Friendly Societies

A procession of Druids through Launceston in 1880. Druids dressed in long robes and flowing beards
(AOT, PH30/1/1204)

Friendly Societies, as in England, were established to provide unemployment, sickness and funeral insurance for workers. From the 1820s, groups such as the Freemasons, the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows, the Independent Order of Oddfellows, the Orange Lodges, the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society and the United Order of Druids played an important role by providing financial security, a social outlet and an avenue for status advancement away from the stigma of convictism. The Societies themselves were hierarchical, from the Freemasons to the 'blackguard Oddfellows', who were mostly working men, with an intemperate reputation for holding convivial meetings in public houses.

Increased respectability came with the growth of the temperance movement from the 1850s, as many lodge members changed affiliation to the Independent Order of Rechabites, and meetings were held in unlicensed premises rather than hotels. Lodge members emphasised their charitable role, invited leading citizens to functions, and demonstrated their patriotism by voluntary army service. Widespread prosperity in the 1880s saw increased membership and the number of Friendly Societies doubled, with 92 in Hobart alone. By the last twenty years of the century, lodge activity was an important part of community life. Friendly Society member George Crouch, a strict Wesleyan and teetotaller, became Hobart's mayor, and two emancipist members achieved respectability through parliamentary election.

Lodge membership reached a maximum (over 22,000 in male lodges) in the 1920s, but has since steadily declined as its benefits became available through the public health system, government social services, and private insurance companies and health schemes.

Further reading: P Bolger, Hobart Town, Canberra, 1973; Cyclopedia of Tasmania. Vol I, Hobart, 1900; E Guiler, 'The Oddfellows at New Norfolk', THRAPP 40/3, 1993; Tasmanian year book 1983.

Wendy Rimon