Benefit clubs or societies, known as Friendly Societies, were formal organisations, normally of men only who met once a month. At least 73 of the known 200 societies in Ceredigion met in a public house where their funds were kept in a secure box and where they often held an annual feast. Women’s Friendly Societies and tee-total groups normally met in non-licenced premises.
Friendly Societies were first established during the 17th century. They became common by the end of the 18th century and many thousands were formed during the first few decades of the 19th century. Some of these were short lived, while others lasted into the middle of the 20th century.
They were subject to government regulations after 1793 (Rose's Act), which was amended by subsequent acts.
By the early 19th century some national Friendly Societies, such as the Independent Order of Oddfellows, the Good Templars and Rechabites were formed. Much has been written about these, and their various secret ceremonies and regalia, but far less is known about the small, local societies.
The objectives of many Friendly Societies were similar to those of the Queen Adelaide Female Benefit Society (for women), founded in Aberystwyth in 1834. The preface to their rules states:
Whereas it is laudable usage in this kingdom for well-disposed individuals to meet and incorporate themselves into Friendly Societies for the advancement of industry, benevolence, and true Christian charity; and the objects of this society are to collect before-hand a small Fund on Money, for the mutual support, in sickness and infirm old age, and towards the burial of each of the Members, and for the mutual assistance of each other. [National Library of Wale, ms 22739 ff. 42-8]
During the 18th century, when many of these Societies were first established, the members met every 4-weeks but this was normally changed to every calendar month. At the meetings they paid their membership fees and socialised. It appears that those who met in pubs or other licenced premises consumed a lot of alcohol during their meetings.
The membership fee was initially about 6d to be paid at each meeting. The funds raised were used to pay a small sum to members who were unable to work, through sickness or infirmity; to pay a pension to members who were no longer able to earn a living, and to pay a relative towards the cost of a member’s funeral and that of close relatives. When a member died, all the other members were expected to pay a small additional sum for the relatives and to attend the funeral. In additions they contributed towards an annual feast, often held in a public house, early in January each year at which a guest, often an Anglican priest, was paid to speak.
Another source of income was derived by fining members who broke the society’s rules. Members were expected to behave well during meetings and not getting drunk.
Many societies accumulated large sums of money partly because a member’s contributions built up over their entire working life. The funds could be lent out in various ways in exchange for some sort of security at a good rate of interest (normally 3½ to 5%). Clearly it was very important to keep very good financial records of all the transactions, and it is the account books, rather than the minute books, which have survived.