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British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914.

British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914. By Simon Cordery (Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. xiii plus 230 pp.).

Simon Cordery's examination of British friendly societies is a long-overdue look into the origins, operations, social significance, and ultimately, decline and demise of one of the most significant contributions to nineteenth century economic, social development in liberal and industrial Great Britain. Delving far deeper into the operation and expectation of the friendly societies than existing narrative histories, Cordery contends that financial security, though the most widely recognized achievement of the organizations, was only one objective. Friendly societies were also voluntary organizations which provided conviviality and, correspondingly, the development of an identity or political consciousness that allowed working men and women to engage in economic, social, and political organization while maintaining the respectability and even social conservatism that was so valued in Victorian culture. 'Self-help' could be achieved through membership, and that earned the societies their reputation for respectability. That reputation, Cordery argues, allowed friendly societies to stave off--for a while at least--the most dreaded fear of its members: interference in their economic matters by the middle class.

Cordery begins his study with the development of the friendly societies, tracing their roots to the mutual benefit societies brought to London by Huguenot refugees from France in the 1680s at a time "when poverty was gaining a high profile ... [and] rural displacement, middle-class political self-consciousness, and evangelical concern with early salvation combined to construct poverty as a national social problem." (p.22) As a new eighteenth century commercial economy gave way to greater levels of individual competition and industrialization, providing 'sickness insurance' in the tradition of the old guild order filled the developing void, both in economic terms and in a development of a social identity and connectedness that the declining 'moral economy' had offered. Membership in a friendly society linked people as part of a new group, gave them a new identity, and would provide a benefit for members as they approached old age, disability, or some other threat to their income. It gave members a greater sense of security in a rapidly changing world. While copying guild models, friendly societies also adopted elements of the secret freemasonry movement, specifically rites, rituals and codes of conduct. Together, friendly societies established themselves as a unique group, from which the shared experience of members set them apart and cultivated a particular identity, reviving something rapidly in decline in the new, modern economy.

Once established, friendly societies faced threats from within and without. Questions as to their legality were not entirely resolved with Rose's Act of 1793, which declared them legal, but which defined them as social organizations which, only occasionally, raised revenue through voluntary contributions. Their abilities to raise funds and distribute them were as questionable as trade unions' rights to organize around the issue of labor actions. The repeal of the Combination Acts of 1824 provided an opportunity for tradesmen to organize friendly societies, and by the 1830s, numerous societies formed and were directly involved in labor reform and popular politics. But, Cordery argues, the collapse of Chartism as a national political movement was a turning point in the development of friendly societies. The tenuous connection which had developed in the age of reform between these nascent organizations and radical politics gave way to "the political quiescence and economic expansion of the mid-Victorian years." (p. 64)

It is at this point that Cordery's study becomes the most compelling. By mid-nineteenth century, friendly societies were so popular and their monetary holdings so large, that the government sought to oversee their administration, dispensing advice, rules and financial oversight. In examining what he calls, "regulatory voluntarism", Cordery traces the growing collision between friendly societies, on the one hand, and the liberal Victorian governments, on the other. The former whole-heartedly adopted the desirable philosophy of self-help and did everything possible to evade government regulation, while the latter became convinced that amateurism and no oversight would guarantee an economic crisis for the nation when the societies failed to produce the necessary money at payout times for an aging population. The simultaneous paths of the government adopting the more radical approach to pension schemes and socio-economic security for the working classes while the predominantly working class friendly societies were resisting all attempts to make insurance and poor relief anything other than voluntary actions handled by private, member-controlled secretive societies, is one of the great ironies of Victorian history. Particularly useful in this section of the book is the chapter on the 'respectability' of politics among friendly society members. Cordery shows that friendly societies rejected the notions of charity and other principles at odds with self-help strategies, both because they truly believed in the latter, and because by emphasizing this and the societies' social orientation, they could continue avoiding government regulation. It is here that commitment to those original goals and principles of what the friendly societies intended to do in the first place was continually tested, but was preserved.

However, the later-Victorian economic slumps and loss of confidence, Cordery demonstrates, were disastrous for the friendly societies. The psychological impact of the crisis, not to mention the financial, allowed the insurance industries to push the issue of standardized government regulation. At the same time, the reform movement won the argument concerning potential friendly society insolvency and the need for government oversight and security. Economic troubles could not be overcome by their secret rituals or other demonstrations of identity and consciousness. Within two decades of the new century, the government passed the Pensions Act and the National Health Insurance Act. Friendly societies accepted new regulatory practices, while rituals and other restrictions on general membership were eliminated to help bolster financial security and greater numbers. The defeat of voluntarism and a decline in conviviality allowed for the creation of bodies like the National Deposit Friendly Society--a very different kind of organization from its ancestors.

Thorough, well researched and provocative in the depth to which Cordery examines the connectedness between friendly societies and the very cultural and social values from which they sprang, this book is an excellent contribution to the literature on nineteenth century working-class social and economic development. The societies' history shows us how surprisingly connected to principle, as well as people, institutions can be. That human connection is one of the elements that makes this fine piece of scholarship even more powerful history.

Nancy LoPatin-Lummis

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
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Author:LoPatin-Lummis, Nancy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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