The histories of the railway system and Freemasonry are inextricably linked. John Hamill examines the impact that long-distance rail travel and commuter belts had on the Craft
Public transport is such a part of our daily lives, and we take it so much for granted, that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. Its development, particularly that of the railway system, was a key element in Britain’s rise as a major commercial and industrial power. The railways also had an effect on the development of Freemasonry and the workings of Grand Lodge itself.
Before the development of the railways, a journey to London – especially from the north, the West Country or Wales – was a major expedition involving days of travel in a horse-drawn coach or by sea. As a result, there was a tendency to appoint the Grand Officers for the year, and members of the Boards of General Purposes and Benevolence, from among the past Masters of London and home counties lodges, as they had little difficulty in regularly attending Grand Lodge or its boards and committees.
Attendance at Quarterly Communications was also predominantly by members of lodges from those areas, for the same reasons. Not surprisingly, the Provinces began to resent what they saw as the over-representation of London and the home counties in ‘the councils of the Craft’. Indeed, the question was raised from time to time as to why Grand Lodge could not on occasion be held in the Provinces to give them an opportunity of having their say.
The development of rail links between London and the major provincial cities and towns began to make it easier for the Provinces to come to London and make their voices heard. In the 1930s it was possible to hire special trains from the great railway companies to make journeys to and from London. And that is exactly what the northern brethren did to ensure that they could attend the Quarterly Communication on 3 December 1930, at which the main item on the agenda was a resolution to introduce Grand Lodge dues as we know them today.
‘It is interesting to reflect on how the expansion of the railways and Freemasonry ran in parallel, influencing the way society and communities developed’
Thanks to the trains, several hundred brethren were unable to get into the meeting due to the unexpected over-attendance. The Pro Grand Master at the start of the meeting had to announce that as a result of this, while arguments for and against would be heard, no vote could be taken and that a special Grand Lodge would be held the following March at the Royal Albert Hall to complete the debate. Trains were again booked and more than six thousand brethren attended the special meeting.
The building of the national railway lines also led to the building of hotels, often by the main railway companies themselves, at major stations.
In Victorian and Edwardian times many of these hotels included lodge rooms. The finest was the Grecian temple, built in 1912, at the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street Station in London.
Lord Claud Hamilton, then both a Freemason and chairman of the railway company running out of Liverpool Street, together with family members and other directors who were Freemasons, commissioned the temple and paid for it out of their own pockets. It is now a Grade I listed structure.
The development of local railways also had an effect. Until the arrival of such transport, Freemasonry was very localised. Most brethren lived within a reasonable walking distance or short horse ride from their lodges. Public transport made them more mobile. A good example is the development of the railways from the City of London through east London and out into Essex. They gave birth to the London commuter, with the growing middle classes moving out of the City and East End to what were then the leafy villages of Stratford, Forest Gate, Wanstead, Ilford, Romford and Dagenham. The new commuters took their Freemasonry with them and from the 1860s we see the warranting of lodges to meet in those areas. The same story can be replicated in other parts of the country.
It is interesting to reflect on how the expansion of the railways and Freemasonry ran in parallel, at times complementing each other as they influenced the way society and communities developed.
STATION IN LIFE
Some of the major figures in the early development of the railways were active Freemasons. Sir Daniel Gooch, Bt (1816-1889), for many years chairman of the Great Western Railway, was Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Wiltshire and Provincial Grand Master for the Provinces of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
Born in Northumberland, Gooch was a Freemason who trained as an engineer with Robert Stephenson, designer of the famous Rocket locomotive. Gooch’s father moved his family to Tredegar where Daniel became manager of the ironworks. He continued his training with Thomas Ellis, Samuel Homfray, and Richard Trevithick (a Freemason), who were pioneering the development of locomotives.
Through them Gooch met Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was planning what became the Great Western Railway. In 1837, Brunel appointed Gooch as locomotive superintendent for the project, responsible for designing all the engines but also helping Brunel solve the engineering problems of a long-distance railway track. When Swindon was settled on as a major railway engineering centre, Gooch was heavily involved and brought Freemasonry to the town.