The use of ‘fraternal’ is not intended to exclude women in any way from consideration.

What do I mean by fraternal history???

I identify fraternal societies through their past or present use of coded regalia, secret passwords, ritual and signs, and by their use of a philosophy, a mix of self-help and mutual aid, often called ’brotherhood’.

The equivalent term for females, ’sisterhood’, is rarely used when these societies are discussed, despite women’s presence and influence.

I group them into four categories, or strands: the first three being Freemasonry, trade-oriented, and friendly (or benefit) societies. The fourth group involves all those societies which meet the definition but which don’t fit into the first three categories, eg, the Loyal Orange Lodges, the Buffaloes, the Sons and Daughters of Temperance, and so on.

Neither the practices of fraternal societies nor the actions of individual members have always been in line with the avowed theory.

Fraternal societies, set up to be support vehicles for the life journeys of their members, were often curtailed through human foibles and failings, or through the impact of larger outside forces.

The first tasks have been to document the existence of the mostly invisible societies, while protecting the surviving physical evidence – the regalia, the lodge furniture, the photos.

See below why the written record is less important.

For GENUINE Answers to your questions about REAL Secret Societies, their symbols and their connections to one another… ASK Dr Bob.

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BY ‘benefit societies’, in general terms, is meant societies which collect membership contributions into a central fund, and make payments out of that fund to members at times of hardship or distress. They were therefore mutual aid societies.

BY ‘fraternal societies’ is meant societies which have or have had rites and regalia, initiation oaths, secret passwords and signs, a degree structure, and a philosophy of mutual aid, ie, concern for ones ‘brothers’.


THESE two groups once overlapped to a very large extent, less so today. It is possible, today, to find fraternalism without the benefit structures, eg, English Freemasons (see extra notes), and benefit societies without the secret lodge workings, eg trade unions, but historically, the origins of both kinds of societies are in the mediaeval gild (sometimes ‘guild’).

IN recent times, the societies closest to the gild model have been the Affiliated Friendly Societies. They have been both fraternal and benefit societies. Since the late-20th century, while continuing to be disguised as member-oriented ‘benefit societies’, surviving ‘friendlies’ are often indistinguishable from companies offering financial advice.

FRATERNAL societies, whether benefit societies or not, were run by their members in their own interest, eg, to achieve a political outcome which may have been personal or community-wide, to safeguard trade secrets, to ensure employment for oneself or for members, to provide a social ‘club’, or spiritual warmth. ‘Benefit societies’ were run specifically by members for their own benefit – to ensure sickness, accident, funeral, strike, and other payments were available from ‘a common purse’ which members paid into during good times. Both were therefore examples of both self-help and mutual aid. They were also often in a position to assist non-members, and did so as part of their community-building ethos, eg ‘friendlies’ supported trade societies during strikes or depressed working times. The stronger the community ethos the more likely these cross-fertilisations were to happen.

There have been societies, called ‘friendly society’, ‘benefit society’, and the like, which were run by better-off people for the benefit of the poor, and were therefore charities, not ‘mutuals’. They had none of the ‘fraternal’ characteristics.

Co-operatives were neither ‘benefit societies’ nor ‘fraternal societies’, but were more like member-run welfare agencies. They sometimes had a strong community-building ethos and advocated grass-roots solidarity but were often intended as money-saving exercises. Credit unions and building societies were/are neither fraternal nor benefit societies but may be ‘mutuals’ with a strong community-oriented ethos.

THERE have been a number of important fraternal societies which are not, or have not been a Friendly Society, a Trade Union or ‘Masonic’, the three main groups or types of ‘fraternal society’. Examples are the Loyal Orange Institutes, the Ku-Klux Klan, the Boy Scouts, the Theosophical Society and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. There have been many other fraternals, often dismissed simply as ‘secret societies.’ An example is the Order of the Golden Dawn, with which Aleister Crowley, Maude Gonne and WB Yeats were briefly involved. Another would be the Rosicrucians.

There are, and have been, ‘families’ of societies or Orders with administrative connections, such as the Masonic Orders. Not all similarly-named Orders, such as the Odd Fellows, have been connected. These are often breakaways from an original source, the members being located in a particular place, or have felt strongly about the need to maintain a certain value, policy or piece of tradition.

The ‘official’ histories of ALL fraternals have been written to an agenda and are rarely sound. Competition between societies, and within societies, has often been intense and, as with all history, the victors have provided the surviving story, and have attempted to prevent alternative stories being told.

IN MY OPINION, after much reading, thought and argument: The gild had 5 aspects:

conviviality…… as in celebration/parades/dinners/wakes

defence …..trade secrets/oaths/politics/military/policing


welfare………..benefits/charity/health funds

spirituality….. ‘enlightenment’/morality/symbolism; faith in ‘The Great Architect’, or similar, ‘God’ .

IN other words, the gild was, simultaneously, a drinking society, a trade union, a benefit society, a secret society and a religious society, but not necessarily with the ‘modern’ forms or concepts which now attach to these terms. This same integrated format carried over into the later ‘fraternals’, but modified as circumstances insisted. Here, the issue of ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘scientific’ history becomes increasingly crucial as scholars come closer to current events.

In gild times, there were numerous variations among the raft of ‘fraternals’, emphasising perhaps the religious or the trade-protection aspect over the others. The emphasis was a reflection of immediate politics, which were a reflection of broad-scale and local circumstances – agricultural, demographic, religious, environmental. If the gild attained strength, it was a result of the functions being inter-connected and mutually-supportive, but they had numerous threats and pressures, internal and external, and often failed, or were physically suppressed. Surviving aspects, eg, trade protection, ceremonial processions,  or initiations, have helped identify the gild’s successors but, as time has gone on, these have become increasingly difficult to ‘see’, often because of their treatment by generations of writers who have had personal agendas or have only had access to certain information. During the ‘modern’ period, ie the last 300 years, industrialisation and competition between participants have resulted in  the idea of ‘Fraternal History’ itself being fought over, and distorted for self-serving reasons. Other ‘Histories’ have had to endure similar experiences,  for example, ‘women’s history’, ‘black history’, ‘ethnic history’.

Competition and conflict over time have forced the integrated elements of fraternalism apart and into competition with one another, for members, for resources, and for political influence. Whole sweeps of time have been written as though only Catholicism was important, or Protestantism, or royalty, or as though women, indigenous peoples, flora and fauna, didn’t exist. Partisans of one fraternal Order, one family of Orders, or of one type of society, have given priority in their ‘memoirs’, and denied credibility as it suited their political purposes. Records have been tampered with, significant events, personalities, even races have been written out of ‘history’ or accorded special treatment. The forms taken by successors to the integrated gild model in industrial society, eg, trade unions, or ‘the friendlies’ are themselves products of the ways in which ‘history’ has been a prize, in what are sometimes called ‘cultural wars’ and sometimes ‘clashes of civilisations’. The struggle for dominance – personal, military, diplomatic, economic, cultural – are not just about current money and power, they are also about ‘writing the record’.


EACH of the 5 distinct gild functions depended on and helped to shape all the others, and each of the functions was important to the overall structural integrity. The gild came about as a means of defending the standards and the working conditions of a certain trade or occupation within a strongly ‘Christian’ Europe. Members had to swear an oath to keep secret the practices within a trade and within lodge which therefore protected the various levels of skill and made possible a hierarchy of expertise and status within the trade. Thus, the degrees which were recognisable and profound indicators of life and work achievements were both reward and an acceptance of the burden of responsibility.

THE insistence that a youth was first an apprentice and learnt the trade properly with a registered ‘master’, before becoming a ‘Craftsman’ or ‘Journeyman’, and then a ‘Master’, was key to protecting the trade from shoddy workers, to limiting the numbers of artisans in the trade and therefore wages and working conditions, and to protecting society generally against cheap and nasty imports, dangerous shortcuts, or ‘forrins’.

THE gild was male-oriented only because society was male-oriented. There were female traders and artisans, and there were repeated struggles over women’s place and status, as part of the endless and every-day rounds of power struggles. The gild member was ‘his’ family’s representative, whether married with children or not, and in certain circumstances, ‘his’ trade’s and/or ‘his’ community’s representative.

THE degree structure, reflecting one level of skill and preparation for the next, was often publically visible in ‘his’ dress, such as ‘his’ apron or ‘his’ head ware, and less publically in the arrangement of furniture within the space where teaching, testing and practicing of the skills took place, often called ‘the lodge’. The responsibilities inherent in the degrees were manifest in individual rights and responsibilities within the gild and within the community. The term ‘masterpiece’ derives from this time, as do terms such as ‘Tour de France’. It is not accidental that many terms we use today, such as ‘trade secrets’, ‘trades hall’,  ‘art-isan’, ‘crafts-man’ or ‘journey-man’, ‘chapel’, ‘arch-bishop’, ‘tramp’, ‘mate or brother’, or ‘temples of labour’ have both work and religious or symbolic significance. These words all relate to past fraternal practice. A ‘Master’ had specific non-work-related roles, in dispute-resolution, in elections, and local skirmishes, and in ‘foreign relations’. The apprentice, equally, had ‘his’ roles. It was not a game, or a charade, fraternalism was the very stuff of every-day life and death, and, as a result, SECRECY and its off-shoots – codes, spies, disguises, intelligence-gathering, ‘turn-coats’ and informers – are all relevant to the complete story.

EACH trade had its special ‘Days’ and at least once a year celebrated its religious responsibilities, distributed charity, elected its new ‘officers’ and settled long-standing trade-disputes. Within the gild or each local ‘lodge’, every ‘brotheren or sisteren’ was expected to learn the duties and responsibilities attached to ‘his’ particular level of attainment. This is akin to the members of a sporting team, today, say a five-eight, goal attack or centre forward, learning the skills and the tasks associated with his or her position. But the values taught ‘in lodge’ and which were to permeate all of life’s work were moral/religious/spiritual – particularly honesty, tolerance, and acting fairly or ‘on the square.’ A person’s reliability, strength of character and a willingness to accept responsibility were what was emphasised. On the other hand it was also expected that opportunities to advance would be available to all. The historical facts rarely accorded with theory, of course.

EACH trade had periods of high and low employment since daily reality included delays, breakdowns and attempts to at least influence the politico-economic climate. Providing a bed, some food and enough money to bide a travelling workman over until the next job, were the marks of a well-run, financially-strong organisation. Tramping-networks later became the basis of national organisation and the target of government suspicion since the unemployed ‘tramps’ could easily be carrying anti-government or anti-the status quo messages, and often were.


Social upheaval for us means the Industrial Revolution. The three major types of ‘benefit societies’ with their origins in the gild, ‘Friendly Societies’, Speculative Freemasonry and ‘Trade Unions’,  date their ‘official’ histories from events in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whether one accepts the gild-based history or not, the implications of a common 18th century heritage are unavoidable. All three fraternal ‘strands’ boast of having begun as tavern ‘clubs’ and of progressing to their own ‘halls’ but there is much more.

Industrialisation caused elements of fraternalism to differentiate, one from another, and to specialise while developing in similar ways because they continued to share a context. Each strand developed: nation-wide organisation, using a representative democracy form of government, often in a federated form;

an emphasis on rational, objective, ‘scientific’ methods, such as accountability, adherence to statute, internal discipline, concern for individualised life-styles, personal health and welfare.

NEITHER is it surprising that fraternal/benefit societies should have been caught up in the struggles between opposing claims of how best to achieve social and personal ‘improvement’ in response to these forces – such as Catholicism vs Protestantism; religion vs secularism; socialism vs capitalism; and community vs the individual.

INDUSTRIALISATION has eroded the social ‘glue’ and separated communities into individual ‘atoms’, so that knowledge of the practical reasons for the 5 gild aspects has been largely lost. Advocates of ‘modernism’ as utopia have derided degree rites and regalia, in particular, as quaint anachronisms or superstitious nonsense, while secret oaths, handshakes and passwords have been outlawed.

The treatment of fraternal/benefit societies: Few ‘official’ histories of ‘Friendly Societies’, ‘Freemasonry’ or ‘Trade Unions/ism’ provide reliable accounts of either their ostensible subject or their broader context. They have been selective and narrowly-focused, whether written by ‘insiders’ or by professional/academic historians who often claim that by definition their accounts will only assert what is proven by the evidence. The most common non-objective ‘histories’ have portrayed one strand of fraternal society as unique and deserving of attention on its own – it is said to be a special type and necessarily best understood, as a theoretical abstraction, out of its historical context.

FREEMASONS have based their claims of uniqueness on divine inspiration, on claims they eschew politics and religion ‘in lodge’, and that they always without exception personify Masonic theory. TRADE Unions have based their claims to uniqueness on theories of nobility of work, of the workers and of workers’ resistance to an equally abstracted enemy. FRIENDLY Societies have based their claims to uniqueness on a ‘grass roots view of history’, that ‘ordinary’ working people were forced together to work out day-to-day survival strategies in the face of neglect by ‘big business’, ‘big government’ and ‘big unions’. They have claimed looking to the future was everything, looking back was unnecessary.

There is some truth in all of these abstractions. But indicative of their interest in maintenance of the theory over historical ‘truth’ is a shared disregard for ‘history’ in all its forms including of their own. They prefer to see themselves in the heroic legend rather than establish a greater accuracy or attempt a greater ‘enlightenment’ which of course negates any oath they may have taken.

Initially, insisting on one’s uniqueness and mentioning the other ‘strands’ of fraternalism only in negative cliches was a strategic response to the competition between them. That we today see these ‘strands’ as unique and as carrying out distinct and different functions is a negative result of this strategy. The general invisibility of fraternal societies is another.

A guide to practice: Once the common fraternal elements are ‘sighted’ the profusion of artefacts, such as regalia can be seen as variations on a single theme. Some ‘fraternals’ were totally local, and some spread around the world. Some have lasted hundreds of years, while some expired at birth. Some were Catholic, some Jewish, Islamic, or Protestant, some were radical socially and politically and some were deliberately patriotic, exclusive and conservative. Some were female-only, some were mixed, and many have been fiercely male.

FRIENDLY Societies are the least well known, Trade Unions have probably been the most vigorous in seeking public attention, English Freemasons probably the least obvious, the most ‘under ground.’ All ‘strands’ have been deeply involved in political controversies and have received abuse and praise at different times. All have suffered severe declines in numbers, resources and influence in recent years, but all have had their obituaries read prematurely.

BECAUSE of their common heritage, all have included in regalia and degree-structures, as in their rites, visual, biblical language: the EYE of Providence (God/the supreme Architect of the Universe/the Creator); angels, heavenly light or fire indicative of a Supreme Being, usually located at the apex of the symbolic hierarchy; symbolic and concrete temples, most particularly columns topped with a triangular shape; dove, heart in hand, cornucopia, bee hive, ark, symbols of time or death such as ‘skull & cross bones'; square and compass; woman as nurturer, often presented bare-breasted, in long, flowing garments.

THESE symbols appear in the creation myths of each organisation, and in whatever artefacts were produced including banners, ceremonial items, members’ cards, certificates, lodge furniture and decorations. Each lodge required a Charter or Dispensation to legitimate its activities. Honour Boards incorporating this document are now often the only sign of a lodge’s existence. Where Minute Books and other paper records survive, these provide insights into business practicalities, sociability and ritual.

MASONIC authors, and some outsiders, have claimed fraternal similarities are a result of the primacy of ‘Freemasonry’, from which all others have ‘borrowed’. I’ve seen no credible evidence of such borrowings, while there is credible evidence of non-Masonic brotherhoods insisting that ‘they’ had borrowed nothing. However, as the Masonic recruitment strategies gathered momentum, most particularly in the later-19th century, it is very possible, especially in the United States, that a number of ‘brotherhoods’ took inspiration from what they knew of ‘Freemasonry’. The label ‘masonic’ or ‘pseudo-masonic’ has been applied without much thought. The presence of known initiated Masons at the foundation of a new ‘brotherhood’ is insufficient evidence of a borrowing.’ Other, unacknowledged influences would appear to have been taken up, and research remains necessary into the possibility of at least three distinct lines of fraternal evolution. For brevity’s sake I refer to these as: the operative line, the cabalistic line, and the real-politik line.

Revised March, 2015.

The Australian Centre for Fraternalism, Secret Societies & Mateship Inc is a non-profit organisation.

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