Fraternal Secrets

The essays here are about conspiracies that actually happened – when the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was being formed, as English Freemasonry prospered, and as fraternalism  (mateship by another name) lived and died. All these essays have grown out of my interest in ‘fraternal societies’, aka ‘secret societies’. That these histories have been lost (ignored/denied/buried) has turned out to be another conspiracy. The most recent essay here is on ‘Conspiracy Theories’ involving Jesuits, Jews and Freemasonry.



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. 

A simple idea to keep in mind is this:  ‘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.


The term I’ve finally settled on 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’. My grouping them in this way doesn’t mean that I think they are all the same. They are very diverse, in fact, and 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 Society of Stonemasons Friendly Society.’ They are not always called ‘Orders’ and not always organised in ‘lodges’.

Covered by the 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. These and many others use, or have used coded regalia, secret passwords, signs and ritual, and employed a philosophy of mutual aid. The names tell of their diverse allegiances – ‘The Protestant Alliance’, ‘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 these societies should ever have been lost to sight. I’m satisfied that each 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 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 items in the collection 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 understand why these items have been deliberately devalued, damaged, thrown away and dismissed as unimportant.

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, eg 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.

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’, 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 basically 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. But ‘our’ fraternal period saw two fundamental changes 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 ‘our’ evidence only explains part of the whole story. We need the whole story to fully understand the evidence.

I’ve always understood the importance of ‘things’ to the telling of a story – buildings, the landscape, the smallest, at-face-value insignificant item. It seemed to me that ‘things’ could be read. It just happens to be the case that much of the fraternal evidence is visual evidence which is perhaps a strange thing to say about allegedly ‘secret societies.’ But the fact they wished to be seen as well as remain secret is a big part of the key to understanding them.

My earliest efforts to understand what was in front of me included trying to ‘read’ the large marching banners celebrated but not interrogated in labour history. They have often been used to decorate labour histories but 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 [10], [11], [12], [13] 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 they were very popular and they were absolutely everywhere. [14] Today, along with their history, they are forgotten. Why?

Huge amounts of publicity and newspaper coverage marked every one of those fraternal event 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. [15] And in their regalia, as did the Free Gardeners [16], the FEDFA [17] and the AMA [18]. 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. [19], [20]

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.

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All Text by Bob James of Newcastle, NSW.

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