Fraternal Secrets

          Fake News, Mates-hip and Other Lies

Fake News is not new. Neither are ‘conspiracy theories’. 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 and secret societies used banners, regalia, lodge furniture and ritual to show that they belonged. These have not been sufficiently recognised as valuable but they are the proof and the reminders of how these societies built communities:

  • Trade Unions began as ‘workers’ benefit societies’
  • 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
  • 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’ when there was nothing else.
  • And yes, they were all once ‘secret societies’ with masked initiations, oaths of allegiance and secret handshakes.

Genuine mateship, in the form of fraternal or mutual benefit societies, was spread by pioneering settlers and the first hard-graft miners and rouseabouts.

  • The AMP used to be a ‘Mutual Provident’ Society owned by its members
  • ‘Jimmy’ Comerford was a proud member of the MUIOOFs [Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd Fellows]
  • 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. It existed in so-called primitive societies – caring for one’s family, and one’s clan, having rules about behavior. It existed alongside brutal and selfish behavior as it does now.

The way European society developed meant that 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.

The Guilds battled with Corporations over working conditions. Employers grew stronger and whittled away workers’ organisational strength. Trade societies, to be considered legal had to give up secrecy, the right to network and legal protections, but in the meantime (17th-19th centuries) secret, oath-taking societies with unique ceremonial had spread wherever colonial societies went. Adventurers found that similar approaches had existed in the Middle East, the Americas and Asia for centuries, adding to the mystique around their secret societies.

Legal hassles between fraternities and governments over rights to secrecy and control of members’ behaviour resulted in further loss of autonomy – at work, at play, at church.

Much of Australian culture is a result of the work of secret ‘benefit’ or ‘fraternal’ societies, competing with one another and struggling to survive insidious Government interference. We should know the real history and value the fair-dinkum artefacts.

Now Read

All Text by Bob James of Newcastle, NSW.

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.