The Odd Fellows or Oddfellows are second only to the freemasons as a long-established and still reasonably healthy fraternal organization or secret society. They have, however, been subject to many schisms, and the number of members today is unclear. The date of foundation is likewise unclear, but it was presumably prior to 1745 when the first recorded Lodge of Odd Fellows, “Loyal Aristarchus, No. 9,” met at various London taverns, including the Oakley Arms in Southwark; the Globe in Hatton Garden; and the Boar’s Head in Smithfield. Dues were a penny per visit. The purpose is as obscure as the origin of the name, but the society seems to have combined the functions of a modern working men’s club or Moose lodge — that is, offering a place for reliable food and drink at a good price — with a degree of self-help. The members, who were mostly working men, would pass the hat to help a fellow in distress and would provide an out-of-work member with a card that entitled him to accommodation at other lodges until he found work. Because of this emphasis on formal and informal self-help, and because of the antiquity of Odd Fellowship, the society is sometimes called “the poor man’s Freemasonry.” Most members were originally mechanics and artisans, though it seems that anyone who could afford a penny for the dues was admitted.
In the late 18th century, many individual lodges were prosecuted by the Grown on the grounds of potential sedition and were closed (this was the period of the French Revolution and the rebellion of the American colonies), but the order as a whole survived. Some Odd Fellows lodges seem to have arisen at around this time as a result of disaffected Freemasons seceding from their parent order; these coalesced into the Ancient and Honorable Loyal Order of Odd Fellows. It is a common belief of Freemasons that this was the only origin of Odd Fellowship. At the same time, most other Odd Fellows’ lodges amalgamated into the Patriotic Order of Odd Fellows, which later became known as the United or Union Order of Odd Fellows. London remained the seat of the order.
The first great schism came in 1813. Odd Fellows at that time were notoriously fond of a dram, and a group of unusually sober-minded northerners took exception to this bibulousness and formed the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Manchester Unity (or Union). This is the root order of most subsequent Odd Fellows foundations, including the American Independent Order of Odd Fellows. In some countries (notably Australia), the term “Manchester Unity” is used interchangeably with “Odd Fellows.”
There have been some 20 English orders of Odd Fellows, most of which were small and short-lived. They arose for various reasons, some to meet local prejudices, some out of disputes over temperance (i.e. abstinence from alcohol), and some out of the conflicts that seem always to characterize fraternal societies. Yet others had never joined either the Union Order or the Ancient and Honorable Loyal Order. The English orders are as follows:
Albion Order of Odd Fellows
Ancient Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Kent Unity
Ancient Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Bolton Unity
Ancient, True Order of Odd Fellows
Auxiliary Order of Odd Fellows
British Order of Odd Fellows
Derby Midland United Order of Odd Fellows
Economical Order of Odd Fellows
Enrolled Order of Odd Fellows
Handsworth Order of Odd Fellows
Ilkstone Unity Order of Odd Fellows
Improved Independent Order of Odd Fellows, S.L. Unity
Kingston Unity Order of Odd Fellows
Leeds United Order of Odd Fellows
Leicester Unity Order of Odd Fellows
National Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Norfolk and Norwich Order of Odd Fellows
Nottingham Imperial Order of Odd Fellows
Staffordshire Order of Odd Fellows
West Bromwich Order of Odd Fellows
It is worth noting that where a place name is incorporated in the name of the order, it is usually a place in the industrial Midlands and North, areas that, historically, have always lagged behind the Southeast both financially and culturally.
The largest order of Odd Fellows is the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the order is also active in the Netherlands. Besides this order, there are some lodges of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows active in the Netherlands.