As a Freemason and President of the Ringwood Historical Society, Russ Haines has an interest in the history of Fraternal Societies and the people who joined them. He considers that for genealogists, much can be gained by knowing if their ancestor joined a fraternal organisation and why they joined that particular society.
Prior to 1851, there appear to be only 4 Fraternal Organisations in the Port Phillip District: the Freemasons, the Rechabites, the Oddfellows and the Orange Order. All these groups had things in common such as formal rituals which had to be learnt by heart. There were initiation ceremonies, and members swore oaths not to divulge secrets. Regalia such as aprons were worn. Collars and gauntlets signified officers and the higher the rank of a member, the more elaborate the regalia became. Statutes had to be followed before members could advance through the ranks. Members had to act as good citizens, morally and ethically. They had to believe in a supreme power and in eternal life and although there were some Jewish and Catholic Lodges they were not strictly religious organisations.
Symbolism was a characteristic of these groups. In Freemasonry the custom of wearing aprons goes back to the 10th century when construction workers on churches in France and England wore aprons and sometimes gauntlets for protection. Many tools are used as symbols such as the square and the compass. Jacob's ladder signified the connection between Heaven and Earth. Pillars of different design have significance such as the Doric column which indicates learning.
As meetings were originally held in hotels and public halls, passwords and secret handshakes kept non members out.
The Fraternal organisations all had a philosophy of charity, especially the Orange Order which gave money to any person who needed assistance. The Freemasons specialized in ceremonies, charity and the practice of fraternalism whilst the Friendly Societies like the Independent Order of Oddfellows concentrated on helping people who became ill and could not work. This was at a time when there were no government unemployment benefits. Some of these organisations later turned to finance and insurance.
The first recorded meeting of Freemasons in the Port Phillip District was on the 23rd December 1839, and on the 25th March 1840 the Lodge Australia Felix No. 697 EC held its first meeting. George Brunswick Smythe, officer-in-charge of the Port Phillip Police in 1839 rode from Sydney by horse bringing the dispensation. Amongst the 24 men who formed this lodge were John Stephen, William Wedge Darke and William Meek. They were all well to do people and not tradesmen. John Stephen who had been a Lodge Master in England was appointed Pro Grand Master of the southern portion of Australasia in 1842.
The Freemasons met at various places prior to 1851 including the Adelphi Hotel, and the Melbourne Mechanics' Institution and School of Arts.
The Order of Oddfellows started in London in 1748, its motto being 'Friendship, Love and Truth.' There were Lodges for women and juveniles as well as for men. In 1814 in Manchester there were 6 Oddfellow lodges. Dr. Augustus Greeves, a member of the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, migrated to Melbourne and with Thomas Strode formed the first Oddfellow lodge in Port Phillip on 7th December 1840. Called the Australia Felix Lodge, it provided sickness benefits and dispensary services to its members.
The Loyal Orange Order was originally formed by Protestant followers of William III of Orange who ousted James II at the Battle of Boyne on 12 July 1690. Members of the Order arrived in Australia amongst military men from ireland. Thirty-nine of these men formed the first lodge in Sydney in 1845. The Order still exists today but with a much reduced membership.
Also established in Manchester was the Order of Rechabites. Associated with the Wesleyans and Methodists, the Rechabites were the first Friendly Society based on Temperance. The Order was established in 1835 in the working class city of Leeds with the motto 'Peace and Plenty.' Members signed a pledge not to drink alcohol. They helped to provide entertainment for working-class children who belonged to the Band of Hope. In Port Phillip the first 'tent' as their halls were called was established in 1847. It was called the Star of Australia Felix. In exchange for small regular contributions individuals could insure themselves against sickness and hardship. Temperance Societies arose in times of unemployment in the days of the industrial revolution. Today's attitude to alcohol has meant a huge decline in membership.
World wide there are about 1,500 fraternal organisations but as there are so many non fraternal organisations like Apex and Rotary it is not surprising that membership of the fraternal organisations has declined.
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