In 2017 Ashburton Museum’s Archive received a special collection of material from the Forester Lodge. Among the items were some beautifully executed certificates, dripping with symbolism. Of particular interest to one of our volunteers was the costume of the men. While we may be familiar with lodge members wearing sashes and collars, these men looked like something out of Robin Hood. What was going on with their unusual get-up?
Indeed, such finery – especially the green tunics and rather tight fitting leggings – was totally appropriate to both Robin of Loxley and the Forester Lodge. For this Lodge, as the name implies, was originally established to provide support to men working in the forestry industry. Even now, working in such an occupation is a rather dangerous activity and often weather dependant. While today injured or unemployed workers can apply for assistance from government agencies, in the ‘days of yore’ people had to rely on each other for support.
Friendly Societies were established to provide financial aid and brotherly support to members who paid a subscription, and obviously these groups would only want to support those who had contributed. In a time when people were mobile, but often illiterate, secret signs and passwords were devised In order to ensure membership.
Ritual and mystery
Once one understands the history behind such societies, the ritual and mystery begins to make a lot more sense. However, in the past, those on the outside struggled to understand what was happening at lodge meetings with the funny clothes, passwords and signs. So they took what little they knew, or had heard, and embroidered quite bizarre and unfounded stories, some of which survive until this day. For example, often people make comment that many of the lodges have their meetings according to the full moon – a sure sign of evil or suspicious behaviour.
The reason, however, was based on practicality – with only a buggy lamp to guide your way home, having meetings during the full moon meant you could see where you were going. In fact, if one looks at early newspapers it would be apparent that many activities – from balls to school committee meetings – were calendared according to the moon.
Lodges in our Archives
The majority of lodge material held in our Archives are from occupational lodges. Apart from the Foresters, we have records of the Masons, Odd Fellows, Manchester Unity Odd Fellows and Buffalos. All these lodges provided very important functions to their members but can you guess what they did?
Masons – possibly the most well-known lodge – were just that: stonemasons and people in associated trades. Not only was their job very dangerous but full of prestige. A master mason could expect very high wages, so the skills associated with their craft were often claimed by imposters. Having signs, such as the handshake, enabled those on the inside to know who was ‘legit’ and who wasn’t, especially as early masons travelled throughout Europe.
Odd Fellows were a collective of those who required a lodge, but didn’t really fit into other groups. A breakaway group was established by those who worked in the very dirty and potentially dangerous textile industry – these became known as the Manchester Unity Odd Fellows.
The Buffalo Lodge was not established to provide relief for hunters, but supported those in the theatre industry. While not as dangerous as erecting a building or crawling under weaving machines, actors and other performers were often unemployed so required some assistance during their breaks. Part of their initiation ritual often included novices having to prove their worth by performing. This may be the reason why they are sometimes considered the ‘party animal’ of lodges.
Other lodges that we have material on are more philosophical or religious. The Orange Order catered for the Protestant inhabitants of Ireland, who while having a great deal of privilege and power were in the minority as far as numerical strength was concerned.
Conversely, the Hibernian Lodge was largely for Catholics who were barred from joining secret societies and were marginalised in many societies.
Temperance Societies – such as the Good Templars – focussed their activities on supporting their abstaining brothers as well as providing financial aid.
Possibly my favourite friendly society is the Druid Lodge. The man who established this order thought that society was becoming too self-focussed and negative, so he formed a group ‘to enlighten the mind, promote harmony, encourage temperance, energy, and virtue’ and based the rituals on the ancient druids. While we don’t have any Druid Lodge material in the collection here in Ashburton, in Oamaru we were given ceremonial robes which consisted of a huge white robe with an oversized hood and a fake beard. Again, like the Foresters in their slinky tights, the clothes looked to us outsiders as weird, but on understanding their background it was a natural and fitting garb.
Lodges are becoming a thing of the past and many struggle to attract new members. Their history is being lost under a cloud of misunderstanding, which is a real shame in my opinion. Regardless of whether people approve of them or not they have played an enormous part in the lives of many of our ancestors. Although we think of lodges as men only organisations, many lodges permitted women to join their ranks, or the ladies formed their own associated branches. Highlighting the fact that the support lodges gave was not just financial but social, many lodges also had juvenile branches which were composed largely of the children of members. Our collection of Lodge material may be small, but is well worth investigating to dispel some myths and stories you may have heard and for the insight it gives into just one of many ways people have worked together to help one and all.
By Kathleen Stringer
- Certificate certifying membership of the Juvenile Foresters Society.
- Juvenile foresters about 1931. ©Ashburton Museum.
- An honour board for the Ancient Order of Foresters, Court of Ashburton No 6729. ©Ashburton Museum.