Fraternal Secrets



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 evidence.


Dr Bob James

is a retired schoolteacher, hippy farmer and Public Servant. He completed his PhD in Australian History in 2004. He is Convenor of the Australian Centre for Secret Societies, Fraternalism and Mateship. He is an initiate of the UAOD, two Orders of Odd Fellow and of Freemasonry. None have inspired.

All enquiries needing research are welcome. To trigger an initial response include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. More complex enquiries needing longer research will be negotiated.

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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Cromwell and Green’s MUTUAL AID or WELFARE STATE

Allen & Unwin, 1984, $10.00 This is the only historical account devoted to the Affiliated Friendly Societies in Australia..230pp. for School Children: B James, FROM SECRET HANDSHAKES to HEALTH FUNDS in AUSTRALIA -BASED on Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, (GUOOF) 1848 – 1998 – $10.00..rare, in colour, premium paper…30pp.


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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 note below), 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’ the surviving ‘friendlies’ are largely indistinguishable from commercial companies.

FRATERNAL societies, whether benefit societies or not, were run by their members in their own interest, eg, to safeguard trade secrets, to ensure employment for members, to provide a social ‘club’ or a kind of secular place of spiritual warmth. ‘Benefit societies’ were run specifically by members for their own benefit, to ensure sickness, accident, funeral, strike, and other payments. Both were therefore examples of self-help and mutual aid at the same time. They were also often in a position to assist non-members, and did so as part of their community-building ethos.

SOME societies known as ‘friendly societies’, ‘benefit societies’, and the like, were run by better-off people for the benefit of poorer people, and were therefore charities, not ‘mutuals’. They show none of the ‘fraternal’ characteristics. Co-operatives were neither ‘benefit societies’ nor ‘fraternal societies’, but were more like member-run welfare agencies. They often had a strong community-building ethos and advocated grass-roots solidarity. Credit unions and building societies 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’. 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.

First up – the gilds:

The gild had 5 aspects: conviviality…… as in

celebration/community/parades/dinners trade



welfare………..benefits/charity/health funds religion……….virtues – ‘light

enlightenment’/morality/symbolism; faith in ‘The Great Architect’ or similar.

IN other words, the gild was, simultaneously, a drinking society, a trade union, a benefit society, a secret society and a religious society, but without ‘modern’ forms or concepts which now attach to these terms. (Co-operatives were not intended to be any of these.) The gild’s great strength, if it attained strength, resulted from these functions being inter-connected and indivisible. These aspects survived and help identify the gild’s successors but, as time has gone on, in increasingly have become difficult to ‘see’. The historical treatment of benefit or fraternal societies explains their fate and/or the forms they have taken in industrial society.

EACH of these 5 distinct 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’, were the keys 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 or dangerous shortcuts, or the trade against ‘forrins’.

THE gild was male-oriented only because society was male-oriented. There were female traders and artisans, and there were repeated struggles over their 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 and having children or not, and in certain circumstances ‘his’ trade’s and/or ‘his’ community’s representative.

THE degree structure, reflecting a level of skill and preparation for the next, was often publically visible in ‘his’ dress, 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 was 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’, ‘secret men’s business’, ‘art-isan’, ‘crafts-man’ or ‘journey-man’, ‘chapel’, ‘arch-bishop’ or ‘temples of labour’ have both work and religious or symbolic significance. These words all have fraternal significance. 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.

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 their position. But the values taught ‘in lodge’ and which were to permeate all labour 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 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. Codes, cyphers and ‘intelligencers’ all come into this story. Second – the industrial revolution: The most-obvious time of social upheaval for us is 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 would seem to be unavoidable. All three ‘strands’ boast of having begun as tavern ‘clubs’ and of progressing to their own ‘halls’..

IT is not surprising that the major forces that we associate with industrialisation caused these societies to differentiate, one from another, while continuing to have common features: nation-wide organisation, using a representative democracy form of government, often in a federated form; an emphasis on ‘scientific’ methods, accountability, adherence to statute, discipline, an emphasis on individualised life-styles, personal health and welfare.

NEITHER is it surprising that 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 social ‘glue’ and separated communities into individual ‘atoms’, so that knowledge of the practical reasons for the 5 gild aspects have been largely lost. Advocates of ‘modernism’, rationalism and secularism have derided the degree rites and regalia, in particular, as quaint anachronisms or superstitious nonsense. It is not accepted that conviviality has a community-strengthening aspect, while secret oaths, handshakes and passwords have been outlawed, and so on. Third – the academic treatment of benefit societies: Few ‘official’ histories of ‘Friendly Societies’, (Speculative) Freemasonry and ‘Trade Unions/ism’ provide reliable accounts of either their ostensible subject or their broader context. Most have been selective, narrowly-focused and usually written by ‘insiders’, ie, authors whose intention has been to boost the claims of the one type of fraternal society over that of the others, quite often by ignoring the others, or by portraying one strand of fraternal society as unique and deserving of attention on its own – it is, they say, a special type, which is necessarily best understood, as a theoretical abstraction, out of its historical context.

FREEMASONS have based their claims of uniqueness on the replacement, around 1717 in London, of operative stonemasons’ practices with symbolic rites derived from the stonemasons trade. This ‘creation myth’ is happily increasingly under de-constructionist pressure, as is that of ‘Trade Unions’ which have based their claims to uniqueness on workers resistance to threats to their livelihood. ‘Capitalist’ work practices have denied long-standing work customs, such as the need for apprentices to learn their skills over xx years before being employed and taking the place, and therefore the bread, of a qualified craftsman. Women have often been disregarded. There has never existed a theoretical ‘F/freemasonry’, or ‘trade unionism’, each form, ‘English Freemasonry’, ‘Scottish Trade Unionism’ have reflected local conditions to a greater or lesser extent.

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.

HISTORICALLY, insisting on one’s uniqueness and mentioning the others only in negative cliches was another strategic response. It was a necessary part of the: competition between fraternal strands for resources, including members, the struggle for community dominance, and for political leverage and thus ‘special interest’ protection.

THAT we today see these ‘strands’ as unique and as carrying out distinct and different functions is one result of this strategy. The general invisibility of fraternal societies, even within the societies themselves, is another.

COMPETITION within strands for ideological dominance, control of resources, or for ‘special treatment’ by the authorities has blunted the movement’s understanding of its own broader context and of the significance, strengths and weaknesses of each of the strands. Trade unions and Freemasons each have a flawed, heroic understanding of themselves, while friendly society members know almost nothing of their own heritage. Communication between the ‘chiefs’, even practitioners of the strands is virtually non-existent. Competition between strands has helped produce anti-literature (anti-masonic, anti-trade union, anti-friendly society) alongside the very partisan ‘insider’ literature. This pro- and con- literature has, at times, played a key historical role, that is, the literature, itself, is part of the history. The ways in which this has happened are sometimes the most difficult parts of the whole dynamic to see.

FRATERNAL memorabilia has been neglected or deliberately destroyed because of the perceived associations considered no longer relevant. Individual memories are extremely problematic guides to historical accuracy. In the short-term, just bringing the strands together, conceptually or physically can have a great therapeutic as well as educational role. There remains great pressure from vested interests, including many who claim to already know ‘the truth’, eg, professional scholars, museum ‘custodians of the past’. Fourth – A guide to practice: Once the common elements are ‘sighted’ the profusion of regalia can be seen as variations on a single theme. Some ‘fraternals’ were totally local, and some have 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.

INTERNALLY, ‘lodge’ behaviour and member’s carrying out of duties were once closely scrutinised. The personal backgrounds of intending candidates were explored and could result in their being ‘black-balled’, ie prevented from joining by a current member placing a black rather than a white ball in the ballot box. Such results, the internal fines system and expulsions from lodge altogether were methods designed, in theory, to prevent inappropriate behaviour and prevent discussion of religion and/or political subjects. Lodge Rules were and are extensive. They reflect a history of conflicts, often personal.

FRIENDLY Societies have been 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. Dr Bob James, 90 Henry St, Tighes Hill, 2297. Revised March, 2014.

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

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