- Work starts on Palmer Court, a Masonic Housing Association development in Wellingborough
- Pro Grand Master's address - June 2013
- Report of the Board of General Purposes - 12 June 2013
- Norfolk masons Jim Carter and Mike Cole brought Crimestoppers to UK
- Interview with George Francis on the history of the Royal Arch
Andrew Prescott Looks at the First Attempt to Form a Metropolitan Grand Lodge
The inauguration on 1 October 2003 of a Metropolitan Grand Lodge will mark the end of over 200 years of debate about the organisation of London Freemasonry. It will also, after nearly 90 years, bring to fruition a project close to the heart of Sir Alfred Robbins (1856-1931), who as President of the Board of General Purposes from 1913 until his death, was described as ‘the Prime Minister of English Freemasonry’, and who suffered one of the few reverses of his Masonic career in his attempt to reorganise London Freemasonry.London Freemasonry remained outside the Provincial Grand Lodge structure which evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries, being administered directly by Grand Lodge. In 1992, Lord Eglinton and Winton, the Assistant Grand Master, declared that ‘London is not a province and, masonically speaking, a geographical accident: many meet there because it is equally inconvenient for all’. This view of London Freemasonry as anomalous has a long pedigree, dating back to the 18th century. As early as 1767- 8, Premier Grand Lodge attempted to appoint General Inspectors or Provincial Grand Masters for London Freemasonry, but was prevented by the opposition of London lodges.
In the revised Book of Constitutions issued in 1815, two years after the Union, London lodges were defined as those meeting within ten miles of Freemasons’ Hall. This included places like Wandsworth, Chelsea and Putney at a time when they were still country villages. The ten mile radius can be seen as administratively forward-looking, allowing Grand Lodge to cope with the growth of London, but the reason for its adoption was more prosaic. London lodges paid higher subscriptions and the ten mile radius maximised subscription income from London lodges. Between 1851 and 1911, the population within the ten mile radius increased from more than two and a half million to over seven million. Like many other institutions, Freemasonry struggled to cope with the problems created by this rapid growth. As the city’s suburbs grew, there was a demand for new masonic lodges. However, Lord Zetland, Grand Master from 1844 to 1870, routinely vetoed proposals for new London lodges because he thought there were already sufficient.
While Zetland’s successors accepted the need for more London lodges, they were slow in coming to terms with the challenges posed by the growth of London Freemasonry. As the number of lodges increased, Grand Lodge became larger and more unwieldy. Freemasons’ Hall was unable to accommodate all those entitled to attend Grand Lodge, and provincial brethren frequently travelled to London for quarterly communications, only to be turned away because the hall was already full. There were complaints that London masons used Grand Lodge to pursue local disputes. London masons themselves were disgruntled about the lack of an honours system for London lodges.
A Grand Lodge for London
Alfred Robbins was the London correspondent of the Birmingham Daily Post. He was initiated in 1888 in Gallery Lodge No. 1928, which catered for members of the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, and in 1901 became Master of that lodge. Robbins was dismayed by the failure to tackle the problems of London Freemasonry. He tried to bring a motion in Grand Lodge for the creation of a London Grand Lodge, but was ruled out of order.
This snub to Robbins prompted a distinguished group of London masons to form a committee to investigate the best form of administration for London Freemasonry. The committee took a poll of London lodges, held a public meeting of London masons, and organised a petition calling for a London Grand Lodge. To head off this discontent, the Duke of Connaught as Grand Master announced in December 1907 the creation of London Rank, the first time that London was recognised masonically as an entity.
Much of the opposition to a London Grand Lodge came from the Pro Grand Master, Lord Amherst, who resigned in 1908. Amherst was succeeded by the youthful Lord Ampthill, who felt that Grand Lodge needed a thorough overhaul. In 1910 Ampthill circulated Provincial and District Grand Masters with proposals for reform of Grand Lodge, and a special committee of the Board of General Purposes was established to consider the matter. Robbins was a member of this committee, and he made such an impression on Ampthill that in 1913 he was appointed President of the Board of General Purposes. Ampthill and Robbins were a formidable partnership.
Robbins presented the report of the Board of General Purposes on the future government of the craft to Grand Lodge in December 1913. The report recommended the establishment of a Grand Council, consisting of a mixture of Grand Officers, elected members and members nominated by the Grand Master, to ‘exercise all the administrative, legislative and judicial duties at present exercised by Grand Lodge’.
The main problem in establishing the Grand Council was London. Since London did not have a provincial structure, it was difficult to organise elections there. The use of electoral colleges was considered, but it was feared that these would increase factionalism. Organising the London lodges geographically was impossible, since two thirds of the London lodges met at or within a mile of Freemasons’ Hall. Another problem was that, in order to ensure that London masons had the same chance of achieving honours as their provincial brethren, it was necessary to create not just one, but a number of Grand Lodges for London. The report proposed the creation of ten Metropolitan Grand Lodges for London. Each Metropolitan Grand Lodge would be designated by a roman numeral, and lodges would be assigned to that Metropolitan Grand Lodge whose number corresponded to the last digit of the lodge number. Grand Lodge decided that lodges should be allowed three months to put forward their views on these proposals.
The report triggered an enormous debate within Freemasonry. When the consultation was complete, it was found that voting by lodges and by individuals was respectively 57% and 60% in favour of the changes. However, while the Provinces and Districts supported the proposals, the London lodges mainly voted against them. This made the proposed reform no longer viable, since the creation of the Grand Council depended on the establishment of the Metropolitan Grand Lodges. Robbins hoped that the scheme could be rescued, and a committee of Grand Lodge was formed to arrange consultative conferences with London lodges. However, as Robbins himself wrote, ‘By this time, it was June 1914; and, before a single conference could be arranged, the Great War had broken out. In accordance with the general feeling that that was not a time in which to engage in a large plan of constitutional change, ... the task was set aside by common consent.’
Thus this scheme to create Metropolitan Grand Lodges foundered. No attempt was made to return to the issue after the First World War, although Robbins, still smarting from his earlier experiences, bravely declared shortly before his death that ‘all who closely watch the work of Grand Lodge know that the subject, though dormant, is far from dead’.
When on 1 October the Metropolitan Grand Lodge is constituted at the Royal Albert Hall, we can be sure that Sir Alfred Robbins will be there in spirit, and will feel that his greatest defeat has finally been reversed.
Professor Andrew Prescott is Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield. A fuller version of this paper was given to a joint meeting of the Manchester Association for Masonic Research and the Sheffield Masonic Study Circle, May 2002.