Freemasonry was not the only society that (gentle)men could join in the 18th and 19th century. Actually, this story is not just about gentlemen. The book gives a nice insight in an aspect of history that for some reason is not often spoken about together with Freemasonry.
The authors describe different kinds of societies that arose around the rising of ‘modern Freemasonry’ in 1717. On first glance these societies were very different. On second glance, these differences were a lot smaller than appears.
A type of society that is spoken of in the book are “box societies”. These had nothing to do with the sport, but they were organisations that people could join. They would pay a fee (stored in a box) and the society would financially help out in case of illness or death. Before social security this was an important insurance for many employers. When the state started to regulate social security, many of such societies died out or became insurance companies. There were different kinds of such sickness and death type societies.
Another kind of society was the social club often for the higher-up men. They could be either diner, drinking, games, philosophy or whatever kind of group that people joined for relaxation and networking. Some of such groups aimed at a specific audience, other were more inclusive. Some were very exclusive. Not a few had their own buildings. Quite some people were members of a number of the mentioned groups.
Because alcohol consumption was high, even a society for abstainers was founded. Several such in hindsight odd societies are mentioned in the book.
Either or not inspired by Freemasonry, several of such groups had initiations, grades even, passwords, grips and the like. Some were (almost) Freemasonry mockery groups, others were more akin to Freemasonry. In this entire network of societies and their members, Freemasonry formed a lively part. Its members met in different groups and/or were involved in the foundation of such societies.
Many of the names of the societies have been almost forgotten. Some have survived and even thrive today. Think of Odd Fellows, Foresters, Druids, Buffaloes, Gardeners, and Rechabites. They sometimes had (and have) regalia similar to that of Freemasonry, regulations that are similar, goals that are similar.
The book is a little thin (160 pages) and I would have loved to hear more about the ritual side of such groups, but Harrison and Lomas offer an interesting insight into a larger fraternal world of which Freemasonry is perhaps the best known, but by far not the only part.
2016 Lewis Masonic, isbn 0853184968