I recently came across an article about the celebrations at Dartford in 1910 for the Centenary of the Oddfellows. It mentioned the Hartley lodge had 171 members, almost 30% of the adult male population of its area of Hartley, Longfield, Ash and Fawkham. Clearly this was a very significant organisation in Hartley's history but perhaps little known today.
Imagine a world where sickness of the main wage earner meant no pay, potential destitution, and the threat of the dreaded workhouse; or where people feared to call the doctor because of the cost. Small wonder that many of the better off working class, who were not living at subsistence level, chose to provide against this risk by joining a Friendly Society such as the Oddfellows.
The Hearts of Oak Lodge was founded in 1857 with 22 members. Rhoda Treadwell, the licensee of the Black Lion was the first secretary, followed by her nephew Henry Cooper (secretary 1858-77). Lodges had an annually elected chairman called a Noble Grand, but the secretary was the only officer named in the directories. The Hartley Oddfellows met at the Black Lion, usually on the 4th Saturday of the month. The local pub was a favourite meeting place for early Oddfellows, a rival society of Rechabites being set up which preached abstinence.
The origin of the Oddfellows is unknown, it is thought they may have started as clubs for those who could not join other trade guilds – hence the “odd fellows”. At first the mutual help was more haphazard but by the mid 19th century this had become a regular subscription for defined benefits.
Although Oddfellows stayed out of religious and political controversies, they were heavily influenced by Christianity and often the local vicar was involved. The annual fete days at Stansted began with a church service. Their original shield, shown on the advertising playing card illustration, shows the Christian cross and the lamb and flag, while being flanked by the figures of Faith, Hope and Charity. The motto means “Friendship, love and truth”. Charity is also symbolised by the heart in hand motif. The beehive indicates industry leading presumably to the horn of plenty. The modern logo retains the shield in a modified form with three links of friendship to symbolise the words of the motto.
Oddfellows are called "Manchester Unity", after the parent lodge of the movement. of their symbols is a chain of 3 links, standing for their motto of ‘friendship, love and truth’. Their 1870 rules say they - "…the only wish of the members is to emulate each other in good works, to visit the sick, soothe the distressed, assist the widow and orphan; to increase the happiness and knowledge of the members and their families, and elevate man to his proper position of self respect and self dependence." Like freemasons, they are a society with their own costume, rituals and secrets. However unlike freemasons, they were predominantly but not exclusively a working class organisation; William IV joined when he came across a meeting at a pub in Pimlico. Many past Dartford MPs were members too, as were wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Today they say the secret aspect is optional, but is still required for anyone wanting to join the society's management.
More than any other, the Oddfellows were known for putting the friendly into Friendly Society, it was a club as much as a social insurer. In 1861 the Maidstone Telegraph (13.7.1861) reported on a jovial annual dinner at the Black Lion: "Hartley - the Oddfellows' anniversary was held at the Lion Inn on Monday last. The members sat down to a good dinner provided by Mr Cooper, the host after which they retired to a field adjoining the inn, attended by the Birling Amateur Band, and greatly enjoyed themselves in dancing and cricket." The Dartford Chronicle recorded a procession in 1935 and fete at the back of Hartley Garage in 1937.
The next secretaries were Edward Martin (1877-1880) and William Gilbert of Ash (1880-1907). William was a farm labourer who became a woodreeve and lived at Wallace Terrace by the junction with Pease Hill. Under him membership trebled from 51 to 179 and the lodge started a junior section. He also became Provincial Grand Master (PGM) of the Dartford District. In 1907 he died after he caught a chill travelling to Dartford for a district meeting, there was a large attendance of his brethren at his funeral at Ash.
At the general valuation in 1887 the 64 members of the Hearts of Oak lodge each paid an average of 1s 6d every 4 weeks. A general farm labourer in Kent earned about £3 over 4 weeks at the time, a skilled farm labourer around a pound more. The Oddfellows ran a number of different plans with a range of contributions based on the age at joining and benefits. For 1s 6d a man joining at 24 could get 9 shillings a week sick pay for 12 months and 4s 6d a week after that, in addition to a death benefit of £9 on their death and £4 10s on the death of their first wife. Lodges usually employed a club doctor, a GP who their members could see.
The Oddfellows could cherry pick their members, then you could only join if between 18 and 45, and if you passed their medical. Persons of "improper character" could not join; a felony conviction meant expulsion which happened at Hartley to publican John English in 1917 for receiving stolen goods. At meetings members could be fined for swearing, fighting and even for falling asleep!
A Dartford District inspection in 1912 found no fault with Hartley, other than they should get a safe that two people would have to open. They heard the membership at Hartley was fairly apathetic. It appears Hartley invested their funds in bonds and mortgages, which would have been usual (Meopham Lodge had 4 Oddfellows Cottages on Meopham Green which they rented out). Hartley was the only lodge in the District to be consistently in surplus, perhaps there was something in estate agent claims that this is a healthy part of Kent! All lodges had funds, but the actuaries were looking at contingent liabilities of likely future claims from members.
Arthur Blackwell (1875-1945) took over as secretary from 1907 to 1930. He was a railway maintenance man, who lived in part of Yew Cottage, Hartley Green. He too served a spell as Dartford PGM. In 1934 they presented him with a medal of honour, saying there was no-one more deserving for good work in the district.
The National Insurance Act 1911 meant big changes for Friendly Societies. Approved societies like the Oddfellows ran the scheme, members could choose which one to enrol with. Workers earning less than £160 pa. had to pay 4d a week stamp. In return they would get sickness benefit of 5 shillings a week and access to a panel doctor. They would return any NI surplus to their members in the form of improved benefits. Hearts of Oak did just that in 1923 and very likely again in 1936 when they had 100 new National Insurance members join. Sevenoaks Lodge offered free dental and optical treatments and improved sickness benefits in 1937.
Eight members of the Hearts of Oak Lodge lost their lives in World War 1; they were commemorated in the Oddfellows Magazine Roll of Honour.
F W Atkins (Fawkham, Bricklayer’s Labourer) Rifle Brigade
E Cheary (Hartley, Farm Labourer) Yorks & Lancs Regt
S Day (Longfield) Royal West Kent Regt
C R Foster (Longfield, Coal Driver) Royal West Kent Regt
C Haygreen (Fawkham, Gardener) Royal Garrison Artillery
R H Hoadley (Longfield, Farm Labourer) Royal West Kent Regt
W Pankhurst (Longfield, Horse Groom) Royal Fusiliers
J Rich (Hartley, Farm Labourer) Gloucester Regt
After the war the Oddfellows set up a national orphans fund that the Hartley lodge contributed generously to.
The last secretary of the lodge from 1930 to 1950, was George James Munn (1894-1981), a hospital painter from Longfield. Under his tutelage the local oddfellows continued to be active. Membership reached its peak at 217, plus 200-300 NI members, the junior section reached a peak of 60 members in 1941.
The small neighbouring lodge Pride of Stansted merged with the Hearts of Oak in 1935. The founding of the NHS and welfare state was a wonderful achievement for society, but it did of course mean that there was less need for friendly societies like the Oddfellows and membership numbers fell. In 1950 the Hearts of Oak Lodge merged into the Pride of the Thames Lodge at Greenhithe. This lodge was taken over by the Loyal Star of Mottingham Lodge in 1991. This lodge with many others closed in 2013 when the Oddfellows were incorporated as a national friendly society.
Today the Oddfellows still have over 400,000 members (partly through mergers with other mutuals) which puts them in the top 25 largest member organisation in the country. They still serve their original purpose adapted to modern times, some members are investors in their savings products, while others join for the social life of the lodges (now called branches), the nearest being at The Brent in Dartford.
Hearts of Oak Lodge Statistics