They have provided health insurance and provision, death benefits, visitors to the sick and bereaved, feasts, processions, charitable work, loans to members and civic bodies, business activities and educational services.
Now, as the government is committed to welfare reform and there is demutualisation and new regulation in financial and welfare services, the societies' 6,000,000 members have been placed at the centre of the government's Third Way strategy.
Recognising that current debates about the relative roles of families, charities, the state and the market in welfare reform, need to be put in their historical and social context, the Open University, in conjunction with friendly societies, has initiated a network of researchers.
The Friendly Societies Research Group will carry out a survey of societies' records, collate information about research, and encourage contact between societies, museums, archives and scholars.
It will also use the unique national and local structure of the OU in order to support and collate comparable, small-scale, research. It aims to explain why prudence, self-help and conviviality became so popular in the nineteenth century and why they have had less appeal in the recent past.
Consisting of business executives, academics and archivists, the new group will also raise awareness of the importance of the societies' records and encourage good practice in museums, archives and societies' offices.
Launching the initiative, Dr Dan Weinbren of the Faculty of Social Sciences, who is chair of the Friendly Societies Research Group, noted some of the gaps in the literature and the need for reappraisal:
"Each generation needs to examine the past afresh, because the way in which we see the past changes as our perspective alters. Explanations of the connections between events in the past help us to understand the culture and society we inhabit."
Friendly societies originated in medieval trade guilds and enjoyed a period of rapid growth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
One theory is that, after migrating to the new urban factories and leaving behind their extended family and rural support networks, workers used surplus money to provide mutual aid through friendly societies.
Legislation may have aided the societies' growth, through regulation, through the bar on trade union activity and, after 1834, the much-feared prospect of old age and death in the Poor House followed by dissection by students under the Anatomy Act.
There are many other competing theories about friendly societies. Some have argued that they promoted fraternity (most were men-only) and the class system, at the expense of kinship, parochial or workplace ties.
Others have stressed the societies' democratic traditions and links to radicalism. Some were encouraged by brewers, others were temperance organisations. Some were run by employers, gentry and clerics; others by radicals opposed to the church and the political and economic order.
The main aim of the Philanthropic Order of True Ivorites was to "preserve the Welsh language in its purity". The William IV Society excluded all Irish, while the Irish National Foresters was open only to men who were Irish by birth or descent.
Some thrived in areas of industrial development, others in declining areas. Larger societies boomed while some smaller ones existed long after the time when, according to economic logic, they should have disappeared.
Competition from commercial insurance and leisure organisations, and financial difficulties as the membership aged and sought better medical provision, led to difficulties by the 1890s. However, legislation in 1911 confirmed friendly societies as an integral part of the delivery of welfare and membership grew.
Despite the adverse affects of two world wars and the welfare legislation of 1948, friendly societies continued. The benefits of their stress on reciprocity and the importance of having members rather than clients have supported them to this day.
Societies have provided a vital means of increasing members' security. Ensuring the survival and study of their records will illuminate many aspects of voluntary association, including national pride, masculinity and family financial decision-making processes.
The Open University may be starting a research programme for students interested in researching friendly societies. Details available from Dan Weinbren, Open University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA.