• Andy Robson

The Independent Order of Odd-fellows

During some recent family history research I came across an individual who was an 'Odd-Fellow'. If you've not encountered this fraternal society then here's some background.

During the 1700’s and 1800’s, sickness and old age were dreaded by the working class. The only alternative to destitution, or living on the support of family and friends, was the often harsh charity of the Poor Law. As a safeguard against such misfortune, Friendly or Benevolent Societies were formed to provide their members with a form of social insurance. Most were restricted to workers from a given profession, or group of occupations, or those from a particular ethnic or social group. Each member paid a small weekly subscription – their ‘subs’ – and in return could expect to receive an income should they fall on hard times. So successful were some of these Societies that they were able to extend their remit to provide charitable aid to those outside of the Society.

The Odd-fellows was a Fraternal Order dating back to the 1600’s; meaning that members considered themselves ‘brothers’ and could rely on each other as such. Such names as ‘the Odd-fellows’ were common for such Societies at the time, the membership poking fun at themselves in a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ way. After a split and then reformation, it became the Grand United Order of Odd-fellows in 1798. Its various Lodges were dedicated to the protection and care of their members and to the general care of the community at large. It was a strictly non-profit making organisation which was collectively owned by its members and which redistributed all income as benefits and services.

Among the far-sighted benefits introduced by the Society were Travel Warrants – which insured that a member travelling to seek work could find rest and refreshment in an Odd-fellows Hall – and Standard Protection Policies which defined the rate of financial support that a member would receive based upon the subscriptions that they paid.

In 1810, the Odd-fellows of the Manchester area broke away from the Grand United Order, citing the need for the modernisation of the Order’s organisation and rules. This was the first of many such breakaways that either swelled the ranks of the ‘Manchester Compliance’ or created new independent societies. Emigrants took the idea of the Odd-fellows with them and today the organisation can be found across the English-speaking world.

Many pubs in England carry such names as 'The Odd-fellows' or 'The Odd-fellows Arms', probably because they were once meeting places of the Society’s Lodges.

As with all workers’ groupings, the Odd-fellows were viewed with suspicion by the authorities who feared that their activities would develop into Trade Unionism. At times the Society found its activities curtailed or made illegal to prevent such a development. Nevertheless, by 1850 the Independent Order of Odd-fellows Manchester Unity Friendly Society had become the largest and richest Friendly Society in Britain. Its growth was doubtless spurred by the increasing industrialisation and so urbanisation of the country, which brought larger numbers of workers together.

When the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith was creating the country’s first National Insurance scheme in 1911, it used the Society’s records to establish suitable levels of contribution and benefit.

Following the creation of the Welfare State and the National Health Service in 1948, Societies such as the Oddfellows lost their main reason for existence. However, they survived by evolving in other directions, such as creating a ‘friendlier society’. In 1991, for example, the Independent Order of Odd-fellows Manchester Unity founded the Manchester Unity Credit Union Limited, a savings and loans co-operative which served the interests of its members.