Eighteenth-century British intellectuals were very interested in the Druids; they were attracted to the idea that ancient Britain had not been peopled by savages but had an order of learning and wisdom that had rivalled – and possibly influenced – the Greek philosophers and the astrologers of ancient Persia. It was also believed that the Druids had believed in one all-powerful God and a prophesied Redeemer; to the eighteenth-century mind this made them virtually proto-Christians, and therefore their rituals – or what were thought to be their rituals – could be revived and performed without any taint of paganism.
The Ancient Order of Druids was founded in 1781 at the Old King’s Arms Tavern in Poland Street, London, by a man named Hurle. Nothing is known about Hurle for certain, not even his Christian name, although he may possibly have been a builder and surveyor based in Garlick Hill in the City of London. Druid tradition holds that Hurle was a member of the Bucks who found that order too rowdy and profane, and decided to found his own fraternal order in which profane, political and immoral talk were forbidden. They were not exempted from the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799. Some Druid lodges in Essex were prosecuted under the Act, and as in so many fraternal societies this led to a number of splits in the early nineteenth century.
The most significant split in the history of the Druid order came in 1833. From the beginning the Druids, like other eighteenth-century fraternal societies, had maintained charitable funds for which its members could apply when in need. In 1833 a proposal was made to gain government approval and protection by becoming a registered friendly society, conforming to the Government regulations for such societies, submitting to Government audit, and offering fixed sickness, unemployment and other benefits to its members. The order split over this idea. Part of it continued as before, as an unregulated fraternal society, under the original title ‘Ancient Order of Druids’ (AOD). The part that decided to become a registered friendly society became the ‘United Ancient Order of Druids’ (UAOD). These two societies went their separate ways and both became enormously successful.
There will be lots more about the Druids at the Library and Museum’s Summer Exhibition at Freemasons’ Hall entitled Brothers and sisters, knights and nobles: from clubs to class identity which unlocks the hidden history of the Sisters of the Phoenix, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Free Gardeners and the Oddfellows, just some of the amazingly diverse and colourful friendly societies and fraternal associations to which millions of people once belonged. Their flamboyant aprons and badges, mottoes and commemorative objects were once familiar in every town and city in the country. Using the objects, costumes, documents and literature, which are material reminders of the friendly and fraternal societies that provided moral leadership, health benefits and sociability for their members of all ages, men and women alike from the 1700s, the exhibition will explore the growth and development of these organisations, their impact on their local society and their legacy today.
Shire Books’ major new title Discovering Friendly and Fraternal Societies: their Badges and Regalia is the first ever pictorial guide to these items and the exhibition coincides with its publication. Many of the objects illustrated in the book will be on display.
Monday 27th June – Friday 30th September 2005 (Monday to Fridays only)
Open: 11am to 5pm / Admission free
Shire Publications Limited
Discovering Friendly and Fraternal Societies: their Badges and Regalia by Victoria Solt Dennis is being published by Shire Publications this summer, ISBN number 0747806284.