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The Friendly Societies

Lending a hand

Friends are all that matter.{d}

Before Social Security there were the Friendly Societies

Working Men’s Christian Association ‘march’
Working Men’s Christian Association ‘march’{e}


Until the 19th Century people basically worked until they died. Anyone who was unable to work depended on charity or their family for support. Severe poverty was common.

Throughout the 1800s Friendly Societies were formed on St Helena, using a model brought from the UK. When somebody was working they joined one of these Societies, paying a weekly subscription of a few pence - a very small portion of their wages. In return, when they became too old to work or became disabled (unsafe working conditions were common), the Society provided a small weekly allowance until the person regained their health or died. The same system underpins the National Insurance in the UK.

The Societies were usually restricted to members of a particular trade. Names like the ‘Mechanics And Friendly Benefits Society’ and the ‘Ancient Order of Foresters’ are clearly related to trades common on St Helena at the time. The order of the Societies’ formation was as follows:

1814 Benevolent Society

1838 Mechanics and Friendly Benefits Society

1845 Church Society

1845 Social Society

1847 Poor Society

1865 African Benefit Society

1865 Hussey Charity

1871 Ancient Order of Foresters

1873 Working Men’s Christian Association

1878 Church Provident Society for Women

1887 Church Benefit Society for Children

In The ‘Blue Book’ for 1906 the total membership of all the Friendly Societies is estimated at 2,000 people, from an island population of 3,526 (57%).

Most societies seem to have held at least one parade or ‘march’ per year, walking through Jamestown carrying banners followed by a church service at St. James’ Church{2}, usually on the anniversary of the Society’s founding. The exact purpose of these events is not clear but could have been related to encouraging donations from benefactors.

When these societies ceased operations is mostly not known. Various Society banners and plaques are on display in the island’s churches or in the Museum of St Helena.

Winding up

In December 2016 the Attorney General publicly requested that if any of the Friendly Societies were still in operation they should contact him. None did, so the following was issued by the Government of St Helena on 6th March 2017:

On 6th December 2016 the Attorney General issued a press release in respect of Friendly Societies, inviting anyone aware of any Friendly Society still active to contact the Attorney General before Friday 23rd December 2016. The Attorney General has confirmed that he has not received any submissions or information from the public either before or after the deadline and as a result he will advise Legislative Council to repeal the Friendly Societies Ordinance, 1939.

Societies in more detail

We have relatively little information about some of these. Such as we have is presented below. If you can help, please contact us.

Below: African Benefit SocietyAncient Order of ForestersBenevolent SocietyChurch Benefit Society for ChildrenChurch Provident Society for WomenChurch SocietyHussey CharityMechanics And Friendly Benefits SocietyPoor SocietySocial SocietyWorking Men’s Christian Association

African Benefit Society

Motto: For the Redemption of Slaves

In parallel with the Hussey Charity, and formed in the same year, The African Benefit Society was supported by subscriptions, and afforded financial relief to Africans (i.e. the formerly enslaved) in sickness, and provided them with funding for a decent burial.

Ancient Order of Foresters

Motto: Bow of benevolence speeding the arrow of assistance

The Ancient Order of Foresters was founded on 12th December 1871, based on the UK order of the same name founded in 1834. It must have been a relatively rich society, as attested by the size of its headquarters, Foresters’ Hall in lower Market Street, Jamestown (now owned by the Thorpe family and let as office space). The organisation’s president was known as The Chief Ranger. Membership in 1935 was 353 men (only) with invested funds of £1,493.

The Order was dissolved at a General Meeting held on 2nd May 2000. Interestingly, the meeting was not held at Foresters Hall, but at the Jamestown Community Centre. The sign for the Ancient Order of Foresters is still affixed to the front of the Society’s building.

Interestingly, the Foresters Hall was used in 1942 to house some of the survivors of the SS City of Cairo.

Benevolent Society

Benevolent Society March, 1980s
Benevolent Society March, 1980s{1}

Founded in 1814 by Governor Mark Wilks for educational purposes and acts of benevolence, this was one of the island’s most valued institutions. It supported three schools entirely, and gave such aid to others as the funds, which were dependent on donations and subscriptions, would allow. By 1818 221 enslaved children and 207 ‘free blacks’ were being educated at six schools; about 75% of the ‘black’ children on the island.

A St Helena Herald report says:

In 1901, on Tuesday 17th December at 8pm a concert was held at the Benevolent Society Schoolroom.

Sadly we don’t know which schoolroom or where it was situated.

Church Benefit Society for Children

Children’s Benefit Society March, 1961
Children’s Benefit Society March, 1961{e}

Motto: Feed my lambs

Also known as the Children’s Benefit Society or the Children’s Provident Society, it was founded on 28th December 1887 and in 1902 it recorded capital of £147 with 180 members. The same year its subscription was 1d and the relief paid was 2/- per member with a burial allowance of £3{3}. Membership in 1936 was 353 children with invested funds of £130. It celebrated its Centenary in 1987.

The Society apparently existed until very recently. It held an annual service as recently as 28th December 2011 at Ann’s Place.

Church Provident Society for Women

Plaque in St. James’ Church
Plaque in St. James’ Church

Motto: Beloved let us love

Founded on 16th March 1878, in 1902 it recorded capital of £104 and 26 members; in 1935 was 493 women (only) with invested funds of £978. It celebrated its 122nd Anniversary on Saturday, 18th March 2000 with a service at St. James’ Church and a tea at Ann’s Place.

On 7th April 2000 it put the following notice in the St Helena News:

Members of the Church Provident Society for Women are advised that with effect from the 1st of April the Society will not re-imburse prescription fees, also the supplementary of £3000 which is paid at retaining the age of 70 has ceased. Subscription remains the same that is 30p per week.

Church Society

The Church Society, established on 8th September 1845, distributed aid to the clergy, catechists, and scripture readers, from funds collected by subscriptions and grants from the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Hussey Charity

Established in 1865 for the education of the Africans (i.e. the formerly enslaved) of St Helena, it was well endowed with a bequest of £11,000 from Ms Rebecca Hussey and capable of carrying on extensive work. It operated a school on the brow in Napoleon Street, lower Jamestown - the Hussey Charity School - now a private house. In March 1872 the Hussey Charity took on responsibility for running the Parish School of St. Matthews. It also managed one other.

The Schools Amalgamation Ordinance of 1941 brought together all the island’s schools under control of the Government and the Hussey Charity was wound up.

Interestingly, the Hussey Charity School building was the first location of SaintFM, while Association Hall was being renovated.

Mechanics And Friendly Benefits Society

Motto: Hands clasped in unity

The Mechanics and Friendly Benefit Society was founded on 10th November 1838 and supported by subscriptions. One of the founders was a Mr Robert Ramage who was the last instrument keeper at the Ladder Hill Observatory. At its height it had several hundred members (in 1902 it had 97, with a recorded capital of £800). Its objects were to afford relief to members when ill; to grant annuities to widows and orphans; and provide assistance towards funeral expenses of deceased members. Membership in 1935 was 418 men (only) with invested funds of £864.

Its headquarters were in mid-Market Street, shown in the 1970s photograph below and now a private house.

The Society was wound up in 2006. The following notice was printed in the St Helena Herald:

Mechanics & Friendly Benefits Society Comes to a Close

A Society is not something that is very widespread today, but was very common in the past. Societies brought people together annually, although most people who joined did not do so by choice but rather because their parents wanted them to. Every year there would be a march from the Societal Hall followed by a special church service where all people would meet then have refreshments afterwards. Societies offered quite a few benefits, some of which included sick benefits, which could be claimed if a member took ill. If a member died they gave something towards the funeral. There were many of these friendly societies including the Women’s, Children’s, and Foresters’ and W.M.C.A. Another friendly society that will also shortly disband is the Mechanics and Friendly Benefits Society.

Established on 10th November 1838, the Mechanics & Friendly Benefit Society is one of the oldest friendly societies, but after being in existence for some one hundred and sixty seven years and with about two hundred and seventy five current members, it will shortly close. Up until 2001 the Society managed to survive with small annual surpluses but sadly this has now changed to shortfall due to falling income from contributions and interest from overseas investment.

Furthermore, the payment side has also seen a recent double increase in prescription charges. As a result of this, the decision has been made to close down whilst there are sufficient funds available to pay the relevant allowances in accordance with the Rules of the Society.

All members or their representative who have unclaimed benefits should make arrangements to collect them from the Baptist School room on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month.

It is hoped that all benefits will be paid to members by the end of this year 2006.

There is a recording of the Society March in 1962:


Poor Society

The Poor Society, established on 14th August 1847, has similar objects to the Mechanics And Friendly Benefits Society. In 1902 it recorded capital of £5,783 and 780 members. That year it paid between £8 and £14 for burials, depending on the term of membership. Membership in 1935 was 425 men (only) with invested funds of £4,033.

Uniquely, the Poor Society also offered loans, at interest, to both members and non-members.

The Society was wound up on 27th March 2000. The following notice appeared in the St Helena News:

Members of the St Helena Poor Society are advised that a special General meeting of their Society will be held at Jamestown Community Centre on Monday the 27th of March at 8:00pm to action the dissolution of the Society. The agenda will include the Chairman’s report, the Treasurer’s report. The Statement of Accounts and the dissolution of Society. It is hoped that as many members as possible will attend this final meeting of the society. The Registrar of Friendly Societies will also be in attendance.

On dissolution, the Poor Society building was sold and all assets totalling approximately £21,000 were split between the remaining 44 members who received around £480 each.

Social Society

The Social Society, commenced in November 1845 and was similar to the Mechanics And Friendly Benefits Society and Poor Society.

Working Men’s Christian Association

Motto: We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmity of the weak

Founded on 6th February 1873, its annual march features in the page image (above). Other images appear below. It was headquartered in the fourth building on the west side of Main Street, now known as Association Hall (for more about this building see our page Historic Buildings, Jamestown). In 1902 the Association recorded capital of £663 and 492 members; in 1935 it was 320 men (only) with invested funds of £466. There is a red, white and blue monument for the WMCA on a pedestal in front of Ann’s Place (possibly relocated from Association Hall during the renovations), created to record their 100th anniversary in 1973.

By 1980 interest in the Association was evidently waning. The following was published in the St Helena News Review on 18th January 1980{4}:

Members of the Working Men’s Christian Association are requested to attend the Annual General Meeting at their Hall on Saturday, 26th January 1980 at 8pm. The business of the meeting will include the high costs of the new banner and flag already ordered and to determine a contribution to recover these costs{5}.

Owing to very poor attendance in the past due apparently to lack of interest, members are reminded that it is their bounden duty to take interest in the operation of their Association and to attend all meetings.

The roll will be called and absentees fined. This will be strictly adhered to.

Friendly Societies Union

The Friendly Societies Union was formed in 1940 as an umbrella organisation for all the island’s Friendly Societies. It held its first meeting in July 1940. The Union had two representatives on the island’s Advisory Council - the predecessor to Legislative Council. The Union was created under the Friendly Societies Ordinance 1939, which came into force 1st February 1939.

It organised joint events featuring all the societies, such as the rally on Francis Plain held on 13th June 1988. Society members marched to the Plain and were addressed by Governor Stimson, followed by sports.

The Friendly Societies should not be confused with the organisation Friends of St Helena.

Read More

Article: Disappointing Turnout for WMCA March

Published in the St Helena News Review 12th February 1982{6}

In ideal weather conditions for the occasion, members of the Working Men’s Christian Association assembled at their Hall in Main Street last Saturday and, at 2:30pm, marched behind the St Helena Band to the [Jamestown] Baptist Chapel for a Thanksgiving Service conducted by Reverend Smith.

More members joined in on the downward march to the Public Gardens and the total of fifty one members included Reverend Smith and Mr Saltwell, the Registrar of Friendly Societies.

At the Public Gardens a short service took place which ended with the President, Mr U J Corker, laying a wreath on the monument in memory of deceased members. After returning to their Hall, the members held a short meeting before dispersing.

Following upon the recent decision to introduce a Pension Scheme and other attempts made to revitalise the Association, Saturday’s turn-out was a disappointment to the Officers of the Society and provided further evidence that the Friendly Societies are facing an uphill battle in persuading their members to take an active part in the running and traditions of these institutions.


{a} Paul McCartney, Hobart, Australia{7}{b} Hugh Crallan{c} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{d} Gelett Burgess{e} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission


{1} Edward Cannan includes a version of this photograph in his 1992 book ‘Churches of the South Atlantic Islands, 1502-1991’, but shows it ‘flipped’. Almost a ‘Do they mean us?’, but not quite.{2} Because the Working Men’s Christian Association had its headquarters only a few doors up from St. James’ Church, they actually marched to and from the town’s Baptist Church and held the service there - showing a remarkably ecumenical spirit!{3} Prior to 14th February 1971, the British Pound (£) was divided into 20 Shillings (written ‘1/-’), which were in turn divided into 12 old-pence (written ‘1d’).{4} Similar notices were published by other Societies at around the same time.{5} A subsequent report mentions that the meeting agreed a levy of 10p per month per member.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} Paul’s father was the island’s doctor in the 1960s and Paul accompanied him here. Paul visited St Helena in June 2018 and kindly gave us permission to use these family photographs.