Paying tribute to friendly societies
Michael Bradshaw is behind an “historical and cultural installation exhibit” opening at Masterworks this month. Its focus is the friendly societies that gave support to needy members of the community for roughly 100 years. He spoke with Lifestyle about the influence they had on our society.
Q: Why are you holding the exhibit?
A: The exhibition is a sorely needed educational experience. The friendly societies were well known in the black community, even if not well understood outside of the membership and associates.
What is curious is the pervasive ignorance about the friendly societies that seems to exist within the white community in general.
This is a dangerous and debilitating ignorance. It means that whites have been able to believe and perpetuate the myth that black Bermudians never achieved anything of note as organised groups. Any achievement of an individual was cast as an anomaly in a stereotyped race of non-achievers.
This exhibition blasts that lie into oblivion.
Q: What were some of the things they achieved?
A: We had our schools in lodge halls before there was a system of government schools. Black people weren't admitted to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. What the friendly societies did, when they realised there were females returning from education elsewhere and not getting jobs, they provided employment for girls to go out and nurse their members.
District nurses started with friendly societies. They cared for the infirm, people in need, the aged.
That didn't start with government, it started with friendly societies. When trade unionism was forbidden in Bermuda, the first attempt was under the friendly societies' laws.
E.F. Gordon [the Bermuda Labour leader and former MP] recognised in 1946 that friendly societies stopped people from being so desperate because government wasn't providing for them.
Q: How did friendly societies end up here?
A: Friendly societies came about after the 1830s, when it was a necessity to have an organisation to look after the interests of the displaced and newly freed masses. [They] would have been really active from 1850-1950, quite a span of time. Only about a half-dozen are active today but a few more are around but more or less in a moribund state.
Q: How many friendly societies were there?
A: There would have been at least 20 or so local friendly societies. The first international friendly societies (those which were based in a much larger jurisdictions and usually had branches in several countries around the world of which Bermuda was only one location) came about in the middle 1800s.
There would easily be about 30 or 40 of the international bodies, at least as primary lodges, and with other associated lodges for juveniles and past officers, etc — the number might easily be doubled. So a conservative count would say at least 50 and possibly almost a hundred at the extreme.
Q: About how many people were involved?
A: In Bermuda, almost every family would have at least one member in one of the orders.
Q: What caused their decline?
A: The real decline, if you call it that, in numbers and importance took place after the Second World War. People became more able to get assistance from the banks; they had access to schools — girls as well as boys — and the influence of the friendly society started to wane.
People who were maybe members as juveniles, when they became adults and there were more educational opportunities, more job opportunities, people could travel more, less were going on to the adult part of the lodge.
People started to hold the government responsible for the money they were collecting. They started saying, ‘I'm paying taxes, I'm working. I should have a school for my son; I'm sick, I should have access to a doctor'. As they began to agitate more, authorities began to give, so they weren't solely dependent on [friendly societies].
Q: How did you get involved?
A: I was invited into the movement by a senior gentleman who was the father of a classmate, and who became a work mentor when I first entered the adult labour market as a teenager who needed to make money to pay for an overseas university education.
There were very few scholarships and they were not widely or fairly accessible and so most of us had to work to fund ourselves or supplement whatever parents and charity of family and friends could supply.
There was a colour and gender bias to access. This mentor helped me get a job and assisted me in growing my earnings and maintaining summer employment. His love for the community and commitment to advancing the individual and the community impressed me. After I graduated and had lived abroad for a while and seen self-help and co-operative schemes/movements in Africa, I better appreciated his philosophy of life and his ethos. Eventually, he mentored me when I became a member of his lodge as part of The Independent Order of Good Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria at Princess Royal Union Lodge #135 at Cobb's Hill, Warwick.
I have been a member in good standing for more than 30 years now.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish with the exhibit?
A: The exhibit has a couple of objectives. Not only to try to get people to reflect on [friendly societies' existence] but also, hopefully, to get people to look for documents and artefacts, before they're lost.
Q: What form will the exhibit take? Where was it sourced?
A: The material is from local collections of the Bermuda National Library — especially the Bermuda Recorder newspaper files — along with personal researches and writings of the author and his conversations/interviews with innumerable lodge personalities.
Lodge historians like Sister Joy Wilson Tucker; Brother Ira Philip; Brother Boyd Smith; Sister Valeria Tuzo, etc have supplemented the many contributions (formal and informal) from lodge members and even from descendants of members. I alone bear full responsibility for any shortcomings or inaccuracies however.
• Bermuda Friendly Lodges: A Cultural and Historical Special Exhibition opens in the Rick Faries Gallery on August 19