British reformer and long-time power-broker WE Gladstone asserted in the
Friendly Societies have become so important and telling a feature
in the Constitution of British society in its broadest and most fundamental
part that any account of our nation and of the people, to whom we rejoice to
belong, would deserve no attention as a really comprehensive account of it if
it was wanting in a good and full description of such Societies. 9
Colonial Australia would have had to have been totally unlike the Britain
from which its settlers had largely come to justify the fact that Russell Ward's
famous argument concerning the sources of 'characteristically Australian
such as collectivism contains no material relating to such societies.
The Austrian academic Professor Baernreither travelled to Britain in the
1880's to study precisely this 'collectivist' phenomenon. As a result he argued
in 1889 that 'the influence exercised by the Friendly Societies, as voluntary
fraternities, cannot possibly be overestimated' with regard to the moral and
economic 'muscle' of the working classes.
They are also increasing the cohesion of the working class, and
welding together elements...into a social power, by creating a union based
on brotherly support. 11
By the turn of the century, however, Ramsay Macdonald was equating mutual aid
with State welfare12
and even the trumpeter of village-level mutual aid, Peter Kropotkin was giving
'trade unions' a separate, primary place and bundling up in two sentences the
countless other associations of working people prepared to 'sacrifice time,
health and life if required'. 13
This shift was in the face of the facts. One published survey, of the town of
York in 1899, will suffice here. The number of 'Trade Unionists' in March 1899
was 2,539, of 'Friendly Society' members, 10,662. 14
By the 1940's, Kropotkin's essential argument that the world was growingly
progressively more attuned to decentralised organisation and toward co-operative
principles was easily dismissed by socialist scholars:
On the main issue, this vast multiplicity of voluntary
organisations is an undeniable fact; but it is almost the reverse of the truth
to regard voluntary associations as possible inheritors of the functions of
the State. 15
In a world of centralised 'Welfare States', references by politically-astute
historians to citizen-run systems of welfare based on locally-autonomous lodges
seemed completely unnecessary. For those committed to State-run welfare and a
State-directed economy, pride in one's self-sufficiency such as in the following
was at best a joke, at worst a flag indicating bourgeois duplicity:
To provide for a rainy-day, to set aside some tithing from the
harvest time of health and strength to meet the requirements of an hour when
both may fail, is the duty of every man who values 'the glorious privilege of
being independent.' More especially it is the duty of every working man.
Less politically-obvious British authors often quoted official figures
substantiating the claim that in the 19th century 'the friendly societies' in
the UK embraced a larger proportion of the working class than any other
institution, eg, four times as many as 'trade unions' in 1872. They could
conclude that 'friendly societies' were 'the most typical'17
or 'the most characteristic'18
working class organisation of the period, yet simultaneously dismiss them in a
few lines with erroneous statements, often 'borrowed' from earlier authors.
This 'most characteristic' working class organisation was, for example,
'a-political and non-religious'19,
or it was a mere rehearsal for 'trade unions'20,
or was a 'disguised trade union', or politically and socially irrelevant because
it was 'founded from the beginning (!) as (an instrument) of working class
amelioration within the existing social system' and therefore was not 'seeking
in any way to overturn it.'21
We will see that the only conclusion to be drawn from these assertions is that
these authors have not been prepared to do any original research based on even
the figures they quoted. The Hammonds were prepared to quote Clapham's belief
that 'no less than two-thirds of the men of Lancashire belonged to some Friendly
Society in 1847' and to point out that sixteen Friendly Societies, over 4,000
people, marched through one Lancashire town on Whit-Monday in 1884, and yet make
no effort to find out the why's and wherefores behind such clearly significant
Could it be they believed they already knew the answer?
The pre-eminence of 'friendly societies' in the UK in the last decades of the
19th century has been argued by a more recent scholar, David Neave. He has set
out their centrality, financially, socially and culturally, and agrees their
neglect by 20th century historians requires explanation:
Few published histories of towns or villages pay anything but
passing attention to friendly societies yet in the century and a half before
the First World War they increasingly affected the lives of the
majority of the inhabitants of Britain.23
Neither excuse nor explanation, Neave has documented the erroneous belief
among British historians that 'friendly society membership was confined to "the
aristocracy of the wage earning classes" ' and believes that such views can be
traced to evidence given to various Royal Commissions, 'in particular to that
relating to Friendly Societies in the early 1870's.' The incongruity of the
other half of the error, that such artisans were in pursuit of middle class
ideals of respectability, alongside the belief of, for example, Reverend Booth
that the societies were 'half heathen clubs utterly unlawful for a Christian
man', has still not occurred to many.24
Neave's concluding remark on the research situation in the UK can be
The role of friendly societies in the development of the labour
movement in Britain is one of the many aspects of the history of friendly
societies that has yet to be explored.25
Anxiety amongst ideologically-committed historians about the truth concerning
'benefit societies' has naturally also influenced portrayal of 'trade unions'.
As Johnson observed in 1985:
The welfare policies of trade unions have not received the
attention they deserve from labour historians; the student who looks through
the standard histories will find little information aside from the accurate
but unenlightening generalisation that the 'new' unions paid "'fighting'
benefits only", whilst the old craft unions were dismissed by their more
radical confreres as 'coffin clubs.'26
The relative importance of the welfare and trade protection functions of UK
'craft unions' in the 1870's has received a little attention but from the point
of view of union leaders, so there are few insights into how the membership saw
the different benefits. Some contemporary observers certainly believed it was
the benefits rather than the politics which attracted and held members.27
Despite its flaws, a major conclusion of Gosden's 1961 work on English
Friendly Societies, one of the very few in the 20th century on the subject, can
also be generalised further:
One of the most interesting aspects of the history of the
development of friendly societies between 1815 and 1875 is the light which it
sheds upon the social life and ideas of the classes which joined them.28
It is simply unfortunate that a co-terminous study of 'The People's Health'
in the UK such as Smith's should refer to 'friendly societies' not at all, and
be so egregiously at error in his only relevant material, that of 'sick clubs',
The GP's also enlarged 'the dignity of our...profession' by
raising their fees for sick clubs...The clubs had been created by doctors and
local bigwig philanthropists in the 1820's and 1830's and, excepting the
miners' clubs', had run on the doctors' terms.29
He doesn't appear to have realised the dangers inherent in drawing 'facts'
almost entirely from The Lancet, The British Medical Journal and
the Medical Gazette.
In the more general area of what Clawson has called 'the construction of
brotherhood', the last two decades or so of northern hemisphere scholarship have
seen some significant steps towards correcting the errors of the past. English
academics have begun examining welfare statistics from an associational point of
view while some excellent work is being done by social history curators such as
Nicholas Mansfield, Andy Durr and others into the reality of pre-20th century
mutual aid by way of surviving memorabilia.30
A similarly interesting project has been the examination of 'ethnic fraternal
benefit associations' in the United States of America. A Finnish-American
scholar concluded in 1981:
The mission of the fraternal-aid society - to provide "for mutual
moral and material assistance" - took it far beyond a simple economic
function. It assumed a vital role in the new ethnic communities. Along with
the church and the newspaper, it served to create and sustain group identity
Unfortunately, and despite the insights of de Tocqueville and others32,
researchers in that country will need to do battle with a strongly-held belief
that Americans invented the 'fraternal beneficiary society' in the
Franco has suggested that reliable historical studies of fraternal
organisations in America are rare because of intensity of feelings about them,
but she noted a recent change in attitude among scholars inclined to see
'fraternalism' sociologically. Mary Ann Clawson's 1989 Constructing
Brotherhood has traced the development of fraternalism from early modern
western Europe through eighteenth century Britain to nineteenth century United
States of America.34
She defined fraternalism in terms of four characteristics - 'a "corporate"
idiom, ritual, proprietorship and masculinity.'35
She is less concerned with whether benefits were paid than with an explanation
of a phenomenon she can hardly credit has been ignored:
(When) we consider the range of organisations that made use of
fraternal identity, it is remarkable that it has gone unexplored for so
long...Over centuries of European and American history, fraternalism exerted a
persistent appeal...(Scholars') lack of awareness is most pronounced in the
study of nineteenth century American society, where a Masonic type of
fraternalism served as the organisational model for trade unions, agricultural
societies, nativist organisations, and political movements of every
conceivable ideological stripe, as well as for literally hundreds of social
In Australia benefit societies other than 'trade unions' have been almost
totally invisible to historians. Their invisibility has endured despite the
obvious need in this colonial society for extensive mutual aid and self-help
systems, and despite the fact that their relevance, albeit much weakened, has
continued to the present day.
The role of benefit societies in the delivery of health, and death services
in particular was pivotal in Australia. Cromwell and Green, virtually on their
own, have realised that in this country 'friendly societies were always foremost
amongst organisations raising funds for the local hospital' and they record the
establishment of medical institutes and dispensaries by Friendly Societies
acting in concert. Some understanding of this has trickled into 'Health Care
History' where acknowledgement is sometimes made that:
The (friendly) societies developed as the main source of medical
services for the working class in the late nineteenth century.37
If mentioned at all in Australian 'welfare history', the contribution of
'friendly societies' is usually confined to the provision of benefits, for which
purpose they are treated as unique and separable from other similarly treated
kinds of benefit providers, eg, building societies and co-ops. A Senate Select
Committee on Health Legislation and Health Insurance reported in 1990 that:
Australia has a long tradition of private hospital and medical
insurance, which had its origins in nineteenth century friendly societies,
churches and charitable organisations.38
Earlier, Kewley had written:
A feature of the Australian colonies, often remarked upon by
outside observers, was the extent to which the colonists joined together in
societies for their mutual benefit...At the end of the nineteenth century the
charitable relief activities of the Government were less extensive than the
co-operative efforts of the people themselves, many of whom joined together in
In neither case, do the author/authors refer to a single study of the
phenomenon which they are implying they have examined, for the very good reason
that there have been no studies. And though this is the world of THE POOR, THE
UNEMPLOYED, THE NOT-RICH, the world on which the 'labour tradition' has been
constructed, it is a world which has not, thus far, penetrated that area of
Australian scholarship known as Labour History (LH).
Only a very small number of Australian professional historians have
recognised a need to re-focus working people's history. Geoffrey Blainey's
extensive education had not adequately prepared him when he was commissioned to
write an account of one 'affiliated friendly society', the Independent Order of
Oddfellows, [IOOF]. After completing the task to his satisfaction he recorded
his own initial blindness, and the change of attitude to which the evidence led
I started with no view about friendly societies. I knew so little
about their history and activities. More and more I became impressed. Here
were tens and thousands of Australians...trying to prepare for the difficult
times which were likely to come at some stage or other. Their motto was
simple: help each other. In many ways they could teach us a lesson.40
Nancy Renfree, an unpublished student of such societies around Castlemaine,
Victoria, supported these contentions.41
She noted a widespread acceptance of friendly societies from the 1840's
across nationalities, occupations and backgrounds.42
The authors of the only published, general study of Australian
Cromwell and Green, point out that what became the affiliated Orders arrived
quite early in all parts of the colony and that they spread quickly, achieving
broad coverage of the working population:
By the 1860's the (friendly) societies were a major presence in
every Australian town. They were known for their organisation of medical
services, for organising the supply of medecines, for their sick pay, and for
the help they gave those who fell on hard times. They were known, too, for the
social life they offered, often providing the only organised social activities
in the early years of colonisation.44
Cromwell and Green provided figures to show that at least twenty-five per
cent of the population of all States was directly benefiting from friendly
society benefits before 1914. In some States and in some areas the percentage
was well over half:
It was thought...[in the 1890's] that throughout Australia eighty
to ninety per cent of manual workers were members of friendly
Most recently, Brian Stevenson has privately published two very useful
accounts of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society in Queensland and
and Beverley Kingston has inserted a number of sensible insights into the
1860-1900 volume of the Oxford History of Australia, including the
(In 1880) Mortimer Franklyn (an American) thought the fondness he
perceived for formal observation of status and procedure, especially in
Masonic, friendly societies and trade unions simply typical of
Franklyn was by no means alone. British visitor James Inglis wrote in 1879:
One characteristic feature of the social economy of our Australian
cousins is the system of mutual assurance which so largely prevails in all the
towns...These societies are principally organised and supported by the working
Thus, the notable presence of 'friendly societies' as representatives of the
people in both major Federation processions. Again: how and why did they drop so
completely from sight?
The term 'friendly society' is useful as shorthand in certain situations, as
the term 'trade union' sometimes is, but like that term has many shortcomings
when one is attempting to be accurate, logically correct and consistent. Thus I
keep both in inverted commas, much of the time. We shall see that ambiguities in
the literature range from the confusing use of a variety of terms for the same
situation, to the use of the same term to cover a range of situations. For
Charles Dilke, well-connected visitor from the UK and whom Kewley (above) was
quoting, used 'provident societies' in referring to the 'remarkable' spread of
what I would call 'benefit societies' in Australia and other colonies of
At precisely the same moment, Timothy Coghlan, NSW Statistician and author of a
series of volumes on the wealth and progress of that State could find no place
in his text, even in his index, for 'friendly society', 'benefit society' or
Putting the AMP Society and the Mortality of Life Tables into the section on
'Population and Vital Statistics', along with fire risks, life assurance and
savings; and land, building and investment companies into the 'Finance and
Public Wealth' section, he further separated 'Food Supply and Cost of Living'
from 'Social Conditions and Charities' - all of which left no place at all for
On the other hand, the use of 'friendly society' has ranged from meaning just
'Friendly Societies', ie, with caps, the nationally-federated or 'Affiliated
Orders', to meaning the full range of related institutions, where the more
inclusive 'benefit society' is more accurate. Similarly, the term 'trade union'
has experienced bouts of such elasticity in application as to make it well-nigh
useless in serious studies of working peoples' combinations.
Despite the long-standing focus on one particular relationship in working
people's lives, ie the employer-employee relationship, and despite the fact that
certain characteristics have been attributed to one particular association which
claims to define itself through that relationship, ie the 'trade union', there
is enormous ambiguity around the terms that are used to describe and analyse
that relationship, especially and most relevantly, around the term 'trade union'
Don Rawson, a longtime and respected student of labour affairs, argued in
1986, that after decades of the dominant work-based approach to Australian
labour history, scholars still had no agreement about definitions, in particular
of 'trade union'. He preferred that offered by the Australian Bureau of
...a trade union is...an organisation consisting predominantly of
employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates
of pay and conditions of employment for its members.51
Notice the qualifiers 'predominantly' and 'principal'. For Hagan there was no
need for any definition52,
while many other Labour Historians [LH's] have sheltered under that provided by
the Webbs a century ago without always being aware that these UK Fabians had
significantly altered their key definition between editions of their book The
History of Trade Unionism. In 1976, Ian Turner chose the narrower of their
A trade union is, in the classic definition of Sidney and Beatrice
Webb, 'a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining
or improving the conditions of their employment.'53
This is the wording which appeared in the Webb's 1894 edition, the first
edition. In the second, 1920, they replaced 'conditions of their employment'
with 'conditions of their working lives', a much broader definition.
Turner acknowledged the shift in a footnote but contended that only 'in their
earliest days' did 'trade unions' confine themselves to the limited field
implied by the definition he'd adopted. Very quickly, he says, they realised the
need to advocate 'political' not just 'economic or 'industrial' strategies, a
change he believed in line with the words of the second definition.
The Webbs say they adopted the broader definition in order not to give the
impression that they thought that workers would always be wage-slaves. I will
argue that the struggle between these definitions has affected the whole of
LH/'the labour movement', that the struggle is on-going, that the issues
involved are many and varied, and that not even the issue apparently separating
'trade unions' and 'friendly societies', ie that of benefit payments, is as
clear-cut as it seems. We shall see that the Webbs wrote that friendly society
benefits, what they called 'Friendly Mutual Insurance', have been the oldest
form of 'Trade Union' (NB their caps) activity 'in many industries', and been
adopted 'by practically every (trade) society which has lasted.'54
We will see that the Webb's stated reason for their change, as well as the
change itself, was ideological, career-driven and future-oriented, while
Turner's is a claim about past historical fact. That is, that the Webbs provided
the essentials for Turner's 'interpretation' as part of an argument, but that he
and other Australian Labour Historians [ALH's] have treated those essentials as
Because the Webb's overall approach suited them, LH's generally have not
reflected on the dynamic context the Webbs were alluding to, and have built
their accounts on rhetoric rather than substance. If they had carefully read and
then thought about all that the Webbs said, LH's, in Australia and
elsewhere, might have saved the 'labour movement' from its 20th century decline.
In 1897 the Webbs pointed out that:
If the reader were to seek out, in some tavern of an industrial
centre, the local meeting place of the Foresters or the Carpenters, the
Oddfellows or the Boilermakers, he might easily fail, on a first visit, to
detect any important difference between the Trade Union branch [NB caps] and
the court or lodge of the friendly society.[NB no caps] (They) all seem
'clubs' managing their own affairs. Every night sees the same interminable
procession of men, women and children bringing the contribution money. When
the deliberations begin, they all affect the same traditional mystery about
'keeping the door', and retain the long pause outside before admitting the
nervous aspirant for 'initiation'; they all 'open the lodge' with the same
kind of cautious solemnity, and dignify with strange titles and formal methods
of address the officers whom they are perpetually electing and
Nearly a century later, one European scholar summarised debate amongst LH's
The emergence of trade unions and labour parties has been moved
within the past thirty years from the history of institutions into their
social setting. In the [new] study of the 'formation of the working class',
economic, social, socio-cultural and political stages have been distinguished
and have provided an influential framework for transnational comparisons,
especially of the early phases of class organisation.56
While this summary would be understood and accepted by Australian LH's, they
are unlikely to admit that the reconsideration should have been
But precisely because it was necessary, those formulating the latest round of
changes in 'Labour History' have been unaware of the full extent, let alone the
significance, of their original blindspot. This has resulted in a continuing,
but confused struggle between narrow and broad definitional contexts for 'the
movement' and its history, and a raft of ill-informed, unreflective claims by
LH's. Some of the genre's most powerful practitioners continue to assume that
'the movement' and therefore its history can only be valid if it is aligned with
their, largely unexamined, assumptions. Quite apart from winners or losers in
any 'Cold War' or whether one rendering of Marxism is superior to another, this
is poor historiographical practice.
The evidence accumulated in this study strongly suggests that students of
'the labour movement' need, at the very least, to come to grips with the
phenomenon of Freemasonry/freemasonry. Beverly Kingston's 1980's summary of a
religious essence fueling the nascent Australian movement (in the 1890's) is
useful as an indicator:
After stripping away all belief in the supernatural, what was left
was a simple system of ethics, which reappeared in several guises - in the
bushman's creed of mateship or WG Spence's idea of the New
As a result, she argued, quasi-religious organisations flourished. She quoted
an estimate of 10,000 Freemasons in 185 lodges in 1890 just for NSW. She then
made the relevant leap, but did not remark its significance:
Memberships were probably overlapping, but taken together, the
numbers accepting the rules and principles of Freemasonry, the friendly
societies, and trade unionism suggest that the male population had begun to
develop organisations which either augmented or substituted for the
She believed that 'brotherhood, self-help, mutual responsibility and
protection of the weak' were values compatible with both Christianity and
democracy, but that they were 'more suited' to egalitarian than to hierarchical
organisation. This last is a most contentious issue, but one that must be
Little primary research has yet been carried out and some errors of fact and
theory are being recycled by those authors and scholars who are attempting the
revisionist task. Even a comprehensive map of exactly what is involved with
'benefit societies' remains to be drawn.
Nevertheless, it is possible to say that many, many societies shared the
heritage here referred to by my main title. Further, that neither the heritage
nor 'benefit societies' has died out as white, 'modern' society has urbanised,
though individual lodges and Orders have peaked and declined over time.
Because the practice of individual members has often contested the
then-perceived boundaries of decency, reason and the law, many lodges have been
divided internally over detailed Rules which paralleled the external societal
disciplines drawn up to govern lodge structure and activities. The strongest or
the most flexible lodges/Orders have thrived, ensuring that clear and definite
ideas about democracy, station in life and what are now seen as the elements of
Australia's national character have been carried by lodge brothers and sisters
into every corner.
The many parallels, overlaps and shared memberships of the three major
'strands' of benefit societies - Freemasonry, 'friendly societies' and 'trade
unions' - are generally unknown, mainly because the first two strands are
substantially under-studied. Before one of the earliest versions of political
correctness descended upon us, the knowledge that many working class men and
women were Freemasons was not considered incredible. In comparative terms,
quite a few remain so, notably in industrial 'heartlands'. One important Masonic
historian has called Freemasonry a network of 'self-help unions'59,
while an English author wrote in 1824:
It is not a little curious this celebrated association
[Freemasonry] which reckons among its members, kings, princes, nobles and
gentlemen, should have been originally framed by a number of POOR WORKMEN, for
the purpose of keeping up their wages.60
Freemasonry today invites a knee-jerk reaction from many persons who like to
see themselves as radical/progressive. By their lights the Freemasons were and
are either quaint and anachronistic or else were and are one of the chief
bastions of the conservative Establishment. By others, Freemasonry is perceived
to be a unique, semi-secret organisation of adult males who practice arcane
ritual for purposes of sociability, out of which sometimes comes a substantial
capacity to raise funds for charitable and welfare schemes. For the Vatican, and
for some other religious authorities, Freemasonry remains a threat, pure and
simple, to them and to 'their' Christianity.
It has been argued61
that the mythology of secret societies enabled them to 'exercise their greatest
power' in the period 1789-1848 but that the nonsense contained in 'unscientific,
sensational, frivolous, infatuated publications' attempting to map this
influence into the 20th century has turned many serious historians away and has
obscured important realities.
It was no doubt believed by certain Scottish villagers in 1696 that a local
'Mason's house' was haunted because he had 'devouted his first child to the
Devil' when 'he took the Mason's word'. This secret 'word' is central to
Speculative Freemasonry (SF) and SF authors simply assume this man to have been
one of them. But it is at least arguable that, on the evidence, 'he' was an
operative stone-mason, not a speculative 'Freemason'. Note that 'the word' was
first defined in labour terms, then in symbolic, viz:
a term used primarily to differentiate the pay and assignments of
workers, but also, the ritual implied, bearing deeper, mystical
In the over-heated, expose literature 'secret societies' are those which hide
their existence and attempt to bring down 'Church, State, Morality, Property,
(and) the Family'. Disraeli apparently believed in 1870:
It [the Age] is the Church against the secret societies. They are
the only two strong things in Europe, and will survive Kings, Emperors or
Conspiracy theorists have often lumped together a number of organisations
which won't find a place in these pages, yet some of their favourites will, and
it is Freemasonry which sits at the point of overlap. I am concerned to show the
function of secrecy within a package of benefit society principles and should
that take me into the world of the Illuminati, Sinn Fein, Zionism and
Bolshevism, the political uses to which that package may have been put is
(largely?) irrelevant. As it happens, the great percentage of societies falling
within my definition of 'secret society' will be publically-known and
Historically, even among Freemasons, there has been a great deal of
contention about the origins of Freemasonry, as there is about the
organisations' significance, and whether or not it has had or still has a
hidden, politically conservative agenda.
At various times over at least 200 years, debate has raged as to whether
Freemasons are or can be Christians, whether Freemasonry is a separate and
unique religion and/or to what extent its practice has matched its theory. Some
of the anti-Masonry literature is selective and hypocritical, being premised on
alleged opposition to the secrecy all fraternal Orders practice as a matter of
course, and which Freemasonry's opponents also practice when it suits them. A
different criticism, from Christians, is based on the view that Freemasonry has
tried to be 'all things to all men' and has diminished, even dismissed certain
essential Christian elements.64
Within Labour History, the slight wave given to Freemasonry in explanation of
a perceived difference between 'old' and 'new' 'trade unions', has been more
often than not disguised through use of references to a 'craft union tradition'
or 'mentality' which was somehow, somewhere replaced by allegedly more modern,
progressive industrial unions.
This situation may be beginning to unscramble. John Sheild's article on
'Craftsmen in the Making', in the work he also edited, All Our Labours,
illustrated the point reached by a few courageous academics in the early 1990's
when the word 'craft' was virtually code for everything not taken seriously by
the custodians of LH. He argued that '[the] scenario of decline [of skill,
postulated by earlier historians like Hobsbawm and Braverman] has seriously
under-estimated the historical resilience of the craftsman, his institutions and
He backgrounded 20th century initiation of apprentices and of supposedly
anachronistic practices such as 'tramping for work' and concluded that:
For better or for worse, then, the craftsman's culture has
profoundly influenced the fabric of working life in twentieth century
Australia and the shape and texture of the Australian labour movement.66
This is a useful first step, and my larger text attempts further
clarification, including the need to re-examine the hostilities between craft
and industrial unionism, and the accounts of such struggles, both of
which appear to derive their substance from factional struggles within the
labour movement. We will see that the lodge movement has had a major role in the
production of working people's solidarity, whatever the organisation involved,
and that the 'craftsman's culture', 'much of it traceable directly to the
pre-industrial craft guilds', as Shields devined, has been arguably the major
conduit of what has been loudly trumpeted by the 'industrials' as working class
Tom Mann, in a 1920 journal (UK) of the Amalgamated Engineers, responded to
charges that the ASU stood for 'craft unionism pure and simple':
Many [members] who cheerfully extend the hand of fellowship to
sections of tradesmen who formerly were not counted of the elite find
themselves unable as yet to look with satisfaction upon a form of industrial
organisation that will cater for every section in an industry, irrespective of
skill or sex.67
During his time at Broken Hill, and no doubt elsewhere, this doyen of
revolutionary syndicalists, happily wore lodge regalia, in street processions,
A perceived 'gulf' between a 'first, elitist wave' of 'trade unionists',
and the 'real, blue-collar, battling trade unionist' has been the site of
extensive name-calling and grand-standing, but it is not necessarily well
understood. The so-called 'aristocrats of labour', the 'Gentlemen Jims of the
workshop', those defined by their claiming the right to determine how many
apprentices, what trade rankings, what pay and conditions will hold in their
'craft', have been stigmatised for seeking negotiation and compromise between
capital and labour, rather than direct struggle and conflict. They have been
assumed to be the only combinations concerned with guild-related paraphenalia,
and have felt forced into asserting their 'true-blueness' by, among other
things, disavowing any concern for that 'superstitious baggage.'68
Thus, dismissal of oppositional politics and agendas within 'the movement'
can and has been bolstered and the tradition of the 'true believer' built up by
sneering dismissals of the contextualising heritage of all trade combinations.
Any 'worker' who appeared interested must be at best half-hearted and
superficial in 'his' allegiance, has no doubt been bourgeois-contaminated, and
is probably a Freemason, if not a total class-traitor. Where necessary, evidence
pointing to a different conclusion has been ignored or deliberately suppressed.
We will see that the Webbs, without the beginnings of an understanding and
with no research base to speak of, in effect pronounced on one of the most
contentious bundle of issues in the story of western civilisation -
- the claims to legitimacy of contending Christian factions;
- the claims of conspiracy made by those contending factions of one another,
and on similar claims exchanged between Christian and non-Christian factions;
- the claims to know which was the 'true' path to 'the Divine' and which
were sacriligious excresences or satanic lies.
The choice of the class analysis path has, among many other things, denuded
LH of much of its real life passion, it has denied LH its historical connections
to a rich world of symbolism and non-material meaning, and it has attempted to
locate LH beyond criticism by de-contextualising it.
'Modern' society has suffered greatly from the gaps in its cultural
consciousness, including the connecting of people's life experiences to the
shaping of their cities, towns and villages and to the development of their
civic administration. The gaps are doubly tragic in the context of claims of the
special significance of the labour experience.
The circumstances which made voluntary benefit societies crucial to their
memberships are the very same circumstances explaining struggles over
wages and conditions, the struggles taken in isolation by LH and 'the labour
movement' as representative of the complete history of working people. Clawson
In the case of Masonic fraternalism..the image of one particular
social actor, the artisan, dominated the reality-defining drama/discourse of
fraternal ritual...Masonic fraternalism valorised craft labor and material
productivity. In traditional liberal fashion it justified social inequality by
presenting it as a system open to talent, a ladder that anyone and everyone
could ascend. But it simultaneously recognised the dislocations of capitalist
development through its promise of mutual aid. It thus offered the vision of a
society in which individual advancement and social solidarity were
complementary rather than antagonistic - and attempted to create that society
Some readers will seriously contend that in what follows I am fighting a war
well and truly consigned to the dustbin of history. Since an acknowledgement of
'social history' by LH's around the world and by journals of LH, they will say,
the narrowness and the attempted monopolisation of the LH agenda are themselves
historical relics of limited usefulness. For the following reasons I don't
accept this approach:
- The acknowledgement of 'social history' has been well-intentioned, but its
implementation has, inevitably, been at best partial;
- The narrowing attitudes were and are deeply-engrained;
- Labour culture - film, books, pamphlets, songs - continually reinforces
the 'popular version' of LH, ie, the narrow, exclusionist one;
- Many LH's themselves consider the issue to be a 'live' one;
- While the history of the originating heritage remains invisible, no
healing of what amounts to a running sore is possible.
It appears to be the 'invisible' material, about benefit societies other than
'trade unions', which most irritates and worries LH's. They have certainly spent
a lot of time trying to explain it away. Ian Turner, one of the earliest and
most influential shapers of Australian LH, told the story of the labourers
transported to 'Australia' in 1834 this way:
Men who joined unions were declared criminals; thus, the six
Dorsetshire farm labourers known to trade union history as the 'Tolpuddle
Martyrs' were transported to Van Diemens Land for swearing an illegal oath of
loyalty to their union.70
This brief account manages to not fit the facts on a number of grounds
and is better described as overblown rhetoric rather than History. For Turner it
seems any workers' combination was a 'trade union', and most importantly,
it was not something else. The society in question was actually called the
Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, and I discuss it in detail below.
More generally, and this applies to most if not all LH's, his fundamental belief
linking 'unions' and this transportation was that 'the labour movement' was the
response by workers to 'the new society which had grown out of the Industrial
Revolution - capitalism'. This claim has been made or implied thousands of times
with regard to Australia without that country's 'industrial revolution' having
yet been proven, mapped or analysed.
The 'response' connection is in itself arguable, but to claim that 'trade
unions' were the only response is totally far-fetched. This error has
created both, what might be called, internal and external difficulties for LH's.
Externally, there has always been a tension around the emphasis since the
most broadly-accepted definitions of 'trade union' have been based on the
employer-employee relationship and therefore have always been in competition
with reality. The totality of working peoples' lives is much more than that
relationship, even if individual working people have sometimes so defined
themselves, ie 'I am a boiler-maker at BHP, etc.' There has always been more to
people than their 'employee-ness'. It follows therefore that the emphasis on
that relationship in LH has been at odds with the stated aim of LH's and Labour
Movement activists to represent the lives of those working people. The
internal difficulty is that numerous working people have continued to feel
'invisible' and unrepresented.
Anyone seriously attempting re-assessment of (Australian) LH and the
arguments sustaining its literature would be struck by the number of times
references are made to four points of apparent tension. Two relate to the UK
heritage - firstly, the period 1829-34 at the end of which the so-called
'Tolpuddle Martyrs' were transported to Australia, and, secondly, the work of UK
historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The two other points of tension relate to
the struggle by politically-active historians in Australia to make that heritage
'fit'. The first concerns the decade of the 1850's, the other the period of the
1880's - 1890's.
The tension within these 'hot spots' has superficially to do with the problem
of what a 'trade union' is or is not, and it is around this issue that the
present work is constructed. Out of a reconsideration of this dynamic will flow
the story of benefit societies and thus a more complete understanding of the
contribution of ordinary working people to modern Australia.
Their need for survival strategies was the ultimate reason for the
spread of benefit societies, not the exoticism of the rites of association or
even their encouragement of a necessary sense of fraternity, but their role as
support mechanisms in the real lives of real people. What I, after Durr, call
the 'rites of association' could not fail, therefore, but have deep impact.
In the 1920, revised edition of their The History of Trade Unionism,
Sidney and Beatrice Webb observed that in the 30 years since 1890 the (UK)
'Trade Union Movement' (NB the capitals) had gone from including 'scarcely 20%
of the adult, male, manual- working wage earners' to over 60%. The clear
implication was that 'adult, male, manual-working, wage earners' comprised the
only group which could be the source of the 'Trade Union Movement' and of 'Trade
Unionism.' This, on page v, constitutes their 1st definition.
They subsequently introduced other criteria in shifting through what amount
to a further ten definitions. It is useful to note two things immediately: one
is that there would be no need for this concern with definitions if the titles
of relevant 'combinations' were self-explanatory and discrete, ie if all 'trade
unions' titled themselves 'Trade Union' and if only 'trade unions' did so.
Secondly, the Webbs, throughout, claim to be proving their definitions when in
fact they are making arbitrary and not evidence-based decisions about the
content of groups they are attempting to define.
Introducing the first of the new criteria, 'continuity', the Webbs remind us
that recent claims made on behalf of a re-vitalised LH are anything but new. The
Webbs wrote before 1920:
In spite of all the pleas of modern historians for less history of
the actions of governments, and more descriptions of the manners and customs
of the governed, it remains true that history...must, if it is to be history
at all, follow the course of continuous organisations.[My
In going on, they introduce two further criteria crucial to later debates -
'the State and 'democracy':
The history of Trade Unionism is the history of a State
within our State, and one so jealously democratic that to know it well
is to know the English working man as no reader of middle class histories can
know him.[My emphasis]72
This introductory statement contrasts a 'modern' image of 'trade unions' with
the emotive 'old branches or ancient local societies', 'old-fashioned
societies', 'archaic chests with three locks', 'long forgotten societies',
'musty records' and so on.73
In beginning their first Chapter, the authors provide what has been a most
influential definition incorporating some, but not all, of the criteria
mentioned so far:
A Trade Union, as we understand the term, is a continuous
association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the
conditions of their working lives.74
In a footnote, they point out that at the comparable point in the earlier,
1894 edition they concluded this key definition with the words 'of their
employment' and that they had changed it to 'of their working lives' because of
objections that the original implied 'eternal wage slavery.'
The shift could imply that the Webbs wished their new definition of 'trade
unionism' to encompass all and every aspect of the lives of working people,
whether male, whether manual, whether always employed, whether white, at work or
not, etc, etc. However, their stated intention was not to widen the original
definition at all but rather to accommodate their more 'revolutionary'
acquaintances who wished the definition to encompass an altered
In relation to the 1920 definition they assert that 'This form of association
has...existed in England for over two centuries and cannot be supposed [even
then] to have sprung at once fully developed into existence.'75
One presumes this means that 'trade unions' had already come into being by 1720,
and that the titles of such 'combinations' cannot be used as a guide.
From this notion they have excluded, they say, 'ephemeral combinations' even
if engaged in strikes of labour because no permanent associations were produced
and because the strikers 'were not seeking to improve the conditions of a
contract of service into which they voluntarily entered.'76
That is, they wish to exclude strikers who were slaves, or were born into
oppression or into a labouring caste. This phrasing constitutes their 3rd
Why voluntaryism is of crucial importance to the Webbs is not immediately
clear but it does seem clear that they did not consider the criteria's
implication. Is the nature of the 'working class' anything other than that its
members are born into it? What would be left of the conception of 'the working
class' and how many members of the class would there be if this criteria were
seriously applied? And how many members of officially sanctioned 'trade unions'
today would be permitted into the definition if voluntary membership were
to be a rigorously-applied criteria?
(After) detailed consideration of every published instance of a
journeyman's fraternity in England, we are fully convinced that there is as
yet no evidence of the existence of any such durable and independent
combination of wage earners against their emloyers during the Middle
Now, apparently, to be a 'Trade Union' an association has not only to be
'durable' and 'independent', it is also required by a 4th definition to
be 'against their employers.'
Then they insist on the association being much more than just 'continuous' or
'durable', it must be 'permanent.' They explain that the prospect of obtaining
economic advancement by which they mean becoming a Master - 'engaging in
profitable arrangements over Apprentices or Materials' - prevented the
production of long-lasting combinations of 'wage-earners.' But there were some,
eg 'Masons' who had 'yearly congregations and confederacies' before 1425 when
they were expressly prohibited by an Act of Parliament.
It appears probable, indeed, that the masons, wandering over the
country from one job to another, were united, not in any local guild, but in a
trade fraternity of national extent.78
But then they say:
(Of) combinations in the building trades we have found scarcely a
trace, until the very end of (the 18th) century. If, therefore, adhering
strictly to the letter of our definition, we accepted a mason's confederacy as
a Trade Union, we should be compelled to regard the building trades as
presenting the unique instance of an industry which had a period of Trade
Unionism in the fifteenth century, then passed for several centuries into a
condition in which Trade Unionism was impossible, and finally changed once
more to a state in which Trade Unions flourished. Our own impression, however,
is that the 'congregations and confederacies' of the masons are more justly to
be considered the embryonic stage of a guild of master craftsmen than of a
That is, because some of the descendants of the operative masons
prohibited in 1425 from meeting, gradually and to some degree or for some period
of time became employers of labour (they offer evidence from 1735) the pre-1425
situation must be pre-something, an 'embryonic'- something, and not something
that can be allowed to undermine their process of elimination. They opt for it
having been a 'master craftsmens guild'. This constitutes their 5th definition,
and here the notion of a 'modern' 'trade union' first appears.
When...the capitalist builder or contractor began to supersede the
master mason, master plasterer, etc, and this class of small entrepreneurs had
again to give place to a hierarchy of hired workers, Trade Unions, in the
modern sense, began, as we shall see, to arise.79
Note the sudden appearance of capital letters. They point out that it is not
in these institutions that the origin of Trade Unionism [caps again] has usually
been sought. 'For the predecessor of the modern Trade Union, men have turned,
not to the mediaeval associations of the wage-earners, but to those of their
employers...the Craft Guilds.' The Webbs reject these on the same grounds as
before - guilds were not made up of wage-earners.
Along this path, they assert that 'Trade Unions' were not for brain workers,
only for 'manual workers' who were not in any way controlling the processes of
production. Because the 'modern Trade Union' has only one of the functions of
the craft guild it could not possibly have evolved from the craft guild. They
then say that it is easy to account for the popular argument that it did so
there are the picturesque likenesses which Dr Brentano discovered
- the regulations for admission, the box with its three locks, the common
meal, the titles of the officers and so forth.
The phrase 'picturesque likenesses' is a linguistic dismissal akin to those
already used in their Introduction. The Webbs, however, also attempt a more
But these are to be found in all kinds of associations in England.
The Trade Union [caps] organisations share them with the local friendly
societies, or sick clubs which have existed all over England for the last two
centuries. Whether these features were originally derived from the Craft Gilds
or not, it is practically certain that the early 'Trade Unions' took them, in
the vast majority of cases...from the existing little [!] friendly societies
around them. In some cases the parentage of these forms and ceremonies might
be ascribed with as much justice to the mystic rites of the Freemasons as to
the ordnances of the Craft Gilds. The fantastic ritual, peculiar to the Trade
Unionism of 1829-34...was, as we shall see, taken from the ceremonies of the
Friendly Society of Oddfellows. But we are informed that it shows traces of
being an illiterate [!] copy of a masonic ritual. In our own times the Free
Colliers of Scotland, an early attempt at a national miners' union, were
organised into 'lodges' under a 'Grand Master' with much of the terminology
and some of the characteristic forms of Freemasonry. No one would, however,
assert any essential resemblance between the village sick club and the trade
society, still less between Freemasonry and Trade Unionism. The only common
feature between all these is the spirit of association, clothing itself in
more or less similar picturesque forms.80
This key passage has 5 important points:
- The 'local friendly societies and sick clubs', in existence, by their
reckoning, for 200 years, provided the early 'trade unions' with the
'picturesque likenesses' which Brentano believed derived from the craft
guilds, and which the Webbs call 'forms and ceremonies';
- In the momentous years, 1829-34, 'Trade Unions' took up rites 'peculiar'
- An 'early attempt' at a national miners' organisation in late 19th-early
20th century was organised under a 'Grand Master';
- Freemasonry is mentioned as the possible source for all three of these
ceremonial/organisational 'forms'; and
- Friendly societies were the possible go-betweens in two cases.
Already, I think it's fair to say that the Webbs appear to believe in some
essential quality held by 'trade unions', something not conveyed by or inherent
in the 'forms and ceremonies' of local societies established by working people,
despite a 'common spirit of association' carried over hundreds of years by these
It is also abundantly clear that their argument around this issue is very,
very ambiguous. Beginning their discussion which led to the above conclusion,
they make a number of statements implying they are intent on opposing 'the
popular idea of (an) actual descent of the Trade Unions from the gilds'. The
process behind the common acceptance 'that the Trade Union had... really
originated from the Craft Gild' is according to them 'undefined'. And yet on the
same page, they enlist the aid of a knighted author and his conclusion:
My own impression is that we shall by and by find that...(as in
Germany)..the trade clubs of eighteenth century England were
broken-down-survivals from an earlier period, undergoing, with the advent of
the married journeyman and other causes, the slow transformation from which
they emerged in the nineteenth century as the nuclei of the modern Trade
Their problem seems to be that
If it could be shown that the Trade Unions were, in any
way, the descendants of the old gilds, it would clearly be the origin of
the latter that we should have to trace. (My emphasis)
Such a digression is clearly not to their taste. Later, we discover why. And
so, despite the suggestion of Sir William Ashley of 'a slow transformation', and
their own grudging acknowledgement of a 'common spirit of association' conveyed
by 'similar picturesque forms', they still need to assert, as fact:
The supposed descent in this country of the Trade Unions from the
mediaeval Craft Guilds rests, as far as we have been able to discover, upon
no evidence whatsoever. (My emphasis)
This is more than a denial of a direct and unbroken line of descent, this is
a denial of any kind of descent. It is the necessary denial if 'Trade Unions'
are to be boosted as modern, unique creations. At a time when the spirit of
rational secularism made them easy to ignore, the 'picturesque likenesses' were
the key target. The Webbs would have done well to study Brentano's text and
Freemasonry more closely.
However, given that they, consciously or sub-consciously, avoid the obvious
possibility that the widespread rites and practices are themselves the necessary
evidence of a long-standing, organic culture, the Webbs are bound to use
organisational distinctions as transportation for their case. One reason why the
'little' sick clubs and 'little' friendly societies can't have been the
originators of 'trade unionism' seems to be that these associations
(sometimes) accepted workers from different trades, a criteria not ruled out by
the early definitions, but which becomes the 6th definitional requisite:
So long as they were composed indiscriminately of men of all
trades, it is probable that no distinctively [!] Trade Union [caps] action
could arise from their meetings.82
They argue that combinations of 'hired wage earners' multiplied during the
18th century, until prohibited in 1799, yet subject it to no analysis since it
is by their lights the only form of association working people can or need look
If we examine the evidence of the rise of combinations in
particular trades, we see the Trade Union [caps] springing, not from any
particular institution, but from every opportunity for the meeting
together of wage-earners of the same occupation.83
They discuss public houses as 'houses of call', where workers gathered
collections for future benefits, and where their 'groups' could 'turn into'
Trade Unions, if and only if membership had already been restricted to one
Local friendly societies giving sick pay and providing for funeral
expenses had sprung up all over England during the 18th century. Towards its
close...in some parts at any rate, every village ale-house became a centre for
one or more of these humble [!] and spontaneous [!] organisations. The Rules
of upwards of a hundred of these societies, dating between 1750 and 1830, and
all centred around Newcastle-on-Tyne, are preserved in the British Museum. At
Nottingham, in 1794, fifty six of these clubs joined in the annual
procession. But in some cases, for various reasons, such as high
contributions, migratory habits, or the danger of the calling, the sick and
burial club was confined to men of a particular trade. This kind of
friendly society frequently became a Trade Union.84
Their reasoning here is as astray as that concerning the stonemasons (above)
to which I return in due course. What a pity they didn't ask why 56 'sick and
burial clubs' were marching in Nottingham in 1794, why such a huge gathering was
an annual event and why small, local societies had Rules before they had
been asked to register by the authorities. For the moment, it's enough to know
that the emphasis in their search for criteria is now on 'becoming'. A number of
associations are canvassed but because it is still not yet the right time for
'real Trade Unions', these are labelled 'in the making' or 'becoming' Trade
Labels such as 'a network of local clubs' and 'the early unions', always without
capitals, are used to maintain the distance between these 'embryonic'
associations and 'the Real Thing'.86
They then assert that the sort of combination they are reserving the title
'Trade Union' [caps] for, came about only when a separation opened up between
the decision-making in a trade or industry and the carrying out of those
decisions. This separation meant the journeymen could no longer think of
becoming employers themselves, the costs involved having outdistanced their
wages. They therefore began to combine in order to improve their
This separation, seemingly a result of the Industrial Revolution, was, they
acknowledge, not a result of technology or the factory-system, since it's
possible to point to the existence of 'Trade Unions' in trades where such
revolutions had not yet occurred, eg, the hatters from 1667, Tailors from 1727,
wool operatives from 1675. With this 7th definition, of 'lifelong wage
with nothing to sell but their labour, we are back to the 1894 definition
But even for these the Webbs are loath to use the capitalised label 'Trade
Union', preferring to call them 'continuous associations', 'local trade clubs'
or 'permanent trade combinations.' The Old Amicable Society of Woolstaplers
dating from 1700 approx. formed a 'federal union' in 1785, but is still in lower
case because it was not 'modern.'88
A 'durable Trade Union' did appear among the stockingers in 1780, but the
Webbs have further, narrowing requisites to deal with them. It was also
necessary, in order to meet the definition, that protections enjoyed by
journeymen relating to limitations on apprentices and commonly agreed rates for
work for example, be removed by legislation:
It was a change of industrial policy on the part of the Government
that brought all trades into line, and for the first time produced what can
properly be called a Trade Union movement.89
They quote Brentano - 'Trade Unions [caps] originated with the non-observance
of the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices', his argument being that the primary
object of these associations was to attempt to force the Government to apply the
still-extant law1 -
and they assert:
It is often assumed that Trade Unionism [caps] arose as a protest
against intolerable industrial oppression. This was not so...(Along with the
woolcombers) the curriers, hatters, woolstaplers, shipwrights, brushmakers,
basketmakers and calico-printers, who furnish prominent instances of
eighteenth century Trade Unionism, all earned relatively high wages, and
maintained a very effectual resistance to the encroachments of their
They had earlier written:
When these regulations (legal or customary, protecting their
interests) fell into disuse (in the 17th and 18th centuries) the workers
combined to secure their enforcement...In this respect, and practically in
this respect only, do we find any trace of the gild in the Trade Union.92
And so they go on from the use of Brentano:
It appears to us from these facts that Trade Unionism would have
been a feature of English industry, even without the steam engine and the
factory system. Whether the association of superior workmen which arose in the
early part of the [18th] century would, in such an event, ever have developed
into a Trade Union Movement [caps] is another matter.
So, the argument has changed again. No longer is it a search for 'Trade
Unions' but for 'the Movement'. A further, 8th definitional criteria emerges:
The typical 'trade club' of the town artisan of the time was an
isolated 'ring' of highly skilled journeymen, who were...decisively marked off
from the mass of the manual workers.
For having already organised themselves and adopted attitudes emphasising the
rewards that organisation can bring, these 'town artisans' are to be punished -
in this case a further definition puts them outside the sacred area, which now
must be where 'the mass of manual workers' is. It was further necessary that
'the mass' think and act in a certain way, which, of course, these artisans did
Enjoying as they did...legal or customary protection, they found
their trade clubs of use mainly for the provision of friendly benefits, and
for 'higgling' with their masters for better terms. We find little trace among
such trade clubs of that sense of solidarity between the manual workers of
different trades which afterwards became so marked a feature of the Trade
Beatrice Webb explaining 'class consciousness' in her autobiographical My
So long as each section of workers believed in the intention of
the governing class to protect their trade from the results of unrestricted
competition no community of interests arose.94
Parliament since the 18th century had been the arbiter of wages and work
conditions because of the importance of product to trade and thus to 'the
Thus, societies which found themselves harassed and their leaders arrested and
jailed were mostly ones judged to be in 'restraint of trade'. The 'prohibition
of combination' was 'only a secondary feature.'96
Any disputes the 'trade clubs' had were more like 'family differences than
conflicts between different social classes.' This further, arbitrary extension
is the point at which the heroic nature of the whole construction enters:
(The trade clubs) exhibit more tendency to 'stand in' with their
masters against the community, or to back them against rivals or interlopers,
than to join their fellow workers of other trades in an attack against the
capitalist class. In short, we have industrial society still divided
vertically trade by trade, instead of horizontally between employers and wage
And this from authors who have just finished arguing that if workers in
different trades joined together their association could not be a 'trade union'.
Nevertheless, referring to the horizontal division they say:
This latter cleavage it is which has transformed the Trade
Unionism of petty groups of skilled workmen into the modern Trade Union
As a result, therefore, they argue:
The pioneers of the Trade Union Movement were not the trade clubs
of the town artisans, but the extensive combinations of the West of England
woolen workers and the Midland framework knitters.97
All of these definitional manipulations are in the first fifty pages, and are
but a prelude to dealing with the problem represented by the Owenite period,
Their Second Chapter, 'The Struggle for Existence, 1799-1825', points to many
combinations which continued safe from interference by the authorities after
1799. This despite the Act of that year which 'expressly penalised all
combinations whatsoever' and the clamor of some employers who sought an Act 'for
the prevention of conspiracies among (any and all) journeymen tradesmen to raise
their wages', ie, as The Times put it, 'all benefit clubs and
societies are to be immediately suppressed.'98
It is rarely acknowledged that the immediate problem the authorities had was
not the problem the manufacturers perceived. In an 1819 case against cotton
spinners arrested as they met to collect 'funeral contributions' it was argued
successfully that 'all societies, whether benefit societies or otherwise, were
only cloaks for the people of England to conspire against the State.'99
Under the shadow of the French Revolution, the English governing
classes regarded all associations of the common people with the utmost
At this point in their argument the Webbs return to the distinction between
'town artisans' and 'the mass of manual workers', distinguishing between
societies covering the 'skilled handicrafts, long accustomed to corporate
government', and 'the new machine industries.'
They assert that 'even under repressive laws, no unlawful oaths, seditious
emblems or other common paraphernalia of secret societies' came to light in
their researches of the former group, while steady degradation of 'the Standard
of Life' amongst the latter group 'led to the prevalence among them of fearful
oaths, mystic initiation rites and other manifestations of a sensationalism
which was sometimes puerile and sometimes criminal.'101
These two claims exemplify the quite serious flaws in their scholarship. But
note that the former group of societies, the town-based 'skilled handicrafts',
are those which they previously said had adopted 'forms and ceremonies' from the
'little friendly societies and sick clubs.' Note too, the 'seditious' ones
adopting the 'mystic rites' include the Luddites, and are the same 'extensive
combinations' (above) which were proposed as the true 'pioneers of the Trade
In opening the next Chapter, on the period 1825 to 1834, it seems they regard
each of these societies, town-based or not, as a 'Trade Union..in its modern
So far, we have been mainly concerned with societies formed in
particular trades, nearly always confined to particular localities, and known
as institutions, associations, trade clubs, trade societies, unions and union
societies. We have by anticipation applied the term Trade Union to them in its
modern sense; but in no case that we have discovered did they call themselves
Which is why definitions are so important. The participants can't be expected
to label their organisations correctly, they have to be told, later, what they
Detailed information about 'the [to them puerile] mystic rites' of the rash
of combinations which come to public attention in these few years now becomes
crucial to their, and my, analysis. The Webbs provide the following, mostly in
- certain 'trade clubs' of carpenters and joiners, in 1799, became the
Friendly Society of Carpenters and Joiners in 1827 and joined the Builders'
Union in 1833;
- the Builders' Union, predominantly stone-masons but joined for a short
period by other building tradespeople, became the Operative Stonemasons'
Friendly Society in 1834, the rules and rites of which 'closely resemble those
of contemporary unions [small 'u'] among Yorkshire woollen-workers';
- the 'constitution and ceremonies' of the Stonemasons Friendly Society and
the Friendly Society of the Carpenters and Joiners 'are nearly identical with
those adopted by many of the national Unions [capital 'U'] of the period, and
were largely adopted by the Grand Consolidated Trades Union of 1834';
- details of the rites, ritual and organisational procedures of the
Builders' Union were set out in the 'Character, Objects and Effects of Trades
Unions' in 1834 and 'ordered' to be taken from the 'Making Parts Book'
of the Operative Stonemasons 'by all lodges of the Builders' Union';
- the ritual, etc, was also 'the same as practised for years by the flannel
weavers of Rochdale', not as flannel weavers but as Oddfellows.
The Webbs concluded that 'it seems probable that the regalia, doggerel rhymes
and mystic rites of the unions [lower case] of this time were copied from
those of an Oddfellows lodge, with some recollections of Freemasonry.'
They cite the 1891 book, Mutual Thrift, to the effect that the
'initiation ceremony' of the Patriotic Oddfellows 'corresponds in many
characteristic details with that of the Trades Unions.'[Caps] They finish this
section with the ambiguous: 'All the older friendly society 'Orders'
imposed an Oath, and were consequently unlawful'.103
Taking this material with points 1.- 5., above, would seem to produce these
A - the 'rules and rites' 'ordered' adopted by the Builders Union,
dominated by the (operative) stone-masons, and thence apparently adopted by
all the 'trades' of the GNCTU, were 'the same as practiced by the flannel
weavers of Rochdale', who were Oddfellows, and were 'similar' to those of the
B - the characteristic details of the 'initiation ceremony' of the
Patriotic Oddfellows 'corresponds' with rites supposedly 'peculiar' to the
'Trades Unions' of the period 1829-34, as well as with 'Trades Unions' in
C - the organisational rules and rites of the unions of Yorkshire woollen
workers, were long-standing and derived from 'little friendly societies and
D - both the earlier and the later 'regalia, doggerel rhymes and mystic
rites' probably came originally from the Freemasons.
This is indicative but clearly unsatisfactory. The Webbs don't ask
why the 'little friendly societies' would borrow from the Freemasons, nor
from where the Freemasons got their 'rites of association';
how the arbitrarily arranged 'borrowings', 1829-34, could have been
implemented so easily by virtually all 'trade unions' throughout the
country during such a 'revolutionary' period, particularly given that Robert
Owen was opposed to their use.
We will see that relying on any of the scholarship relating to the odd
fellows was a bad choice, especially any claiming to know the ritual after a
time lapse of 100 years, however that centring on the 'Operative Stonemasons
Friendly Society' could prove very productive.
In the context of their later statements the ironies of the Webbs' other
assertions about the 'Masons', ie the operative stonemasons, having 'a trade
fraternity of national extent' which held 'yearly congregations and
confederacies' before 1425, (above) become almost too delicious to bear. I
return to these and questions concerning the 'village ale-clubs turning, under
certain conditions, into 'trade unions', in the following sections.
The Webbs' text now applies the value judgements from their Introduction to
separate the physicality of the shared 'mystic rites' from their organisational
function by describing the former as 'sensational' and 'fantastic' and likely to
produce consequences not in keeping with 'modern' Trade Unionism:
Although in the majority of cases the ritual was no doubt as
harmless as that of the Freemasons or the Oddfellows, yet the excitement and
sensation of the proceedings may have predisposed light-headed fanatical
members, in times of industrial conflict, to violent acts in the interests of
the Association. At all events, the references to its mock terrors in the
capitalist press seem to have effectually scared the governing classes.104
The Webbs, at what was probably the key dramatic moment in their whole story,
overwhelm with mock whimsy the allegation that 'extension of new lodges in
previously unorganised trades and districts was enormous'. They use the
Stonemasons' version of the ceremony of 'making' a new member to provide some
sense of the rite. Hymns and opening and closing prayers fortified the
initiation done in question and answer (catechism) form, in 'quaint' doggerel,
after which the oath was sworn in front of the lodge officers (wardens, tylers,
conductors, president and secretary). For the Webbs this was not a natural
Ceremonies of this kind...were adopted by all the national
and general Unions of the time...105
They dismiss the axes, cutlasses, masks, etc found by police in various parts
of the country, by describing them as 'fantastic', by saying they have 'mystic
properties' and thus implying this is sufficient explanation for 'shop
assistants' and 'journeymen chimney sweeps' being, in their words, 'swept into
Numerous missionary delegates, duly equipped with all the
paraphernalia...perambulated the country...a positive mania for Trades
Unionism set in...Whether the (GNCTU) was responsible for the lodges of
'Female Gardeners' and 'Ancient Virgins' who afterwards distinguished
themselves in the riotous demand for an eight hours day at Oldham (1834) is
The Webbs are attempting to argue that these 'ceremonies' were used entirely
and only for short-term impact, an artifice of stage-management to impress
unsophisticated newcomers. The Tolpuddle labourers' 'playing with oaths' is
their pivotal example.107
Under this treatment the organisational function of the rite simply disappears,
being rendered undeserving of any further exploration. The oaths and the rest
cannot, therefore, be part of a living culture reflective of the needs,
anxieties, expectations or desires of the people using them. They can have no
history of any significance and can only be a temporary aberration in the
evolution of 'the trade union movement.'
With such a culture, its history and its context, dismissed, only a belief in
certain arbitrary organisational 'points' is needed to acquire the awareness
necessary for there to be 'real' 'trade unions.' Committment and belief in this
organisational 'type' becomes the sine qua non of 'class consciousness.'
The Webbs appear to believe that the whole ritual package was abandoned if
not immediately then shortly after 1834, the year of the Tolpuddle trial. They
have found few supporting statements to this effect, and these relate most
clearly to oath-taking.108
If oaths, regalia, initiations, etc, did actually cease at that time whether
because of stress, lost popularity or perceived irrelevance, the same package
should not have reached the 'labour movement' in the USA or in New South Wales
decades after that date, as it did. Very interestingly for this author who has
looked closely at the Knights of Labor, the Webbs assert that the GNCTU
closely resembles in its Trade Union features, the well
known "Knights of Labor"...for some years one of the most powerful labour
organisations in the world' and whose place was taken by the American
Federation of Labour, with exclusively Trade Union objects.'109
It is not clear what 'Trade Union features' or 'objects' might mean but the
Knights began life in 1869 as 'The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of
Labor'. As a 'purely and deeply secret organisation' it drew heavily on
Freemasonry for its ideas and procedures,110
according to the author to whom the Webbs refer. That man, Carroll Wright, who
was at the time US Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor, went on to say that a
major change took place in 1881 when the Order's General Assembly, agreed that
for the first time the Order's name and objects would be made public and its
initiating oaths abolished. He did not emphasise the fact that the
ritual continued, including the use of a square altar and a red triangular
The long time leader of the K of L, Terence Powderly, was a devout Christian
and an open Bible was always present during meetings of the Assembly. He had
earlier been a member of the 'Industrial Brotherhood' which also used ritual.
That 'Brotherhood' coalesced with and passed on its Preamble and Constitution to
the emerging K o L. In his autobiography, Powderly also referred to the (US)
'Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers', the (US) 'Order of Machinists' which had
an emblem very similar to that of Freemasonry and to the (US) 'Knights of St
Crispin' which was the 'combination' for shoemakers. I also mention here the
(US) Knights of Columbus, formed in the 1880's and known as 'the Catholic
Freemasonry', and that Friendly Societies in the US retained all their ritual
well into the 20th century.111
In 1883 the titles of the K o L central executive officers were altered from
'Grand' to 'General', viz, from 'Grand Master Workman', 'Grand Secretary,'
'Grand Treasurer', 'Grand Venerable Sage', 'Grand Worthy Foreman', and 'Grand
Unknown Knight', etc to 'General Master Workman', etc.112
When this 'Order' was secretly brought to Australia in (approx) 1890 its
codes, passwords and elected officers and its titles came too. The 'Secret Work
and Instructions' issued for the Freedom Assembly which operated secretly
in Sydney during 1891-3 and which had as members numerous well-known labour
movement figures such as William and Ernie Lane, WG Spence, Arthur Rae and
George Black, contained directions for initiates passing through Outer and Inner
Veils, for secret hand-signs and for ritual use of a globe, lance, triangles and
other shapes. An 1893 (approx) photograph of Dr W Maloney, Labor MP in Melbourne
for many years, shows him wearing a Knights of Labor collar.113
According to the Webbs, subsequent to the rise and fall of the GNCTU, a
reaction against 'reckless aggression', and, by extension, against strikes set
in amongst the 'combinations'. 'Extorted oaths and physical force' were replaced
with 'stately' Parliamentary-type proceedings, concern for self-education and
information outlets, such as trade journals. Temperance, reason and conciliation
became the new watchwords:
Such was the 'New Spirit' which by 1850 was dominating the Trade
The Webbs argue that attempts to control the number of apprentices, to close
the trade to new-comers and to encourage emigration of surplus tradesmen were
new strategies. They either do not know or cannot guess that these have always
been fundamental to labour organisation and to the 'rites of association.' The
whole point of the medieaval 'tramping allowance', for example, was to get
stonemasons away from one job site to another.
What is relatively new by the 1850's is the limiting of local lodge
autonomy by increasingly centralised administrations of larger and larger trade
amalgamations. The 'power of declaring war on employers' was specifically taken
away from the local 'branches' and detailed Rules were developed to ensure
conformity in action and control of expenditures. The movement to conformity was
already appearing with the Rules of the supposedly 'spontaneous' funeral and
sick clubs which the Webbs noted in the 18th century. Because the 19th century
Rules were so precise in spelling out their role in the overall scheme of things
local officers sometimes felt that they were able to continue operating with
independence. However, while these Rules certainly allowed differing degrees of
discretion real power over policy was going, if not already gone.
The core of the arrangement and the site of the constant struggles was
control of the society's funds. If allowed, local control of members'
contributions obviously threatened starvation of the whole body and negation of
any overall policies. In the key decade of the 1890's the Webbs were arguing:
The paramount necessity of a central fund, available for the
defence of any branch that might be involved in industrial war, has become so
plain to every Trade Unionist [caps] that society after society has adopted
the principle of a common purse.115
[echoes of Wm Lane's 'common purse.']
Thus, the Webbs closed their Chapter on 'The Revolutionary Period'
(1829-1843) with an ideological gloss on this phenomenon:
For the next quarter of a century we shall watch the development
of the new ideas and the gradual building up of the great 'amalgamated'
societies of skilled artisans, with their centralised administration, friendly
society benefits, and the substitution, wherever possible of Industrial
Democracy for the ruder methods of the class war.116
The printing trades claim to have begun developing along these lines in the
18th century but historical pride of place is given by the Webbs to the
Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) which by 1851 had become 'the largest and
most powerful Union' ever in the engineering trades, 'far exceeding in
membership, and still more in annual income, any other trade society of the
Eleven thousand members were paying 1/- per week, not for specific benefit
funds (funeral, sickness, etc) but to generally maintain the Society, the
executive of which developed very generous benefit systems by administrative
decision. The Webbs bury in another footnote the key information that
It must be remembered that the previous ephemeral associations of
the cotton-spinners and miners, which often for a time counted their tens of
thousands of members, were exclusively strike organisations, with
contributions of 1d or 2d per week only. The huge associations of 1830-34 had
usually no regular subscription at all and depended on irregularly paid
It also must be remembered that these 'ephemeral associations of the
cotton-spinners and miners' were previously acknowledged to have been locations
of the rites of association resembling those present among Freemasons and Odd
Fellows. Now they are 'exclusively strike organisations'.
Regular contribution is yet another fundamental and long-standing element of
lodge structure. The 'huge associations' of 1830-34 apparently had the 'mystic
rites' but not the members' contributions towards benefits. This lack of
subscriptions clearly refers, not to the founding 'clubs' or benefit societies,
but to the amalgamations suddenly thrown together in those turbulent years. We
will see that the 'rites' were easily formalised since they were already largely
shared and already had forms applicable to district levels of organisation, but
that there was no perceived need for the GNCTU to extend the collections made at
the local level. Subsequently:
What impressed the working men [who sought to copy the ASE
'Model'] was...the admirably thought-out financial and administrative system,
which enabled the Union to combine the functions of a trade protection society
with those of a permanent insurance company, and thus attain a financial
stability hitherto undreamt of.119
The large and regular income from thousands of members not only provided
benefits 'which were on a scale at that time unfamiliar to the societies in
other trades' but an accumulating balance 'which could be drawn upon for strike
For many years the union of friendly benefits with trade
protection funds, now considered as the guarantee of a peaceful Trade Union
policy, was denounced as a dishonest attempt to subsidise strikes at the
expense of the innocent subscriber to a friendly society insurance against
sickness, accident, and old age.120
The Webbs conclude that scarcely a trade existed which, between 1852 and
1875, did not either attempt to imitate the whole ASE constitution or to
incorporate one or other of its characteristic features.121
I shall pass over the 1868 opinion of Mr Finlaison of the National Debt Office,
'perhaps the most competent living witness on the subject', that the ASE was
unsound, having far greater liabilities than income.122
But it is perhaps worth noting that this 1868 writer had no doubt that
Every trade's union is a society for aiding members who are out of
employment on strike or otherwise; and it is also a benefit society, agreeing
to allow its members certain sums of money in case of sickness or
'In a certain sense', the Webbs say in their 1897 Industrial
Democracy, 'it would not be difficult to regard all the activities of
Trade Unionism as forms of Mutual Insurance.'123
By the phrase 'Mutual Insurance'...we understand only the
provision of a fund by common subscription to insure against casualties; to
provide maintenance, that is to say, in cases in which a member is deprived of
his livlihood by causes over which neither he nor the union has any
Trade Union Mutual Insurance, thus defined, comprises two distinct classes of
benefit: 'Friendly' - provision of sick pay, accident benefit, superannuation
allowance, and/or 'burial money'; and 'Trade Benefits'- especially 'Out of Work'
In Industrial Democracy, the Webbs refined their 'common purse'
argument. A common purse in itself does not necessarily involve a central
executive wielding all administrative power. Local branch administration 'may be
as efficient and economical' as any central authority where precise rules are in
play for the carrying out of business and no discretion is allowed where
policy creation is concerned:
In all matters of trade protection (including the conduct of a
strike) it passes the wit of man to prescribe by any written rule the exact
method or amount of the expenditure to be incurred.125
'It follows' they argue, that 'the larger and most distinctive part of Trade
Union administration' must be left to the discretion of the central executive.
This is the only way, they insist, 'by which those who have contributed the
income can retain (through their elected representatives) any control over its
expenditure.' This development necessarily entails the loss of branch
autonomy in issues of policy, in the expenditure of 'their' part of the common
income, and in decisions likely to involve the society 'in war.'126
'This cardinal principle of democratic finance' according to the Webbs, 'has
been only slowly and imperfectly' learnt and 'a lack of clear insight into the
matter' still produces 'calamitous results' in large and powerful organisations.
They cite a situation wherein the ASE, itself, found 'its prestige and honour'
involved in a great industrial conflict without its central executive having
considered the point at issue at all. This came about because 'Out of Work'
payments were distinguished from 'Strike Pay' and as thus being within the
province of a local branch or District to determine as a 'friendly' benefit.
Such a payment may well be considered sufficient back-up by employees at a
single works for them to put down their tools and walk out:
The incapacity of the Engineers to make up their minds whether or
not they desire local autonomy in trade policy, has more than once placed the
society in an invidious and even ludicrous position.127
The Webbs, here, opened a theoretical gap between 'trade protection' and
'friendly benefit' functions of a 'trade union', and gave a pre-eminent position
to the first of these. In practice, the new 'structure' refused to congeal:
The same conflict between centralisation of finance and the
surviving local autonomy of the branches may be traced in the rules of most of
the unions in the building trade.128
The authors claim that the (UK) United Society of Boilermakers 'has found a
way to combine efficient administration of friendly benefits with a strong and
uniform trade policy.' The Rules stipulate that a 'donation benefit' can be paid
to someone 'thrown out of employment' by certain causes excluding
disputes for which only strike pay can be advanced. Here, the problem has
been solved, they say, by 'an absolute separation, both in name and in
application between the trade and friendly benefits.'129
They explain that the continuing importance of the 'Trade Union branch' is in
its capacity to act as the 'jury' by providing local and even personal
information to 'protect the funds from imposition.' 'Is a man sick or
malingering? Has an unemployed member lost his situation through slackness of an
employer's business or slackness of his own energy? (etc, etc.)' These are
questions best answered by people 'who are acquainted with the whole
circumstances of his life.'130
No wonder class warriors have wanted to bury any understanding of the role of
benefit payments. Going into 'the whole circumstances of his life' could be very
The utility of this jury system...may be gathered from the
experience of other benefit organisations. It is..significant that the
great industrial insurance companies and collecting societies, with their
millions of working-class customers, and their ubiquitous network of paid
officials but without a jury system, find it financially impossible to
undertake to give even sick pay, let alone out of work benefit. The Prudential
Assurance Company, the largest and best managed of them all, began to do so,
but had to abandon it (because of fraud). 131
In the same footnote, they illustrated the point that those Friendly
Societies [my caps] which have retained local lodge autonomy have the lowest
rates of sick payments. The closing footnote of this section on 'The Unit of
Government' disclosed that the attractions of having the benefit funds available
to the 'war chest' have resulted in many 'national Trade Unions' centralising
even the friendly benefit side of their administration.132
On another related point, 'disastrous' inter-union rivalry, the Webbs
disclosed an attitude I would applaud, despite an unhelpful 'merely':
The evil will be equally apparent whether we regard the Trade
Union merely as a friendly society for insuring the weekly wage-earner against
loss of livlihood through sickness, old age and depression of trade, or as a
militant organisation for enabling the manual worker to obtain better
conditions from the capitalist employer.133
Twenty years after writing this, they provided an illuminating interpretation
of the 'New Unionism' of the 1890's, which was of particular importance to them
personally, to their ideology and to the 'modern' British labour movement which
had captured them. Most relevantly here, they sought to undermine the 'more
enthusiastic apostles' of the 'New Unionism' who wanted to portray the decade's
unionisation of unskilled labourers 'unencumbered with friendly benefits' as an
Throughout the whole history of the movement we find two types of
societies co-existing. At special crises..we see one or other of these types
taking the lead and becoming the 'New Unionism' of that particular
In the 1830's, they explain, commentators deplored the newly-formed 'trades
unions' without friendly benefits as a 'mischievous innovation' when they were
nothing new. Twenty years later, the 'new model' of an elaborate 'trade friendly
society' was widely embraced by working people and roundly denounced by
employers as a fraud. This in its turn became the 'Old Unionism' of 1889 when
'progressive spirits' saw a need to eliminate the 'enervating influences of
Further, to see in this phenomenon a 'rhythmical alternation' would be to see
an illusion. Certain industries have persisted with a 'purely trade society'
over decades while others have adhered to the 'trade friendly society.' Some
have changed from one to the other over time. The repeated surge of enrolments
amongst the less-skilled invariably involved the 'purely trade society model'
simply because it was necessary to 'make no greater tax upon their miserable
earnings than a penny or twopence a week.' Thus, levies for friendly benefits
are eschewed. However, the record shows that very soon in the life of the
organisations, first, funeral benefits and then sick and accident funds are
Here, they compare the 'extreme and complicated sectionalism' of the earlier
period with the 1890's when there was a 'more generous recognition of the
essential solidarity of the wage-earning class.' Internationally, the renowned
'insular conceit' of British labour representatives gave way to a greatly
increased cordiality. They do not claim that the famed unwillingness to engage
in open debate changed. Referring to the period before 1885 they are prepared to
be quite explicit:
On all questions of policy or principle before the (Labour)
Congress the delegates were generally unanimous. This was brought about by the
deliberate exclusion of all Trade Union problems from the agenda.135
In a 'graphic' personal memoir which they quote extensively to illustrate the
emergence of the labour bureaucracy, it is abundantly clear that while 'the
mystic rites and the skeleton mummery' had allegedly disappeared very little of
organisational substance, the way lodge business was conducted, had changed.
What had changed, of course, was the observers' terminology. Previously, the
'initiation' of new members had been a window onto the 'rites of association'.
Now, the 'business of the lodge' is the frame through which the 'combination' is
to be viewed. Tylers still guard the door against strangers, non-members and
drunk or recalcitrant members; initiates still 'pledge' allegiance to the Rules
and the society; individual contributions are still made and recorded; issues
are still discussed and voted on; 'tramp' cards are still used to find work, and
willing workers still 'go through the chairs' and on to Branch and District
In Industrial Democracy, they set out the changes they believed had
wrought 'modern'out of 'primitive' democracy. The earlier where 'everything
which concerns all should be decided by all', leads either to 'inefficiency and
disintegration, or to the uncontrolled dominance of a personal dictator or an
expert bureaucracy.' The modern replaces rotation of offices, mass meetings,
referenda and strict mandating of delegates, with 'the elected representative
assembly' which appoints and controls 'an executive committee under whose
direction the permanent official staff performs its work.'137
So, despite some insightful conclusions and a sophisticated approach, it's
clear the Webbs ultimately failed to understand the integrated nature of the
heritage which provided them with so much. They would not 'see' that the homely,
apparently stagnant continuities of 'lodge' and the 'modern' shifts in
organisational decision-making were parts of a single process. That these
Fabians assured readers that they would be hard-pressed to distinguish between
the various lodge meetings going on in the trades hall on different nights,
whether oddfellows, druid or the boilermakers, should have been enough of a dig
in the ribs to dislodge the political scales from their eyes, but it was not.
British LH's coming after them, have appeared to be reiterating the Webb's
approach very closely. Perhaps emphasising the 'Masonic' nature of that heritage
a little more, they have gradually lost sight of the historical detail and
adopted a much blunter approach. The later authors particularly lose touch with
the idea of fashions in 'trade union' thinking about benefits, but then the
Webbs forgot in the 1920 version some of what they had argued in the 1890's. For
example, that the only visible distinction between 'the trade union
branch and the court or lodge of the friendly society' was the power of the
central executive to tell the local membership what to do:
..But if the visitor listens carefully he will notice, in the
Trade Union business, constant references to mysterious outside
authorities...the visitor will be surprised to find that this characteristic
Trade Union business is not in the hands of the branch at all, but is being
dealt with by another outside authority, the 'district', on instructions from
the general secretary.138
They argued that this centralisation was 'based from the outset on the
principle of the solidarity of the trade.' They said that single, local lodges
'always' helped others and that it was simply assumed with a national union
'that any cash in possession of any branch was available for the needs of any
This, of course, glossed a most contentious issue, and they failed to see that
this 'principle' is merely another form of mutuality.
Australian LH'ns, have unfortunately absorbed very little of the Webbs'
insight or the detail from them or their contemporaries, apparently being
interested only in fragments they considered useful for their preconceived
theoretical framework. The 1920 'trade union' definition is often quoted and the
raw version of the 1890's 'new unionism' adopted as organisational norm for 'the
movement', and then treated as though it developed in a totally unique fashion,
independent of UK influences.
At the same time, LH, the area of study, has been significantly restrained in
Australia by the definitional circularity which developed out of the Webbs'
assertions, and carried into this country most forcefully by Eric Hobsbawm and
EP Thompson. The former's 1960's collection, Labouring Men, especially
the last essay 'Labour Traditions', clearly illustrates this for anyone prepared
to closely examine the 'logical' connections apparently sustaining it.140
The attempts to remove 'friendly societies' and the more general concept
'benefit societies' from history of 'the movement' are simply wrong headed. A
'trade union' continues to be a benefit society', indeed a 'friendly
society', because it cannot help but do so. By the second half of the 19th
century the centralising process was rendering unworkable all supposedly
autonomous lodge structures, however inside 'trade unions' interest in
and knowledge of the 'rites of association' was being maintained by way of
common memberships with other 'benefit societies', ie, resurgent Freemasonry and
Friendly Society Orders [my caps].
LH's predilection for asserting the 'modern' labour movement was a new thing
was made easier by British Whig historiography positing an inertia, a time of
relative stasis from 1688 to 1832, and the 1st Reform Bill. There is more of
relevance to this phenomena (see below), but as Clark, 1987, had it, from
Buckle's 1857 History of Civilisation in England onwards, the tune was
the same - 'progress' of the 'English intellect', 'shaking of ancient
superstitions', 'the great movement of liberation' - on which he commented:
If it were the case that society evolved along rails ultimately
forged by an economic determinism, the historian's task would indeed be
The left-leaning 'radicals' and 'progressives' of the 1960's placed
capitalism at the centre of their picture but, Clark exclaims, they were
'rivetingly derivative'. Targeting the different 'fashions' in LH, he concluded:
(The) heirs to the Whig interpretation of history have remained
within the framework of assumptions and priorities established by the Webbs,
the Hammonds, Tawney, Laski, GDH Cole.141
A great fuss has been made about a further shift in LH's emphasis said to
have occurred in the 1980's and 1990's, towards something called the study of
time and place. Its use of post-modernist jargon and some rhetorical flourishes
about 'the community' to claim a further great leap forward will be considered
in due course. Here it is sufficient to say that this born-again LH appears to
have nothing to offer the current study.
Confining the ambit of their first definition of 'trade union' to 'of their
employment', the Webbs said, implied the inevitability and permanence of the
wage-system, whereas 'of their working lives' allowed the inclusion of
'aspirations towards...change in social and economic relations.' [My
Their updated 1920 text remained confined to wage-relationships and said
nothing about social relationships. But neither did their argument say that the
changes they were describing were inevitable. Their texts do legitimate central
executive dominance but they are quite clear that:
The extreme centralisation of finance and policy, which the Trade
Union [caps] has found to be a condition of efficiency, has been forced
upon it by the unique character of its functions.142
LH, subsequently, has assumed that that dominance was inevitable and has made
little attempt to understand its dynamic, in particular the influence of the
lodge structure and the 'rituals of association.' The Webbs were wrong about the
uniqueness of the functions of 'trade unions', but ensuing LH's have missed the
point entirely. The changed definition should never have been necessary -
'industrial' never was and never could have been separated from the 'benefit'
function precisely because the work place never was and never could have been
separated from its social context.
The Webbs worked hard to give the impression that 'modern' societies
completely jettisoned the rituals of association, but they were unsuccessful
since even those they observed did not. The rites happen to be the Webb's only
textual link with 'the social'. However, the created impression appears to have
been sufficient for later LH'ns to assert that the category 'Trade Union'/'trade
union' was itself the manifestation of a quantum leap forward from
superstitious, 'pre-political' societies into progressive modernity and
The Webbs keenly wanted to be seen as modern as, akin to being 'cool' today,
it was an aspiration with psychic as well as economic and political
Since 'modernity' in the circumstances implied rationality and liberalism as
well as centralised administration the 'simple' difference explained in the
Webbs' brief first footnote about the change in their key definition carried
with it an array of assumptions, often contradictory, but it is upon this base
that LH has been built.
For example, LH has needed to assert that 'the workers' chose to be
disciplined by centralised, hierarchical organisation while 'becoming aware' of
their capacity for independent action. We will see this most clearly in the work
of EP Thompson. To be 'the working class' required that working people show a
sudden or new or different awareness, a personal psychic-political breakthrough,
and simultaneously agree to give up all claim to exercise it, except
through 'legitimate channels' endorsed by the collectivity.
This renunciation of personal autonomy just at the point an awareness of it
is achieved was needed because the LH mythology requires that working people's
aspirations be thereafter carried forward by that 'modern' organisational form,
the 'trade union', its executive and by any other 'nominated' representatives,
up to and including a Labor Prime Minister. Henceforth workers were not to be
under the influence of any other disciplining force, but were to voluntarily and
knowingly create their own limits, to which they would express loyalty and
solidarity, not subservience. This is, of course, not just the LH story, but the
story of modernity, of 'the Rights of Man', of the 'democratic' 19th and 20th
centuries. It is also the Judaeo-Christian concept of free-will being exercised
properly only through voluntary subservience to providence.
In context, one 'old' discipline which had to be replaced was that of
organised religion. The apparent problem for LH's of the increased influence of
Methodism in the 19th century presented no difficulty in practice, since the
varied sects were in urgent opposition to all gaudy display and ceremonial and
seemed obsessed with the lowliest individual having his or her own voice heard
by the highest power, thus, in practice, were on the side of centralised,
collective 'democracy' despite an expressed interest in local autonomy.
In need of more careful explanation was the eruption of fervent 'unionising'
in the years 1829 to 1834 associated with Robert Owen and the Grand National
Consolidated Trades Union and, later, its replacement on the public stage by the
Chartist reform movement (1835-1848) in which 'trade unions' appear to have
played only a minor part. None of this 'fitted' LH ideologies. The ideas and the
events are all too early and imply emotion, not rationality, while the nature of
the organisations involved suggest that, if 'trade unions', they were not a
spontaneous response to industrialisation. Worse still, if they were 'trade
unions', why did they have to be re-invented later?
It is to the decades after the collapse of the Chartist campaigns in 1848
that LH's committed to the pre-eminence of 'trade union's' have looked for the
rise and rise of the 'real' labour movement. Since 'The Communist Manifesto'
appeared in 1852, the idea of dismissing anything prior was especially
attractive to the ideologues who created LH. Also attractive were ideas that
their historical 'explanation'could be based on theory alone, not drawn from an
organic culture, and that it could project itself as a bold new start.
But while the Webb's general approach has been adopted holus-bolus, the date
at which LH's have insisted this totally new, 'modern' form of (labour)
organisation suddenly appeared, and its manner of appearance, have varied in
Before the Webbs' second version was published, Postgate's 1906 study of 'new
unions' taking over from 'the old' suggested an 'urban mode of social action'
coming to centre stage after 1850.144
Most of his details would not have troubled the Webbs, but his emphasis on the
use by 'new unionists' of the Bible to further central management and control
In a later study of just the building unions, in 1923, Postgate concentrated on
the morality of the man he saw as the most important agent for 'the complete
change of policy, ideas and personnel (which) came over the whole of the British
Trade Union movement after the great lock-out of 1860':
Applegarth and his colleagues consciously and carefully
reconstructed the trade union movement...(They) removed every trace of the old
unionism that seemed to reflect a class-war basis.146
Applegarth's 'sermons', published in his paper The Beehive included
the notion that because the 'old' unionist was lewd, drunken and untidy, the
duty of Liberal MP's was not to repeal laws repressing workers but 'to diminish
the growing passion for sensual indulgence.'147
In his 1959 Primitive Rebels Eric Hobsbawm also put the approximate
date of transition from 'the primitive pre-political movements' to 'the modern
labour movements' at 1850.148
He argued that because 'bourgeois revolution' was fought and won before secular
ideology had reached the masses or the middle classes 'it was natural for the
common people to use religious language to express their first
Eventually they learned 'the rules of the game.'
He also argued that in the period 1789 to 1848 there was a development, along
with 'trade societies', of 'ritual organisation, (in) secret revolutionary
brotherhoods', which used Masonic or quasi-Masonic symbols and
Marx (praise the Lord) allegedly eliminated such 'superstitious
authoritarianisms' from the Rules of the League of Communists, which thence
elected all officers, made them subject to recall, and was therefore democratic:
'For practical purposes it was a wholly modern revolutionary
Hobsbawm clearly equated ritual with secrecy, and lack of it with being
'modern', and believed Marxism 'created stronger emotional committments among a
larger number of people than the quasi-masonic conspiracies.'152
He had called for a fresh look at Friendly Societies in 1958 in Industry
In his 'Ritual in Social Movements' essay in Primitive Rebels he noted
four elements in what he called the 'formalism of primitive social movements' -
namely, initiation, ceremonials of periodic meeting such as processions or
shared acts of worship, 'practical rituals' such as 'secret and formal
recognition signs', and symbolism. Although amusing, his account not only
dismisses all such 'primitive' elements as 'pale and degenerate', but says they
'practically always ended in drink' and were only likely to attract the
'uneducated and politically undeveloped'. It is clear that he, like the Webbs,
is equating 'modern' with secular and rational and putting content before form
without exploring either:
(M)odern social movements are surprisingly lacking in deliberately
contrived ritual...what binds their members together is content and not
form...In organisations whose spontaneous development is less inhibited by
rationalism than labour movements, the urge to create ritual may flourish like
tropical undergrowth. But the fact that men give ritual significance to their
actions...is of secondary importance. What holds Communists together is the
content of the party they join...
EP Thompson's argument in The Making of the English Working Class
asserted that the 'new kind of organisation' had come into being with the London
Corresponding Society (LCS) in 1790. It had 'a working man' as Secretary, a low
weekly subscription, an intermingling of economic and political themes,
'realistic' attention to 'procedural formalities' and above all 'an unlimited
membership rule' implying
a new notion of democracy, which cast aside ancient inhibitions
and trusted to self-activating and self-organising processes among the common
This rule, a 'commonplace today' was, according to Thompson, 'one of the
hinges upon which history turns.' It 'meant the LCS was turning its back upon
the century-old identification of political with property rights.' Collectively,
these are "features which help us to define the nature of a 'working-class
Given that none of these 'features' were, in fact, new, and that the claimed
'political rights = property rights' correlation before 1790 can only be true if
'political' is defined in certain, circular ways, much of his 'hinge' argument
falls to the ground. When rebutting George Rude's assertions about the
demonstrating London crowds in the 1760's and 70's he added 'self-awareness' to
his list of new features:
(It, ie the crowd) had scarcely begun to develop its own
organisation or leaders; had little theory distinct from that of its
'managers'; and there is a sense in which it was manipulated and called out by
Wilkes (in the interest of his wealthy supporters).156
Despite an apparent difference with Hobsbawm, all of this is aimed at the
same conclusion - that the mid-19th century organisation, to which he wishes to
attach the label 'trade unionist', was a bold new start. Because of this, and
despite what he's claimed for it, the LCS became yet another 'proto-something',
an almost-something. It was a mere 'harbinger', while the class-in-the-making
was still in the thrall of industrial discipline and Methodism:
Throughout the week, God was the most vigilant over-looker of all
- the 'All Seeing Eye'...Work was the Cross from which the 'transformed'
industrial worker hung.'157
But by the 1830's, through their own efforts according to Thompson, working
people had made themselves into 'the working class'. Secularism had ended
Methodism's influence and freed workers from internalised guilt:
There was a profound difference between disciplines recommended
for the salvation of one's own soul and the same disciplines recommended as
means to the salvation of a class.158
Quoting Hobsbawm, he argued that 'Secularism is the ideological thread which
binds London [!] labour history together' from the Jacobins to the
This is despite his need to locate the source of the relevant organisational
skills and experience in the 'dissenting sects', in particular, amongst 'the
self-sustaining Methodist societies in trading and market centres, and in
mining, weaving and labouring communities.'160
He claims that it was Methodism which was the source of 'the methodical
collection of penny subscriptions' and the 'ticket', by which he means,
presumably, the card members carried with them showing that they were 'good on
the books.' He credits the Moravian sect with, among other things, the 'yearning
for communitarian ideals expressed in the language of 'brotherhood' and
The several reform crises and the 1832 Reform Bill are his study's cut-off
point. The 'disorderly and ragged rabble' who protested in the 18th century have
by then, he says, become 'morally effective' demonstrators, systematic, orderly
and quietly determined:162
Now, 100,000 may be collected together and no riot ensue, and
why?...The people have an object, the pursuit of which gives them importance
in their own eyes, elevates them in their own opinion, and thus it is that the
very individuals who would have been the leaders of the riot are the keepers
of the peace.163
As one contra-argument on just this point, Hibbert, in King Mob, the
story of the 1780 'Gordon Riots' in London, emphasised the efforts put into
orderly assembly and disciplined marching by the mass of over 50,000
demonstrators and petitioners, whose movement was taken over and sabotaged by
wreckers and looters:
To practice the arrangements for this march, the crowd was divided
up by the organisers into four divisions...Three or four times they made a
circuit of the Fields practising the discipline of marching; keeping in line
and in step with remarkable success.164
Of course, many of the organisers here belonged to the Protestant Association
and therefore would be at odds with Thompson's 'secular' thesis, and, no doubt,
with his 'political' argument as well. M Dorothy George's 1930 conclusion
matched Hibbert's. She set out the parameters of a marked decrease in the levels
of social vice and disorder in London in the second half of the 18th
She put this down to declining rates of death, disease and public danger,
because of better policing, better public administration and a change in
(In) the early part of the [18th] century the forces of disorder
and crime had the upper hand in London...By the end of the century we are in a
different world...we see a revolution in opinion comparable with conversion -
with that change of heart which is a phenomenon of individual
She reminded us that Francis Place, speaking over a century before her about
the time-period, 1790-1830, made the very argument which is the spine of
The progress made in refinement of manners and morals seems to
have gone on simultaneously with the improvement in arts, manufactures and
And when Place looked to a decline in mortality, he saw discipline, too, but
one with a Christian tone, not one of militancy:
Much of this is attributable to the increased salubrity of the
Metropolis, much to the increase of surgical or medical knowledge, much also
to the change that has taken place not only in London, but all over the
country, in the habits of the working classes, who are infinitely more moral
and more sober, more cleanly in their persons and their dwellings, than they
were formerly, particularly the women...168
As part of his preamble to the new forms and the new self-awareness of the
fabled 19th century 'working class community' Thompson also asserted 'a high
degree of conscious working-class endeavour...far back (in) the eighteenth
century' in the lodge structure and the rituals of association of 'box-clubs and
He quoted the 1750 Rules of the Manchester small-ware weavers 'already' showing
'meticulous attention' to procedure and to etiquette. The committee-members must
sit in a certain order, the doors must be kept locked and the 'box' carefully
In these Rules, as the Webbs did, he saw the 'code of the self-respecting
artisan' and 'the ethos of mutuality' which spread to ever-wider sections of
working people as the Industrial Revolution advanced. So, again, it turns out,
working people were responding to industrialisation by becoming sober and
organised. And since it was tradesmen who were politicised, basically by being
forced into illegality by the Combination Acts around the early 1800's, so the
newly-formed class was represented only by the 'trade union'. 'Friendly
societies' simply disappear from his text via a linguistic dismissal similar to
that used by the Webbs:
In the simple cellular structure of the friendly society...we can
see many features which were reproduced in more sophisticated and complex
forms in trade unions, co-operatives, Hampden Clubs, Political Unions and
This series of non-sequiturs is most unfortunate. As it had led the Webbs,
his 'Trade Union' bias has led him away from insights which could have seen him
build on the work of George, Unwin and others. Admittedly, he would have had to
read outside the selective, sacred ground of LH.
Not that George, in detailing the 18th century development of public health
measures, the spread of hospitals and dispensaries accessible by the poor and
the in-house treatment by doctors,171
connected these developments to the 'friendly societies' of these very same
decades. Nor did she wonder whether these societies had suddenly appeared as has
often been assumed or whether they were being noticed more often by commentators
increasinglty concerned about social welfare.
The societies, surely, are the source of what she called a people's 'change
of heart (resulting from) individual experience', just as they are, factually,
the source of Thompson's 'methodical collection of penny contributions', the
'ticket', and the systematic and orderly participation in demonstrations, in
other words the 'disciplines as a means to the salvation of a class.' George
does allow, very late in her account, that:
The great development of friendly societies (in spite of the
convivial and speculative character of many of them) shows that there was a
growing spirit of providence and independence.172
While, as we will see, the 'rites of association' and the 'lodge ethos' come
from earlier times, the nature of the threats to the survival of working people
changed in the 18th century, so that the nature of their solutions changes. That
is, in response to the crowding together in larger and larger conglomerations,
which were the conditions to which the municipal authorities were responding,
working people altered the Rules of their long-standing 'benefit societies' to
reflect the greater importance of unemployment, sickness and burial benefits.
They were responding, too, to the slowly slackening grip of 'the Church' and an
increasing need for their Rules to be publically available and comprehensive and
to advocate accountability.
Desire for control over work practices and decisions amongst workers was not,
as a result, diminished. Neither was there a sudden loss of religious
faith, the gap suddenly filled by a secular, disciplined rationality. In the
Rules surviving from Saxon and Norman times there is emphasis on correct
religious observances alongside concern for the welfare of travellers. The first
was the means for communal conviviality as well as for observance of saints days
and the tension between these two elements is a constant over a thousand years.
The Rules concerning travellers reflect the particular perils to be met with
by anyone venturing outside the city walls in the 10th century, as do also the
Rules of the 18th century. The language has changed, the basic ideas have not.
The Rules are always work-oriented if not work-specific, since that central
tenet of existence has not altered either.
In the face of that history, Thompson referred readers to Primitive
Rebels for 'the masonic tradition, and for the role of ritual and initiation
So, despite 900+ eloquent pages of fascinating detail, he has been unable to
bring the LH story any further than the Webbs or Hobsbawm. Despite his 'far back
in the 18th century' reference, the rituals of association remain mere
decoration, in his text only for their entertainment value, as necessary but
rather absurd cast-offs. So, though he makes aspects of their procedures central
to his whole thesis, 'friendly societies and box-clubs' remain only 'the
sub-culture out of which the less stable trade unions grew'.174
When he does address directly the rich and complex culture of 'the working
people whose formative experiences' have been his subject,175
he discusses only printing presses and literacy, songs, theatre and the
consciousness-raising ideas of political economy, abstinence and
Despite the question - what is a 'trade union'? - being of central importance
to his whole text and to a number of his key arguments, (including solidarity;
discipline; the idealisation of work; secrecy vs public display and ceremonial;
perceptions of democracy and individual worth; group organisation; funds'
management; accident, sickness and mortality rates) his preconceptions meant he
was no more interested in untangling the threads than the Webbs were and so he
glossed the crucial issues.177
Adequately explored, the material he brought together is precisely that which
would have justified his and his supporters'claims about a changed, inclusive
LH. But he appears to believe that he's writing The Making of the English
Trade Union, thus it is not surprising to me that, despite the applause that
greeted this 'most imaginative post-war work of English social history'178
and its reference to 'the formative experiences' of working people, the
narrownesses and blindspots of an earlier LH remain.
In 1980, Hobsbawm and George Rude claimed to add further detail to the
established LH/Webb approach. They examined the 'Captain Swing' protests among
agricultural labourers of southern England, of the late 1820's and early 1830's.
Locating the organisational form used, they exposed further elements of LH's
'Trade Union' ideology:
(The) organisation of the Swing movement was entirely
traditional.[?] It rested on informal consensus...It was not enough for modern
trade unionism. Modern forms of organisation have to be learned like anything
else. Strikes may be the spontaneous products of the wage-labourer's
predicament, but unions are not. The modes of modern, ie urban and
non-agricultural action, took time to penetrate the hinterland.179
[My question mark]
A flock of recent UK scholars, claiming to be followers and developers of the
Hobsbawm approach have, in the last quarter of the 20th century, included
discussion of 'friendly societies' in their seriously-researched studies of
'working class culture'. In the hands of the more Leninist of these, 'friendly
societies' exemplify the clear imposition of bourgeois ideologies on the
emerging leadership of the labour movement:
Hobsbawm has reminded us that Lenin's views on the labour
aristocracy are often misunderstood, because they are not sufficiently related
to his more general view of the limitations imposed on a 'spontaneous' and
'economistic' working class movement by the ideological hegemony of the ruling
class. A movement limited in this way, Lenin suggests, will be unable to move
beyond defensive, and often narrowly sectional, responses to capitalist
exploitation. The labour aristocracy is a special case of this more general
phenomenon, and it emerged under the historical conditions of later
According to Gray and Foster this section of working people made up the bulk
of 'friendly society' brethren, and were therefore by definition, both amenable
to capitalism and determined on a reformist path flagged by injunctions to be
thrifty, disciplined and respectable:
Any account of the culture of the artisan must consider the extent
to which he attempted to solve the pressing problems of economic survival by
the individual exercise of thrift, restraint, economic prudence in
personal and family decision-making.181
a little more interestingly, allows the 'friendly societies' the status of 'the
most representative of working class institutions', purposes beyond a 'modest'
sickness and life insurance and a role in the establishment of other 'mutual
improvement' institutions. 'Even', he acknowledges, conviviality contributed to
'higher purposes esteemed by the culture'. He quotes an 1858 manual of
The lodge is always considered as sacred ground; and no sooner do
those who, in any other place might meet together as enemies, enter into its
precincts, than their bad feelings seem to vanish..(etc)..183
Of course this is overly positive and of course the tendencies of such an
approach towards acquiescence and passivity are obvious. But to generalise from
the expression of such views to the behaviours of a mass of the population is
poor historiography. Tholfsen works his way through the issues and the sentiment
Despite their total commitment to concensus values, the friendly
societies had by no means abdicated their critical faculties or abandoned
their quest for genuine independence...Along with the cloying rhetoric went a
stubborn determination to stick to their principles in the face of
middle-class resistance and hypocrisy.
The function of the friendly societies brought them into the most
direct contact with the harshest side of middle-class social attitudes:
treatment of the poor.184
As for the individual sister or brother: '(His) class consciousness was
fostered by contrasting him with his social superiors..'.185
He understands the liklihood that a cult of success and respectability inherent
in this process will tend to lead workers away from their own. He does not
discuss whether this is a good or a bad thing, and he does not discuss whether
the struggle for survival necessarily implies the possibility of succeeding.
Prothero, in 1979, continued what will be Thompson's only lasting
achievement, a respect for artisinal agency. But he, like his mentor, is unable
to break the grip of terminology rendered obsolete by his own material. An
acknowledgement of his major subject's central role in 'the benefit
societies,...the co-operative movement and anti-Christian propaganda', the fact
that he, John Gast, worked at being shipwright, dissenting preacher, and
publican, as well as organiser and agitator, all of this is insufficient to push
Prothero to recast distinctions or to re-think underlying concepts. When he
quotes Gast's belief in the centrality of labour and 'the trade' to his
political aspirations I believe he mis-reads the evidence. Most crucially, the
'colours and the emblems' arrrayed in procession on the street remain, for
Prothero, mere window dressing, a sign that 'the workers' loved to make a show.
No matter how rich the tapestry, Prothero still makes 'trade unionism' the key,
the only important thread, and he will see as central motif only the LH 'myth':
The artisans played an important part in the campaign, and the
basis of their organisation was the trade societies.186
In 1982, Brown made a number of the critical points I have made about the
Webbs' 'treatment of early union history' yet his residual awe is palpable. He
will only say that their 'great classic work' has to be approached with 'some
caution'. More importantly 'his/their' terminology also remains unaltered, as
All in all, then, there is ample evidence that, contrary to the
Webbs, trade unionism did have a pre-industrial origin.187
Leaving the terms in place means that the underlying concepts remain intact,
because unexamined. In other words, his assertion, just quoted, might have
logically led to the conclusion that a study of 'trade unionism' and a study of
the guilds cannot be separated by any words with 'pre-' in front of them.
In the 1980's, too, Kirk188
delved into the real-time lives of working people to show that the 'labour
movement' and improvements in living standards, greatly increased recognition
and status advancement achieved in the 19th century by the memberships of
benefit societies, were regarded at the time as necessarily co-terminous.
But the one still remains the inferior, stepping-stone to the really important
(In) turning towards temperance (and Co-operation) ... Chartists
were exploring, in the light of the setbacks and defeats suffered by Chartism
in 1848, other means whereby the 'emancipation of the working classes' could
be achieved...And the cultivation of moderation or temperance signified
allegiance to certain qualities - independence, self-respect, self-control and
discipline - which were absolutely essential to the creation of successful
labour institutions and which would enable workers to fashion their own
destinies irrespective of any concessions handed down to them by their
In a collection sub-titled 'Essays for Eric Hobsbawm' two non-English
scholars showed that they were marginally less inhibited by the great man's
legacy. In a discussion of early 19th-century, French working class
'sociability' Maurice Agulhon assumed no barriers between 'trade' societies and
'mutual associations', he took them together and accepted both their involvement
in strikes and wage disputes and continuity of their essential features from
His major, under-researched, contention remained stuck in the groove, however -
that the sociability learnt by workers in tavern-based benefit societies - 'who
share the same workplace, who know one another, who are likely to have faced the
same setbacks' - led on to the 'great trade union organisations (of)
In the same volume Jurgen Kocka made similar points with regard to German
Since the early 1980's there seems to have been a hiatus, a time taken by
LH's to sit back and reflect. In the late 1990's at the (UK) Open University a
Research Group specifically for 'Friendly Societies' has determined to research
these institutions seriously. A bias towards their welfare aspects, could prove
another cul-de-sac, however.
In his 1985 Saving and Spending: The Working Class Economy in Britain
1870-1930, Johnson argued that the real time dynamic of balancing income and
outgoings and 'the set of saving and lending institutions' which evolved around
working people 'have been largely neglected by social and economic historians:'
There is no work on retail finance - the development of
hire-purchase and other forms of credit - and no study of money lending...The
problem of paying rent or the doctor's bill may appear to be less interesting
than the great historical moments of wars, elections and strikes, but for most
people these conflicts were passing distractions from the real business of
He recognised there was more to this dynamic than records of money paid and
money held. Whether counted by some as a cut above the labourer or the navvy the
so-called aristocrat of labour was in no better position when it came to
treading the fine line between stinging poverty and money in hand. 'Symbolic'
consolations often affected decision-making:
Because financial security was difficult for most working-class
households to achieve before the First World War, individual attempts to
promote such security by some form of accumulation acquired a social symbolism
often out of all proportion to their true economic worth [for example] saving
designed to permit the ritualistic wearing of a Sunday suit or the ostentation
of a 'decent' burial...194
He notes that statistics distinguishing memberships of societies by
occupation, location, continuity, etc, etc, are difficult enough to assemble but
the position is made far worse if, as has often been the case, researchers use
terms such as 'friendly society' very carelessly.
RA Leeson's 1979 Travelling Brothers has been a more than useful
introduction to what is, in the context of this study, the location of expert
opinion - the serious guild literature and the research of historians of
Freemasonry and 'friendly societies'. Leeson acknowledged the continuing
resonance of the Webbs' work on the history of 'trade unionism' up to and
including his own time:
Their work has remained a landmark and a monument...Each
reassessment (has left) The History basically unchallenged...(Their)
general view of the 'origins and early struggles etc' has been repeated more
times than can be counted. Because of them the nature of trade union origins
has been declared without hesitation and fear of contradiction.195
He reminded us, however, that their research was conducted and published
'during a period of fierce contention between opposing notions of what the trade
union was about and what its future aims should be.' Their definition of 'trade
union' was part of a polemic, he asserted, designed to deny any past for the
'New Model Unions' in particular and to claim that 'trade unions' in general
were a 'more or less spontaneous response' to the Industrial Revolution by a
'new class of lifelong wage earners.' Leeson observed that the Webbs were
particularly concerned to counter the 'reactionary and divisive' views of George
Howell, MP, Fellow of the Statistical Society and author of the Handy Book of
the Labour Laws and Conflicts of Labour and Capital. In the two
editions of the latter Howell argued for a clear and logical distinction between
'friendly societies' and 'trade unions' devoting the overwhelming bulk of his
500 + pp to 'trade unions'. But he, Howell, also believed:
Modern trade unionism cannot be properly understood, or rightly
appreciated, except by a careful study of their early prototypes, the English
Howell was scathing about 'some "new trade unionists" (who):think they have
discovered how to get rid of capitalists, abolish profits and do away with wages
and yet promote the welfare of the masses.
They denounce trade unions and co-operation alike when it suits their
purpose, he said:
They look to the State for aid. But history shows, especially
industrial history, that self-reliance, self-help, by individual effort, and
mutual help, by associative effort, are the only practicable means whereby the
condition of the people can be permanently improved.197
'New Trade Unionists' condemn the 'friendly benefits' which, to his mind,
'are a conspicuous feature in the modern trade union of the better class.' He is
thinking especially of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and asserts that
experience has shown that 'trade unions' built on the older, discarded form of
combination, ie, for 'trade purposes only', to which advocates of 'new unions'
want the movement to return, were weak and inefficient and 'unable to bear the
strain of successive struggles.' To abandon the ASE model
would be to return to the infancy of trade unions, to the ruder
and cruder stages of their development; to the period when they were under the
ban of the law, when they could not freely and openly organise, and when their
funds were unprotected and at the mercy of any unscrupulous officer who was
dishonest enough to embezzle them.198
Leeson said that he had no quarrel with the Webb's view that what are
understood today as 'trade unions' date from the late 18th century only, nor
with much that the Webbs 'established' as wisdom about 19th century
developments. But in addressing their central question in a different way, he,
perhaps unwittingly, broke open the whole issue for reconsideration. He asked:
(If the 'unions') were only the product of the conditions of the
Industrial Revolution, if they were formed spontaneously in answer to
present need with no reference to previous 'institutions', why did they
adopt and hold onto past forms of sanction, long after reason might have
indicated a change?199
He had in mind sanctions on new workers to 'the trade'. He went on:
Why not immediately adopt the method of getting all workers,
irrespective of how they entered the trade, into their organisation. This
approach was adopted reluctantly by the craft unions...only towards the end of
the nineteenth century, and then chiefly under pressure of competition from
the 'new' unions.
Rather than separating 'trade unions' from 'friendly societies' his is the
slightly more logical but eventually just as confused approach of subsuming
everything under one heading, in his case that of 'trade union' without caps. In
an earlier work he argued:
Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for
ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive gild-craft
tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies,...the
other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women'
for a 'different order of things'...200
In Travelling Brothers Leeson insisted:
I think that the journeymen, or rather the hard core of them had
access to a form of organisation continuously throughout the period
[ie, from the 13th century], and that that form, however unlikely it seems,
was the craft company.201
Many of the Webbs' conclusions seemed to him anomalous. One example: that the
reason Dublin bricklayers, 'a mainly Catholic body', proudly displayed a 1670
charter document 'given to the exclusively Protestant incorporation of working
masters' was that 'a love of the picturesque' was a 'trait of Irish
Leeson asked: 'What character trait marked the English curriers, or for that
matter every other English craft union which did exactly as did its Irish
Objecting to the Webbs' manipulative use of words like 'ephemeral',
'continuous' and 'sporadic', he rejected their attribution of 'the picturesque
likenesses' to the 'little friendly societies' of the time. While he believed
that some 19th century 'unions' invented mottoes and coats of arms in
order to resemble those 'societies' which already had such things, he asked why
'the hard-headed men' of the trade societies would bother, and why they would go
outside their 'craft' for 'emblematic devices'?
We will now see that attempting answers to these questions can provide what
is missing from Leeson's otherwise admirable work and further evidence of why
the Webbs were so keen to dismiss Howell.
Of course, the Webbs were also keen, after 1914, to dismiss the ideas of the
'Guild Socialists', including George Cole and others. How these supporters of a
hybrid model of industry, somewhere between State collectivism and full-blown
syndicalism, came to see themselves as heirs to mediaeval guilds is unclear.
They built their advocacy of 20th century industrial democracy on the idea that
'trade unions' could, with the help of 'the State', be in an analogous situation
to that of the guilds. Their literature need not detain us,203
but their 'missing the point' of the guilds is certainly part of the tragedy.
Keenan, The Inaugural Celebrations of the Commonwealth of Australia,
Gov Printer, 1904, p.170.
Keenan, Inaugural Celebrations..., 1904, as above, pp.254-7.
Ward, The Australian Legend, OUP, 1966, quote from back cover.
Frome Wilkinson, Mutual Thrift, 1891, p.6.
& B Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, Longmans Green, 1920 edn,
Brook, The Gothic Cathedral, Elek, 1969, pp.14-38.
Gross, The Gild Merchant, Oxford, 1927, Vol 1, p.29.
Keenan, 1904, as above, p.173.
Gladstone quoted in W F Wilkinson, The Friendly Society Movement,
Longmans Green, 1891, p.1.
1966, as above, quote again from back cover. His text has only 'trade unions'
as worker organisations.
Baernreither, English Associations of Working Men, 1889, Gale Reprint,
Ramsay Macdonald, The Socialist Movement, Holt, 1910?, p.27.
Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, Pelican, 1939, pp.216-217.
14. B S
Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, Nelson, 1900?, pp.408, 415.
Grey, The Socialist Tradition - Moses to Lenin, Longmans, Green &
Co, 1946, p.367.
article from Cassells Magazine, for December, 1869 (?), in The
Odd-Fellow (UK), July, 1870, p.3.
Perkin, as above, p.381.
Seaman, Victorian England, Methuen, 1973, p.97.
Seaman, as above, p.97.
Lipson, The Economic History of England, Vol 111, Black, 1948, p.391.
21. See H
Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780-1880, R & KP,
& B Hammond, The Bleak Age, Pelican, 1947, p.227.
Neave, East Riding Friendly Societies, East Yorkshire Local History
Society, 1988, p.7; see also his 'Friendly Societies in Great Britain', in M
van der Linden (Ed), Social Society Mutualism, Lang, Bene, 1996.
Neave, 'Friendly Societies in Great Britain', in M van der Linden (ed),
Social Security Mutualism, Lang, 1996, p.54, p.58.
Neave, 1996, as above, p.60.
Johnson, Saving and Spending, Clarendon, 1985, p.78.
Johnson, 1985, as above, p.78, quoting Robinson, 1915. See his pp.1-86 for
detail of UK 'trade union' welfare policies.
Gosden, The Friendly Societies in England, 1815-1875, Manchester
University Press, 1961, p.1.
Smith, The People's Health 1830-1910, ANUP, 1979, p.370.
30. See N
Mansfield, 'The Norwich Plumbers' Emblem', Social History Curators' Group
Journal, (UK) 1986, pp.29-31; A Durr, Catalogue for 'Associations of
Mutual Aid' (Display), Brighton, 1989, (my copy photocopied); other refs
in more detail below.
Karni, 'Ethnc Fraternal Benefit Associations: An Introduction', Records of
Ethnic Fraternal Benefit Associations in the United States: Essays and
Inventories, Immigration History Research Centre Staff, 1981, p.3.
32. A de
Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vintage, 1945, pp.114-118. For
discussion see B Franco, 'Fraternal Organisations in America: A Historical
Perspective 1730-1920', Fraternally Yours, Scottish Rite Museum, Museum
of Our National Heritage, 1986, pp.7-9.
Sackett, Early History of Fraternal Beneficiary Societies in America,
Tribune Publishing, 1914, pp.13-15.
Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood, 1989, Princeton UP.
Clawson, as above, p.4.
Clawson, as above, p.5.
Willis, Medical Dominance: The Division of Labour in Australian Health
Care, Studies in Society Series, No 19, Allen & Unwin, 1983; for the
local hospital quote see D Green & L Cromwell, Mutual Aid or Welfare
State, Allen & Unwin, 1984, p.132; for Medical Institutes, p.96, and
for Dispensaries, see Ch 8, from p.141.
What Price Care? Hospital Costs and Health Insurance, Aust Commonwealth
Parliament, 1990, AGPS, p.75.
Kewley, Social Security in Australia, SUP, 1961, p.12, p.26.
Blainey, 'The Free-thinking Convict Who Became the First Odd Fellow,' IOOF
Update, June-Dec, 1992, p.13. For more detail see G. Blainey,
Oddfellows, Allen & Unwin, 1992.
N. Renfree, 'Migrants and Cultural Transference: English Friendly Societies in
a Victorian Goldfield Town', PhD, 1983, La Trobe Uni, unpub.
Renfree, as above, p.295.
with capitals meaning the Affiliated Friendly Societies, such as the IOOF,
which amalgamated lodges into centralised administrative structures.
Green & L. Cromwell, Mutual Aid or Welfare State, Allen &
Unwin, 1984, p.xiii.
Cromwell & Green, as above, pp.xiv, xv, and Tables.
Stevenson, 'Let Brotherly Love Continue': PAFS in Queensland, Boolarong
Press, 1994, and 'Stand Fast Together: PAFS in Victoria, Boolarong,
Kingston, Glad, Confident Morning, Oxford History of Australia, 1993,
Inglis, Our Australian Cousins, London, MacMillan, 1880, p.178.
Dilke, Problems of Greater Britain, 1890, Vol 2, p.319.
Statistician, Wealth and Progress of New South Wales, Annual Series
Rawson, Unions and Unionists in Australia, Allen and Unwin, 1986, p.7.
Hagan, Australian Trade Unionism in Documents, Longman Cheshire, 1986.
Turner, In Union is Strength, Nelson, 1976, p.8.
Webb, Industrial Democracy, Vol 1,xxxxxxx, p.153.
& B Webb, Industrial Democracy, Longman Green (2 Vols), London,
Welskop, '"Defensive Elitism" and Early Craft Unions in the Wrought Iron
Industry after 1850 (etc)', Labour History Review, Vol 58, No 3, Winter
for example, S McIntyre, 'The Making of the Australian Working Class: An
Historiographical Survey',Historical Studies, Vol 18, Oct 1978, and an
extended discussion in my PhD thesis.
Kingston, Glad, Confident Morning : Vol 3, The Oxford History of
Australia, OUP, 1988, p.89.
Durr, 'Ritual of Association and the Organisations of the Common People',
Transactions of Quatuor Coronati, Vol 100, 1987, p.92.
White, The Laws Respecting Masters and Work People, Garland Publ, New
York, 1979, orig published London, 1824, p.20.
61. See J
Roberts, The Mythology of Secret Societies, Scribners, 1972, espec Ch
Bullock, 1996, as above, p.11.
Roberts, as above, p.3.
Hannah's Christian by Degrees, Britons, 1954, will stand as exemplar.
For doubts thrown by the non-biblical lack of evidence for even the existence
of Solomon and/or 'his' Temple, see the authoritative: A Horn, King
Solomon's Temple in the Masonic Tradition, Aquarian, 1972.
Shields, 'Craftsmen in the Making', in J Shields (ed), All Our Labours:
Oral Histories of Working Life in Twentieth Century Sydney, UNSW, 1992,
Shields, 1992, as above, p.119.
Mann, 'Hail to the Amalgamated Engineering Union', AEU Souvenir 25th
Anniversary 1945, AEU, 1945, p.33.
'shopping-list' would include bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters, joiners,
ironworkers, engineers, metalworkers of various kinds, cloth workers of
Clawson, as above, p13, p14.
Turner, In Union is Strength: A History of Trade Unions in Australia
1788-1974, Nelson, 1976, p.5.
& B Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, Longmans Green, 1920,
Webbs, 1920, as above, p.ix.
Webbs, as above, p.1.
Webbs, 1920, pp.12-13, and fnotes, the last quoting W Ashley, Surveys:
Historic and Economic, 1900.
for the Operative Weavers of Paisley, and p.23, incl fn2, for the Consolidated
Society of Bookbinders.
Pp18-24, incl.p.24, fn1, p.25, fn1.
Webbs, p.45, for last 3 quotes.
Webbs, as above, pp.66-68.
Webbs, last quotes from pp.45-6.
See also p.106.
p.127 and p.136, and footnotes.
p.182 for general claim about 'unlawful oaths'.
Wright, 'An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor', Quarterly Journal
Of Economics, Jan, 1887, pp.141-2.
T Powderly, The Path I Trod, AMS Press, New York, 1968, (orig 1948);
pp.35-38 - his Christianity; p.42, p.43, fn6. - Industrial Brotherhood;
pp.47-53, p.384, pp.431-440 - ritual and symbols of K o L; p.57 - Knights of
St Crispin; p.230 - C Wright; p.318 - Order of Machinists; p.370 - Knights of
Columbus. This and other material could well form the basis of Part 3 of this
Wright as above, p.143 and p.155.
R James, 'Carnival, Discipline and Labour History (etc), PhD thesis, Newcastle
University, 1984, pp.161-2.
Webbs, 1897, p.93.
Webbs, as above, p.179.
Economist', 'The Insolvency of Trades Unions', The Oddfellows'
Magazine, July, 1868, p.424.
& B Webb, Industrial Democracy, Longmans, Green & Co, 1897,
Industrial Democracy, as above, pp.152-3.
following account taken from pp.414-421.
Webbs, 1897, as above, pp.89-90.
Hobsbawm, Labouring Men, Weidenfeld, 1968. The cover of this edition is
also a clear example of editors/author's? exploitation of the emotion of
public display while refusing this same event any place in the text, even in
this case refusing any acknowledgement of its presence.
Clark, English Society, 1688-1832, CUP, 1987, pp.1-6.
Industrial Democracy, 1897, p.102.
Mabbott, The State and the Citizen, Hutchinson, 1958, p.117, provides a
chronology of official attitudes towards 'trade unions' up to the 1920's,
following the Webbs very closely.
Postgate, A Short History of the British Workers, The Plebs League,
Postgate, 1906, p.54.
Postgate, The Builders' History, London, 1923, pp.181, 190.
Postgate, 1923, p.192-193.
Hobsbawn, Primitive Rebels, MUP, 1959, pp 6, 108.
Hobsbawn, 1959, p.145.
Hobsbawn, 1959, pp.162-166.
Hobsbawm, 1959, p.169; see O.Yorke, The Secret History of the International
Working Mens Association, Geneva, 1871, (Reprinted 1974 by Revisionist
Press, Dublin) p. 66, for an argument that Marx and associates were Freemasons
and embarked upon an enterprise governed by the 'masonic' view. (Copy at
'Geoff Macdonald Collection' N94/1413 ANU ABL).
Hobsbawm, 1959, pp.170-172.
Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire,....., p.88.
Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1980 edn,
Thompson, The Making..., as above, p.23.
Thompson, 1980, pp.397-402.
Thompson, 1980, p.816.
pp.30-1, p.41, for instances.
pp.745, 889 especially.
Wallas, Life of Francis Place, 1898, p.146, quoted at p.463.
Hibbert, King Mob, Longmans Green, p.45.
Dorothy George, London Life in the XVIIIth Century, Kegan Paul, Trench,
Trubner & Co, 1930, 'Introduction'. See also her last Chapter, espec
pp.302-7, where she unequivocally states that 'Friendly societies are not a
new development of the eighteenth century' (p.302).
George, 1930, as above, p.16-17.
Place, quoted at George, 1930, as above, p.4.
George, 1930, as above, p.61.
her Chapter 1 in particular, pp.21-62.
George, 1930, as above, p.320.
Thompson, 1980, p.558, fn.1
Thompson, 1980, pp. 460-61.
'Radical Culture', pp.781-819.
the back cover, 1980 edn.
Hobsbawm and G. Rude, Captain Swing, Readers Union, Lawrence &
Wishart, 1970, p.294.
Gray, The Labour Aristocracy in Victorian Edinburgh, Clarendon, 1976,
Gray, 1976, as above, p.121.
Tholfsen, Working Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England, Columbia
Tholfsen, as above, pp.288-9.
Tholfsen, as above, pp.293-4.
Prothero, Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London,
Dawson, 1979, p.142.
Brown, The English Labour Movement, 1700--1951, Gill & Macmillan,
Kirk, The Growth of Working Class Reformism in Mid-Victorian England,
Croom Helm, 1985.
Kirk, as above, p.143.
Agulhon, 'Working Class and Sociability in France Before 1848', in Thane,
Crossick & Floud, The Power of the Past, Cambridge UP, 1984,
Agulhon, as above, p.59.
Kocka, 'Craft Traditions and the Labour Movement in Nineteenth-century
Germany', in Thane, Crossick and Floud, as above, espc. pp.102-5.
Johnson, Saving and Spending, Clarendon, 1985, p.4 text and fn 2.
Johnson, as above, p.6.
Leeson, Travelling Brothers, Paladin, 1980, p.253.
Howell, The Conflicts of Capital and Labour, Macmillan, 2nd edn 1890,
p.xiii; paraphrased in Leeson, p.258.
Howell, 1890, as above, p.ix.
Howell, as above, p.viii.
Leeson, United We Stand, Adams & Dart, 1971, pp.6-7.
Webbs, 1950 edn, p.721.
G Cole, The World of Labour, Harvester, 1973 (reprint); his Guild
Socialism Restated, Parsons, 1920; and a brief discussion at C Crump &
E Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1926, p.446-7.