The birth of the friendly society is commonly thought to be some time in the sixteenth century; the earliest known society is the Incorporation of Carters which claims to have been founded in 1555. The Act of Parliament of 1793 described a friendly society as:-

"A society of good fellowship for the purpose of raising from time to time, by voluntary contributions, a stock or fund for the 'mutual relief and maintenance of all and every members thereof in old age, sickness, and infirmity, or for the relief of widows and children of deceased members"

In 1800 there were approximately 700 societies in existence, with six or seven hundred thousand members. By the middle of the century there were many more societies and membership had increased to four million. In 1910 membership was said to be 6,600,000. Most of the societies formed in the nineteenth century had very short lives, but there are still a good few who are in existence today, but numbers have declined from the high levels present in the early 1900s.

There are several different types of friendly society-two major categories are:

  1. Those societies which have no branches, and
  2. The national 'Orders' which do have branches.

This latter category usually has national offices, general rules and ceremonials which are conducted at branch meetings. Another way of categorising friendly societies is to classify them according to the way in which they operate their funds. The broad distinction is between 'accumulating societies' and 'societies with dividends'.

This latter category can be further subdivided into Dividing, Deposit or Holloway Societies. The activities of friendly societies have been governed by a number of Acts of Parliament during the last 200 years.

Generally friendly societies are exempt from tax such as corporation tax and capital gains tax on their funds, except for life assurance business in excess of a statutory limit.