Oddfellows’ service 2004

Parwich church

This address draws heavily on the Oddfellows' website - www.oddfellows.co.uk

This site gives much additional information about the Oddfellows' Friendly Society worldwide.

The roots of the Oddfellows go back way beyond those of other organisations. Since the 18th century there has been a recorded legend of the Oddfellows which infers that the Oddfellows can trace its origins back to the exile of the Israelites from Babylon in 587BC. As the legend has it, many of those exiled banded together into a brotherhood for mutual support and defence.

This brotherhood is said to have survived the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, when captive Israelites were taken to Rome by the Emperor Nero. Many of these captives subsequently served in the Roman army of Titus Caesar, who gave official recognition to their fraternity with a plate of gold with the emperor's dispensation engraved upon it. This concept of mutual support spread widely with the legionnaires of the Roman army - including to Britain - where the first Lodge of Oddfellows was said to have been established in 100AD.

The legend records that the Order of Oddfellows was taken by the Romans to Spain and then spread into Portugal and France in the 11th century. In the 12th century it was brought back into Britain by Jean de Neuville who, with five French knights, established a Grand Lodge of Honour in the City of London which formed the foundation of the Order in England.

While there is little contemporary proof of this chain of events, it is known that similar fraternities did exist from classical times and did inherit many ideas from the eastern part of the Roman Empire - including Palestine and Babylon.

This includes the practice of legionnaires making regular contributions into a pot (literally, a small pot!) which was held by the most senior soldier. When one of their number was injured and forced to retire, a donation was made to give them a new start in life.

Following the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, many fraternities were suppressed. There is much evidence to support the theory that many of the traditions and customs of these old fraternities were 'Christianised' to form the basis of the early European trade guilds. This type of trade guild was introduced to Britain by the Normans. It is therefore quite feasible that the unofficial legends of the creation of the Oddfellows have some credence.

The formation of the Guilds

The earliest Guilds in England can be traced back to the 8th century and followed the establishment of the Christian Church in Britain, which strongly advocated the setting up of local fraternities for mutual support and protection. These early guilds were purely benevolent organisations, enabling members to assist each other materially and socially. The arrival of the Normans in 1066 brought a marked change in the role of English Guilds.

From the 12th century onwards these came to have a significant function in regulating markets and trade. The earliest were known as Merchant Guilds - representing all tradesmen from a particular town. With the expansion of trade, individual trade guilds began to spring up, which had responsibility for the proper training of craftsmen and they introduced three separate 'degrees' of membership. These were Apprentices (the trainees), Fellows (the wage earners or 'journeymen' - from the latin term for 'day' - as they were paid by the day) and Masters (the bosses and owners of business'). Each guild was headed by a Grand Master whose role included judging the completion of training by the Apprentices, each of whom had to submit a sample of their work - a Master-piece - to the Grand Master to prove their skill. The Oddfellows still refer to the Chairman of the Board as the Grand Master.

By the 13th century, Trade Guilds had been established in every city, town and village in the country. Guild meetings were usually held in churches - the only public buildings large enough to hold such gatherings - but more prosperous Guilds began to build their own Guild Halls for their meetings and feasts.

The Guilds Split

During the 14th century, a serious split developed in the Guild organisation. Originally, every apprentice could expect to become a Fellow on completion of their training, and Fellows could expect to become Masters in due course, thereby running their own business. But with the growth in trade there developed a distinct merchant class of Master Craftsmen who not only owned their own business but wished to pass it on to their children. Furthermore, to protect their market share they wanted to prevent too many of their paid employees (the Fellows) setting up rival businesses. Thus began the first industrial disputes.

The Masters decided to exclude the lower orders from the Guild by introducing expensive uniforms and regalia (or 'livery') which members had to buy and wear in order to attend Guild meetings. Because the wage-earning Fellows could not afford such regalia, they found themselves excluded from meetings (the original 'closed shop'?) which became the exclusive preserve of the Masters who went on to pass Rules (or 'Ordinances') giving themselves greater powers and further excluding the wage-earning Fellows. To combat this nefarious practice, the Fellows started to set up their own Rival Guilds. These were commonly called Yeoman Guilds as distinct from the 'Livery Guilds' of the Masters. This led inevitably to the first organised industrial actions - and attempts to suppress the Yeoman (Fellows) Guilds.

The Odd Fellows arise

In time, the Yeoman Guilds became viewed as respectable, law abiding organisations. In smaller towns and villages, however, there were usually insufficient numbers of Fellows of a particular trade to form dedicated guilds. So Fellows from all trades in a town banded together to form one Guild - these Guildsmen could be called Odd Fellows because they were fellow tradesmen from an odd assortment of trades.

In the Prologue to Chaucers' Canterbury Tales (1400) he describes a group of such Guildsmen in their uniform (or livery) who belonged to a single guild of different trades. In those days the term Oddfellows would be a description of a type of Guild rather than the actual title of any Guild - nearly all of which adopted the name of a chosen Patron Saint or a religious title.

Persecution of the Oddfellows

From the 14th century onwards, members of the Oddfellows have been subjected to persecution, usually from the fear (often well-grounded, we should add) that ordinary people joining together to better their lives might also band together to organise themselves against injustice and oppression. The attitude of kings, governments and civil authorities towards the Oddfellows (and similar societies) through its history drifted from an approval of working people 'clubbing together' to provide for their own needs and thus reducing demands on the Poor Rate (a tax on all landowners to meet the costs of providing for local paupers) to a fear of working people planning a revolt against their conditions.

Henry VIII and the Tudors

The next big thing to happen to Guilds came with Henry VIII's break with Rome, because of their then integral connection with the Roman Catholic church. In 1545 all material property of the Guilds was confiscated by the Crown. With the expanding international nature of trade, and the loss of their assets, the locally-based Guild system was already beginning to fail. The reign of Elizabeth I saw a Statute of Apprentices being passed, which took away from the Guilds the responsibility for regulating apprenticeships. By the end of her reign, most Guilds had been suppressed.

For most ordinary men and women, the suppression of the Guilds removed an important form of social and financial support. In major cities - like London - some guilds survived by adapting their role - Freemasons and Oddfellows being two such examples. Both of these organisations had their base in London but established other Branches (called 'lodges') across the country.

The first recorded Oddfellows Lodge

The earliest surviving rules of an Oddfellows Lodge date from 1730 and refer to the Loyal Aristarcus Lodge in London. It met in the Oakley Arms in Southwark, the Globe Tavern in Hatton Garden or the Boar's Head in Smithfield. There are many pubs in Britain today which are named 'The Oddfellows' or 'Oddfellows Arms'. Invariably these are past meeting places of lodges. At that time, attendance at an Oddfellows meeting was compulsory (not today though, you'll be glad to know). In the Loyal Aristarcus Lodge, failure to attend meant a hefty fine of six shillings and eight pence. The meetings included a number of toasts (at least three a night) and the lodge was instructed to keep each members' cup replenished during the evening. No wonder then that many Oddfellows meetings resulted in much revelry and, often as not, the calling of the Watch to restore order.

Splits and reconciliations

The 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 - when the Catholic King James II was deposed in favour of the Dutch Protestant William of Orange caused a big rift across British Society - and the Oddfellows themselves. The Order split into two factions: The Order of Patriotic Oddfellows (in favour of William and the Whig Party, and who had most support in London and the Home Counties) and the rival Ancient Order of Oddfellows (whose supporters favoured the Stuarts and the Tory party, and took their support from Scotland and the North of England).

With the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie's uprising in 1745, hopes of a return to the Stuart dynasty faded and old animosities gradually forgotten. In 1789 the two rival factions formed a partial amalgamation as the Grand United Order of Oddfellows - abandoning all political and religious disputes and committing itself to promoting the harmony and welfare of its members. Then as now, the Oddfellows has no religious or political affiliations and accepts members from all walks of life regardless of sex, colour or belief.

More persecutions!

The penal laws affecting societies like the Oddfellows in the 18th century meant that many documents were deliberately destroyed to protect members from identification and arrest. Membership of a society like the Oddfellows at that time was a criminal offence! Events in France (i.e. The Revolution) had badly scared the authorities in England, who did not want to witness a repeat performance on this side of the Channel. Therefore, gatherings of ordinary working people were automatically considered a threat and as a consequence organisations such as the Oddfellows developed elaborate schemes to protect themselves and their members. Passwords were introduced at meetings (no password, no entry) and members could only be introduced by existing members who knew and trusted them - which usually meant close family and friends only.

During the closing years of the 18th century, with the French Revolution in progress, suspicions about the motives of the Oddfellows and other societies reached fever pitch and an Act of Parliament was passed suppressing 'all societies which administer oaths and correspond by signs and passwords'. To make this effective the Government employed spies and informers to infiltrate lodge meetings to gain evidence for magistrates of illegal activities. Meeting dates and times were therefore passed in code - so only members of a particular lodge could decipher the message and find the right place. Meetings were usually held in a number of locations to throw the authorities off the scent.

Fear of revolution was not the sole reason for persecution. Friendly societies like the Oddfellows were the 'parents' of modern-day trade unions and could organise effective local strike action by levying all of their members for additional contributions for their benevolent funds out of which payments could be made to the families of members who were on strike.

The Independent Order - Manchester Unity

In 1810, members of the Oddfellows in Manchester area became dissatisfied with the way the United Order was being run by the 'Original Oddfellows' (see above) and broke away to form an independent Order with the title 'Manchester Unity'.

With their improved organisation and rules, they encouraged many other lodges across the country to leave the old Grand United Order and join the Independent Order under the 'Manchester Compliance'. It was the Manchester Unity which was to become the the Oddfellows of today.

The Oddfellows subsequently introduced a number of novel benefits for members. These included the Travel Warrant, which allowed members seeking work to stay overnight in an Oddfellows Hall, anywhere in the country, free of charge.

The Oddfellows also introduced standard protection policies (or 'tables') to which people could subscribe to protect themselves. At that time - and all the way to 1948 – in order to see a doctor or go into hospital, people had to pay. Many people therefore joined friendly societies like the Oddfellows to obtain protection to meet these costs.

Loss of the American Order

Persecution tailed off as the Oddfellows grew in numbers, prosperity and respectability. However, the unexpected conviction and transportation to an overseas penal colony of six men at Dorchester in 1834 for membership of an illegal friendly society (The Tolpuddle Martyrs) caused renewed fear and panic in the ranks of the Oddfellows. In their Annual Movable Conference (AMC) of that year - held in Hull - the Grand Master and Board of Directors hastily changed the ancient ritual and abolished the traditional oath of mutual support and replaced it with an 'obligation' in order to evade the penalty of the law.

Members of the Oddfellows in the United States at this time were not best pleased to see the ancient ritual changed without their agreement. Having not long before fought as a country for independence from Britain, they were in no mood to see the ancient ritual changed to satisfy a British government.  As a result the Oddfellows in America declared their independence from the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows and became a self governing Order - the Independent Order Of Oddfellows - which established lodges across the world (and continues to this day). Happily, the two Branches of worldwide Oddfellows work closely together.


The Oddfellows remained an illegal organisation right up to 1850, at which time some Members of Parliament still expressed concerns about the capabilities of the Oddfellows to ferment trouble because it had organised groups of people in all major towns and cities across the country. By 1850 the Independent Order of Oddfellows Manchester Unity Friendly Society had become the largest and richest friendly society in Britain. This growth was spurred by the Industrial Revolution - as people began to stream into towns and cities to work, the need for mutual protection was soon apparent. In those days there was no welfare state, NHS, personal insurance or even trade unions.

Only by joining mutual friendly societies like the Oddfellows could ordinary people protect themselves and their families against illness, injury or death.

20th Century Oddfellows

In Britain, the Oddfellows protected so many people that in 1911, when Asquith's Liberal government was setting up the National Insurance Act, they used the Oddfellows' actuarial tables to work out the level of contribution and payment required. At that time the Oddfellows was the largest friendly society in the world.  After the Second World War, the State poached many of the Oddfellows' key administrators to run the fledgling Welfare State and National Health Service, because before that time most people viewed friendly societies as being integral to health and welfare provision in the UK. Oddfellows administrators were seen as the 'best of breed' and so were in high demand. Since 1948 the Society has continued to offer its members this unique mix of social involvement, care and support and financial benefits.

Throughout the later half of the 20th Century, the Society moved into financial services but took the decision in 1996 to move away from the provision of financial products and to concentrate on social and care provision for members. It subsequently developed a strategic decision to focus activity in its Branches across the UK - encouraging people to take a more active part in Branch activities and to provide support and care for older and infirm members through local volunteer members. In many ways, the Oddfellows has gone full circle - ensuring members join together to enjoy the social side of life, but also support each other in times of need.