Friendly societies in the rural East Riding, 1830-1912
Local and affiliated order friendly societies which together formed the largest working-class movement in Victorian Britain have been largely ignored by social and labour historians. Oddfellows, Foresters, Druids, Shepherds and Gardeners with their ritual, regalia, and secrecy imitative of Freemasonry, emerged as benefit societies in industrial Yorkshire and Lancashire in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. The orders exploded into the East Riding in the wake of the passing of the New Poor Law in 1834 and its implementation three years later but many branches suffered severe set-backs or extinction during the economic crisis which hit agriculture in 1848-52. A substantial number of those that survived, many of them well into the twentieth century, chose independence rather than the authoritarian rule of a national headquarters.Affiliated branches far from being the preserve of the urban artisan, as has been often suggested, had an extensive agricultural worker membership. The founders and leaders of branches, which were most commonly located in larger open settlements with a substantial nonconformist and artisan population, were drawn from all sections of the membership but village craftsmen predominated. The club anniversary which became the principal feast day for many villages was initially, along with public house meetings and funeral ritual, much criticised by Anglican clergy. They found, however, that their annual sermon and attendance at the dinner gave them their principal point of contact with the rural working-class, a fact also realised after 1885 by politicians. The sickness and funeral benefits provided by the orders were considerable in relation to agricultural workers' incomes in the mid-19th century but higher wages and the passing of the National Insurance Act in 1912 considerably decreased their significance to the rural community.