Although of considerable political, economic and social significance throughout the Westernised world, ‘friendly societies’ have frequently been dismissed as legitimate objects of study, particularly since the rise of ‘the labour movement’ and of ‘Labour History’. The effects of this neglect will be considered. In both Britain and Australia, academic analyses of benefit-based societies have drawn on few of the available sources or intellectual frameworks and have rarely taken their religious or ritual aspects seriously. The societies have been variously but erroneously presented as primitive trade unions, embryonic insurance companies or poor men’s Masonic lodges. Recent research indicates that fraternal societies, including what we now see unproblematically as Friendly Societies, overlap with Freemasonry and Trade Unions in a range of functions and in a variety of ways. Definitional difficulties, which cannot be fully addressed in this introductory essay, abound, but the authors argue that acknowledgement of this longer and broader context will benefit scholars of working people on a number of fronts. The evolutionary paths of fraternalism in Britain and in Australia are compared and recent forays into class, gender, immigration and the administration of welfare issues, mainly by British scholars, are summarised.