Secret societies of one kind or another have been around forever. Familiar examples are the various form of Freemasonry to which many people – mainly men – have belonged over many centuries. Although its origins lie in the trade secrets and self-protection needs of stone masons, the modern Freemason’s movement has long been a highly formalised and respectable organisation, with ‘temples’ in plain sight and making considerable contribution to the betterment of society.
But there are other types of secret society with similar origins yet much more covert and basic than the masons. These take the form of groups that started to form in the eighteenth century to protect occupational secrets, help each other out and generally protect their members from employers and others with more money and power than themselves. Possibly devolutions of medieval craft guilds, these societies operated covertly within the lower levels of rural and, to some extent, urban society, employing secret passwords, initiation rituals and oaths of loyalty unto death. The ‘Miller’s Word’ and, later, the ‘Horseman’s Word’, were among these folkloric keepers of secrets and traditional wisdom that gave them, it was believed by some, magical powers.
“So help me Lord to keep my secrets and perform my duties as a horseman. If I break any of them – even the last of them – I wish no less than to be done to me than my heart be torn from my breast by two wild horses, and my body quartered in four and swung on chains, and the wild birds of the air left to pick my bones, and these then taken down and buried in the sands of the sea, where the tide ebbs and flows twice every twenty four hours – to show I am a deceiver of the faith. Amen.”[i]
Among their other useful purposes, these societies functioned as basic trade unions for their members, protecting their privileges and standing – and so their wages and conditions – within the rural occupational hierarchy and providing some group solidarity when required.
Interestingly, one of the famed early attempts to form a rural trade union at Tolpuddle in Dorset, also featured lurid initiation rites. These seem to have been similar to the secret oath taking of the Words, with the addition of some more theatrical elements, such as the display of a skeleton. Other early attempts to form a trade union, in this case by the bricklayers of Exeter, could involve ritualistic paraphernalia and covert as described by the police who arrested the men at the Sun Inn, Exeter in 1834:
Upon entering the room we found a great number of persons present, I believe about sixty. We found also in the room the articles now exhibited which consisted of a figure of death with the motto, ‘Remember thy latter end’, two wooden axes, two drawn swords, two scabbards, two masks, two white garments, a Bible, a book marked ‘A’ and diverse papers. “When I came into the room, several of the men – I saw three or four – appeared to have been blindfolded and I saw them pulling the handkerchiefs, with which they had been blinded, from their eyes.”
In another troubled context, convicts on Australia’s notoriously brutal Norfolk Island were said to have formed a secret fraternity known as ‘The Ring’, which policed relations between the gaolers and the gaoled and dealt out justice to any who broke the rules. They too were said to have colourful ceremonies and chilling oaths, including this one:
Its initiations involved drinking blood, accompanied by a dreadful oath of eternal loyalty. When the Ring decided to meet, word went through the prison that no non-member, including guards, should enter the prison yard. The leader, known as ‘the One’, entered the yard first and faced a corner of the wall. He was followed by the Threes, Fives, Sevens and Nines, each arrayed in a semi-circle behind him. All were masked. Satanic prayers were intoned:
Is God an officer of the establishment?
And the response came solemnly clear, thrice repeated:
No, God is not an officer of the establishment.
He passed to the next question:
Is the Devil an officer of the establishment?
And received the answer–thrice:
Yes, the Devil is an officer of the establishment.
Then do we obey God?
With clear-cut resonance came the negative–
No, we do not obey God!
He propounded the problem framed by souls that are not necessarily corrupt:
Then whom do we obey?
And, thrice over, he received for reply the damning perjury which yet was so true an answer:
The Devil–we obey our Lord the Devil!
And the dreaded Convict Oath was taken. It had eight verses:
Hand to hand,
On Earth, in Hell,
Sick or Well,
On Sea, on Land,
On the Square, ever.”
And ended — the intervening verses dare not be quoted —
” Stiff or in Breath,
Lag or Free,
You and Me,
In Life, in Death,
On the Cross, never.” [ii]
A cup of blood taken from the veins of each man was then drunk by all.
After these rites were performed, the Ring would conduct their business. Usually it was a trial and sentence of suspected collaborators among the convict population or of any of their gaolers who showed an inclination to be lenient to the prisoners.
Most of his comes from later fictioneers, such as ‘Price Warung’ (William Astley) and Marcus Clarke and is obviously gussied up to chill their readers. Historians have queried whether there ever was a ‘Ring’. Probably. Prison gangs are, and were, commonplace. Was it ever this gothic? Highly unlikely. But the documented existence of the secret societies of millers, horsemen and early trade unionists, with their traditional skills, self-protection and folk magic, suggest that the existence of such groups was possible.
The beliefs and the needs behind such organisations were powerful enough to create and maintain them, often over considerable periods of time, at least in the occupational if not the penal contexts. It is thought that the Horsemen’s Word was still well entrenched in parts of Scotland and East Anglia until the 1930s, by which time, of course, their competitive advantage had disappeared with the mechanisation of pretty well everything and the fading of the horse from serious work.
[i] Neat, Timothy (2002). The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
[ii] Marcus Clarke For the Term of His Natural Life, first published in serial form in the Australian Journal between 1870-1872. ‘Price Warung’ (William Astley), wrote a number of related stories based on interviews with convicts, beginning with ‘The Liberation of the First Three’ in his Tales of the Convict System, Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1892.