Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes
Founded in 1822 as a social order, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo was open to any male. It operated in Great Britain, with some overseas chapters.
Despite the “Antediluvian” part of its name, there is absolutely no evidence that the R.A.O.B. dates from before the Flood described in the book of Genesis, chapter 6. In fact, there is no evidence that it existed before 1822. The Buffalo do, however, furnish an interesting and well-documented example of the transition from a drinking club to a full-blown secret society with rituals, Good Works, and so on. The group is also interesting in that it antedates by many decades both of the well-known American ruminant orders, the Elks and the Moose, both of which seem to have borrowed from the older English order.
The Buffalo themselves borrowed in turn from the Masons, as did just about every other secret society of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Originally, the Buffalo formed in a pub in London. To this day, the British taverns and pubs, inns, or boozers retain elements of the social stratification and differentiation that was far more marked two centuries ago. There are still folk music pubs, motorcyclists’ pubs, theatrical pubs, poetry pubs, pubs catering to nearby businesses (financial pubs, dockyard laborers’ pubs, journalists’ pubs), and many more. Mensa normally meets in pubs in Britain.
Initially, therefore, a drinking club may form as much by accident and aggregation as by design; then some wag or would-be organizers gives the club a name, and the secret society is born. At first, the rituals are not standardized, but depend on the whim of the members present, and how well lubricated they are; but over the years, not least as founder members seek to recapture their lost youth, the rituals are ossified. The 1828 account by Pierce Egan (“Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry and Logic”) of the foundation of the Buffalo is an excellent eyewitness account of the early days of a society:
At the Harp, in Great Russell Street, opposite Drury Lane Theatre, the Buffalo society was first established, in August 1822, by an eccentric young man of the name of Joseph Lisle, an artist, in conjunction with Mr. W Sinnett, a comedian, to perpetuate, according to their ideas upon the subject, ‘that hitherto neglected ballad of ‘We’ll chase the Buffalo?’
The Harp was also the meeting place of the City of Lushington, which some historians have attempted to link to the Buffalo, though the City of Lushington probably antedated the Buffalo by about 40 years. To return to Pierce Egan, we have an account of the making of the Buffalo, as follows:
He is seated on a chair in the middle of the room, with a bandage placed over his eyes The initiated Buffaloes are waiting outside the door; the orator being decorated with a wig for the occasion. On a given signal, they all enter the room, with what they call the Kangaroo Leap, and jump around the chair of the “degraded wretch,” (as the victim is termed) [and sing the following]
Come all you young fellows who’s a mind for to range
Unto some foreign country, your station for to change.
Your station for to change, away from here to go
Thro’ the wide woods we’ll wander to chase the Buffalo
We’ll lay down on the banks of the pleasant, shady Wo,
Thro’ the wide woods we’ll wander to chase the Buffalo
There are (or were) many more verses, each succeeded by the chorus, though the full song was not normally sung until the end of the ceremony. Pierce Egan continues:
This is succeeded by a solemn march, and the following chant; the Buffaloes carrying brooms, shovels, mops and
a large kettle by the way of a kettle drum — Bloody-head and raw-bones!
Bloody-head and raw-bones’
Be not perplex’d’
This is the text,
Bloody-head and raw-bones!
The charge is then given to the “victim” by the Primo Buffalo, accompanied by the most extravagant and ridiculous gestures —“Degraded wretch’ — Miserable Ashantee! — Unfortunate individual’ — At least you were so, a quarter of an hour since You are now entitled to divers privileges; you may masticate, denticate, chump, grind, swallow, and devour, in all turnip fields, meadows and pastures; and moreover, you have the special privilege of grazing in Hyde Park — Think of that, my Buffalo You may also drink at all the lakes, flyers, canals and ponds; not forgetting the Eket and lower ditches. You are entitled to partake of all public dinners (upon your paying for the same). Such are the advantages you will enjoy but you must promise to gore and toss all enemies to Buffaloism”
To summarize the next page or two, there are some awful puns (such as promising to go to Hornsey Wood, and proving oneself an Hornament), followed by the removal of the blindfold, a repeat of the chorus of “Chase the Buffalo,” initiation into the signs, and some more songs. The new-made Buffalo “is then called on for the customary fees for liquor, and a small compliment for the Buffalo in waiting: the expenses are in proportion to the means or inclination of the newly-made member.” As for the reference about drinking from the Fleet, it is worth noting that in those days, the Fleet or Flete River was a notorious sewer.
Originally, the Buffalo were just that—Buffalo—with no “Royal” or “Antediluvian” ornaments. The addition of “Loyal” probably came very quickly, because in the early 19th century, secret societies were looked upon as potentially dangerous and subversive. When the Buffalo were founded, the French Revolution and the Terror were little more than a quarter of a century old. By the time the first Constitution of the Grand Primo Lodge of England was drawn up in 1866, the term “Royal” had been adopted, apparently without justification or permission; this appears to have happened in the late 1840s. The adoption of “Antediluvian” is also of uncertain date, but again seems to have come into general use in the 1850s.
The spread of the Buffalo, as with 50 many similar organizations, appears to have been carried out mostly by traveling theater companies; Manchester was the first hotbed of the new order, after London, with the Shakespeare Lodge, then the Boston (Lincolnshire) Lodge followed in about 1848.
The officers of the lodge took some time to standardize their titles: The Primo Buffalo might also be a Royal primo or a Sitting Primo, but an 1848 rule book from Boston offers the following:
Aldermen: To keep the Kangaroos in the different Wards in order, and see they want for nothing.
City Taster: To taste the gauer [sic], and if it is not good to have the Landlord, if a Buff, brought to trial.
City Constable: Not to deliver a summons without being paid for it, and if required, to put an unruly Brother out of the Lodge
City Scavenger: To keep the room in good order, and to sweep for the new made Brother to kneel down.
City Waiter: To furnish the lodge with all Pipes, Tobacco, and whatever call’d for by the Primo,
City Doctor: To look to those who are to be made and see that they are in good health.
Secreta’y: To keep the Books, and keep account of all monies received and expended.
Primo Buffalo: To see that all is kept in good order.
Host: To have a good fire, and plenty of candles in the room if required.
The “Kangaroos” referred to at the beginning are the regular or garden-variety Buffalos. Other early Buffalo literature refers to the numerous famous people who were Buffalo: Noah, Solomon, Sampson, Brutus, William the Conqueror, Richard I, Sir John Falstaff, General Tom Thumb, Shakespeare, George IV, Richard Brinsley Shendan, and others. The only “Buffaloess” was Elizabeth I; as the Boston brothers said in their ritual of 1848:
Solomon had one thousand, seven hundred and four wives, and three thousand and two concubines, most Buffaloes are fond of women, but here I must caution you how you trust them, as we never admit them to our councils.
From the very beginning, the occasional “whip-round” for a brother in trouble must have been natural; but essentially, the Buffalo was a drinking club that usually met on Sunday evenings, the actor’s day off. There was also a card issued to members who were “on the road,” which “enabled them to call at lodges en route and collect enough to permit them to starve gracefully.”
During the 1860s, though, a distressing air of moral worthiness seems to have blown through the comfortably beer-laden lodges. Not only was the whole of Buffaloism systematized, but terms such as Goodness started to be bandied about. The Constitution of the Grand Primo Lodge of England was signed by representatives of all lesser lodges on May 18, 1866, with delegates from the following lodges: Grand Surrey, Britannia, Bloomsbury, Walworth, Beehave, York Minster, Flowers of the Forest, Sampson, and Shakespeare In the same document, we find that officers are now as follows:
Grand Primo of England
Deputy-Grand Primo of England
Grand Tyler [patently a Masonic borrowing]
Alderman of Juniper
Alderman of Poverty
Predictably, with this new tide of order, there were dissents, and the Grand Surrey Lodge set up business in competition with the Grand Primo Lodge in 1867. On the positive side, a sick fund was established at around the same time; but the Buffalo never became a friendly society or insurance society, though the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo Sick and Funeral Fund ran for many years, and only dissolved when it became clear that there was absolutely no actuarial soundness in its running.
Next to the Initiatiory Degree, a second Degree (Primo) was added in 1874, a Third Degree (Knight of the Order of Merit) a little later, and a Fourth Degree (Roll of Honour) in about 1886. By now, there were Knights of the Golden Horn, Companions of the Ark, and all kinds of Past Masters, Past Primos, and the like.
In May 1888 the Buffalo held the first Convention of the lodges, and Buffaloism was becoming thoroughly respectable. Before the end of the century, work was in hand to raise funds for an orphanage. The foundation stone was laid on October 3, 1903, and the building was opened on May 30th, 1904. In the course of the next 40 years or so, the whole orphanage question was a matter of bitter and political dispute, and the order finally got Out of the orphanage business in 1945.
In 1906, an organization-within-an-organization came to light, the Chapters (Lodges) of Knights. This time, it was also being organized and formalized, with such success that the Knights Militant wound itself up in 1915. The Knights of the Golden Horn, another subgroup of the Buffalo, was founded in about 1872 and seceded from the parent organization in 1925.
Come World War I, the Buffalo bought (and drove) ambulances for the war effort. The ambulances were actually lettered R.A.O.B., and were apparently well received.
In 1910, a committee to look into convalescent homes had been authorized, and in 1924 the order bought “Elsinore” in Scarborough, on the northeast coast of Yorkshire. In the next decade two more followed, one at Weston-super-Mare (at the mouth of the Bristol Channel), and the other at Southport, in 1945 (it was sold in 1972). The Old York Hotel in Weston-super-Mare entered service in 1963. As the Buffalo aged, they felt the need to be put out to pasture — a far cry from the original drinking club.
Two unrelated “Buffalo” organizations were established in the United States. The Benevolent Order of Buffaloes was founded in New York in 1881 and became extinct by the early 1900s. The Loyal Order of Buffaloes was set up in Newark, New Jersey, in 1911. It was a fraternal benevolent association, providing family physician services as well as death, sickness, accident, and disability benefits—all for a $6 initiation fee and 75-cent monthly dues. Its Newark headquarters was called the “Home Range.” It no longer exists.
We have published a number of rituals and other texts on our CD-Rom Moose/Elks/Buffaloes/Eagles Library.