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Friendly societies

Master Gardeners' Ceremonial Apron

Master Gardeners' Ceremonial Apron

Friendly Societies grew out of medieval guilds and incorporations and were often linked to a particular trade – the Fraternity of Free Gardeners of East Lothian was formed around 1676 to promote and regulate the profession  in East Lothian. By the middle of the 1800s Friendly Societies had branches, often called ‘lodges’ or ‘courts’, throughout East Lothian. These lodges were important for socialising as well as for the benefits they provided. Friendly Societies declined in the 1900s with the advent of the Welfare State, as the government was now providing benefits and pensions.

As rival organisations developed during the 19th century, the names became more colourful – the Free Gardeners of East Lothian became the Ancient Order of Free Gardeners, and others appeared, such as the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. They each had particular rituals, symbolism and dress, often adapted from Masonic rituals and reglia. The Free Gardeners wore their regalia at public events, their annual dinner or at events like coronations or funerals.

Each society attempted to trace their roots back as far as possible – the Free Gardeners to Adam and Eve, the Ancient Order of Foresters to the times of Robin Hood. There is a display case in the John Gray Centre showing some of their costumes and regalia – you can see one of them on this 1919 postcard showing the Chief Forester in all his glory.

Whilst the financial aspect of the societies was immensely important, there was a social side that was designed to attract and retain members. Many of the societies would march through their towns annually, dressed in regalia and carrying large banners. These giant marching banners were the prized possessions of many friendly societies and the images on them used classic and mythological symbolism.

Browse our collections here to see what else we have in connection with the Friendly Societies. We also have some of their banners on display in the John Gray Centre museum.

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