Celebrating 300 years

Command performance

Robert Henderson-Bland was an actor, soldier, poet and Freemason. Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry Diane Clements traces his fortunes during World War I

It is 100 years since Canadian doctor Major John McCrae wrote his poem In Flanders Fields, the first line of which, ‘In Flanders fields, the poppies blow’, was to be an inspiration for the poppy as a memorial. The same year, 1915, also saw the death of one of the best-known war poets, Rupert Brooke, who wrote five sonnets in late 1914 that helped make him famous, including The Soldier. Somewhat forgotten now but also an active and frequently published poet in his time was Freemason Robert Henderson-Bland (1876-1941).

Henderson-Bland’s first war poem, published in August 1915, was inspired by the Scots Guards and includes the following lines, written before the idea of a War Graves Commission had been developed:

‘Let someone mark the place whereat they fell,
And hedge it round, for in the after-time
Their fame will draw the many who would dwell
Upon those deeds that made an hour sublime.’

Henderson-Bland was best known as an actor, working in the early 1900s with leading theatrical figures such as Lily Langtry and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. On 26 April 1912, as he records in his autobiography, he received a telephone call asking him to take the role of Jesus Christ in a new film to be made in and around Jerusalem. Directed by Sidney Olcott, From the Manger to the Cross became one of the most significant films of the silent era. 

It was Beerbohm Tree who had recommended Henderson-Bland for the part, as he considered that the only man who could play Christ was a poet. Although controversial at the time, the film was eventually praised by leading religious figures, and it has since been designated culturally, historically and aesthetically significant by the Library of Congress. It was revived in London in 1926 when it was shown at the Royal Albert Hall every day for three months, and the Bishop of London supported the showing of a sound-enhanced version, stating that he considered it to be ‘a most beautiful film’. 

A few months before Henderson-Bland went to Jerusalem to make the film, he was initiated in Green Room Lodge, No. 2957, one of several London lodges with theatrical connections. His raising was delayed until filming was complete, in November 1912. In November 1913, he presented a souvenir of his time in Jerusalem to the lodge – a gavel made from stone quarried ‘from Solomon’s Mines’, with its shaft made of olive wood grown on the Mount of Olives. 

Theatre of war

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Henderson-Bland, aged 40, was acting in America. He returned to Britain to join the Gloucestershire Regiment, initially in Britain and then, from July 1916, in France, where he served until he was wounded in April 1918. By the end of the war he had been promoted to captain. After the war, Henderson-Bland became involved with veterans society the Ypres League, working to promote the organisation in America. He continued with his Freemasonry, joining, in 1927, another lodge with theatrical links, Drury Lane Lodge, No. 2127, where he was installed as Master in March 1937. He died in August 1941 as the result of an air raid. 

Henderson-Bland knew many who died in the war. One friend, also a Freemason (Drury Lane Lodge), was poet Arthur Scott Craven, who had joined the Artists Rifles and was killed in action in April 1917. Before the war, Henderson-Bland had dedicated a book of poetry to him. He wrote the following poem after his death and it was published in June 1917:

‘O all my youth came singing back to me
When first I learnt that you were dead, my friend.
What of the years when you and I did see
In life a splendour daily spilt to mend
Our souls grown tired of trivial delights?
Not lost to you the glimpses of the heights,
For you went gladly where the worst is surely best.’

The gavel presented by Henderson-Bland to Green Room Lodge is on display as part of the Library and Museum’s Spotlight: Freemasons and Entertainment exhibition, which runs until 13 February 2016.

A book written by Library and Museum staff, English Freemasonry and the First World War, is available from the shop at Freemasons’ Hall or online at www.letchworthshop.co.uk 

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