The Surprising Modernity of Friendly Societies

guest post by Penny Ismay

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I was a graduate student in search of a research topic when I first encountered friendly societies in E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class.  They weren’t of immediate interest to me, though, because I wanted to study modern forms of solidarity in order to get at the question of how societies like modern Britain managed to hold together even as they were increasingly populated by self-interested, individualized strangers.  With their penchant for archaic rituals, excessive drinking, and the expensive outfits they did their drinking in, friendly societies have long been considered anything but modern.  Yet, as backward as they seemed, they nevertheless thrived during the nineteenth century, far outstripping the membership numbers of the more conventionally modern social organizations of trade unions and the cooperative movement combined.  And in spite of their long time resistance to the actuarial reforms that critics thought would make them more financially secure, they also provided millions of pounds of relief to millions of working class Britons for more than a century.

The puzzle friendly societies presented, successful in the modern world without apparently becoming modern, hooked me.  As I worked to make sense of it, friendly societies revealed some surprising findings about modern forms of solidarity, and about modernity more broadly.  I tell this new story in  “Between Providence and Risk: Odd Fellows, Benevolence and the Social Limits of Actuarial Science, 1820s–1880s”.  It turns out that the continued emphasis on pub-based sociability did more to ensure a friendly society’s ability to relieve its members’ needs than those practices did to threaten it.  This was as true in the early part of the century as it was at the end when actuarial tables were custom-made for the kinds of risks facing the working class members of friendly societies.

In the first part of the century, for example, the vast majority of friendly societies offered benefits that were contingent upon the clubs’ collective ability to pay for them.  Benefits were reduced as the common stock was reduced and increased when more funds were available.  So the link between funds and relief was the commitment between members to keep paying in, not the risk any individual posed in terms of sickness or death.  Fraternal sociability became critical in the social space between members and the temporal space between payment and need.  Rituals that transformed erstwhile strangers into brothers and the act of drinking together on a regular basis helped to solidify and maintain the bonds between members.

In the second half of the century, even as the larger affiliated orders exchanged legal privileges for promises that they would begin to institute actuarial reforms, friendly society sociability was adapted to serve a new purpose.  The continued commitment to brotherhood made it possible for members to help out distant members and lodges where actuarial calculations fell short.  Whether the result of an unforeseeable mining accident that disproportionately affected one region or a historical catastrophe like the Cotton Famine, being a member of a national fraternity, in contrast to a national insurance company, gave members a feeling of responsibility to brothers they didn’t even know.  By continuing to spend their hard earned money on drinking, singing or marching together – even as they implemented actuarial reforms – friendly society members crafted a robust social safety net that made it possible to deal with contingencies not always reducible to calculable risks.

Throughout the nineteenth century, members of friendly societies called on this diverse spectrum of cultural resources, combining ‘science and altruism’, to use their own words, as they grappled with the great uncertainties of life in the modern world.  Their traditional forms of sociability did not make them any less modern than becoming actuarially sound insurance companies would have made them more modern.  Modernity does not lie exclusively in the new, but rather in what makes the new work.  The social practices we used think of as old fashioned and the new technologies we think of as modern, in other words, are both wrong-headed ways of thinking about how the modern world works.  We need both.  The more we try to reduce our social problems to solely scientific (or even solely market) solutions, the less robust our society becomes.  Members of friendly societies located their solidarity between providence and risk, and it was there, in that in-between space, where they best contributed to holding modern British society together.

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