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Mutuals: a history

Friendly Societies and mutual insurers have been around for hundreds of years. They were the original form of social network, where a group of people contributed to a mutual fund, to then receive benefits at a time of need. The early meetings were often held as a social gathering during which subscriptions would be paid.

People joined Friendly Societies in large numbers and over time they began to represent specific trades and professions; so that by the late 1800's there were around 27,000 registered mutuals societies.

Friendly societies and mutual insurers were often the only way a working person had to receive help in times of ill health, or old age. In days when having no income often meant a life of begging or living in the poorhouse, the importance of mutual societies to their members and the tremendous social service they provided cannot be over stated.

As a result, the government encouraged membership of societies. Although numbers dropped when the Welfare State was introduced, but even as recently as 1995 over half the UK insurance industry was in mutual ownership. Since then large scale demutualisation has contributed to shrinkage of the sector, and today there are fewer than three hundred friendly societies and mutual insurers, with a mutual share of around 5% of the UK insurance sector.

Nevertheless, the ethos of those remaining societies remains consistent with their origins: to help people take better control of their finances, within an organisation run for, and owned by, their members.