This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here

Until the late 19th century, the British labour movement was characterized by an exclusive focus on craftsmen and commitment to principles of manly self-help, voluntarism, and thrift. At the turn of the 20th century, the movement experienced a radical shift: towards a politically engaged industrial unionism which espoused universal, state funded health and pension schemes for all workers irrespective of skill level or gender. What explains this transformation?

At its heart, growing support for state funded benefits represents a transition from voluntarism to universalism—from a belief that independent male workers bear an individual responsibility to care for themselves and their dependents, to a recognition of social interdependence and value for collective responsibility and care.  This is also a shift in the conceptualization and management of risk: who faces it, and who is responsible for its mitigation.

While developments within trade unions—and in particular the successful wave of “new unions” organizing general labourers—can shed some light on this shift, equally meaningful developments took place within the lodges of friendly societies.

Though comparatively understudied, friendly societies were among the earliest and most durable organizations of collective insurance for working class people across Britain. Emerging out of the declining medieval trade guild system, the societies offered sickness, funeral, housing, out of work, and death benefits to workers on a collective basis. The first ever study of the societies, conducted by Frederick Eden in 1801, found that in 1795 they were to be found in “virtually every part of England.” According to the analysis of P. H. J. H. Gosden, roughly 7,200 societies were estimated to have existed in 1793. Among these, the highest concentration was to be found in London, where Eric Hobsbawm estimated the existence of more than 600 registered societies. Though primarily organized by and for male craft workers, parallel organizations organized by women workers could be found as early as 1780. However, membership in women’s friendly societies reached its peak by 1800, and the largest and most centralized societies would exclude women workers for nearly 100 years after.

Engineering: the Amalgamated Makers’ Friendly Society. Engraving by H. Wilkinson after J. Northwood. Wellcome Collection.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, friendly societies offered a means for workers to adapt to the risks of an industrializing society—providing for families of those killed or permanently injured in mines, railways, and other hazardous professions, and, with rising life expectancy, increasingly insuring against sickness and old age. Despite their association with the “aristocracy of labor,” they were more recently found to have integrated artisan workers, middle class professionals, and general labourers, reflecting the labour market composition of local communities. Amid the precarious cycle of progress and destitution characteristic of an industrializing economy, friendly societies offered material security as well as cultural spaces of comradery and collective identity.

In both their cultural and material role, the societies represented a crucial arena for class formation—understood not through empirical categories but identities and experiences. The societies did this in contradictory ways, balancing a legitimating language with practices which tended to subvert political and economic norms. Between 1815 and 1830, home office papers testify to a pervasive fear among elites that the societies might encourage “mischievous” revolutionary behaviour, concluding that unless better regulated, “benefit societies will be the ruin of this country.” Rather than an industrial concern with profit, the statements reflect an overwhelming fear of mass organization, and a deep commitment to preserving status and power.

Beginning in 1793 and until 1875, regulation of the societies was of crucial concern among the English governing and business classes. During this period, 19 Acts were passed with the aim of regulating and constraining society functions. The cultivation of individual independence, moral rectitude, and social hierarchy were deemed to be the societies’ legitimate function. In particular, individual contributions to a collective benefit fund were seen to reduce dependence on the poor law, thus lowering public expenditure and reinforcing principles of individual responsibility and thrift. These acts were also tied to the decline in women members, as the moral virtues of the independent worker increasingly adopted a gendered dimension.

In order to survive, societies increasingly came to embrace and advocate these principles. Widely proclaiming their Christian values and allegiance to the Crown, the grand amalgamated societies of the mid-19th century increasingly earned independence and respectability from middle class gentry by emphasizing their role in promoting national loyalty and fostering cross-class transparency.

Members of a friendly society compensating one of its members for ill-health. Pen and ink and watercolour, c. 1807. Wellcome Collection.

This emphasis on cross-class solidarity, independence, and thrift was inherited by the British labour movement. As “the central institutions of working class life,” the societies shaped the organization, ethics, and aspirations of workers in other spheres. Due to their growing legitimacy among ruling elites, friendly societies offered an appealing umbrella for broader forms of organization. In the early part of the 19th century, it was not uncommon for societies to accumulate strike funds. Declining standards of work and rates of pay were added to the list of risks from which workers could collectively protect themselves. In the words of E. P. Thompson, friendly societies were the “Sub-culture out of which trade unions grew…out of which trade union officers were trained.”

But by the late 19th century, circumstances had begun to change. With an aging membership who increasingly drew out sickness and disability benefits but could no longer pay in through their wages, societies struggled to meet their financial obligations. A random sample of 1,200 registered friendly societies between 1875 and 1880 found that 5,030 out of 6,567 – over three-quarters of all established societies – were facing significant financial deficiencies, with many suffering from deficient funds by the turn of the century.

These changes induced growing tensions within the friendly society movement. Membership increasingly began to doubt the principles of self-help and voluntary thrift. As workers became “sick, not dead,” societies struggled to keep up with surging demand, sparking deepening divisions between membership and leaders.

Growing divisions between membership and leadership are evident in the magazine of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, one of the largest and most powerful friendly societies in the country. Reaching their peak in the 1890s over the topic of Old Age Pensions, debates within the society increasingly demonstrate a turn towards public benefit provision. In an 1895 letter, a member wrote:

If the efforts, and no one denies that efforts have been made, have failed as a whole, we should frankly admit it, and throw off the assumed opposition to all schemes coming from the outside, and not allow ourselves any longer to be frightened by the self-created bogey of State control. (1895 Jan p. 54)

The following year, another member noted:

The State is but the instrument by which the collective will shapes the destinies of the nation. Democracy is controlled by, and is enrolled in, three great movements: the Friendly Society, Trade Union, and Co-operation. (1896 October p. 311)

The weakening of voluntarist sentiment among friendly society members opened the way for universal demands for state benefits and public control—enabling the passage of Old Age Pensions in 1908 and the National Insurance Act in 1911, and, ultimately, the founding of national pensions and the National Health Service in the 1940s. In this way, friendly societies embody the intimate links between risk management and class formation—reflecting workers’ changing needs amid the accelerating brutalities of industrial production, and the collective identity forged in the search for protection.

Maya Adereth is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Her work examines the comparative trajectories of the British and American labour movements at the turn of the 20th century, focusing especially on their systems of benefit provision and orientation towards state insurance.

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