Friendly societies, which provided financial help when a family’s male breadwinner suffered sickness, accident or death, emerged among British working men in the 18th century. The industrial revolution created a need for such societies.
All at sea
New Zealand’s first friendly-society lodge was established in Nelson, by nine passengers from the Martha Ridgway who had held meetings in the ship’s long boat en route to New Zealand. Four days after arriving in April 1842 they formally set up the Loyal Nelson Lodge of the Manchester Unity Order of Odd Fellows.
Members of British lodges brought the idea to New Zealand. The first lodge (of the Manchester Unity Order of Odd Fellows), was formed by new immigrants in 1842.
Within a decade the order had lodges in all the main centres except New Plymouth, and by 1879 it had 113 lodges and over 8,000 members. Other orders sprang up, including:
- the Ancient Order of Foresters, which had its first court in 1861 and by 1879 had 74 courts and 4,525 members
- the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, from 1862, with 22 lodges and about 500 members in 1879
- three temperance societies – the Independent Order of Rechabites (1863), the Independent Order of Good Templars (1872), and the Sons and Daughters of Temperance (1871), the last two from the US
- the Hibernian Society, which began when a member arrived from Melbourne in 1869 to spread the idea among Catholics, and had 23 branches and some 800 members in 1879
- the Ancient Order of Druids, which first appeared in 1876, and spread fast in the 1890s.
By 1901 friendly societies had 41,236 members – 15% of all adult males. The societies’ support for members in the First World War and the influenza epidemic led to a rise in the 1920s, and by 1938 there were 113,709 members.
Friendly societies emerged in the cities before expanding into smaller towns. Members were the skilled, the semi-skilled and the self-employed. New members had to be between the ages of 16 and either 40 or 45, and were subjected to a tough investigation to ensure they were of moral character and sober habits. They had to be Christian and in good financial standing, and swear allegiance to the Crown.
Sectarianism and politics were excluded from lodge discussions, although the Hibernians eventually supported Irish nationalist aspirations.
Sickness and death
The societies’ main role was to provide for their members in times of illness and death. If a worker fell ill, he would receive support of up to £1 a week. To assuage his fears of a pauper’s funeral, his funeral, coffin, plot and headstone were paid for. Most lodges had separate funds to support widows and orphans, and in the early 20th century they introduced medical benefits. Lodges contracted a doctor to provide free medical consultations for families – this became a more significant attraction than the sickness benefit. Friendly societies collaborated to operate pharmacies. By 1931 there were 31 United Friendly Society pharmacies with 50,000 members.
Due to the societies’ role in providing welfare, the government soon became interested in them and established a registrar of friendly societies. The registrar pushed for contributions to match expected payouts, and for small lodges to centralise their funds. By the 1920s most societies had followed these recommendations.
The Social Security Act 1938, providing for unemployment support and state medical benefits, challenged the societies’ role, and membership fell to 77,134 in 1948. In response, the societies moved into life and pension insurance, home finance and holiday cottages. In 2014 there were 88 traditional friendly societies (excluding organisations such as workingmen’s clubs), with 23,614 members.
Ritual and brotherhood
In their use of passwords, initiation rites and hierarchy, friendly societies imitated the Freemasons. Rank was reflected in embroidered aprons, collars and badges.
After the formal business, members retired to the ‘hearth circle’ for drinking and singing. From the 1880s many lodges built their own halls (often at the cost of the lodge’s solvency), and held smoke concerts, banquets, anniversary dinners and inter-lodge competitions. Friendly society members paraded in their regalia on public occasions.
Women and children
The temperance lodges included women because of their special interest in prohibition, and in 1876 the Rechabites set up a separate female ‘tent’. The 1890s suffrage movement led New Zealand to break with British tradition and establish women’s lodges of equal status with men’s. In 1894 the Foresters opened two courts for women, and the other orders followed. But in 1900 there were still only 142 women in friendly societies. In the 1910s there was a move to allow women into male lodges. This caused some initial conflict, but by the late 1930s nearly all city lodges were mixed. The few women who joined were usually single workers who left after marrying. The traditions of the societies kept them strongly male.