Page revised 21 August 2001




Edward J Law.

On 26 April 1851 the Prince of Wales Friendly Society Lodge No. 85 was formed with headquarters at the Sportsman’s Arms, Westleigh Mill, Leigh, Lancashire. By 1862 when they registered their rules they had adopted a new name, the Loyal United Free Mechanics. As lodge number 85 they must have been part of some sort of affiliated order; whether this was the case after the change of name is not apparent. In 1872 there was in Lancashire an Order of Mechanics which had a membership of over 3,500 in 71 lodges, whether this was the successor to the Prince of Wales Friendly Society, or whether the Loyal United Free Mechanics were a part of the order is not known.

The rules show that the principle objectives of the Society were to give financial relief to members in sickness or at death. Combinations of workers to establish funds for the relief of the sick had been taking place since the end of the seventeenth century, and had spread greatly in the eighteenth century leading in 1793 to the passing of the Friendly Societies Act, which gave them official recognition and protection of their funds. By the Victorian era sick or burial clubs of one form or another were commonplace. With the welfare state undreamt of, working men paid a few pence a week to secure benefits at times of need: some of these bodies survive to the present time, notably the Oddfellows and the Buffaloes.

At Lodge 85 members had to pay an entry fee ranging from 5s. 6d. at age 18 to 1 12s. 0d. at age 40. As in most similar societies new members over the age of 40 were not accepted on the basis that members over that age were more likely to be in benefit and would use up the funds which members had contributed in their earlier, healthier, working life. Once admitted members were to pay 1s. 3d. every four weeks plus 1d. a month to cover the necessary costs of management. The management costs would consist principally of rent of the meeting room, in addition it may well have included provision of ale on meeting nights. Whilst hardly a necessity of management, such conviviality was generally as much a feature of such clubs as was the provision of benefits. It is significant that the very first rule of the Society stated that the business of the Society was to be carried on at the Sportsman’s Arms. No mention of provision of ale or spirits could be included in the rules or the Registrar of Friendly Societies would have refused to register them: nor could any such outlay be shown in the accounts of societies. To circumvent the the problem the illicit payments were generally classed as rent! There was no provision in the rules for any of the officers of the Society to receive payment for their services; on the contrary there were fines to be imposed on any who refused or neglected an office.

The benefits were a sick allowance of 8s. 0d. per week for the first 26 weeks of any illness and then at the reduced rate of 4s. od. Per week. The funeral allowance was 8 for a member, being paid to a relative of his prior nomination; 6 for a member’s first wife; 3 for his second wife; and 1 at the death of a child under twelve years of age. The rules contain no reference to a minimum age for entry: the provision of burial benefit only up to the age of twelve would seem to indicate that they would be eligible for entry at that age, when many would be working. The fact that there was no provision for an entrance fee under the age of eighteen is possibly based on an actuarial view of the risks involved, as indeed was the graduated scale of entry fees above that age. The level of funeral benefit was generous; some societies allowed only 2, and in 1849 a funeral could be conducted for as little as 2 3s. 6d.

Whilst on the face of it the Loyal United Free Mechanics was a friendly society, there are indications that it may have been something more. The adoption of the new ‘working class’ name in place of the patriotic Prince of Wales Lodge gives rises to questions. Whilst the title Loyal United Free Mechanics has little meaning at the present time, similar names had been borne by the fledgling trade unions of the 1820s. In Bradford in 1822 when the Combination Acts which proscribed trade unions were still in force, a Mechanics & Friendly Union Institution was formed and at Manchester in 1826, shortly after the repeal of those Acts, the Friendly Union of Mechanics was founded. The latter which bore possibly the proudest name among trade unions ‘the Old Mechanics’, was the core around which the Amalgamted Engineering Union grew.

The author has an apron of the Loyal United Free Mechanics (and another is in the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester) which is full of symbolism: principally depiction of Bible scenes: Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Noah’s ark etc. However, some of the symbols almost certainly have their origin in the union movement. The sun in splendour, the moon and seven stars, the ‘all seeing eye, the square and compass and the beehive are all emblems which appeared on the membership card of the Old Mechanics. The apron also carries the motto ‘United we stand, divided we fall’, long the rallying cry of the trade unions.

Much of the symbolism of the early trade unions and friendly societies was drawn from that most influential of secret societies, the Masons. Probably at their founding these organisations in deciding on rules, codes of conduct, membership certificates and general administration, looked for existing examples which they could adapt to their own needs. The Loyal United Free Mechanics’ rules set out the duties of Guardians or Tylers who attended the doors of the Lodge, just as do the Tylers in the masonic movement.

Why a semi-clandestine union should have been in being at such a late date is not apparent, and it may in fact have been that the Society had no objectives other than the provision of sick and death benefits, but took the name to honour an earlier union movement; possibly even a movement from which the Prince of Wales Lodge had emerged. There are items among the rules which do not appear to have much relevance to a friendly society. The use of passwords, and warnings against disclosing the business of meetings to absent members may well have been survivals from the days when the union movement was under threat, and be an indication that the Prince of Wales Lodge sprang from that movement. In the early days of the union or craft movement many of the societies had stated objectives very similar to the friendly societies, with other, less acceptable, objectives only hinted at amongst a mass of rules.

Another possibility is that the Society came under the influence of trade union activists who chose an evocative old name to displace the patriotic style. It may be relevant that when in 1862 Trustees had to be elected, the notification to the Registrar of Friendly Societies reported that the Trustees had been elected by 37 votes for and 20 against! Further, the three Trustees were all colliers, none of whom were able to sign their name, and that in marked contrast to the three members and Secretary who submitted the notification, all of whom were able to sign.

One possible reason for the dissention which is indicated in the voting may have been that the Society was in fact being taken over by coal miners. It was early recognised in the Friendly Society movement that miners were a bad risk; by the nature of their employment they suffered a higher rate of sickness. When they were a small percentage of total membership this disadvantage might be absorbed by the general membership: in other cases the only way in which a society could ensure solvency was to increase the rates of contributions. We have no real knowledge of the composition of the Prince of Wales Lodge or its successor. In the 1850s Westleigh Mills, named from its old corn mill, was a semi-rural area, and membership could have been drawn from agricultural labourers, workers at a sulphuric acid plant, at cotton mills and at a colliery.

The rulebook of the Society gives some interesting insights into the social conditions of the time. Any member who was "compelled by misfortune to reside in a workhouse, or asylum, or be imprisoned for debt" paid no contributions and was to receive no sick benefit. Improper practices which were specifically prohibited in the Lodge room were the reading of newspapers or books, the singing of indecent songs, the giving of political or sentimental toasts, the laying of wagers and the doing of any business other than that of the lodge.

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