Keep calm and carry on
Director of Special Projects John Hamill argues the case for a national scheme that would record how Freemasonry helped during World War II
Such has been the media’s concentration on commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I that those events rather overshadowed the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day Landings – probably the last major commemoration of that event, as its survivors are now all in their late eighties and nineties.
World War II did not come as such a major shock as World War I. Indeed, to many of us, it was not a question of if, but of when war would break out.
It was also to have a far more devastating effect on those who stayed at home, and had rather more impact on Freemasonry than its predecessor.
In 1939, Grand Lodge still met on the first Wednesdays of the usual months, so a meeting took place within four days of war having been declared. A circular sent to all lodges then suspended all masonic meetings until further notice. There was a determination to ‘carry on as normal’ and, by the end of September, it was agreed to resume meetings.
At the Quarterly Communications in September and December 1939, emergency resolutions were passed to cover the crisis – giving Masters the authority to alter the dates and meeting places of their lodges as circumstances required. As the war progressed, there were further changes, not least the suspension of paying subscriptions and dues by those who were on active service.
Once aerial bombing began, it was suggested that lodges should meet during the day to avoid their members being exposed in the evenings. With the rationing of food and material, dress and regalia codes were relaxed, and it was proposed that post-meeting refreshments should be kept to a minimum.
With the scarcity of all sorts of raw materials, not least precious metals, in 1940, Grand Lodge suggested that brethren might like to sacrifice their personal masonic jewels to assist in the war effort. At that time, Stewards’ jewels for the Charity Festivals were solid silver, and founders’ and Past Masters’ jewels were usually gold. The brethren met the challenge, and in 1941, Grand Lodge was able to announce that £20,000 had been passed to the Treasury for the war effort.
Freemasons’ Hall in London had been built as a memorial to those brethren who fell in World War I and was initially known as the Masonic Peace Memorial. It survived the Blitz largely undamaged as other parts of Holborn and Covent Garden were destroyed. Until the post-war rebuilding of London, the tower of Freemasons’ Hall was one of the tallest structures in central London and it was apparently used by German pilots as a landmark to help guide them across the London sky.
During the Blitz, the people of London sheltered in the Underground at night. The workers from Covent Garden Market and the occupants of the local Peabody Buildings preferred the basement of Freemasons’ Hall, which had been cleared of all the archives and other papers, to Holborn Underground station. Whether this was connected with the fact that each morning the then Grand Secretary Sydney White and his Secretary, Miss Haigh, provided tea and sandwiches for them, history does not record.
A greenhouse was even built on the Grand Temple to grow soft fruits and vegetables.
Just as there has been a national scheme to record what people at home and in the services did during the war, should we not have a similar project for Freemasons? If so, we need to hurry; many of those who took part in World War II will not be with us for much longer, and their memories are irreplaceable.
‘World War II did not come as such a major shock as World War I. Indeed, to many of us it was not a question of if, but of when war would break out.’
Letters to the Editor - No. 28 Winter 2014
Keep calm and record
In the autumn issue of Freemasonry Today, John Hamill suggests that there should be a project to record what Freemasons contributed during World War II both at home and abroad. He reminds us that time may be against us. However, I trust he is aware that Grand Lodge should already be in possession of a significant quantity of records of what brethren contributed during that period.
On 15 May 1946 the Board of General Purposes instructed each lodge to ‘collect detailed information and prepare a report to be incorporated in the minute book of the lodge, and a copy to be sent to the Grand Secretary for preservation in the records of Grand Lodge’. The Board asked for details of each brother’s service, including those who were disabled or made the supreme sacrifice. It also asked for information on the effect on meetings and attendances, plus any losses of records or property.
In the 1946 minute book of my mother lodge, Telephone Lodge, No. 3301, there is a copy of the report sent to the Grand Secretary and it makes fascinating reading. Noting that many of our members stayed in Britain as they worked in a reserved occupation, it nevertheless records that many brethren served with the Home Guard, in civil defence, as fire wardens or as business premises wardens. It records that brother HR Harbottle was appointed OBE for his contribution to the GPO War Group, while brother Shipton is recorded as having worked on ‘radar and secret devices’. It tells of the need to move meetings to the summer months during daylight and that all dining ceased. Finally, the lodge reported no loss of property except the lodge’s printing dies, which were at the printers when it was blitzed. This report formed a rich resource when I was updating our lodge history for our centenary in 2008.
So not only should Grand Lodge’s archives have all these reports, but lodges should find a copy of their own contribution in their minute book.
Peter Walker, Telephone Lodge, No. 3301, London
John Hamill replies
I am aware of the reports asked for by Grand Lodge. Sadly, less than a third of lodges supplied the requested information. Those who did gave the basic information but what I was suggesting was recording personal impressions to give a human face to the basic records.
I know from talking to brethren over many years that there are fascinating stories that will be lost when those individuals are no longer with us.