Celebrating 300 years

John Hamill looks at Freemasonry's changing prominence within the community

Tuesday, 08 March 2016

Place in the community

Director of Special Projects John Hamill recognises  Freemasonry’s tentative steps back into the spotlight after decades of non-participation in public events

 Pageantry is something for which the English are internationally recognised as being the masters. Be it a major state occasion such as the opening of Parliament, the Lord Mayor’s Show in London or a country town’s summer festival, we have a great sense of tradition, colour, precision and style.

Up until World War II, Freemasonry had a major part to play in that. Dr John Wade, in his 2009 Prestonian Lecture, gives a fascinating account of Freemasons ‘clothed in the badges of the Order’ taking part in public processions, either for masonic reasons or as part of national or local celebrations, throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

The earliest recorded masonic processions were in London in the 1720s and 1730s, when the installation of the Grand Master would take place at one of the City livery halls. They would be preceded by a procession from the Grand Master’s residence through the City, with the noblemen in their carriages and the brethren in regalia following on behind. The events were reported in the press of the day but became subject to attention from a group calling themselves ‘The Scald Miserable Masons’ who began to run a mock procession a few days beforehand. The Grand Lodge ceased holding the procession and issued a rule that in future brethren could only appear in public in regalia by dispensation of the Grand Master or his deputy. 

‘Sadly, events in the late 1930s in Europe, the horrors of World War II and post-war austerity, as well as the resulting social changes, had their effects and Freemasonry became more inward-looking.’

Laying the foundations

Getting a dispensation was not a problem, as the many processions that took place demonstrated. 

On occasion, the procession was part of a ceremony, where brethren would be invited to lay the foundation stone of a public building, church, docks or bridge.

A procession of local civic and religious dignitaries, the militia, the town band and representatives of the Province and the local lodges, all in their civic, religious, military or masonic regalia, would precede the ceremony, which was open to the public and would usually be concluded by a return procession and some form of refreshment.

Sadly, events in the late 1930s in Europe, the horrors of World War II and post-war austerity, as well as the resulting social changes, had their effects and Freemasonry became more inward-looking. In the 1960s and 1970s public processions tended to be protest marches rather than celebrations, with the exception of the annual Armistice Day observances and local civic ceremonies.

In recent years, however, there have been moves towards more public displays. During Freemasonry in the Community Week in 2002 the then Pro Grand Master, Lord Northampton, said his most abiding memory was processing in full regalia with the brethren of Warwickshire from the masonic hall in Warwick to the collegiate church for a service of commemoration and rededication.

As its millennium project the Province of Durham helped to finance the rebuilding of a former Victorian masonic hall, previously in Sunderland, at the open-air Beamish Museum. The Provincial Grand Master was invited to lay the foundation stone and more than 500 brethren from Durham and neighbouring Provinces processed to the proposed site. The local media carried the event as a major news item.

When the Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Kent, attended to open the hall, again there was a huge procession to accompany the Grand Master and the Lord-Lieutenant in an open carriage to the site. A photograph of the procession appeared on the centre pages of the next day’s Guardian.

London brethren – particularly the City lodges – have provided a float for the past decade for the Lord Mayor’s procession each November, showing how much a part of the City community they are. Similar events have taken place in other parts of the country. While we are far from the halcyon pre-war days, these are small ways in which we can demonstrate Freemasonry’s place in our communities.

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