Nicola here. There’s a new series of one of my favourite TV programmes on at the moment, the BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are. From connections to royalty to Dame Judi Dench’s links to Hamlet, there’s always something fascinating in people’s family history. Last week part of the programme focussed on one of the largest fraternal organisations in the UK, The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. I must admit I don’t tend to think of the UK as being big into fraternal organisations other than the Masons and the “Buffs” as they are known, was new to me. However their origins and history turned out to be really interesting and got me thinking about the popularity of groups like these, why secret societies were so popular, and their decline in the modern day.
The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes was founded in 1822 during the reign of George IV. It sprang out of the theatre trade and was set up in the Harp Tavern in Covent Garden which stood opposite Drury Lane Theatre. Covent Garden was and still is the heart of London theatre land and The Harp, which has been demolished since, was a favourite drinking place for theatre people. Edmund Kean, the actor, was a famous habitué in the Regency period and Sheridan, the actor and playwright, hung out there in the earlier part of the Georgian era.
The "Buffs" was founded by the caricaturist and satirist Joseph Lisle and the comedian William Sinnett. Technicians and stage hands from the theatre were it’s first members. The idea was to form a brotherhood of theatre artists and performers who, as they travelled around the country performing, would be supported with food and lodgings by fellow theatre professionals in the English provinces. The order’s structure of “lodges” was modelled on that of the masons. The Harp was the mother lodge and satellite lodges were established in lots of provincial towns. Interestingly there was already a secret society in existence for actors at that time called The City of Lushington. However when this became an exclusive "members only" club and some of the profession were excluded, they set up the Buffs as a rival organisation.
Just as the number of London theatres expanded hugely from the 18th century, ‘Theatres Royal’ sprang up in many other English towns including Bath, Truro, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Richmond in Yorkshire and Stockton-on-Tees. By 1805 there were more than 280 places of regular theatrical entertainment in England. The network of travelling theatre companies brought the latest plays to audiences living far away from the capital and these companies were in turn supported by the network of lodges established by the "Buffs."
The Buffaloes drew their named from the popular folk song “We’ll Chase the Buffalo.” This seems a bit obscure to us now but at the time it was very well known and so a lot of people would have recognised where the name came from. As it was set up by a satirist, the name of the organisation was also meant to be comical. It’s use of the word “Order” was in mockery of the more formal chivalric orders. When it fell foul of the Seditious Meetings Acts of the late 18th and early 19th century, which banned subversive gatherings, it added the word “loyal” to its name. This was frequently mistaken for “Royal” despite the fact that it had neither a royal charter nor royal patronage. This in turn got the Buffs into trouble with the Royal Warrant Act as it did not have permission to use the word; however, it was granted retrospective permission provided no act by the Order arose that would disgrace its use. Finally in the Mid-Victorian era it also added the word “antediluvian” as a joke, giving it the rather grandiloquent name of The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. No doubt at the time this was hilarious – sense of humour is time-dependent as well as very personal!
In the 19th century The Buffs developed into a “union” for those associated with the theatre which gave performers accommodation and sustenance around the country and in the wider world. As travel expanded so did the destinations that touring companies would visit, hence there being Buffalo Lodges in places like Cyprus and Gibraltar, and all over the world. Belonging to a society that would give food and shelter provided some stability when on the move in a profession that was also notoriously unstable in terms of income.
These days the Buffs and many other fraternal and other "secret societies" often devote themselves to charitable work and other benevolent causes. Membership of these so-called "secret" societies with their initiation ceremonies or rituals, and their passwords, costumes and symbols, doesn't seem to be as popular as it once was. The theory is that modern life has fractured the sense of community and belonging that once made people band together in such groups. But actually we all still have our clubs and societies, secret or otherwise, whether it's a choir or a knitting group, a book club or some sort of charity. So perhaps the spirit of the Buffs is alive and well, and likes so many other things has just adapted to modern life.
Do you think belonging to a club a fun thing to do? Do you think that there is less interest in clubs and societies than there used to be, or has it just evolved to suit the internet and the different ways we live our lives? Do you belong to any special groups and have particular interests and hobbies that you enjoy doing collectively, in person or online?