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.
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:
By 1901 friendly societies had 41,236 members – 15% of all adult males. The societies’ support for members in the influenza epidemic and the First World War led to a rise in the 1920s, and by 1938 there were 113,709 members.
Friendly societies emerged in the main cities before expanding into small 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.
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 consultation for families – which became a more significant attraction than the sickness benefit. At the same time friendly societies joined together 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 quickly 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. Instead the societies moved into life and pension insurance, home finance and holiday cottages. In 2009 there were 107 traditional friendly societies (excluding organisations such as workingmen’s clubs), with 26,116 members.
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 (although often at the cost of the lodge’s solvency), and held smoke concerts, banquets, anniversary dinners and inter-lodge competitions. Friendly-society members paraded their regalia on public occasions.
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 in establishing 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 only 142 women in friendly societies. In the 1910s there was a move to allow women into male lodges, which caused some initial conflict – but by the late 1930s nearly all city lodges were mixed. Those few women who joined were usually single workers who left after marrying. The traditions of the societies kept them strongly male.
Source: Jock Phillips. 'Men’s clubs - Friendly societies and other fraternal organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/mens-clubs/page-5