Fraternal and Benevolent Societies in Ontario


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    Although not so popular today, a great many of our ancestors belonged to a fraternal or benevolent society. Information about these societies will help us understand our ancestors. We must first look at the definition of some words.

    A Fraternal Society is a club or other association, usually of men, having a limited membership and devoted to professional, religious, charitable, or social activities.
fraternal society. Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: March 03, 2014)

    Benevolent Society is a term used in a number of countries including Canada, however it is called a Friendly Society in the United Kingdom and a Benefit Society in the United States. Whatever the name, it is an association of people who pay regular dues or other sums in return for old-age pensions, sickness benefits, etc.
friendly society. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. (accessed: March 03, 2014).

One description of Friendly Society is worth giving at length:
Friendly societies, and their members, were very much products and creators of the world in which they existed. Dynamic yet conservative, controlled but democratic, there is no simple description to encompass all the evident diversity of structure and form. Yet, at heart, all friendly societies conformed to one model of clearly identified purpose. That was to enable people to contribute voluntarily to a common financial fund from which, on the occasion of illness or death, a benefit, as a right, not charity, would be available to meet immediate needs. In many societies this was underpinned by a strong element of self-management and social activity.

    A secret society is more complex. Some societies are truly secret in that they try to keep everything, particularly membership lists, from public view. These societies have violet political aims (eg the Fenians or Black Hand) or are criminal (Mafia). They are not part of this book.
    A great many fraternal and benevolent societies are “secret” in that parts of their ritual are known only to members. Some, such as the Freemasons, have a slight historical reason for this but many have secrets only to promote a sense of belonging among their members. These societies are part of this book.

Some societies are both fraternal and benevolent. There is little reason to make a distinction between them.

    Societies with similar aims have probably existed throughout the history of mankind. None of the societies appearing in Canada have a clear history before 1700. The oldest fraternal society, the Freemasons, established a grand lodge in London, England in 1717, which implies that there were masonic lodges in existence before then. There were early masonic lodges in Scotland and Ireland too. The first masonic lodge in what is now Canada was established in 1738 in Annapolis, Nova Scotia. The first lodge in what is now Ontario was a military lodge (8th Regiment of Foot) which met in Niagara in the late 1700s.
    British friendly societies have a similar background – well established by the early 1700s with indications of societies in the 1600s. No one knows why they are called friendly societies but a possible, and pleasant, story is that it originated with a London society named “The Friendly Society” and the name became generic. There were enough friendly societies for the British government to pass an act to control them in 1793. Generally these societies provided what we would regard as insurance, to cover medical bills, or the cost of a funeral, or support when unemployed. The oldest of the modern friendly societies is the Oddfellows, established about 1810. The first Canadian Oddfellow lodge was in Montreal in 1843. The first Ontario lodge was in Belleville in 1845.
    The early societies in Britain usually met in a local pub because that was the only place large enough to hold meetings. As a result some societies became drinking clubs. It is known that some publicans created a fraternal society simply to encourage drinking in his pub. The result was the creation of temperance societies to provide the fraternal or benevolent functions without the drinking.

    Finding the history of these societies range from the simple, for those that still exist such as the Freemasons, to impossible, for those barely came into existence at all such as the Grand Army of Fraternity. A few books are useful general references. Stevens, published in 1899, is an exhaustive description of all Societies in the USA with excellent history of each. He frequently mentions Canada but usually not in detail. Axelrod, published in 1997, is an international book which does not mention Canada at all.
    A surprising amount of material is online, including many old books about specific societies. When found they are noted.
    Existing societies maintain websites. There are some websites devoted to a particular extinct society and some websites provide information on groups of societies such as the many masonic organizations. These are noted in the appropriate places.
    City directories have proven priceless in identifying what societies existed in Ontario and how widespread they were.

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