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Friendly Society Movement

Friendly Societies are organisations that you may not have previously heard of, but they had a vital role in British Society for more than a century and they are still active today with a potential role to play in the future. 

What is a friendly society?

Wikipedia will tell you that: ’A friendly society is a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions, savings or cooperative banking. It is composed of a body of people who join together for a common financial or social purpose’. That’s the technical bit.


Like many of the great British inventions they seem to have been developed over a pint in the local pub. Basically, they were groups of people who got together to provide a form of insurance cover for one another. This cover could be for very straightforward things, such as cover against funeral costs or for more complex issues such as sickness and the loss of wages or other costs that an individual might struggle with, or to enable people to save.

Cattle Insurance Societies or ‘Cow Clubs’ provided cover against the death of a small-scale farmer’s vital milk-producing cow and met a vital need for people spread throughout the countryside.  Simple needs could be met locally by relatively small groups of people and so these organisations contributed towards there being near to 30,000 separate societies in action at the end of the nineteenth century in the UK.

"Friendly societies provided some form of cover against sickness"...... 


They were formed well before the welfare state came along – a practical example of self-help that flourished throughout the Victorian age, and are still around and active today.

Mutual organisations belong to the members – there are no external shareholders. They are run as non-profit organisations; that’s not to say that they don’t make money, but they return the surpluses they generate to their members and policy holders. Some major insurers are still technically mutual, and many building societies were – before the wave of ‘demutualisation’ turned them into banks. Nationwide remains a mutual and we have all been into a local Co-op.

Before modern insurance and the welfare state, friendly societies provided financial and social services to individuals, often according to their religious, political, or trade affiliations. 

Friendly societies generally met people’s key needs: They provided an insurance against two major fears: sickness (and with it unemployment and poverty) and death.

Before the welfare state, if you or your family fell ill you would have to pay for a doctor and medicines. If the family breadwinner fell ill there was no sick pay provided by employers and families could very quickly fall into poverty. And behind that lay the spectre of the workhouse.

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Their members would pay into a common fund while in work and earning, and could claim on the fund should they fall ill and be unable to work, thus mitigating the impact on their families, and avoiding destitution and the shame and privations of the municipal workhouse.

After sickness another great worry was one’s death being marked only by a pauper’s funeral – an ignominious end to life - that many wanted to avoid, being placed in an unmarked grave in the forgotten corner of a municipal graveyard. There were specific burial societies formed to provide cover against this, cover to meet the costs of a decent funeral, and many other friendly societies also included death benefits as part of their cover for members.




Friendly Societies' roots can be traced back to mediaeval guilds, groupings of colleagues based on occupations such as weavers, carpenters and, later, Masons. Some later transformed into charities and trades unions.

There were thousands of these friendly societies in the UK and several different kinds. They could be based on locality, trade or profession or some other link, (there were for example, many temperance societies). There were many small local societies that tried to provide some form of support between neighbours. Remember that for most people their world was determined by how far you could walk or ride in half a day. Between 1705 and 1832 19,787 sets of society rules were recorded as deposited locally with clerks of the peace. But many of these were not viable and by 1836 only 5,409 of these remained. But more grew.

Friendly societies, as their name suggests, also did much more than just provide insurance against the vicissitudes of life. When he was developing the welfare state in the 1940s William Beveridge wrote


“...friendly societies have been much more than agencies for dealing with averages by way of mutual insurance. They have been social clubs; they have been societies concerned with the general welfare of their members; they have been channels for the spirit of voluntary service”.

The doctor would be called in by the Court to certify an illness before sickness benefit was paid.

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Types of Friendly Society

There were various types of society that developed mainly during the Victorian era. Around the start of the 20th century (1907) there were 26,795 registered societies or branches with almost 6.2 million members. Compare this to the trades unions who had just 2.4 million members across 1,200 organisations and 18,000 branches.

The main sorts of societies were:

  • Local societies: small local informal groupings of people, often based in the local pub. For most people in the early 19th century their life was conducted within a half-days’ walk. Local societies would provide for people within a reasonable walk of the village pub – maybe two or three miles. Some still survive (eg the Maiden Bradley Friendly Society in Somerset)

  • Burial societies are self-explanatory – providing against the cost of a funeral

  • Affiliated Orders (Branch Societies) – In 1899 they had almost 2.4 million members in the UK. You may well have heard of some of these: Ancient Free Gardeners, Ancient Order of Shepherds Ancient Order of Foresters, the Independent Order of Rechabites, (a temperance society)  Druids Romans and Oddfellows (Manchester Unity, Kingston Unity and several others), , and then there the more obscure and colourfully named ones like the Amalgamated Order of Comical Fellows, and the Halifax United Order of the Peaceful Dove Friendly Society. These societies had networks of branches linked by common rules and offered social and benevolent benefits. They varied enormously in scale. In 1945 the Foresters had 3,111 branches and 528,000 members, the Comical Fellows had three branches and just 39 members. Perhaps stand-up wasn’t that popular in Victorian Britain

  • Centralised societies: e.g Royal Oak, Wiltshire, Hearts of Oak, Teachers’ Provident. These had a single centre that administered payments and benefits and did not offer the social side. In 1899 these types of society had over 1.6m members. Some were large:  Hearts of Oak had around 400,000 members in 1945, Teachers’ Provident around 100,000.

  • Deposit societies focused on savings: these include the Holloway societies which gave out an annual share of surpluses to their members and did not offer long-term insurance cover.

  • Finally employment based societies  were more (or less) independent of the employer and offered mainly sickness cover to workers and sometimes pensions. Some had very memorable and catchy names such as The Great Western Railway Enginemen’s and Firemen’s Mutual Assurance Sick and Superannuation Society.

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Branch Societies

Starting with the Oddfellows 1810 and the Royal Foresters in 1813, some societies began to establish subsidiary branches and the concept of an affiliated Order or Friendly Society was born.


This was a way of spreading both the benefits of being a member of a well-ordered society and spreading the risk of a sudden heavy demand for funds locally, (e.g. in the aftermath of a disease outbreak or a large-scale industrial accident).  This was effectively achieved in a manner similar to the franchising of a fast food chain such as McDonalds. They were able to offer tried and tested common rules and common contributions tables for standardised benefits, plus a degree of reinsurance across a wider membership that spread the risks, as opposed to the many individual local societies that had long existed which, being small, often failed financially in the face of epidemics/pandemics, the lack of reserves or even light-fingered Treasurers.




However, this was not quite as benevolent as it may first appear. The main job of the branch doctor was not to treat illness for the patient’s benefit but firstly to certify sickness (and so establish entitlement to benefit), secondly to weed out malingering, and thirdly encourage and enable a swift return to work and so get the member off the books as a claim.  The doctor might also check out the state of health of new members wanting to join.                                                                        

Another health benefit offered  by some societies from an early stage, was convalescence to help members recover from illness and return to work (thus also reducing the demand on the sick fund), and remember too, that people feared becoming destitute as the Poor Laws were so strict and the Workhouse was not a thing of the past. Dickens referred to them in in A Christmas Carol published in 1843:

“…the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman. I wish I could say they were not.” “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge. “Both very busy, sir.” And Scrooge goes on: … “I help support the establishments I have mentioned- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.” “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, ” then they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

The main areas of cover provided were sickness and death benefits. But Societies not only provided sick pay – cash when wages were stopped if you could not work – they also offered access to doctors by paying a local medic a retainer and creating a doctor’s ‘club’.

1834 Tolpuddle Martyrs


In 1834 Societies’ status changed in response to the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.


These were a group of six 19th-century Dorset agricultural labourers who were arrested in 1834 for and convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. The rules of the Tolpuddle society show it was clearly structured as a friendly society and operated as a trade-specific benefit society. Friendly Societies (and Unions) were legal, but restricted in their activities. The swearing of an illegal oath was the trumped up charge  that was used to get them convicted and transported. There was a huge public backlash, the Tolpuddle Martyrs were pardoned after two years and societies were able to come out of the organisational closet.

Friendly Societies used to be secret organisations - their legal status was rather questionable before 1834 and many had passwords to help recognise bona fide members. Many also drew on Masonic ritual.

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The Ancient Order of Foresters began in its current form in 1834 but its origins lie in a much older society called the Royal Foresters formed in the 18th century. In 1790 the original ‘Court’ No 1 (branches were known as Courts – and still are) was meeting at the Crown Inn Kirkgate Leeds. This is where the modern Foresters started.

The Foresters seem at first to have been a purely sociable society until the members decided that they had a duty to assist their fellow man who fell into need as they

                      "walked through the forests of life". 



1834 saw the start of the Foresters in their present incarnation. By that time there were many Courts (or branches) of the ‘Royal Foresters’, a society which had officially opened in the 1700s , but by the 1830s the parent court in Leeds (Court Number 1) had become somewhat dictatorial and insisted that any changes in the rules governing all the courts of the Royal Foresters should be in their hands alone. This led to a split. The majority of courts (some 300 in total) left to form a new organisation where rule changes were in the hands of all the members and could be changed by popular vote. A more democratic basis for the new Society. Thus, the Ancient Order of Foresters was born, and the Royal Foresters declined and ultimately disappeared.



The new society flourished. Expansion across the industrial towns and villages of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire was rapid, as the industrial revolution took hold and many people moved to the growing towns for work. They needed sickness cover and access to medicine, and the growing towns allowed members to come together easily, usually in pubs as before – hence the proliferation of ‘Foresters Arms’ across the country. The conditions needed to support expansion were an appetite among members; receptive communities; the decline of an existing local friendly society, (usually through financial failure and inability to take in a big influx of new members or meet demand) and enough men of working age earning enough to afford the contributions.

Membership of the Ancient Order of Foresters was not for all – it was mainly the preserve of the better off working classes and the burgeoning middle classes. Membership was a badge of honour, something to be valued. The membership certificate reflected this.


The structure of the order which developed consisted of autonomous branches, called Courts that were responsible for their own funds, recruitment and administration. They were responsible for the relief of their own members with all decisions being made by democratic vote at regular meetings. The majority of courts linked themselves into districts for mutual support. Every court was entitled to elect delegates to the AGM whose purpose was to make any changes to the common rules and to elect a group of members to act as the Executive Council (aka board of directors) each year who hosted and organised the AGM: The ultimate authority that was called the High Court. This successful example of democracy in action took place against a background of unsuccessful agitation for parliamentary democracy spearheaded by the Chartist movement for universal male suffrage, a movement that was stamped out in 1848.

Foresters High Court (AGM) London 1920

Expansion continued after 1834 including southwards with new Courts opening in cities like Bristol, Southampton and London after which there was a lull until 1856 and another wave of expansion took place and continued into the 1860s opening up new territory from Cornwall to East Anglia and Kent.

Each Court was financially independent and responsible for its own funds and its own members. Many failed. For example, in Liverpool, the Foresters quickly created 75 courts, again mainly based on and in local pubs. But after a cholera epidemic of 1847 only a handful remained, the epidemic having ‘cleared the box’ of most courts’ inadequate funds. 1 in 3 of the 1000 courts set up 1834-40 failed within in 10 years.

Migration to the US and the colonies of the Empire took Forestry overseas to the US Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the West indies and S Africa, the administration of these bodies eventually becoming independent of the parent body.

The Society originally had Courts in America. But following the creation of the Subsidiary High Court for the United States in 1874 the US Courts came into conflict with the Executive Council following their refusal to accept black members. The Executive Council stood firm on the principle of no colour bar, being open to all. As a result, the majority of the US Courts seceded from the Order.

Admission of Females 


In the UK expansion slowed after 1890 but the admission of females in 1892 produced a wave of female only Courts, permitted at first to meet only in non-licenced premises. Catering for mostly young single women these Courts enjoyed only limited success as membership fell away in marriage. By 1899 women were allowed to join in previously all-male Courts leading to many amalgamations of female Courts with their sponsoring male equivalents.




Foresters also enjoyed an active and varied social life though the Society. Formal Court dinners and dances were popular and many concerts, parades and outing were organised. Foresters often sponsored public events such as fetes. These were highly popular events, occasionally on a grand scale; the annual Foresters Day held at the Crystal Palace in South London between 1855 and 1890 attracted huge crowds -  over 83,000 people attended in 1862. 

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Approved Societies

In 1912 Lloyd George’s National Insurance scheme (providing a national scheme of sickness benefit for the first time) came into operation, together with Old Age Pensions.


Participation in the scheme was compulsory for those earning under the tax threshold of £150 – that meant the majority of the working population. The administration of the NI scheme was outsourced (to use the modern term) to Friendly Societies and Insurance Companies, as they had more extensive networks that central government did at that time.


Friendly societies with more than 10,000 members, which included the Foresters, were organisations which could be ‘approved’ to administer the NI scheme on behalf of the Government. At that point, many small local schemes joined the branch societies to take advantage of running the scheme. Incidentally, the actuarial basis of the Government’s scheme was drawn directly from the Friendly Societies’ experience, using the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows insurance tables as the basis for the scheme.

However, in the early years of the scheme some societies and branches found themselves in financial difficulty. Increasing numbers of claims and old age being treated (and paid for) as illness meant that the regular valuation of assets showed many in deficit. Then came the Great War.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the war actually improved finances significantly. This was due to several factors. The Government took on responsibility for all the military, they paid their NI contributions but looked after them medically without cost to the societies. War mortality meant that the funds built up to cover (now deceased) workers for sickness were not called on and were retained. Also, on the home front, there was full employment in support of the war effort and many more workers were enrolled in the scheme. Claims for maternity benefit were down (obviously). Plus sick claims plummeted as it was felt to be unpatriotic to be sick. Interest rates were high giving good return on assets invested. The result was the scheme (and the societies) bounced back into strong financial health which carried them through to 1948.

The coming of the Welfare State

In 1942 William Beveridge laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. He wanted Friendly Societies retained as agents for the new National Insurance scheme, but the creation of the Welfare state in 1948 did away with many Friendly Society functions and many of the Societies themselves. But some survived.

Foresters Friendly Society now

Foresters Friendly Society has worked hard to become a modern mutual developing a range of financial products to meet the needs of working people in the modern changing world.


In 2002 the Foresters incorporated, pooling all the society’s insurance funds while retaining the local branch network as the democratic (parliamentary) basis of the society’s governance. The Society appointed external professional directors to shape the business side of the Society. And it has grown as well through mergers with other mutual – Leek Assurance and Tunstall Assurance and most recently the Post Office Insurance Society.

Foresters Friendly Society today is a modern mutual – still mutual, and, given the roll back of the welfare state, it is becoming increasingly relevant again. As of 2020 the Society has 188 courts, 65,000 members and £250m funds under management. And it remains run largely by the members for the members.

Yhe Old Crown Inn

Kikgate Leeds

The birthplace of Forestry

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