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Mutual Aid - The Evolution of Friendly Societies in Britain

David G Green (1993)
irector of the Health and Welfare Unit, Institute of Economic Affairs

Click for full paper as 84Kb doc or as 64Kb pdf

In this paper David Green briefly describes the evolution of one of the most significant working class welfare movements every to have emerged in Britain - the friendly societies.

These were self-governing mutual benefit associations founded by manual and skilled workers to provide against hard times - sickness, accident, old age, death and support to widows and orphans.

They strongly distinguished their guiding philosophy from philanthropy which lay at the heart of charitable work. The mutual benefit association was not run by one set of people with the intention of helping another separate group, it was an association of individuals pledged to help each other when the occasion arose. Any assistance was not a matter of largesse but of entitlement, earned by the regular contributions paid into the common fund by every member and justified by the obligation to do the same for other members if hardship came their way.

They began to gain prominence as local clubs in the mid to late 18th century, meeting in the evening after work, often in the back room of a public house and holding their common fund in a wooden chest or strong-box. However, by the beginning of the 20th century they had grown in scale to number more than 26,870 registered societies with some 6.6 million members.

Over time many of the smaller societies either merged or affiliated into national federations with carefully managed investments. Estimates indicate that around another 2.4 million workers were members of unregistered friendly societies. If these assumptions are valid, then 75 percent or more of the then 12 million workforce must have been covered by some form of voluntary provision.

Click for full paper as 84Kb doc or as 64Kb pdf


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