place or parish, for example, the City of Glasgow Friendly Society, the Timberscombe Friendly Society (from Somerset) and the Dollgelley (Dollgellau) Friendly Society. Interest-group societies were linked to particular beliefs or religions. The largest of these was the Independent Order of Rechabites, which advocated teetotalism.

A friendly society membership certificate for the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds
A friendly society membership certificate for the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds

Although membership was beyond the reach of the poor, contributions of a few pence a week were affordable for the thrifty working man in steady employment. In return, if he was too ill to work, he would receive a sick allowance of between eight and 10 shillings a week, which reduced after a specified number of months, and attendance by the club doctor. A funeral benefit of up to £10 was also paid. Skilled men could earn between 20 and 30 shillings a week so the sick allowance still meant a significant drop in income.

Prospective members had to formally apply to join a friendly society – they needed to know an existing member who would propose their membership, and this was then seconded by another. In addition, as benefits were a form of insurance against sickness, they had to complete health declaration forms, which asked detailed questions about their age, whether any near relatives had died of consumption (tuberculosis) and if they had ever had gout, rheumatism, smallpox, and so on. Every applicant was examined by the club doctor and could only be accepted if the medical examination was satisfactory.

More like this

Most friendly societies were closed to women but in the last quarter of the 19th century, similar organisations were established exclusively for female members. These women earned an income of their own, independent of their husbands, and crucially, benefits were paid out on confinement of a child. In common with other friendly societies, strict rules were set out for the members and unmarried mothers were usually excluded.

Most friendly societies were closed to women but in the last quarter of the 19th century, similar organisations were established exclusively for female members

Friendly societies tapped into the Victorian idea of self-help. The view that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ became widely accepted, and in the context of friendly societies, was essentially about encouraging frugality among the working classes, saving for a rainy day and promoting self-improvement. Other examples of self-help in action included cooperative and temperance societies, mechanics’ institutes and reading rooms.

The government encouraged the development of these organisations through legislation such as the Registration of Friendly Societies Act 1793 and the Friendly Societies Act 1855, which established the Register of Friendly Societies. Later legislation that passed in 1875 was designed to protect the members and ensure their money was safe. It also defined friendly societies as providing for “the relief or maintenance of the members, their husbands, wives, children, fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters, nephews or nieces, or wards being orphans, during sickness or other infirmity, whether bodily or mental, in old age (which shall mean any age after 50), or in widowhood, or for the relief or maintenance of the orphan children of members during minority.”

For those in steady employment with a good wage, paying contributions into a friendly society made perfect sense. In addition to the benefits of sickness allowances and funeral expenses, these organisations were integral to the communities in which they served. Members were ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, and there was a real sense of belonging to a club. Many of the societies were also active in fundraising for local charities.

Friendly societies tapped into the Victorian idea of self-help

As friendly societies developed, each one had its own history and rituals with associated regalia and initiation ceremonies to attract new members. According to Charles Hardwick in The History, Present Position, and Social Importance of Friendly Societies (1869), “The public processions and the glittering ‘regalia’… have proved the most cheap and effective method of advertising the societies.” With colourful banners, flags and sashes, the processions were certainly eye-catching spectacles.

Many of the friendly societies had grand, often outlandish names, for example, the Ancient Order of Buffaloes, which Joe Lycett discovered a family connection to on Who Do You Think You Are? This, together with the secrecy surrounding their rules and rituals, provoked suspicion among outsiders, but all friendly societies had the same aims of providing sickness and funeral benefits for their brethren.

Members paid their subscriptions at fortnightly or monthly meetings, which were often held in public houses, hence their attractiveness to working men. An annual feast was also part of the friendly society calendar, which usually took place at the same time as the anniversary parade at Whitsun or in Wakes Week. Music, dancing and sports were all part of the celebrations that members looked forward to throughout the year.

A friendly society fete
A friendly society fete Getty

Every friendly society had its own strict set of rules. For example, members of the Friendly Society of Stapleton in Gloucestershire had to attend each other’s funerals, or pay a penalty if they did not. The rules also specified the quantity of drink allowed per member on these occasions. On the day of the annual feast, the brethren breakfasted, walked in procession, and afterwards dined together, paying 1s 6d as a contribution to the expenses. The rules encouraged good order among the members and judging by the detail, their annual feasts must have been raucous events: “No member on the feast day shall provoke another by calling him nicknames, or by guiling at him, or casting meat or bones at another, or about the room; neither shall any member feed another by way of fun, and wasting the victuals to the shame of the company. Any such things being done, those that do them shall forfeit 1s, or be excluded.”

There was plenty of criticism of friendly societies because of their annual feasts. In 1848, Sir Robert Rawlinson complained to the General Board of Health that “vast sums of money are expended by these clubs on unmeaning, gaudy and childish show. Once a year, usually in Whitsun week, they hold processions. More money is spent in processions, in loss of labour and in attendant expenses, than would pay the rent-charge of a full supply of water and perfect sewage.”

In his memoir In a Wiltshire Village (1912), Alfred Williams recalled the feast in his home village of South Marston. At 1pm, the members of the friendly society had “a substantial hot dinner of roast beef, and other cooked meats and vegetables… the band played selections; the foaming ale was brought in in large two-gallon cans; the greatest good nature prevailed. Farmers and all belonged to the gathering; it was no one-sided affair, and a great number of folk attended from the neighbouring villages.”

The problem for many of the earlier, smaller friendly societies was that they were unable to calculate their insurance risks correctly and build up sufficient reserves to be able to pay out benefits if, for instance, there was an epidemic of infectious disease or mass unemployment in one area. Many of these societies closed as a result, so their members lost the subscriptions that they had paid in.

The answer to the problem lay in spreading the risk through affiliated friendly societies, or ‘Orders’. It also meant that members could easily transfer their subscriptions between branches if they had to move away to find work. For example, a rapidly expanding organisation such as the Ancient Order of Foresters, which started life in Yorkshire, opened branches in towns and villages across Britain. These branches were usually known as ‘lodges’ but the Foresters called them ‘courts’. In 1834, there were 358 courts in Britain, and by 1868, membership had reached almost 350,000 including overseas members. At the turn of the 20th century, there were almost one million.

Unfortunately, the popularity of friendly societies attracted unscrupulous con-men to set up similar organisations of their own. The Registrar of Friendly Societies described the procedure adopted by these “People’s Friends” in 1850: “Three or four persons join together and get a code of rules registered. They then advertise, and go about calling themselves agents to the society, to enrol as many members as they can. They collect the pence of the poor, weekly, in large sums, and live on the proceeds. They enrol members without medical examination, and when a member dies, they shelter themselves from payment under a rule, which states that any member shall, on admission, declare himself in good health. That the member was in good health is denied when the man or woman is dead, no matter what evidence may be produced to the contrary.” One such swindling organisation was the Garibaldi Society. It was exposed in 1865 as misrepresenting itself as having a reserve fund of £25,000 with a membership of more than 7,000, when actually it never had more than 800 and its bank balance was just £51.

In addition to ordinary friendly societies, there were also ‘ordinary large (or general) societies’. They were described by the Registrar of Friendly Societies as “offices for life insurance and sickness, but in which there is no connection or personal acquaintance between the members as there is in the ordinary friendly society”.


When the welfare state came into being in 1948, it offered healthcare paid for through National Insurance contributions. Sadly, this sounded the death-knell for friendly societies and their membership then dropped dramatically.