Recent work on ‘civil society’ has made claims for the past capacity of mutual aid associations to generate ‘social capital’: self-help, trust, solidarity. Friendly societies in nineteenth-century Bristol are examined to test these claims. Their origins and growth are explored, as well as their membership and social, convivial and medical roles. Solidarities of class and neighbourhood are set against evidence of exclusion and division. Trust and close personal ties proved insufficient to avert the actuarial risks that threatened financial security.
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