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) turned out to be a conspiracy in itself. So, 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 ‘things’ 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
  • Mutual benefit societies fought for women’s rights, against the liquor trade, prostitution and child labour
  • Hundreds of thousands of men and women in fraternal societies built communities from the ground up
  • They were ‘the community’ when there was nothing else. Mutual aid, brotherly love, co-ops and  building societies all come from the same source.
  • And yes, they were all once ‘secret societies’ with initiations, oaths of allegiance and secret handshakes.

Genuine mateship came to this country in the form of fraternal or mutual benefit societies which were spread by pioneering settlers and the first hard-graft miners and rouseabouts to every village and mining settlement.

  • The AMP used to be a ‘Mutual Provident’ Society owned by its members
  • ‘Jimmy’ Comerford was a proud member of the MUOOFs [Manchester Unity 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 made the medicines for their lodge members. The Combined Friendly Societies started the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory.

It is a rich and dynamic history but it has been neglected to the point of invisibility – mateship, yes, but also medical benefits, lodge doctors, trade unions, religious strife, Australian Federation, conspiracies and plots – these, and more are in there.


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 secret societies.

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

In Australia, from 1788 there were convict secret societies while the troopers and officers had the Freemasons, the Loyal Orange Institute and others less-well known. Societies with oath-taking, initiations, ceremonial rites, regalia and member insurance carried the ideas of mutual aid to every village, city and outpost. Benefit societies, like the AMP (Australian Mutual Provident), the IOR (Independent Order of Rechabites) and the Odd Fellows developed schemes which turned into the 21st century’s medical and hospital funds. Workers’ mutual aid societies have produced the ALP, the ACTU and Work Choices. Religious Orders have produced exclusive schools, charities, and street riots.

Ned Kelly wore a sash of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Don Bradman wore a Masonic apron and worked to exclude Catholics from Australian cricket’s Test Teams. Rugby League officials did something similar.

Much of Australian culture is a result of secret ‘benefit’ or ‘fraternal’ societies, including genuine mateship. We should know the real history and value the fair-dinkum artefacts.

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All Text by Bob James of Newcastle, NSW.

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