The mateship story: Fraternal societies in Australia

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The Odd Fellows fraternal society dates back approximately 250 years, evolving from English traditions (screenshot via YouTube).

Dr Bob James traces the history of fraternal societies in Australia and their unrecognised role in forming a national identity of mateship.

PEOPLE ARE STILL arguing about the idea of "mateship" — where it came from and what's happening to it today.

I've been uncovering reliable evidence for 30 years; I've set up a website, I've self-published a book called They Call Each Other Brother, and I've spoken at numerous conferences here and overseas. I also have stacks of proof.

But it seems I may as well be invisible, as people continue to come up with their own theories and refuse to listen.

So, I'm sponsoring a project in which I will pay someone to look at my idea – that mateship came to Australia in the form of fraternal societies – and either prove it or disprove it. The winner will get $15,000, whether they prove or disprove me. There's another $15,000 available for someone to look at my collection and provide a Statement of Significance, acceptable to curators at National Museums. Again, the money will be paid for a serious effort, even if the answer is negative or inconclusive.

The first step is to get expressions of interest emailed to me before 31 July 2018. I'll select five of the most interesting and send them $500 to explain what they think of my argument, just as an idea. I'll send them another $500 when they provide me, by the end of September 2018, with around 1,000 words setting out what they think. From that five, I'll select one winner to go on with the background research and provide a substantial report. The deadline for this will be negotiable.

I call my accumulated evidence a "collection" but it was never systematic or complete. Over three decades, I’ve been forced into saving and protecting hundreds of items from destruction and random disposal. There are large timber honour boards; marble and metal plaques and foundation stones; dozens of cups and shields awarded for ritual competitions; membership "jewels" and chest ribbons, which were a U.S. idea, for parades such as the commemoration of winning the eight-hour day.

I have regalia – sashes, aprons, gauntlets and hats – for the Odd Fellows, Druids, Rechabites, Freemasons, Boy Scouts and more. I also have banners (big and small), framed certificates, lodge furniture like swords and staffs, ceremonial instructions (some in code), photos, embroidered altar cloths, pedestals, kneeling stools, a Grand Master’s chair, hoodwinks (ritual blindfolds), regalia catalogues from late 19th Century to early 20th Century and dozens of lodge bags.

I've come to understand the part fraternal societies have played in Australian society from the First Fleet in 1788. They were secret societies with passwords, secret handshakes and initiation rituals. They were benefit societies providing funds for workmen out of work or injured, perhaps forced to go "on the tramp" to survive and they helped provide ways to get laws changed. They affected reforms about education, about bans on alcohol, about health insurance, about trade unions and about recruitment campaigns for the World Wars.

Religious wars in this country are not well known, but the mateship story includes murders, street riots and political argy-bargy between Catholics and Protestants over 200 years. The Loyal Orange movement was very strong here. Ned Kelly was captured at Glenrowan wearing an Ancient Order of Hibernians sash, which I identified from identical ones I hold. My research found that sporting teams, including Bradman’s test cricket teams, were famously split between Masons and non-Masons, and the best rugby league player in the country was not selected for the 1948 Kangaroo tour of England because he held the wrong faith.

The mateship story includes changes that had brought the societies undone, like national health schemes, the arrival of competing entertainments, and national legislation outlawing secret ballots and tightening up funding arrangements.

The story includes a loss of the fraternal spirit, even while mateship was becoming a default symbol of our national identity. The fraternities (secret societies and mutual benefit societies) spread all over Australia, and set up lodges or unions or leagues in every little village and town. It’s a huge area of study and the neglect now is staggering — but it is the mateship story, and it has its goodies and baddies.

The societies, and the people behind them, supported people’s self-help as a viable alternative to government welfare and they set up national organisations with headquarters in capital cities — think of the Manchester Unity building in Melbourne or T & G Insurance, which began as the Independent Order of Rechabites. Think of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory, which began as an initiative of friendly societies to get their members cheaper drugs. And then think of the doctors’ Australian Medical Association, which fought against lodge doctors and their co-operative schemes, and badly weakened them.

The fraternals, including trade unions and independent hospital benefit schemes, were not organised, they were not politically astute and they got hammered.

Dr Bob James is the author of They Call Each Other Brotherthe story of fraternalism in Australia and its strange, slow death. He runs the website Fraternal Secrets and you can email him at

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The mateship story: Fraternal societies in Australia

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