Friendly societies are fraternal organisations established to assist members and their families in meeting the financial and social consequences of illness, unemployment or death. Members' subscriptions go into a common fund, which is drawn upon to support a member in need. Such societies, first developed in the industrial areas of the United Kingdom, were early providers of sick pay, funeral benefits and subsidised medical care.
The first Victorian friendly society, the Melbourne Union Benefit Society, was formed in May 1839 and by September had about 100 members, drawn from 'the congregated trades of the town'. A second was formed in 1840, when a group of men formed the Australia Felix Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Most of the early members of this lodge were self-employed. Later, wage-earners flocked to join. Nearly one-sixth of the Victorian workforce belonged to a friendly society in 1891, and by 1913 over half the population was insured by them in some way.
There was a great variety of societies to choose from: Foresters, Free Gardeners, Manchester Unity, Order of the Sons of Temperance, Druids, Rechabites, Australian Natives Association. Some offered membership only to teetotallers; others attracted mostly Catholics, but theoretically societies were generally open to any healthy employed male of good character who was acceptable to the local membership.
By the 1860s, neighbourhood branches or 'lodges' were springing up all over Melbourne, meeting regularly in hotels or halls and providing members with 'fellowship and friendship'. The ethos of the movement emphasised brotherly feeling, sociability and mutual responsibility. Members were encouraged to look out for each other, visit the sick, and help each other find jobs and settle into the community. They gained experience in leadership, debating and meeting procedure. Most societies were democratic, and office-bearers rotated regularly, which prevented the development of power cliques at the local level.
At lodge meetings the responsibilities of membership were reinforced by formal and often impressive initiation ceremonies; ornate regalia, including aprons, sashes, collars, and gold and silver jewels; and by passwords and signs. The elaborate lodge ritual was deist rather than Christian in emphasis, and had similarities with the ritual of Freemasonry. Members were expected to attend meetings regularly, both to pay their subscriptions and to foster 'brotherly love'. Fellowship was promoted by social events: games evenings, picnics, sporting competitions, dances and concerts where families of members were welcomed. Lodge members in regalia participated in many civic occasions, marching through the city behind large painted banners. Picnics and festivals were held at the Friendly Societies' Garden, on the Yarra.
After 1876, friendly societies were regulated by the government. Professionalism increased after paid officials were appointed. A central body, elected by members, controlled each society's finances, oversaw the operation of local branches and set the level of benefits. Sick pay was paid on a sliding scale, decreasing after the first six months. A doctor appointed and paid by the lodge treated members free of charge, and pharmacies were established to help members meet the cost of medicines. Larger societies invested their surplus funds in buildings, including suburban meeting halls and the Manchester Unity Building in Collins Street, a landmark of the 1930s.
As women entered the paid workforce in greater numbers, some societies opened their membership and established female branches. Membership declined during the depression of the 1890s, when many people found it harder to find the weekly subscription. In 1909 there were 58 different friendly societies in Victoria, meeting in over 1400 lodges, with nearly £2 million worth of assets. Membership in Victoria actually increased during the depression of the 1930s, but fewer members attended every lodge meeting, and societies became more centralised and less personal. Some lodges that had operated with an after-hours licence lost active members once hotel drinking hours were extended in the 1960s.
As the 20th century progressed, many friendly societies amalgamated, becoming large financial institutions offering investment bonds, health insurance, home loans and superannuation. Societies are now regulated by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. In 1999 combined assets were $4.8 billion, but they were losing ground to other financial institutions. Some friendly societies have resisted corporatisation. In these, members are still on first-name terms, retain the ritual and regalia, and continue to meet regularly in echoing halls.