Ancient Order of Foresters.

The Ancient Order of Foresters originated in England in 1834 and established its first “Court” in Victoria in 1849.

Courts quickly sprang up in Melbourne along with major cities and towns across the Colony.

Distinguished by its Latin motto “Unitas Benevolentia at Concordia” meaning Unity, Benevolence and Harmony.

The Ancient Order of Foresters was established as a non-profit organisation with its founding principles being to provide financial and social benefits, as well as support to members and their families in times of unemployment, sickness, death, disability and old age.

When a worker was injured in 19th century Australia, their prospects were bleak. They wouldn’t receive sick pay or worker’s compensation, and often faced starvation or relying on charity.

These types of benevolent organisations were essential in the days when families needed to be self-reliant, and before government social security like Centrelink, Medicare, Unemployment Benefits, Workcover or private investments such as Life Insurance and Superannuation…  all the modern things we have come to know and enjoy.

By 1913, over 50% of people in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania were covered and protected by benefits from the friendlies. In Australia overall, 46 per cent of people were covered.

The Melbourne Sawyers Friendly Society protected timber cutters, the Melbourne Operative Cordwainers’ Society was founded for shoe makers.

Forestry was seen as a noble and worthy profession so was a natural choice of name for a mutual benefit organisation of this kind.

The Ancient Order of Foresters was run by members solely for the benefit of members and the senior roles rotated around.

Members paid a small subscription, a form of insurance, which would entitle them to benefits should they ever need them.

The Ancient Order has now morphed into a friendly society offering things like savings accounts, bonds and home loans.

This magnificent building is now part of RMIT at 168  LaTrobe Street and has the Latin motto and emblem of two foresters (Little John and Robin Hood) aside a shield on its balustrade.

The building was designed by architects Ravenscroft & Freeman in 1888, who also built the nearby Oddfellows Hall, a similar benevolent society from the time.

The building was purchased in 1969 for the RMIT Student Union. A place I remember well when studying my matriculation, a very long time ago.

It’s listed on the Victorian Heritage Register

I’m occasionally asked about the Ancient Order of Foresters, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the modern meaning of forestry, bushfires and land management.

The poster features Maid Marion and Robin Hood, a clue that the poster was printed after 1892 being the year in which women were admitted as members. Prior to admitting women, the standard bearers were Little John and Robin Hood. The shield is quartered with: • Clasped hands – mutuality and reciprocity. • Three stags – strength, power and leadership. • A chevron, a lamb and flag above the chevron and a bugle horn below. • A quiver over a bow, arrow and bugle horn.
From: The Influence of the Friendly Society Movement in Victoria, 1835–1920 by Roland S. Wettenhall (2019)
Foresters Hall 168 La Trobe Street Melbourne, Source: SLV
Banner. Source: Museums Victoria.
William Rees Miller, Secretary of the Ancient Order of Foresters Friendly Society, c 1892. Source: SLV.
The facade was restored in 2015 by RMIT.
Source: Tim Fitzgerald

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