Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 1 - Working Men in their Public Relations - Some Non-Beneficial Customs of Benefit Societies

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SOME NON-BENEFICIAL CUSTOMS OF BENEFIT SOCIETIES.

SUFFICIENT unto the day is the evil thereof, is a text in which, when the evil days come, most people are disposed to believe thoroughly. They are then generally of opinion that more than sufficient for the day is the evil thereof; and it is this feeling which prompts most men to lay by out of the passing good a portion wherewith to neutralize or alleviate so far as may be the evil that may come at any time. Of the evil days that come to man, the day of sickness is the most general, and the most unavoidable. Under the most favourable circumstances, and viewed merely in the abstract, sickness is a great evil. It involves positive physical suffering: the negative pain arising from the withdrawal from the ordinary pursuits and enjoyments of life; the handing over of yourself to the control of doctors and nurses, and the swallowing of horribly nauseous compounds, which, but for your pains or fears, you would willingly throw to the dogs. But to those men who are the bread-winners for themselves or others, and whom sickness incapacitates from labour, the contemplation of the disastrous results consequent upon enforced idleness is often more painful than sickness itself. And it is particularly incumbent upon such men as these, and more especially upon those of them who, in the more literal sense of the phrase, earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, and are known to other sections of society as "the working classes," to be pre-[-68-]pared, as far as possible, for the adverse results incidental to sickness.
    Such were the thoughts that passed through my mind as I reflected upon my position on reaching man's estate, and finding myself "out of my time," and for the future solely dependent upon my own exertions as a working mechanic for a livelihood. I was young and confident, had - to use a stock phrase - a good trade in my fingers, and the world before me where to choose. And despite all that I had heard concerning the exceeding wickedness of the present generation, I hopefully believed that there was still much that was good and pleasant to be found in the world that was before me, and had every prospect of being able to earn, in my position in life, a good living. But still I remembered sickness might come at any moment; the vigorous health of youth might be shattered, the strong arm rendered weak, or the skilfully-trained hand lose its cunning; and against the dire consequences of such possibilities it behoved me, as one who valued "the glorious privilege of being independent," to be prepared, by making some provision out of the fruits of the good days, for the evil and unproductive days that would almost certainly come.
    The only principle upon which working men can to any considerable extent and in a reliable manner be provided to meet the contingencies arising from sickness is that of mutual assurance; and of the many institutions founded upon this principle Friendly or Benefit Societies are the best adapted to their incomes and requirements. This being the case, I determined, with a view to carrying out my prudential resolves, to join The Ancient Order of Good Fellows, one of the first established and most extensive of the benefit societies supported by the working classes. On [-69-] mentioning my wish to two of my fellow-workmen who were members of the society, they at once offered. to propose and second me in their "lodge." I accordingly gave them my proposition fee, and in due time they informed me that I had been accepted, and would be "made" on the following lodge night.
    When that night arrived I duly appeared at the lodge (which was held, as are all lodges of the large benefit societies, in a public-house) in company with my proposer and seconder. On reaching the door of the clubroom, one of my companions gave a complicated series of knocks upon it; a small slide in the door was then withdrawn and an ear appeared at the opening; and he who had knocked whispered something into the ear, and was then admitted. My other companion called out, "Brother Jones without the word," the proprietor of the car repeated, "Brother Jones without the word," and a voice from the top end of the room then said, "Admit Brother Jones." Brother Jones was then admitted, and I was left alone in my misery; for all this mystery fully impressed me with the notion that, after all, the tales about red-hot pokers and other instruments of torture necessary to the initiation of members into these societies, were no myths. After waiting for some minutes, during which there was a great shuffling of feet and jingling of glasses going on inside the room, the door was again opened, and I was invited by him of the ear to walk in. I had been instructed as to how I was to salute the Noble Grand and his subordinates in office, and having got through this form of salutation successfully, and being somewhat reassured by seeing no indication of the hot poker, I ventured to take a survey of the room. At the upper end the Noble Grand, with the scarf of his office around his grand and noble body, was enthroned under a canopy [-70-] of blue silk, and was supported on either side by officers second only to his noble grandship in rank. At the lower end the vice-grand was enthroned; and at two tables that extended the whole length of the room were seated about a hundred and fifty of the brethren, each with his pot or glass before him. Some of the brethren, it was evident from their stupefied stare and maudlin gestures, were already "gone;" others were "getting on," and there was a general disposition among them to be noisy. The walls of the room were emblazoned with flags, mottoes, and official scarves, and above the throne of the Noble Grand was fixed a roll of fame in the shape of a board, on which were written in letters of gold the names of the past noble grands of the lodge.
    By the time I had noticed these particulars, the initiating officers were prepared to receive me. After answering a number of questions, and repeating after one of them a long and senseless rigmarole which was in effect an oath not to reveal the secrets of "the order" (which, by the way, there is little danger of my doing, as, independent of a moral obligation not to do so, a sense of shame would keep me silent about the senseless mummeries which constitute the secrets of "the order" ), I was pronounced fully made. Whereupon the whole of the brethren rose to their feet, and holding their charged glasses above their heads, after the manner of bacchanalian choristers in an opera, or the "supers" who represent the pirate horde carousing in nautical melodramas, shouted as one man, "Long life and happiness to our new brother!" and emptied their glasses. How I was expected to acknowledge this unexpected honour I knew not; but I was speedily relieved from my embarrassment upon this point, by my proposer suggesting in a stage whisper that [-71-] I should "stand something." I asked how much it would be necessary for me to stand. He put it to my conscience, that, considering the number of brethren who were present, I could not well stand less than a gallon of ale; and a gallon of ale I accordingly "stood," and as many of the brethren as got their glasses replenished from this supply of ale again toasted their "new brother."
    My initiation being now fairly completed, I took my seat at one of the tables, and for some time there was a cessation of all business save that of drinking. But presently arose Brother Smith; who, when he had secured the attention of the noble grand, proceeded to make a statement, to the effect that Brother Mansell - whom he frankly described as a drunken old vagabond - who was then "on the box" (that is, receiving the sick benefit of the society), had been seen going about the streets in a state of intoxication; and it being against the laws of the society to get drunk while on the sick list, he called upon the officers of the society to punish Brother Mansell by confiscating his sick pay. The instant Brother Smith had finished his statement, Brother Williams (a brother-in-law of the denounced Brother Mansell), who was so far "gone£ that he had to support himself by clinging to the table, staggered to his feet, and in a fierce, spluttering tone, intimated that he did not believe a word that Brother Smith had said, that only he (Brother Williams) could not afford to be fined, he would there and then "knock his" (Brother Smith's) "two eyes into one." To which Brother Smith responded, by saying that if Brother Williams attempted to hit him, he would make him (Brother Williams) look nine ways for Sunday. Brother Williams was about to make some threatening, and, probably, from the suggestive manner in which [-72-] he turned up his coat sleeves, practical rejoinder; but at this interesting point the Noble Grand, who had been engaged in "bottoming" a pot of porter, interposed his authority by saying, "Now, chaps, you mustn't get fighting here, you know, or I shall have to fine you both." Upon hearing this, Brother Williams, who seemed to have a particular horror of a fine, sank into his seat, and was speedily sleeping the sleep of the drunken, and the investigation into Brother Mansell's transgression was quietly allowed to drop.
    By this time it was ten o'clock (I had gone to the lodge at eight), and the brethren, some of whom showed by their staggering gait that they had "got their load on," began to disperse, and by a little after eleven the last man had departed. And so ended the night of my initiation, the proceedings of which gave me anything but a favourable idea of the mode of conducting the society's business.
    "The social glass" is in its proper sphere no doubt a pleasant and admirable institution, hut there can be equally little doubt that the glass which cheers but may inebriate is not in its proper place in a meeting of an avowedly business character, and at which subjects that affect the individual or collective welfare of those present have to be discussed, or matters of a semi-judicial nature - such, for instance, as the granting or withholding of the sick pay of any member of the lodge who may have declared on "the box" under what are considered suspicious circumstances, or the nature and extent of the penalty to be inflicted upon any member who may have transgressed against the laws of the society - have to be argued and decided upon. Even in a small friendly circle the members of which were acquainted with each other, drinking would be out of place during a business meeting; and it is [-73-] more emphatically out of place in a miscellaneous gathering of a hundred or two or three hundred, as the case may be, of working men, of various trades, opinions, and dispositions, met together for business purposes. The unrestricted drinking not only permitted but in many cases practically enforced at the meetings of members of benefit societies, is at all times detrimental to the business interests of the societies, and frequently leads to most unseemly proceedings when any matter upon which there is an antagonism of feeling or interest is under discussion. Thus Brother Bloggs of our lodge, than whom when sober there is no quieter or civiler man breathing, after he has had his third pint of ale on a club night becomes pugnaciously quarrelsome, and has a decided and irrepressible leaning to the blasphemous in expressing his drunken and contradictory opinions. And when his views upon any club affair are opposed he exhibits those objectionable peculiarities, by calling those who venture to differ with him, sanguinary liars, and threatening to punch their sanguinary heads; and even dares to talk of "warming" the Noble Grand, when that distinguished individual fines him, as by virtue of his grand and noble office and the laws of the society he is bound to do, for swearing in the club-room. Again, Brother Perkins, a small, and in his sober moments a particularly meek-spirited man, whose wife has been twice fined by the local police magistrates for husband beating, will-urged thereunto by the half-and-half that he has consumed-whenever he finds himself in a minority in a club division challenge the whole of the majority to fight; and inform them with curses loud and deep that he "can lick the lot of them one down the other come on." On the other hand, Brother Morgan, who is usually as melancholy as a [-74-] clown off the stage, will when he has "got his load on" utter ribald jests, the question at the moment being -how we can best give something beyond the specified "funeral money" to the widow of a late brother who has been killed in an awfully sudden manner. If there is any difficulty, Brother Jones, our oldest member, has to be roused from the sleep of the drunken, in order that we may ascertain whether he is aware of any precedent for what is proposed. Nor are such direct evils as the impeding and complication of business, and the impossibility of a fair and dispassionate consideration of any question that may be brought forward, the only ones that arise from the drinking practices associated with the present system of benefit society management. I have frequently heard and read that married ladies in the upper ranks of society look with great disfavour on their husbands' clubs; but these ladies have, I fancy, much less cause to be opposed to club proceedings than the wives of many working men who (the men) are members of benefit societies. For the loss to a working man's wife of the portion of her husband's scanty and perhaps precarious earnings, which is spent in the society's club-room, or through the reckless spirit engendered by the drink imbibed there, may and often does mean an insufficiency of food and clothing for herself and children. And it is no unusual thing to see a number of poorly clad, anxious-looking women waiting outside of a club-house on a "lodge night," in order to try and catch their husbands coming out, so as to induce them to go home without indulging in "the parting glass," to which the drinking in the club-room leads men of a convivial or "spreeing" disposition. I do not propose the abolition of the drinking customs that at present obtain in benefit societies as an "universal remedy" for drunkenness, [-75-] though such abolition would have a decided tendency to lessen the certainly decreasing but still unhappily too prevalent evil of drunkenness among the working-classes. For this club-room tippling induces drinking habits in some young men, confirms them in others, and affords convenient opportunities for indulgence to those who are already confirmed "lushingtons." But apart from all social, moral, or domestic considerations, and looking at the matter merely from a business point of view, it must be obvious that these drinking customs are amongst those that would be "more honoured in the breach than the observance." This drinking in club-rooms is in all cases officially sanctioned, and as I have already said, in the majority of instances practically enforced; for in most lodges there is an unwritten but perfectly understood and rigidly enforced law to the effect that each member must spend something "for the good of the house." And even where this is not the case no man of merely ordinary strength of mind can screw his courage to the point of maintaining a state of drinkless blessedness while surrounded by a hundred and fifty or two hundred brethren, each with glass before him, and with a waiter reproachfully or indignantly eyeing him (the would-be drinkless one), and significantly announcing the most obvious fact that he (the waiter) is in the room. At least in all my large acquaintance among members of benefit societies I have only met one who successfully withstood that ordeal; and that he was a person with peculiar tastes, and endowed with more than ordinary strength of mind where regard for the actions or opinions of a majority was concerned, is proved by the fact that he made open application for the office of executioner at a local hanging; and afterwards expressed an emphatic hope that he would live to have the hanging of a number [-76-] of the brethren who ventured to suggest that such an application upon his part was likely to bring discredit upon "the lodge."
    After the drinking customs, the most objectionable feature in connexion with the management of benefit societies is the absurd and degrading manner in which the demonstrations and fetes organized for the delectation of their members are carried out. I know from my own experience that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," and though personally I do not care about taking my pleasure in crowds, I believe that demonstrations and fetes would, if they were planned and conducted in a sensible manner, be highly beneficial to the class of men who are members of benefit societies. But while an occasional day's play may do good to Jack, who is a hardworking bricklayer or blacksmith, it can only degrade Jack and bring him into contempt to march him through the streets bedizened with gaudy scarves and ribbons, in a style that would be considered outré in an African chief, or to send him to a place of public resort "got up" in a fancy costume that gives him the appearance of a veritable guy, and that causes him to be the observed and contemned of all observers. Nor does the evil attending the demonstrations of benefit societies terminate with degrading those who take part in them, as in addition to having that anything but desirable effect, they involve the societies in their corporate capacities, and the members individually, in unnecessary and unjustifiable expense.
    A few months after I had joined the society to which I belong, some of my elder brethren-in a society sense-informed me in a tone of jubilation that the A. M. C. (Annual Moveable Committee) was to be held in the town in which our lodge was situated, and [-77-] that the various lodges of the district had resolved to celebrate the meeting of the committee by a demonstration, to consist of a grand procession of "the order" and dinners at the various club rooms. Our lodge was noted for its splendour in affairs of this kind, and the officials of it convened a meeting of the members, to decide upon the position we were to assume in the coming demonstration. This meeting I attended; and on learning that our "incidental expense fund" (from which is paid the lodge expenses arising from demonstrations, and other proceedings that do not come under the head of any of the specified benefits of the society) was already more than 25l. in debt, I respectfully suggested that as one lodge would not be missed in so extensive an affair as a district demonstration, we should take no part in it at all. This notion was indignantly scouted as subversive of the glory of "the order." I then proposed that since we must take part in the demonstration, we should, in consideration of the unsatisfactory state of our fund, do so as economically as possible, and in this I was supported by some of the brethren; whereupon a fierce discussion as to whether or not we should have a band ensued, and at last terminated in an adjournment until the following lodge night. At the next meeting the bandites mustered in great force, and after a short but hot discussion, in the course of which Brother Bloggs, whom I had ventured to contradict, informed me that he would "hit me like a horse kicking" when he got me outside, and Brother Patrick Murphy threatened to rive the earth up if a fine that had been inflicted upon him for attempting to "smashivate" one of the brethren was not remitted, they carried their point. In the meantime every available band in the town had been engaged by other lodges of our order, and it [-78-] became necessary for us to send a delegate to "the black country" - where bands formed by the workmen from the mines and ironworks are numerous - to hire a band. A flag bearer had also to be engaged; and all the more respectable loafers in town having been secured by other lodges, we were fain to put up with the services of an individual well known but by no means respected in local police circles as Ferret; who though he might be most admirable as a poacher, was scarcely a desirable standard bearer. On the day of the demonstration the members of the order were early astir, and our lodge met at the club-house at the appointed hour of ten, the officials wearing the decorations of their office, and carrying the regalia of the lodge, and the brethren wearing scarves and such other decorations as their fancy dictated. And now for the first time we saw the band that our delegate had engaged. They had been described to us as a first-class band; but a shabbier, dirtier, more incapable lot was never denounced by Mr. Babbage. They were colliers by trade, and their faces having only had what one of their number aptly described as a "lick and a promise," they looked much fitter for doing the "nigger business" than taking part in even a benefit society's demonstration. They were dressed in a uniform that might at one time have looked gay, but it was now miserably ragged, tarnished, and ill-fitting, and gave its wearers a most grotesque appearance. In explanation of their wretched playing the leader stated that they were a very good lot in a general way, but that just then their best player was unfortunately in gaol for beating his wife, and one of the other members had not been able to come in consequence of his instrument being in pawn. And then the instruments of those who had come were rather out of order. This [-79-] last statement at least was correct, for the instruments were almost dropping to pieces; and each player had to carry a supply of putty with which to re-stop any of the already puttied cracks in them that might open again. However, as there was no chance of getting another band, we were compelled to make the best of the very bad one we had got; and after a little delay - occasioned by Ferret, our poaching standard bearer, having been detected in an attempt to steal a valuable dog belonging to the landlord of the club-house, - we formed in order of procession, and marched, headed by the unabashed Ferret, who in point of costume was an artistically harmonized blending of labourer, groom, gamekeeper, and bargeman, to the place where the various lodges were to meet. We were among the latest arrivals, and had not to wait many minutes before the grand procession - of which, owing to the peculiar fame and strange dress of our standard-bearer, and the remarkable appearance and playing of our band, we formed but too conspicuous a part - started on its senseless and objectless journey. For two hours and a half we paraded the streets, with the only effect, so far as I could see, of affording a little amusement to the idle and juvenile portions of the population of the town, whose remarks upon the personal peculiarities and adornments of some of the processionists were much more pointed than pleasant. Ferret came in for so large a share of these remarks that he twice laid down his flag to charge and disperse the taunting crowd. After walking through the principal streets, and greatly distinguishing ourselves in the wax of frightening homes and impeding traffic, each section of the processionists returned to its own club-house to dine.
    Very strict etiquette could scarcely be expected at [-80-] a two-shilling benefit club-dinner; but when the men who go to such dinners go sober, they generally behave with decent propriety of manner. Upon the present occasion, however, some of the more thirsty souls of our lodge having indulged in "drains" at almost every public-house on the route of the procession, were in a state of more than semi-intoxication when they came to the dinner-table; and their behaviour could be only characterized as beastly. Putting their hands into their own and other persons' food was a moderate part of their proceedings. When the cloth was withdrawn, various toasts to the glorification of "the order" were given, and then general drinking set in with such severity that in less than an hour fighting began-in which, owing to a strong desire upon the part of Brother Bloggs to carry out his threat of hitting me "like a horse kicking," I had much difficulty in avoiding some part. This phase of the proceedings having been exhausted, harmony - if the singing of a number of songs of the "Slap bang" type can be so called - commenced, and was continued until eight o'clock in the evening, when the party broke up.
    Later in the evening a number of the brethren got up a supplementary "demonstration," the chief features of which were a bacchanalian dance, accompanied by an appropriate chorus, performed in the high-street of the town at the witching hour of night; and the carrying away of a number of emblematical trade signs, such as barbers' poles and wooden cheeses. Unfortunately for some of those who took part in it, the police authorities could not be brought to see the point of this demonstration. The consequence was that about a dozen of the brethren were taken into custody and lodged in the police cells until the following [-81-] morning, when they were taken before the bench of magistrates, who with an amount of wisdom and leniency rare among "the great unpaid," discharged them, with one exception, "with a caution." The unhappy exception was Brother Murphy, of our lodge, who, having resisted the police and threatened in a wholesale manner peculiar to himself to "have the blood" of the magistrates and all other constituted authorities, and to "burn the town down," was sent to prison for seven days in default of paying a fine of twenty shillings and costs.
    The advocates of the present system of benefit societies' demonstrations assert that such demonstrations attract members to the societies. Such may be the case, though I am inclined to doubt it, as I know from personal experience that they are the means of keeping many sensible working men from joining such societies, and the cause of others who have joined them, leaving them; while there can be no doubt that they depreciate the character for manliness, commonsense, and self-respect of the working man in the estimation of other sections of the community. The result of our grand demonstration was, so far as our lodge was concerned, that 151. was added to the arrears of the incidental expense fund; and when a levy was subsequently laid upon the members for the purpose of paying off the arrears, several of those who had opposed the hiring of the band left the society. I am well within the mark in saying that taking into consideration the loss of a day's wages, the average cost of the demonstration to each member was ten shillings; and as our lodge mustered in round numbers three hundred members, that gives a sum of 1651., drawn exclusively from working men and worse than wasted; for it was spent in making [-82-] them ridiculous in the eyes of other classes of society.
    I have no wish to disparage benefit societies, which are, so far as their primary and ostensible functions are concerned, among the best institutions to which a working man can belong, but merely wish to call attention to the fact that there is still much room for reform and improvement in their management. The most pernicious of the evils associated with the present system of management could be very easily remedied. Owing to the establishment of working men's clubhouses and similar institutions, there are now in many towns ample facilities for withdrawing the business of benefit societies from public-houses; and where such facilities do not exist, the passing of a law by the executive council of any society making it a fineable offence to introduce drink into a club-room during business hours, would effectually put a stop to the present objectionable drinking customs. And with the great variety of rational modes of amusement at present accessible to all ranks of society to select from, the managers of benefit societies could experience no difficulty in introducing some advantageous modifications in the present system of "demonstrations." Of the childish ceremonials which constitute "the secrets of the orders," and some other minor weaknesses connected with the transaction of the business of benefit societies, I say nothing. They please some and do harm to none, and their retention or abolition is consequently a matter of indifference; but until at any rate the discreditable drinking practices connected with them are abolished these associations will not be fully deserving of their name of benefit societies.

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