The Jewish friendly societies of London, 1793-1993

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The year 1993, that marks the centenary of the establishment of this Society, is also the bicentenary of the passage of ‘An Act for the encouragement and Relief of Friendly Societies’ on 21 June 1793. Some have claimed that such societies are functional descendants of the medieval guilds, as are their collateral organiza- tions the trade unions.1 There are those who would go even further back, for some societies, reminiscent of the Freemasons, claim descent from biblical times. The Loyal Ancient Order of Oddfellows was said to have its origins in the reign of the Emperor Nero. The Antediluvians laid claim to even greater antiquity, while there were Foresters who counted Adam as the ‘First Forester’.2 Margaret Fuller comments: ‘Working men’s associations, incorporating the characteristics of both friendly societies and trade unions to varying extents, arose at a time when the . . . craft gilds had lost their hold on industry. . . . During the 16th and 17th centuries there were many combinations of journeymen outside the gilds [which] could not . . . conduct and control industry as the craft gilds had done, and the hierarchy of masters, joumeymen and apprentices was therefore not appropriate to them, but they could and did adopt other smaller administrative details.’3

It seems most likely that the friendly societies in the form with which we are familiar derive directly from village ‘box clubs’ of the seventeenth century, volun- tary associations with membership fees which formed a fund from which members could draw when sickness prevented them from working. They met at regular intervals for purely social reasons and this, combined with mutual health ‘insur- ance’, distinguished them from other organizations, and appears to have been the most significant influence on the movement which developed from them. The box clubs elected some of their number at intervals to act as club officers, and it was they who held the keys to the locked box in which the subscriptions were held, an arrangement that was a common feature of later friendly societies. Regu- lar meetings were held in public houses. Annual ‘feasts’ took place, before which the members would process with colours in their hats, bearing garlands, preceded by stave bearers and a band. As all this involved expense in addition to regular subscriptions, it is obvious that membership of these clubs was simply not possible for the unemployed or the poorest.4 This fundamental requirement for society membership is too frequently overlooked. Sir Frederick Morton Eden, one of the first to appreciate the importance of the movement, had stated in 1801 that it could be viable only for those who could afford to pay the necessary subscriptions: ‘[the object of the] Friendly Societies . . . is to enable the industrious classes, by means of surplus, or part of the surplus, of their earnings, to provide themselves a maintenance during sickness, infirmity and old age’.5 The societies did not seek to regulate working conditions or wages as they were not trade unions. They were

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