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What is a friendly society?

The original Friendly Society was a successful fire insurance association in London. Its name was adopted throughout the UK to describe every kind of mutual aid organisation.

At its very simplest, a friendly society was a club. The members shared an agreed risk by each paying a fee. The club could last for as little as one year or in perpetuity.

The agreed risk could take many forms. It could be the death of a cow or the cost of a funeral, or periodic sickness payments, an annuity or even a regular old age pension.

The club could be a few villagers or neighbours in a street up to a membership of millions spread through the United Kingdom and even wider.

The fee might be a once-and-only entry payment or a regular weekly, monthly or quarterly subscription. It might be pennies or pounds. It might vary according to the age or sex of the member.

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At the end of the nineteenth century friendly societies provided most insurance, benefits and pensions in the UK. Their members could be counted in the millions. Thousands of different societies were spread right though the land.

Today there are only a few survivors. The Welfare State took away the reason for most friendly societies. Once there was no reason for new members to join, the societies got smaller and then began to disappear as their membership aged. The survivors, including the great mutual insurance companies and building societies, are those that were able to offer something more than benefits.

A few generations ago almost everybody was a member or at least knew a member of a friendly society. But most friendly societies disappeared so quickly that little is known today of their importance in providing welfare in the nineteenth century - and especially before. Their origins are often mysterious. Historians are hindered by the mythologies invented by many friendly societies and even the wonderful variety of the societies is confusing. Virtually nothing written in nineteenth century society histories can be taken at face value!

However, there is an increasing awareness of the social importance of friendly societies. More and more research is discovering the broad history of the friendly society movement and its place in the social history of the United Kingdom. There are many questions still to answer - about the place of friendly societies in a local community, their effect on the economy, who their members were and how easy or hard it was for them to afford their payments, how the societies were managed and how sound were the actuarial calculations that they used.

This website cannot provide these answers. But it will show some of the diversity of friendly societies of Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife. We have digitised documents, photographs and artefacts that survive in local libraries and museums. We have only sampled the material that is available. We hope that you find it interesting. If we awaken your interest about a society, your town or a family member then visit one of our partners and see what more awaits. There, you can find out more.

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