Friendly Societies

Friendly Societies

Friendly societies were organisations that provided a form of insurance against loss of income before there was a system of state support for the sick and the unemployed. By the late 19th century, there were around 27,000 registered friendly societies in Britain, many of which were in London.

In return for regular contributions, the friendly society would make payments to members who were unable to work, for example, during sickness. Many also offered pensions, life insurance, funeral insurance and other benefits.

Often, they also functioned as social clubs, with the members being drawn from a particular section of society. For example, in the first half of the 20th century, London had several Jewish friendly societies, such as the Manasseh Ben Israel Friendly Society and the Bikur Holim Society. These offered certain specialist benefits, such as payments during 'shiva', the seven days of ritual mourning after bereavement in the family. They also played a large part in the social life of many Jewish immigrants in the East End.

One slightly unusual group was The Workers' Circle Friendly Society (originally the Free Workers' Circle), a socialist Jewish friendly society with strong political ideals, founded in 1909. The founder members were mainly cabinet-makers who aimed to improve working and social conditions in the East End. They started from a small room above a printer's shop in Brick Lane, E1, until they were able to build 'Circle House' in Great Alie Street, which became their headquarters. In 1957, the Workers' Circle moved its offices to a new Circle House in Hackney, following the Jewish population's gradual shift out of the East End. The Workers' Circle membership declined throughout the post-war period, and the society was disbanded in 1985.

When the Welfare State was first introduced, the friendly societies were very important in administering it. However, the nationalisation of Welfare State provision reduced the need for friendly societies, as people's requirements for healthcare and unemployment benefit were met directly by central government.

By 2006 there were around 200 friendly societies remaining, many of which had developed into larger institutions offering various financial services to their members.

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