Fraternal Societies – Secretive, Biblical and Fantastic Show-Offs
By Dr Bob James
[This is a the web version of a presentation delivered at the meeting of the Hunter Living Histories, 1 April 2019 at NewSpace]
I’m supposed to start with a joke. This is the best I can do. 
I’ve spoken many times about what some call my obsession – to international conferences, small family history groups and museum professionals. Over thirty years, the account I’ve provided has changed many times as my understanding has increased. Initially, I had no idea what I was looking at, and over the time, I’ve been forced to reconsider even the most basic terms, such as how to most appropriately label these societies. Today, I’m confident I can provide this audience with an outline of what is close to the whole story. But I give you fair warning. Many recent researchers have looked at just some of the evidence  and walked away scratching their heads.
In order to interest others in this story I’ve tried different approaches. I’ve emphasised the secretive side, I’ve emphasised the apparent weirdness of signs of fraternalism, I’ve emphasised that today’s National Health Funds were once Orders of Odd Fellows, or of Foresters. None of these assertions have been wrong but they’ve created a wrong impression – that, for example, ‘fraternal’ means health funds, or that ‘fraternal’ means secret societies, or that ‘fraternal’ means ‘the Freemasons’ and a few other small insignificant groups. It has taken me a long time to realise the range and variety of ‘fraternal societies’, their significance in the whole of ‘our’ history, and that no matter how weird or old-fashioned something might seem to me now, or to you, to other people that ‘thing’ whatever it was, it was created and used by people because to them it represented a basic belief. It was a cultural identifier and part of their living history. I’m attempting to convince you today that the fraternal story remains alive not only to believers but remains alive for you too.
A thought to begin: ‘Mateship’ or ‘mutual aid’ by another name, is not about wrapping yourself in an Australian flag, or arguing about Australia Day. It is about establishing binding contracts with like-minded people so that you are bound to help them when they need help, and they are bound to help you when you need it. Now take that idea and add secrecy and a missionary zeal and you have ‘fraternalism’.
The central term I’ve finally settled on to make sense of the evidence is ‘fraternal society’. By ‘fraternal’ I mean societies which either currently use, or have used in the past coded regalia, secret passwords signs and ritual, and which have had a philosophy of mutual aid. So, all the societies I mention today are, or were ‘secret societies’. This doesn’t mean that all secret societies have believed in mutual aid or that all mutual aid societies have been secret societies. But where those things overlap…well, that’s the interesting place…
My grouping them under one heading doesn’t mean that I think they are peas in a pod. They are very diverse, in fact, and their stories very distinct. Some you may have heard of – ‘The Ancient Order of Foresters’, ‘The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows’, ‘The Improved Order of Imps’ or ‘The Operative Stonemasons Friendly Society.’ The names sometimes disclose a diversity of allegiances – ‘The Protestant Alliance Friendly Society’, ‘The Sons and Daughters of Temperance’, ‘The Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society’. These, and many others, are the beating hearts of your history and you need to know about them. None of them should have been lost to sight.
Covered by my definition are four sub-groups : of course, ‘the Freemasons’, then a group legally registered as ‘Friendly Societies’, then a group of trade-oriented societies, ‘trade unions’ if you prefer, and a fourth group which meet the requirements of the definition but which don’t fit into any of the other three, such as the Boy Scouts, the Loyal Orange Institution, Chinese triads and the Mafia, Catholic sodalities, Apex, Rotary and the like.
I’m satisfied that they played important, often pivotal roles across the broadest possible spectrum – in politics, industry, community building, health and welfare, religion and in sport and recreation. Together they created European Australia. That they and their activities have disappeared from view is evidence of ‘fake news’ at work. It is especially ironic that this disappearing trick has been carried out under your noses and in plain sight. This is a huge, diverse, dramatic story which, I will argue, is relevant to your understanding of today’s Newcastle and that it’s very much ‘living history’.
The collection being absorbed by the University of Newcastle is hard evidence supporting the claims I’ll be making. The collection could have been much larger. Eighty boxes of lodge minutes have already been removed. I sent many boxes of magazines belonging to the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes and some other societies to the State Library. The fact is that I don’t regard what the societies have said about themselves as all that important. You’ll see why shortly. The items in the collection, in the main, actually exist which means they can be touched and examined. 
Even when I had little understanding of what they were, I saw items such as these as potentially important, and because other people were prepared to discard them I began gathering them up more like a conservationist than a collector. 
I now believe I understand why these items have been devalued, damaged, thrown away and dismissed as unimportant, even by the people who used them. They are akin to a midden heap for white Australia. They have to be read. That much of the fraternal evidence is visual evidence will seem a strange thing to say about allegedly ‘secret societies.’ But the fact they wished to be seen as well as remain secret is the key to understanding them.
I don’t use ‘fraternal’ because this is a female-free zone. There are many females in these societies, female Freemasons for example 
Some lodges were or are mixed, some were restricted to women, the Independent Order of Good Templars shown here in Newcastle , and a women-only lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows . I use ‘fraternal’ because it seems the most appropriate term for what I’m describing.
In the 1980’s when I started this work I was involved mostly with labour history. As the Secretary of the local branch of the Australian Labour History Society I convened a National Labour History Conference here in Newcastle to which the then Governor General delivered a book review. I started a PhD on the history of May Day so naturally I was interested in banners. I noticed that many of the big old labour banners contained masses of symbols,  which I thought at the time must be Masonic symbols. There were even squares and compasses on regalia being worn in Newcastle’s labour day processions  No-one at Trades Hall could tell me why, and no-one wanted to discuss them. The researchers from other Labour History branches had no idea either. The evidence I was turning up was clearly new to them too. Or it made them uncomfortable.
For example: Don Bradman was among other things a Freemason and a Protestant who sought to keep Catholics in a secondary position within Australian cricket and if possible out of the Test team. Similarly, the Australian Rugby League team sent to the UK in 1948 excluded a Catholic despite wide-spread wisdom he was the best player in the country. After Les Darcy died in the US, his body was returned to Australia where it was taken charge of by a party from the Australasian Holy Catholic Guild. The news footage of the time shows them in regalia. ‘Jimmy’ Comerford. miners advocate, well-known locally, nationally and internationally as honest and plain speaking, was on the one hand a Communist Party member during the height of the Depression, the Chifley Miners Strike of 1949 and the Cold War, on the other he was a proud member of the MUIOOF, the Manchester Unity Order of Odd Fellows. His name badge is in the collection. You will be taught none of these facts in school or university. You won’t be taught either that Ned Kelly went to Glenrowan with a sash of ‘the Hibernians’ under his armour. Or that a Friendly Society, the Australian Natives Association  was the main vehicle for the push to federate Australian States in the 1880’s and 1890’s.
Because non-indigenous history of Australia is mainly of the 19th and 20th century the evidence of ‘our’ fraternalism tells of its development through those years. Fraternalism has a much longer history and that must be taken into account too. From 1788 to today, ‘our’ fraternal period, huge and fundamental changes occurred in the way fraternals operated and in the way they were dealt with by the authorities. Those changes explain why ‘our’ evidence is the way it is though what we have in this country is only part of the story. We need the whole story to fully understand ‘our’ evidence.
My earliest efforts to understand what was in front of me included trying to ‘read’ the large marching banners often used to decorate labour histories but which have almost never been examined for their secrets.
What secrets do I mean? For a start the form of parades and their functions have changed as circumstances have changed. At the beginning of the 19th century, all except ‘the Freemasons’ were illegal and even with them it was touch and go whether they were to be banned. By the end of the 19th century fraternals were literally everywhere and showing themselves off. For some years after 1788 the only parades you would have seen in an Australian colony were military, the odd church service or a demonstration protesting a government decision. By 1900 Australian towns, cities and small villages all had spectacular parades, with brass bands, floats, banners and various kinds of dress-ups , , ,  funerals, annual sports day, labour days, shows of patriotism and of protest.
In the 20th century those bright, noisy parades disappeared again – not just from the streets but from public consciousness. In 1900, in what I’d call their second phase, they were very popular and they were absolutely everywhere.  Today, along with their history, they are forgotten. Why? You wouldn’t know that discredited giants of the Stock Exchange like IOOF and AMP are the 4th phase of the life of mutual aid or fraternal society.
Huge amounts of publicity and newspaper coverage marked every one of those public fraternal events, the second phase, because they were the expressions of the public mood and public enthusiasms. Even the best known ‘secret society’ of all, ‘the Freemasons’, paraded very publicly. 
And in their regalia, as did the Grand United Order of Free Gardeners , again in Newcastle, the Federated Engine-Drivers and Firemen’s Association  and the Amalgamated Miners Association  both in Broken Hill. And let there be no doubt, in 1901 when Australia became a Federation, there is no doubt that the Ancient Orders of Druids, the Odd Fellows, trade societies, the Freemasons and the Foresters, among lots of others, were still secret societies. , 
Quite a few of the fraternals were legally registered as ‘Friendly Societies’ – that is they were benefit societies. At their regular meetings, lets call them ‘lodge’ meetings, members paid their contributions into the fraternal ‘pot’ and collectively decided who was ‘good on the books’ and who wasn’t. The ritual, the passwords and signs were all designed to keep the society’s funds in the hands of bona fide members and to prevent spies gathering information. Black and white balls were used in the first secret ballots to exclude suspicious characters, or one’s enemies. All these decisions happened behind closed doors which made governments very uneasy. But authorities of various kinds had been uneasy about fraternal societies for hundreds of years, since their beginnings in mediaeval times.
This book  provided me with my first answers, what I like to say was the end of the piece of string I’ve been following since. In 1984, please mark the date, the co-authors Green and Cromwell wrote:
This book tells the story of Australia’s friendly societies. It tells how ordinary Australians… banded together to provide by their own exertions and from their own slender resources, some of the medical and other essential services they lacked…This neglected part of the Australian story ought to engage not only those who wish to see the record put straight, but also those searching for an Australian identity. The spirit of mutual self-reliance described in these pages has consistently been a prominent part of the Australian make-up.
These authors had membership numbers and they quoted a belief held in the 1890’s that around 90% of all manual workers were in ‘mutual aid societies’ but either deliberately or not they had missed a key point – ‘mutual aid societies’ were not the same thing as Friendly Societies!!! They had also failed to say that these were secret societies.
The ‘mutual aid society’ figure included what you would call ‘trade unions’ because from their beginnings Australia’s ‘trade unions’ were also ‘benefit societies’: eg, the Australian Clerks Provident Society, and the United Watermens’ Birmingham Benefit Society. Health and welfare! They also met behind closed doors and used secret signs and initiated new members which is why I call them ‘trade-oriented fraternal societies.’ In the HRD, the first organised ‘trade union’ was actually called the ‘Mutual Benefit Society of the AA Company’s Colliery Establishment’. Almost its first decision was to arrange a fund to pay for a miner, Tom Lewis, to go to Parliament as its elected representative. There he was to lobby for an improvement in mine working conditions, specifically regarding the foul air made by shifts of men working for long hours underground. Health and welfare!!
The origins of all of our ‘fraternals’ including ‘the Freemasons’ are in the guilds of mediaeval times. The guilds were combination trade-unions/benefit societies/drinking or convivial societies/secret societies and religious societies. As trade-oriented societies they protected wage rates and working conditions. As benefit societies they insured members against the future, and as convivial societies they regularly paraded and celebrated their camaraderie in taverns. As religious societies with their own patron saints they acted out bible stories in Mystery Plays and paid for church services. In the 19th and 20th centuries fraternal members continued these activities but in separate societies, or in societies which had some of the aspects but not all.
Look again at this photo of an eight-hour day procession in Newcastle. 
It appears to show a ‘Masonic’ symbol on the regalia of a trade union participant. These are not ‘Freemasons’ they are stonemasons. This trade was organised nationally and affiliated with Trades Hall Councils. Minutes from one of their lodges in Queensland shows the square and compass symbol, initiations, a tyler. 
In the 1890’s when the members were legally negotiating pay rises and making payments into a common purse. A tyler by the way is the lodge officer who guarded the door often with a sword. Stonemasons were not the only trade which met in lodges and had passwords, initiations, or distinguishing regalia or operated benefit funds as part of what was a global phenomenon.  The Operative Bakers, these sashes in Melbourne, , , these in London  this is Canadian.
From mediaeval times, the fraternals had had to struggle for legitimacy and for survival. As in the past, ‘our’ 19th century fraternals felt compelled to choose sides.   The most intense divisions occurred over religion, race, class and gender, that is to say, over decision making power. This, of course, is the stuff of politics. It is why elections are hard fought and why politicians are slippery fish. They are fighting to get into power or to stay in power. The winning politicians get to decide what is legitimate and what isn’t.
In the 19th century ‘fraternals’ did not get to choose health and welfare as their sole field of interest or to specialise in wages and working conditions. The categories came about as governments passed legislation saying what could be done by organised societies and what couldn’t. It was governments which defined the categories and insisted society members choose which category they wished to be in. The evidence shows that ‘fraternals’ advertised for, interviewed and employed our first doctors and nurses – the once famous ‘lodge doctors’. Because of their interest in their members’ health, and that of their families, they raised money for our first hospitals, churches, schools, and sporting teams. You’ll recall that Wallsend Hospital, built in 1893 is known as the Miners Hospital and people have been told this was a project of the miners acting alone. More accurately it was a result of miners and their communities, through a range of fraternals, raising the funds to build a series of ‘hospitals’ and related services.
The ‘T & G’ [Temperance and General Insurance], which still has a named building in Newcastle, was started by ‘the Rechabites’, a friendly society. Chemist shops first made the medicines for their lodge members. The Combined Friendly Societies then started a chain of ‘Combined Pharmacies’ and then in order to reduce the cost of drugs they set up the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory. Today, National Health Schemes do what ‘fraternals’ had been doing. Cromwell and Green’s book was an argument against the Welfare State and for local control of health and welfare. They believed that 20th century State welfare schemes had failed and that mutual aid needed to be rediscovered and rejuvenated. In the 19th century communities decided locally if ‘a fraternal’ lived or died. They lost that power to ‘the State’, that is, the successful politicians. In the 20th century the registered Friendly Societies were unable to withstand campaigns by the AMA whose lobbyists created State Health and Welfare legislation which eventually left ‘the friendlies’ nowhere to go but into financial services where their battles with regulation continue.
19th century ‘fraternal lodges’ had names like ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Light in the South.’ Labour’s ‘light on the hill’ was just one among many similar claims. Much of the political rhetoric around Australia at the end of the 19th century was about freshness, youth and a new blossoming when Europe was old, dark, tired. In effect, the fraternals were secret societies that had become missionaries.
It is struggle with authority which explains the original need for secrecy. They had had to be secretive in order to survive. In the 19th century secrecy became a problem and governments targeted them because they were secretive. They responded with colourful, coded regalia,  and banners  Their parades and public display were a political offensive, an insistence on their legitimacy. 
Put simply, all the fraternals wanted to create a better world – the Scouts, the Freemasons, the Rechabites, the churches, the industrial militants, the Odd Fellows – all had a message which they wanted to display to the world. They all urged group identification and collective welfare but the way they expressed that message varied because they didn’t all see ‘the problem’ that had to be solved in the same way. Their suggested paths to a better society – ‘the New Jerusalem’ – varied greatly. Fraternals were at the centre of this optimism. But some opposed denigration of European civilisation. In particular, Catholics swore allegiance to Rome while others thought ‘the Empire’ and British military greatness was worth protecting. There was to be ‘No Surrender’ to breakaway movements, like Irish Home Rule. This meant some struggles were public fist fights. It meant internal pressures were great and like families they often split into factions or separated altogether into parallel organisations.
The February meeting of this group clapped and cheered our convenor’s display of the aspirations espoused by the Co-operative Movement. You will recall  that their leadership had a message. But few of the members were there for that reason, and co-ops were not fraternals. They stemmed from the same reform movements as fraternals and they paraded with fraternals but they, as institutions, concentrated on the individual welfare of lower prices and decided not to use secrecy, initiations or references to the Bible. Members had these things by also being unionists, free gardeners, odd fellows and Freemasons.
Fraternals saw strength in the group and they sought through their practices to forge an individual’s identification with a collective. They sought to diminish the dangers of individualism in favour of community at the very time when individual endeavour was coming into its own. The established order was never entirely happy with them. Authority fought back – sometimes with legislation and sometimes with ‘deadly force’. In the 19th century, against the fraternals’ increased public presence and their huge numbers, marketing became a new weapon. Individualist consumption, conformity, respectability were made the new fashions. Secrecy was made out to be anti-democratic, un-manly and dis-honest.
Our history has been taught as a story of progress – scientific, democratic and enlightened. More accurately, any gains made in human rights and representation have been made out of constant power struggles – between those in power and those who wanted change. In the name of the common people governments have replaced monarchs and national parliaments have become the place where citizens finally have had their say. But the struggles continue. It is not accidental that secrecy, control of information and control of decision-making power have become central to global politics in the 21st century.
In the furious passage of history the fraternals were, at the very least, important change agents. In Australia, as they did in other colonies they created the communities which created political parties. Politicians sought votes by subsidising amenities and found themselves appealing to a diversity of local voices which were difficult to manage. Fraternal society members were making important decisions in private and they were swearing allegiances to a diversity of principles which had the potential to undermine central authority. Lodges had money which the authorities could not control and they had networks which authorities could not easily monitor.
Some fraternal members believed in ‘the State’, that it was the way that improved living conditions could be secured. They were prepared to give up their local autonomy for legality. With governments demanding that they register in one of the new categories and have their rules audited competition between ‘the fraternals’ intensified. They increasingly wrote their publicity and their official histories as though they were the only fraternal society of importance. In effect they helped to bury their collective history in order to boost their single society’s fame. This is clear in labour history as it is in Masonic and Friendly Society history. If a society lost momentum and fell out of existence, it fell out of consciousness because its only supporters were themselves. The winning strugglers covered over the midden and moved on as though nothing had happened.
I’ve yet to find a stonemason sash, or one of their ceremonial aprons. The collection does have many pieces of fraternal regalia.
Ceremonial aprons – , , are often beautiful as well as crucial pieces of evidence. The most interesting lodge furniture and ceremonial items are often the oldest, and so are rarely in showroom condition. They are often very rare. , .
This is a Dispensation,  or Charter, without which a lodge cannot operate but which has not been looked after.
The detail on these highly ornate documents is enormously valuable to family historians, in particular, as are individual membership certificates,  Honour Boards,  and Merit awards. ,  These are other areas of un-tapped research potential.
The collection does have other trade aprons and one of the oldest surviving banners in Australia,  created for an English ‘Friendly Society’ but used out here. Silk banners were not usually signed by the artist, this one is, making it even more unique. 20th century banners were mostly done on canvas and some were signed as this one  was,  another ‘Friendly Society. I don’t know how old this one is. 
To summarise, I’m asking you now to get your heads around some seemingly incredible propositions. They seem incredible because of what you have been taught and are still being taught. The first seemingly incredible proposition is that most of what you believe you know about what I’m calling fraternals is false or, at the very least, is very flawed. The second proposition is that the telling of those falsehoods, those flawed narratives, has been deliberate.
My third apparently incredible proposition is that you need to bring the Freemasons, the trade unions, all of GUOOF, and all the other friendly societies that have existed since 1788, together and think of them as one phenomenon. And then add the societies in my fourth sub-group for the whole. I link all these societies under one heading because I believe that none can be understood without reference to the others. And because the separation of the groups from one another has been a strategy, a deliberate strategy arising from the fact that the societies were in competition with one another – for members, for resources and for political influence. All of the societies in this massive conglomeration shared a history, a history which is described by the definition. They cannot be sensibly separated and have only been separated because of the nature of that shared history.
The evidence shows that the beginning of the piece of string is  in the Garden of Eden. The Free Gardeners, a Friendly Society, were very big in Newcastle. Explain (‘David’s slingshot and bag of stones’ and ‘Joshua’s trumpets’). These were retrieved in 2019. The Biblical connection helps to explain those symbols in trade union banners. 
Let me illustrate some of these points by telling you a little about one of my favourite fraternals, ‘the Oranges’. Yes, I do mean the lodges which march in Northern Ireland on 12 July and upset so many people by doing so. 
The Orange ‘movement’ is a very clear example of a fraternal society and its significance being airbrushed out of Newcastle’s history. The Loyal Orange Institute is determinedly secret, yet they insist on parading. They are one movement, yet they are riven with divisions of truly biblical proportions. Officially the movement dates from Ireland in 1798 with a confrontation between Catholic and Protestant ‘gangs.’ Some say a century earlier. One result of the 1798 skirmish was the transportation of some of the survivors to Botany Bay. One such transportee was Joseph Holt who was involved with plots involving convicts, Freemasons, John Macarthur and Napoleonic plans to invade the colony. Perhaps the first licenced tavern at Parramatta, ‘the Freemasons Arms’, was the location of seditious meetings. You won’t have been taught about any of this.
Officially, the Australian Orange movement dates from the 1840’s. It spread throughout the continent, along with the other ‘fraternals.’ My incomplete records show well over 400 Orange lodges in NSW, of which around 150 were purely female with their own regalia.
From the first, they were very politically active. In some circles today Sir Henry Parkes is remembered only as a revered ‘Father of Federation’. He was throughout his career rabidly anti-Catholic and secretly sponsored and was backed organisationally by the Loyal Orange Institute of NSW. Much of his electoral success depended on the unspoken agreement he had with this one organisation. He was, in other words, akin to those US politicians secretly dependent on and beholden to the NRA.
Just a few weeks ago I travelled out to Cudal [west of Bathurst, NSW] in search of a cache of material which had turned up in an old shed on a sheep farm. While not being spectacularly successful, the excursion proved very useful, for example, in turning up Loyal Orange regalia produced for both male and female members in Orange, Wellington, Gulgong and Sunny Corner, Bodangora, and Stott’s Paddock, described as being ‘near Home Rule’. These lodges were using until comparatively recently these facsimiles of David’s slingshot and Joshua’s trumpets to maintain their sense of identity. (As already shown) Their regalia matches that already in the collection from Kurri.  Even in these smallest of Australian hamlets there was to be ‘NO SURRENDER’ to the enemies of Old Testament Protestantism or Britain and its monarchy.
Tony Laffan, perhaps known to some here, is a local historian who has very effectively researched the Orange nature of much Hunter Valley politics. Here in Newcastle there were around 20 separate Orange lodges, with many more in the immediate vicinity, Minmi, Catherine Hill Bay, Weston, that sort of thing.
Tony’s findings matched the evidence I was gathering. Immediately after the 1st WW a breakaway ‘Loyal Orange Institute of Australia’ was established by a labour agitator called Skelton who also established his own political party for which he held the State seat of Newcastle in parliament for a number of years in the 1920’s.
Walter Skelton was a Newcastle-based, Protestant prohibitionist. He was very strongly ‘Orange’ but as a railway worker he had labour sympathies and he was politically ambitious. He sought ALP pre-selection in 1921. At the time, after the 1917 Conscription battles and the Railway strike, neither the ALP nor ‘the Nationals’ were very popular among the general working population. Unhappy Protestant ‘labour’ voters suspected Catholic and/or Irish influence over the ALP but didn’t want to vote ‘National’. Skelton saw an opportunity and when he failed to get ALP pre-selection he established his own party, the Protestant Independent Labour Party. He was successful in the 1923 State election, defeating the National’s candidate who happened to be the Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order.
Most of Skelton’s campaign supporters were Orangemen and a number were trade union officials opposed not only to Catholic influence but also to the ALP’s support of gambling, drink and Sunday sport. His public meetings were stormy and he moved with an escort of burly miners ‘ready for action.’ His unpublished memoirs relate that at least one meeting was abandoned under a hail of stones. Shortly after Skelton’s win, and in the face of the Nationals being elected federally, the NSW ALP State Executive banned both the Protestant Federation and the LOI.
The collection has the original and only Charters of Skelton’s breakaway organisation and their only Honour Board.
State insistence that societies conform to rules set by regulators continues today. ‘Trade-oriented societies’ have fought to retain their independence but the pressure on them to conform if they wished to be regarded as legal has not stopped. “The Freemasons’ may appear to have escaped State pressures but they have not. Each of the societies reacted in its own way to developments and has its own story and in the 20th century they have enthusiastically participated in what for a time were called ‘the Culture Wars’ and in the 21st are called ‘Fake News wars’.
It is appropriate for this collection be held here in Newcastle, not because I was born here, but because, firstly, this city over two centuries has contributed a great deal to the fraternal story and, secondly, because this University is showing an inclination to promote the study of artefacts well beyond paper records. All need consideration and protection. Thank you for your attention.
Dr Bob James
1 April 2019