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.

Members of Australia’s fraternal societies used banners, regalia, lodge furniture and secret ritual, signs and passwords. They also staged spectacular public displays – Eight Hour Days, Funerals, Welcomes to Dignitaries, Sports and National Days. Neither the societies nor their ‘trappings’ have been recognised for their vital role in community-building:

  • Trade Unions began as secret benefit societies’, eg the Australian Clerks Provident Society, and the United Watermens’ Birmingham Benefit Society
  • Health funds and National Health Schemes started as Orders of Hibernians, Odd Fellows and Foresters, among lots of others
  • They raised money for our first hospitals, churches and schools, and sporting teams
  • They employed our first doctors and nurses
  • They fought for women’s rights, against the liquor trade, prostitution and child labour
  • They were the source of secret ballots and the black-balling of candidates.
  • They were ‘the community’ in many cases.
  • The AMP used to be a ‘Mutual Provident Society’ owned by its me,mbers
  • Militant trade unionists, such as the Hunter’s ‘Jimmy’ Comerford, were often members of the MUIOOFs [Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd Fellows] or the Loyal Orange Institution, the Communist Party or a Catholic sodality, etc.
  • Ned Kelly went to Glenrowan with a sash of the AOF [Ancient Order of Hibernians] under his armour
  • The ‘T & G’ [Temperance and General Insurance] was started by ‘the Rechabites’, a friendly society.
  • Chemist shops first made the medicines for their lodge members. The Combined Friendly Societies then started the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory.

It is a rich and dynamic history but it has been neglected to the point of invisibility.

Mateship has had other names. It is a very old idea – caring for one’s family,¬†and one’s clan,¬†having rules about behavior.

In Europe, Religious Orders, Brotherhoods and Trade Guilds developed rules which protected their secrets, supported older or injured co-members, educated apprentices, and stored funds against future loss of work, or sickness, or extra children, or death.

They battled with one another and with their employers over working conditions. To be considered legal, trade-oriented societies often had to give up secrecy, the right to network and legal protections, but the model of secret, oath-taking societies with unique ceremonial spread wherever colonial societies were established. European adventurers found that similar approaches had existed in the Middle East, the Americas and Asia for centuries, something that added to the mystique around secret societies in general.

Legal harassment of fraternities over rights to secrecy and the uses to which their funds could be put resulted in further loss of autonomy – at work, at play, at church. Almost the last straw has been the Financial Institutions legislation of the 1980’s and 90’s.

Now Read

All Text by Bob James of Newcastle, NSW.

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