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Society, Politics & Law
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  • 5 mins

Protest Banners: Oddfellows and Chartism

Updated Friday, 16th March 2018

Dr Chris Williams and Dr Daniel Weinbren look at an Oddfellow banner and discuss Chartism. 


Dr Chris A Williams:

I'm Chris Williams and I'm a member of the History Department at The Open University. The OU has long promoted learning from one another and recognised that change for individuals and communities happens when people speak out and work together. That idea about change existed long before the Open University. But how was it transmitted?

This banner, recently found in the village hall in Fringford, Oxfordshire, can be used to help us find out. This banner was made in the late nineteenth-century for a branch of a friendly society, a voluntary, mutual aid body. This one was called the Independent Order of Oddfellows, Manchester Unity. There was no NHS so people, mostly men who tended to be paid more than women, would each chip in a few pence every month to such a society. Funds paid for sick pay to the ill and funerals. After funerals members would parade from the grave, with the banner and in regalia, to hand over money to the widow in her home. The banner, with its illustration of St Michael, the healer and Heaven’s gatekeeper, provided a reminder, linking Oddfellows to healthcare and divine approval. The banner also came out on happy collective occasions. Fringford features in the semi-fictional autobiographical account of late Victorian village life, Lark Rise to Candleford. The author, Flora Thompson mentions the annual feast, the dancing and the parades when members would wear ‘their club colours in the shape of rosettes and wide sashes’. This banner, especially if it appeared in recentlyinvented newspaper photographs, could tell the story above the noise of a parade, could energise members and aid recruitment. This commercially-produced banner, with poles, carrying harness and box, cost about £55. More than the average annual wage of many industrial workers. It told poor rural labourers that the Oddfellows meant financial security. This was a society whose members had a stake in society. They demanded a say in how their country was run. To the wealthier, this banner was a demonstration that Oddfellows were worthy of the vote. The image on the banner’s other side, is of a clean, respectable man failing to break the bundle of sticks. This indicates that individually members had little strength, but together these working men could not be broken. Females, if they appeared at all on banners, tended to be either victims or, as here, virtues. The implication was that even after members left their families for an evening meeting in the pub, they were still supporting those families. Oddfellows who travelled in search of work could arrive at a lodge and expect a bed for the night, an introduction to an employer or, if there was no work, a penny to go on their way. The society enabled men to determine the labour supply. To bind members together and to help ensure that claimants were genuine members, the Oddfellows had many rituals and passwords. Officers were elected which offered opportunities for working men to learn how to run organisations. Because, like a military standard the banner could only be carried if there was a co-operative effort, it asserts men’s power and status, their collective independence from women and employers. The Oddfellows also had close links to Chartism. This movement of the late 1830s and the 1840s campaigned for the vote for working people. There were mass rallies and huge petitions were delivered to Parliament. The campaign grew to include a range of demands. Chartists used Oddfellows’ Halls for meetings and built on Oddfellows’ internal structures and systems for secrecy. Oddfellow ceremonial swords were used in a Chartist uprising. Even after the numbers at Chartist rallies fell and the campaign died away, the culture and the ideas remained in circulation. The banner said that Oddfellows demanded security for their families and a place in society. They offered ritual, status and comradeship through collective self-help. By the early 20th century, fashions had changed. The Morning Leader newspaper was comparing such banners to the lighter and more imaginative ones carried by women campaigning for the vote: ‘when men march … they carry huge banners with ugly paintings on their glazed surface. The colours are violently crude. The portraits are hideous. A banner is a lovely thing but the banners borne by men are grotesque’.

Today, Open University students speak out, tell their stories, in many ways. But, by listening to the tales told by banners, we can gain insights into how we all got to where we now are.

(End of Mini Lecture)


This is the banner of the Loyal Mansfield Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, Manchester Unity. Based in Fringford, Oxfordshire, this lodge (branch) was formed in 1872 and probably purchased its banner within the next decade, a period when there was what the Home Secretary called a ‘national mania’ for processions and demonstrations.

Members of friendly societies who had made sufficient monthly payments into a common fund were entitled to payments from the fund if they were unable to work at their normal trade due to problems of ill health, including injury or old age. Versions of this type of organisation had existed for several hundred years, providing assistance through a combination of feasting and secret rites, charity and structured payments. Initially based in specific localities or aimed at specific trades or religious groups, the spread of branches and networks led to the formation of national and international societies. One of the largest of these societies was the Independent Order of Oddfellows, Manchester Unity. In the early nineteenth century it was strong in the rapidly-expanding industrial towns of the north when, if there was such a person as an average friendly society member, he was probably a man who had moved to a town and had a job with regular pay. He needed a substitute for the emergency funding which had often supplemented rural wages, locally-funded poor relief.

The Registrar of Friendly Societies estimated that between 1793 and 1867 36% of societies collapsed. The Oddfellows was on a more secure financial footing than many other societies. The security of the Oddfellows was in part because it collected more money from each member and because it could carry the cost of local economic crises in ways that local societies could not. In addition, it relied on some members being unable to make their payments, leaving the society and then being unable to recoup any subscriptions paid. In the 1890s one in eight of the members of the Oddfellows, lapsed within a five-year period. Another estimate indicated that half of all members lapsed. In addition, women (who were almost always paid less than men) were not permitted to join until the 1890s and men over 40 or in poor health could not join. It was only in the 1870s that membership of national friendly societies spread to many poorer paid rural workers. The Oddfellows branch in Fringford, which owned this banner, was registered in 1873. There was also a local society in the same village established in the 1870s which might have catered for the less wealthy. It was dissolved in 1914 when it had 48 members and £171.

As not everybody was personally know to one another and there was money involved, the Oddfellows developed a system of passwords. If the password was revealed there was a further level of security. A ‘Sick Visitor’ took cash from the society to the ill members and reported back to the lodge or branch on the claimant’s health. Claimants could be fined or expelled for visiting public houses when in receipt of money from the society or making fraudulent claims. A further level of security, which also helped to bind members to one another, were the rituals. Members were expected to be familiar with regalia, acronyms, ornate certificates and badges. Initiation rites might humiliate the recruit and unite the membership but also remind all those involve that this organisation was a serious venture based on ethical values. Once a man had joined he would be obliged to attend members’ funerals, dressed in his sash and white gloves, and might soon be expected to take a minor role within rituals, building up to perhaps becoming the Chair or ‘Noble Grand’ of the lodge (branch). Some went on to hold regional or national posts. Members elected the officers for fixed terms and sometimes fined those who refused to take on a role. Through friendly societies, men who would not have gained other opportunities to run organisations or stand for office, could engage with the structures of democracy. If a member went ‘on the road’ to look for a job in a different town he could then attend another Oddfellow lodge and be able to demonstrate his familiarity with ‘tyling the doors’ or the significance of a ‘Purple Degree’. The rituals, the regalia, the songs, the literature, the parades and the banners all helped to build loyalty, trust and a sense of community built upon a mythological past in which order and mutual respect were key elements. Organised joint enterprises aided the creation of male solidarity across classes and localities and reminded members of Oddfellowship’s ideals of structured sociability.

The banner announced in public that a friendly society had arrived. Its design, echoing military and religious standards indicated that the bearers were sturdy, collective, orderly men. It told the world of members’ pride, presence, identity, and reminded members and potential members of the importance of organized mutuality. Those looking upon the paraded banners could see the possibility of being part of a divinely approved, well-established, financially secure network which provided social support, employment opportunities, pensions, and the prospect of self-improvement. It bore another message as well. These men insisted on co-operation and brotherly love. They were worthy citizens and this demonstration of unity and strength demanded that they be treated as such. This banner was a protest against treating working men badly or setting men against one another. It was a call for change, with more than a hint that opponents of improvement would face determined, unified working men.

Interested in learning more?

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