In a time before government assistance for health, accident and unemployment existed, many people formed nonprofit friendly societies to assist each other in times of need. Ōhinehou Lyttelton's first friendly society lodge had its roots in Manchester, England. At a meeting at the Canterbury Hotel, hosted by publican Rowland Davies a few days before Christmas 1851, a group of thirteen men formed the Loyal City of Norwich Lodge No. 4356 of the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows (MUIOOF).
As the City of Norwich Lodge quickly grew, in 1855 it spent £85 on a section in St Davids Street with a small building used for meetings. Outgrowing that hall, member Edward Morey was awarded the £245 contract to replace it. Morey was also the builder of the stone Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Winchester Street.
As membership increased, in 1876 the lodge moved to their Winchester Street site opposite St John's Presbyterian Church. A spacious building, it provided a top hall for functions, balls, meetings and shows for many groups in port. Downstairs was a supper room and accommodation for a caretaker. At the time of the lodge’s 75th Anniversary in 1925, funds had accumulated to a sizeable £16,560, 18 shillings and 6 pence (equivalent to over $2 million today), not including significant monies already contributed to sick pay, funeral donations and relief funds. Donations were also made to Lyttelton organisations such as Plunket and St Johns, which helped fund the first ambulance in Lyttelton.
Funeral and sickness benefits, subsidised medical care, widow and orphan funds, and member owned chemist shops made lodges popular with families. Oddfellows, Hibernians, Druids and Foresters lodges would often join together and provide a United Friendly Societies Dispensary. Lyttelton's UFS Dispensary, built in 1875 on the site of the Queen’s Hotel (which was burnt down in the 1870 ‘Great Fire’), was situated on what is currently an empty section on the corner of London and Oxford streets.
Many Oddfellows certainly enjoyed socialising. Picnics, balls, dinners, card evenings, church parades, debates, musical evenings, Christmas parties, quoits, swimming carnivals and shooting matches were popular. Frequently, Christchurch lodges arrived by train for social evenings and Lyttelton members also often travelled away. A visit to Loyal Wairewa Lodge in Little River was always a late night. On Thursday 18 June 1936, 124 members boarded the 6.23pm Lyttelton train, changed at Christchurch and arrived in Little River at 7.50pm. The return trip left at midnight arriving back in Lyttelton at 1.30am. The Lyttelton Oddfellows also shared social functions with the port's Foresters and Buffalo lodges.
City of Norwich Lodge met every second Tuesday, the hall being used by the Manchester Unity Kaia Toa Ladies Lodge (formed 1925) and the Juvenile Lodge (formed 1880) on Monday nights. Meetings were extremely formal for the first part of the evening, the format being the same in all Manchester Unity lodges. Members wore a sash or collar and the presiding chairman, the Noble Grand, was seated at the front of the hall with his supporters on either side. Facing him was the Vice Grand seated inside the hall's main door with his supporters. Other officers such as the Secretary, Past Noble Grand, Conductors and Guardian had their designated places. Order of business followed a strict ritual and some lodges competed against each other in ritual competition events. Positions of responsibility changed frequently to give younger members experience in meeting procedure. At the completion of business, social events took place, often until the early hours. Apart from toasts at formal dinners, most events were alcohol free.
As Friendly Societies became increasingly popular, more Manchester Unity lodges were opened on Banks Peninsula – Akaroa’s ‘Good Intent’ (1858), Okains Bay’s ‘Hand of Friendship’ (1875), Pigeon Bay’s ‘Hand and Heart’ (1876), Little Akaloa’s ‘Hand in Hand’ (1878), Little River’s ‘Dawn of Hope’ (1878), Barry's Bay’s ‘Perseverance’ (1881) and Little River’s ‘Wairewa’ (1897). The Akaroa lodge ‘Good Intent’ demonstrated the financial support available with the building of their large hall, now the Gaiety Theatre. In Australia the growth in membership was also impressive – in the State of Victoria in the 1870s, more than half of men aged 20 to 45 years belonged to a friendly society.
After WWII, people became less dependent on lodge benefits as government welfare increased. Membership declined and rural lodges amalgamated or closed – Lyttelton members affiliated to the Banks Peninsula Lodge in 1996. In 2004 a new Friendly Societies lodge building, built by volunteer labour from Oddfellows, Hibernians, Druids and Foresters Lodges, was opened in Ferrymead Heritage Park. It houses some of the furniture, records and pictures of the Lyttelton lodges.
As for the large City of Norwich Lodge hall in Winchester Street, it was sold and later destroyed by fire in October 1961 while owned by Lichfield Shirt Factory. Meanwhile, the Oddfellow values of Friendship, Love and Truth continue – a rebranded Manchester Unity lodge still focuses on families with subsidised holiday accommodation, education scholarships and sponsorship of local events.