Reading between the lines
Never shy of a controversy, Dan Brown’s decision to launch his new novel at Freemasons’ Hall revealed the bestselling author’s true feelings about the Craft, as Anneke Hak discovered
Freemasons are quietly accepting about the fact that the media and writers can tend to misinform the general public about the goings on behind the closed doors of masonic lodges. However, when a hugely popular fiction writer, who once provoked the headline ‘Does the Catholic Church need to worry about Dan Brown?’, decided to write a book focusing on masonic groups, it was naturally a cause for concern.
As it happened, The Lost Symbol came and passed without much of a to-do as far as Freemasonry was concerned. While dabbling in some colourful descriptions of red wine being drunk out of a skull during the initiation ritual, the book actually depicts Freemasonry as a benign and even misunderstood organisation. So when Brown was in London to publicise Inferno, his latest book in the Robert Langdon saga, Freemasons’ Hall was delighted to be approached about holding ‘An Evening With Dan Brown’, hosted by Waterstones.
‘We see the Dan Brown evening and all other outside events that we do as a means of showing people we are open,’ says John Hamill, masonic historian and a past librarian at the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales. ‘We are here, you can hold events, you can come and go round the building, you can use the library and museum, you can ask questions, and questions will be answered. It is all part of the whole process of being much more public about Freemasonry.’
Although Brown’s books may encourage persistent rumours, which liken Freemasonry to a secret cult, the writer himself is wholly complimentary of the group. He told The Independent before the event that he would be honoured to be a mason. ‘I’ve nothing but admiration for an organisation that essentially brings people of different religions together,’ he said. ‘Rather than saying “we need to name God”, they use symbols such that everybody can stand together … Freemasonry is not a religion but a venue for people to come together across the boundaries of their specific religions. It levels the playing field.’
All in good spirit
John managed to speak with Brown amidst the hustle and bustle before the event. ‘We talked about The Lost Symbol and the hype beforehand, and he said he couldn’t understand it because where he grew up in America, he lived four blocks from the local lodge and knew some of the Freemasons. He said, “Why would I want to attack one of the few organisations that’s still doing good in society?” ’
While Brown often says that the secret societies and groups within his novels are based on fact, with a whole lot of poetic license thrown in for colour, his readers aren’t always able to differentiate between what’s real and what’s added for entertainment’s sake. However, rather than portray the Freemasons as malignant, The Lost Symbol says that the group provides a fraternity that does not discriminate in any way – it is something, Brown argued at the time, that Freemasons should be pleased about. You would think so, too, considering that The Lost Symbol broke a whole slew of records, including becoming the UK’s bestselling adult hardcover since records began, and has been translated into dozens of languages.
Taking centre stage
So would the publicists use the opportunity of a Dan Drown book event at Freemasons’ Hall to garner media attention through the use of mock rites of passage and men in sweeping black cloaks? Thankfully, no. Having attended many events at Freemasons’ Hall, some with Egyptian sphinxes littering the corridors and others with eerie music for ambience, it was gratifying to find that An Evening With Dan Brown was refreshingly simple, drawing on the fantastic building to hold the interest of the budding writers while they waited for the man himself.
The author graciously thanked Grand Secretary Nigel Brown and Karen Haigh of Freemasons’ Hall for allowing Waterstones to use the venue for the event and described spending many hours in disguise at the building completing research for his last book. ‘What a room!’ he exclaimed on entering the hall and stepping up to the microphone.
‘I was actually here maybe six years ago, incognito, doing research for The Lost Symbol. Today, without my dark glasses on, it’s a whole lot prettier. It’s a real honour for me to be here today.’ Dan Brown
John asked Brown about his undercover trips to Freemasons’ Hall and discovered that the author would join tours, asking the librarians a lot of questions on his way around: ‘He said that they were very helpful. They must have wondered who this man was with so many questions.’
Having referenced Freemasonry during his speech, and admired the glorious building, Brown then turned the conversation to the main topic of the night: his latest book, Inferno. Largely inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which charts a journey through the three domains of the afterlife, the book has already sparked a whole new set of controversies as scholars argue over whether or not the author should be simplifying the historical elements while popularising this epic fourteenth-century poem.
One thing is apparent, however: Brown seems to have given Freemasonry his seal of approval.
Letters to the editor - No. 23 Autumn 2013
Dan Brown at Freemasons' Hall
Whilst sitting waiting for Dan Brown to arrive on 21 May at Freemasons’ Hall, I watched the reaction of the diverse group of people who had obviously for the first time seen your wonderful building. Undoubtedly most were in awe, as well they should be.
For me, being at the Hall had a more poignant resonance. My father was a Freemason and he had taken me up to the Hall on many occasions. Sitting there, I wondered what he would have made of the event where people from all walks of life were able to sit and enjoy the full beauty of the building whilst at the same time listening to a man who had weaved the Freemasons into his stories that have sold billions of books around the world.
As a child I was fascinated by the society simply because my father was a member.
I began to devour any literature on the subject so that one day I could impress him with my knowledge. One day I had the chance and he was speechless. His friends thought he had provided me with the knowledge. I explained that if you want to learn about Freemasonry, the information is readily available.
Now years later, I read some of the nonsense on forums on the web after Dan’s evening and was disappointed how people are still today showing complete ignorance on the subject and not even bothering to research before they put their names to ridiculous statements.
When I mentioned to my friends that I would be coming to use your library for research they were shocked, because they didn’t realise how readily you share knowledge with the public. My father taught me to be open and generous to other philosophies and religions; he joined the Freemasons for all the right reasons and I think in retrospect he would have agreed with your continuing to open your doors to the public – although he may have found the constant chatter in the Hall whilst waiting for Dan Brown a tad tiresome. Ultimately, it was just brilliant to sit and admire the beautiful architecture of the great Hall again!
Lena Walton, Tadworth, Surrey
Adrian’s festival walk
To mark the launch of the Yorkshire North and East Ridings 2018 Festival, Adrian Jessop donned his trainers for charity to walk from York to London in fourteen days, arriving at Freemasons’ Hall on 11 June. ‘None of us know if or when we may need to call on help, or suffer an illness where treatment is limited or not available,’ Adrian says. ‘This is my way of supporting a fantastic charity achieving great things by helping others.’
To support Adrian, donate at www.justgiving.com/walking-4-relief or text WALK18 £10 to 70070
It’s a small world
Dressing up is more than child’s play, as Ellie Fazan discovered when she attended Global Kids Fashion Week at Freemasons’ Hall
Outside Freemasons’ Hall, a photographer snaps a blonde in sunglasses and red-soled shoes easing herself out of a chauffeur-driven car. Clutching an immaculately presented baby in a pink tutu and sparkly headband, she’s here for the first ever Global Kids Fashion Week.
Organised by online retailers AlexandAlexa.com, which specialises in luxury childrenswear and educational toys, the event aims to showcase kids’ fashion as a fun and creative industry, highlighting it as a thriving platform in its own right, not just an ‘add on’ to the adult fashion industry.
With so many of London Fashion Week’s outstanding events taking place at Freemasons’ Hall, it was a natural choice for the inaugural Global Kids Fashion Week to follow suit. ‘We love the heritage of Freemasons’ Hall and its location is great. It’s easily accessible for the media and our guests from across London, as well as for our international visitors. The team have been wonderful to work with,’ says Alex Theophanous, CEO of AlexandAlexa.com
The emphasis is clearly on fun. A giant pink tree is dressed with puffy clouds of candyfloss and the champagne traditionally quaffed by the fashion crowd has been done away with in favour of cartons of juice, while a waitress hands out popcorn from a fairground-style machine. As they settle into their seats, girls in over-the-top party frocks and boys looking slightly less comfortable in slick suits delve into their goodie bags. It’s fair to say they are just as excited by the toys they find inside as what’s going on around them.
‘Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean this isn’t a serious business. It turns out that little people are very big business indeed’
A model performance
Adults make up the majority of the audience, which, as at other fashion shows, comprises celebrities (model Jodie Kidd and make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury are in the front row) as well as industry insiders. Only this time they’ve brought their children, and instead of sitting in moody silence they coo and giggle as the show begins.
The mini models take to the catwalk in new-season looks from brands such as SuperTrash Girls, which creates clothes specifically for children, and designer labels such as Chloé, which has branched out into childrenswear. Looks range from super bright and colourful to retro outfits with more than a hint of seaside nostalgia; from edgy rock star looks to adult mini-me clothes for baby fashionistas.
Some of the kids pout and swagger like pure professionals; others look a bit more stunned by the experience. But they’ve all been specially picked from acting and stage schools and by the end of the show are having such a riot that they forget to leave the stage and carry on dancing as a glitter cannon showers them in gold confetti.
Just because it’s fun, however, doesn’t mean this isn’t a serious business. It turns out that little people are very big business indeed. AlexandAlexa.com has seen a one hundred and fifty per cent growth in the past year and in the UK alone the children’s fashion market is estimated to be worth £650 million a year. But this isn’t just another clever marketing ploy to get people to spend more; all the money raised by this fashion show is being donated to Kids Company, a charity set up to provide support to vulnerable inner-city children.
‘We have worked with Kids Company in the past on fashion shows and have always admired its work. Also, a lot of the counselling that Kids Company undertakes is through the creative arts, which made it a perfect fit with our fashion agenda,’ explains Theophanous.
‘Wearing clothes is an aspect of their self-presentation that they can have control over’ – Camila Batmanghelidjh
The link between Kids Company and fashion isn’t as tenuous as it might first seem. Many of the children who come to the charity for help lack even the most basic clothes, and as Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of Kids Company, explains: ‘For children who have experienced profound humiliation as a consequence of childhood maltreatment, wearing good clothes is the first step towards piecing together their shattered dignity.
It is also an aspect of their self-presentation that they can have control over.’
Kids Company has been working with young people to capture their thoughts on how fashion needs to embrace childhood and adolescence more appropriately. ‘It is in this context that we were really happy to partner with Global Kids Fashion Week,’ says Batmanghelidjh, adding that two of the youngsters from Kids Company worked backstage, gaining valuable work experience in the process.
After the show, chaos rules at an after party with nail painting, a photo booth and more popcorn. But this refreshing burst of colour and energy is contained within an anteroom. In the Hall’s grand hallway, normal activity carries on, oblivious to the confetti, the children and the candyfloss.
Gradually the crowd trickles away, parents taking their children by the hand, ushering them through Freemasons’ Hall. They are silenced by its size and greatness, and majesty reigns once more.
ABOUT KIDS COMPANY
Founded by Camila Batmanghelidjh, in 1996, Kids Company aims to provide practical and emotional support to vulnerable inner-city children. It reaches out to thirty-six thousand young people, of whom eighteen thousand receive intensive support. In extreme cases, the charity clothes, feeds and houses them; for others, it works towards creating a safe family environment and offers opportunities and support they would not otherwise receive.
The charity has developed a unique philosophy using the arts therapeutically and educationally in order to reach and assist traumatised children – and statistics show that this approach works.
Around eighty-one per cent of the young people who come to the charity are involved in crime; eighty-four per cent have experienced homelessness; and eighty-three per cent have sustained trauma. After Kids Company’s intervention, findings indicate a ninety per cent reduction in criminal activity, with ninety-one per cent of children going back into education and sixty-nine per cent finding employment.
London beneath the covers
London Hidden Interiors author Philip Davies gives an exclusive tour around some of the capital’s best conserved and least known interiors – including Freemasons’ Hall
Aldwych Underground Station
Strand, WC2R 1EP
Listed: Grade II
Aldwych Underground Station opened as Strand on 30 November 1907, rechristened Aldwych in 1915. An oddity from its inception, the Aldwych branch operated a shuttle service between Holborn and Strand; various extensions were envisaged, so the station was built, but they never came to fruition, leaving Aldwych as a dead end.
Built on the site of the old Royal Strand Theatre, the station was designed by Leslie Green using the familiar ox-blood terracotta blocks. Three lift shafts were completed in the expectation of expansion, but only one was fitted out with lifts, which still survive. As early as 1917, the eastern tunnel and platform were closed, and used as secure wartime storage for pictures from The National Gallery. After the First World War, passenger demand remained low, and closure was mooted as early as 1933.
From 1940 to 1946 the station was used as an air-raid shelter, and the tunnels for storing the Elgin Marbles and other valuables from the British Museum. The station finally closed on 3 October 1994. Today it is used for training and as a film location, with old tube stock permanently stationed at the branch. It is reputedly haunted by an actress from the theatre that once occupied the site.
‘From 1940 to 1946 the tunnels were used to store valuables from the British Museum’
60 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AZ
Listed: Grade II*
Known as the Masonic Peace Memorial, Freemasons’ Hall was built as a tribute to its 3,000 members killed in the First World War. Its design is the result of an international architectural competition launched in 1925, won by Henry Victor Ashley and Francis Winton Newman, who had extensive experience designing banks, factories, housing and hospital extensions.
The Grand Lodge of England had been based in Great Queen Street since 1774, where Thomas Sandby designed the first purpose-built Masonic Hall in the country in the form of a Roman Doric temple embellished with masonic symbols.
Originally Ashley and Newman intended to retain Sandby’s hall, but it was demolished in March 1932 after serious defects were found. The gigantic new complex was faced in Portland stone and designed on an heroic scale. No expense was spared on the sumptuous interior, which is finished in neo-Grecian style in marble, bronze, mosaic and stained glass imbued with masonic symbolism.
Set on a diagonal axis, the ground floor comprises the grand entrance hall and museum, and a marble staircase lit by full-height stained-glass windows leads to a huge marble-lined vestibule. Facing west is the war memorial window and Roll of Honour, which is housed in a bronze casket by Walter Gilbert, who designed most of the metalwork in the building.
The awe-inspiring Grand Temple – entered through bronze doors each weighing 1.25 tons – is crowned by a celestial canopy surrounded by a mosaic cornice, which depicts allegorical figures with different orders of classical architecture. Elsewhere, the Boardroom is panelled in hardwood and lit with stained glass, while Lodge Room No. 10 has huge arched bays carrying a domed roof.
‘No expense was spared on the sumptuous interior, with bronze, mosaic and stained glass imbued with masonic symbolism’
Southampton Row, WC1B 4DA
Listed: Grade II
Some of the worst poverty in London was previously to be found yards from the site of Freemasons’ Hall. The shocking mortality rates of Victorian Britain prompted the less fortunate to form burial clubs, so they could afford a decent funeral for their loved ones as an alternative to the pauper’s grave.
The early societies were unregulated. Many collapsed from mismanagement or fraud, but a number of reputable societies emerged, one of which was the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. Formed as a burial society in 1843, its business was based on ‘penny policies’ collected door-to-door. Like several other societies, Liverpool Victoria grew into a huge financial institution, the sheer opulence of its building rivalling those of the great banks.
Victoria House, the headquarters of Liverpool Victoria, involved the clearance of an entire street block of Georgian houses on the east side of Bloomsbury Square, making way for the huge Grecian-style, Beaux Arts palace. Designed by Charles W Long and erected over thirteen years between 1921 and 1934, it exuded the twin values of dignity and security, as expected of the headquarters of the great financial institutions.
Beneath the heroic marble entrance hall is a large basement ballroom, fitted out in Art Deco style with chrome, silver leaf and mauve-coloured lighting – a sharp contrast to the chaste Greek classicism of the upper floors. A suite of mahogany-panelled Grecian-style boardrooms are found on the third floor, some of which have eighteenth-century marble chimney pieces salvaged from the houses that once stood on the site.
Shortlisted in 1998 as a potential new City Hall for the Mayor of London, it was refurbished by Will Alsop, retaining the historic interiors.
‘It exuded the twin values of dignity and security, as expected of the headquarters of the great financial institutions’
The British Optical Association Museum
41-42 Craven Street, WC2N 5NG
Listed: Grade II
Founded in 1901 by the optician J H Sutcliffe, the British Optical Association Museum is now hosted by the College of Optometrists, after a peripatetic existence over the past one hundred years. It was first opened to the public in 1914 at Clifford’s Inn Hall, prompted by Sutcliffe’s desire to establish ‘An Optical House Beautiful’ in line with the fashionable concepts of the Aesthetic Movement. Later it moved to Brook Street and then to Earl’s Court before arriving at its current location in 1997, a fine early-Georgian house built c1730, with a replica extension erected in 1988.
Sutcliffe’s legacy is a quirky collection of more than eighteen thousand items relating to ophthalmic optics, the human eye and visual aids, as well as archival material, paintings and prints. The museum display is a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new objects, including the spectacles of famous personalities from Dr Johnson to Ronnie Corbett, and the sides of Dr Crippen’s glasses, the lenses missing after he tried to use them to cut his own throat in prison in a failed suicide attempt.
The cabinets house an extensive collection of porcelain eyebaths, binoculars, spyglasses and jealousy glasses with sideways mirrors to allow the owner to discreetly eye up potential suitors. Look for the dark adaptation goggles with red lenses used by Second World War pilots to adjust their night vision prior to take off, and the early revolving self-service cabinet of spectacles made by the Automatic Sight Testing and Optical Supply Co Ltd in 1889.
‘Sutcliffe’s legacy is a collection of more than eighteen thousand items … a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new objects’
James Smith & Sons
53 New Oxford Street, WC1A 1BL
Listed: Grade II
In 1830, James Smith established this famous firm of umbrella makers in Foubert’s Place, off Regent Street. In 1857, his son opened a shop at 53 New Oxford Street, followed rapidly by six other businesses elsewhere in London, including a hatter and barbershop. From their branch in the tiny passageway at Savile Row they sold umbrellas to many of the leading figures of their day, including Lord Curzon and Bonar Law.
The company was one of the first to use the famous Fox steel frames, named after Samuel Fox, who created the first steel umbrella frame in 1848. In addition to umbrellas, Smith’s has specialised in making canes and military swagger sticks, as well as bespoke items such as ceremonial maces for tribal chiefs in South Africa, Nigeria and elsewhere.
The superb shopfront and interior is a beautifully preserved example of a high-class Victorian West End shop, with cast-iron cresting to the faceted gilt and glass fascias, inscribed brass sills, elaborate black and gilt lettering to the upper panels of the windows and a splendid traditional box sign. Inside, the original mahogany counters and display cases are stocked with an array of canes, sticks and umbrellas, most of which are still manufactured in the basement. James Smith & Sons is the largest and oldest umbrella shop in Europe, and its shopfront and interior one of the landmarks of central London.
London Hidden Interiors by Philip Davies is an English Heritage book published by Atlantic Publishing, £40, available from booksellers everywhere. All pictures courtesy of English Heritage. www.londonhiddeninteriors.co.uk
‘The superb shopfront and interior is a beautifully preserved example of a high-class Victorian West End shop’
As the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys celebrates its two hundred and twenty-fifth year, Chief Executive Les Hutchinson explains how the charity has evolved
How did you first hear about the RMTGB?
In the 1980s the face of masonic charitable support for children underwent a major change. Previously there had been two children’s charities – a girls’ charity and a boys’ charity – and they had come together to form the trust as we now know it. Having identified a need for additional skills within the new organisation, a letter was sent to every masonic Province asking: ‘Do any of your members have a son or daughter who is educated to A-level standard, capable of completing a degree and interested in a career in accountancy or management?’ My father was an active Freemason in Cheshire and North Wales and heard about the vacancies. I applied and joined the trust as a management trainee in January 1988.
What were your first impressions?
Until five years ago, the trust was based in offices opposite Freemasons’ Hall. When I first walked into the building, with its polished walnut panelling and open fireplaces, I felt like I had travelled back in time. It all seemed so old-fashioned, but the constant rattle of typewriters and adding machines suggested that the trust was a very active and focused organisation.
How did you progress from trainee?
I spent my first few years learning the ropes within the finance, petitions and fundraising departments.
At the end of my training I was drawn to petitions, as I enjoyed being at the heart of the charity, seeing first-hand the difference that our grants could make. A few years later I became a team leader, then worked my way through the ranks, taking on more responsibility as my career developed. All four masonic charities do a fantastic job, but my heart is with the trust. I was delighted to be appointed Chief Executive in 2008.
What major challenges does the RMTGB currently face?
Whether they have experienced the death or disability of a parent, or encountered a family break-up, all the children we help have experienced a significant event that has led to financial distress. It concerns me when I meet Freemasons or their families who hold deep-rooted misconceptions about our work. Often these views prevent them from coming forward in their hour of need or make them less likely to support our work. One of our biggest challenges is to ensure that people understand what we actually do.
‘We are currently helping around two thousand children. Last year we received the highest number of new applications since the trust was formed’
What are your main responsibilities?
In addition to the day-to-day management of the charity and reviewing applications for support, an important part of my role involves visiting lodges and provincial meetings. Festival appeals are a major source of income and under the current system, each Province usually supports each of the four charities once every forty years. I must ensure that we use this period of fundraising to maximum effect. Wherever I go I am always astonished and very grateful for the warmth and generosity shown towards the trust.
Has the type of support you give changed?
During my twenty-five years with the trust, the focus of our work has evolved to meet the changing needs of our masonic family, but there are those who think we exist simply to provide a posh education for posh kids. This is one misconception that we have to overcome. More than ninety per cent of the children we support go to a state school and live at home. We have also worked hard to identify how we can more effectively help children of distressed Freemasons succeed in life and today many of our grants target specific items like computers and school trips. In some circumstances, we also support the grandchildren of Freemasons, something that is not widely known within the Craft.
How are families assessed?
All our support is subject to a financial test. A family has to have a very low income – less than £5,000 a year to receive our maximum support – and nothing that we give replaces what the state should provide. Our welfare specialists help families look at what state benefits they can claim, and we review the circumstances of every family that we support each year. First and foremost we are a poverty charity.
Is the RMTGB under increasing pressure?
We are currently helping around two thousand children and young people and last year we received the highest number of new applications since 1986. Applications arising from redundancy, bankruptcy and unemployment are all increasing, as they did during previous recessions. Families often turn to us only when they reach breaking point; we would always prefer them to contact us as soon as possible. It is tragic when we are alerted to children whose well-being has suffered because the family assumed we could not help or they were too proud to contact us.
How do the four masonic charities work together?
In my view, the cooperation and understanding between the charities is closer now than it ever has been. We are all fundraising within the same group and supporting the same beneficiaries – albeit at different points in their lives. Sometimes there could be two or three masonic charities supporting the same family, so it made sense for us to move closer together. Our relocation into offices in Freemasons’ Hall helped with this process, as has the use of a single application form. We are also far more proactive and consistent in our support for almoners and charity stewards.
What’s next for the RMTGB?
Two hundred and twenty-five years have passed since the establishment of the first charity for supporting children of Freemasons. When you look back at what we have achieved, the hundreds of thousands of young people we have helped, you realise how important the trust’s work is. The needs of our masonic family will continue to change and, working ever closer with the other masonic charities, we must prepare ourselves for the challenges of the years ahead.
True to its aims
The mission of the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB) is: ‘To relieve poverty and advance the education of children of a masonic family and, when funds permit, support other children in need.’
This year, the charity celebrates its two hundred and twenty-fifth birthday and can reflect on a shifting social landscape that has nevertheless seen the RMTGB stay true to its aims.
In 1788, Chevalier Bartholomew Ruspini and the Duchess of Cumberland set up a school for the daughters of distressed masons. A similar provision for boys was established in 1798. As these charities grew, financial assistance was also provided to support children living at home. Eventually these grants constituted the main work of the charities and a decision was made to move away from running schools altogether. A combined grant-making charity, now known as the RMTGB, became active in 1986.
Today the RMTGB provides help to children and young people by awarding financial grants to relieve poverty and help remove barriers to education. In recent years, schemes such as TalentAid and Choral Bursaries have been established to support exceptionally gifted young people. Initiatives such as Stepping Stones and the ongoing support for Lifelites (Registered Charity No. 1115655) demonstrate the RMTGB’s commitment to thousands of other disadvantaged children without a masonic connection.
To find out more about the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys, visit www.rmtgb.org
From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Spooks, the stunning corridors, Grand Temple and distinctive exteriors of Freemasons’ Hall have played a crucial supporting role on screen. Ellie Fazan goes behind the scenes
In 2009 a member of the public, concerned by the presence of American soldiers loitering on the steps of Freemasons’ Hall, phoned the police in panic. Had the relationship between the UK and US broken down? Were the soldiers about to declare the Hall a forward operations base?
‘We were filming with Matt Damon for Green Zone,’ remembers Karen Haigh, Head of Events, who has overseen the film career of Freemasons’ Hall thus far. While things can get surreal, her first priority is to ensure filming does not obstruct the Hall’s primary function. So while Matt Damon was saving the world downstairs, meetings were going on upstairs as usual.
Karen has been working with Jenny Cooper from Film London to promote Freemasons’ Hall as a location. Funded by the Mayor of London and The National Lottery through the British Film Institute, and supported by the Arts Council England and Creative Skillset, Film London operates as the city’s film agency. It works to promote London as a major international production centre, attracting investment from Hollywood and beyond.
The agency looks after the capital’s most iconic backdrops, including The Savoy hotel and King’s Cross St Pancras station, but the Hall has also become a star, playing MI5’s base, gentlemen’s clubs and even Buckingham Palace. ‘Its versatile nature and flexible, friendly management, as well as the unique and lavish interior and central London location, have made it a firm favourite over the past ten years,’ says Cooper.
In 2012 Film London launched a tiered membership scheme, of which Freemasons’ Hall is a Gold Member, but the relationship goes back much further. Cooper explains: ‘Around seven years ago we got organisations, including the United Grand Lodge of England, to agree to work with Film London in promoting the city as a film-friendly destination.’
The response has been ‘tremendous’ with a notable rise in filming in London, where seventy-five per cent of the UK industry is now based, making it the third busiest production city behind New York and LA.
So expect sightings of US soldiers and alien landings to become more common on Great Queen Street.
‘Its unique and lavish interior and central london location have made Freemasons’ Hall a firm favourite’ Jenny Cooper
Take five: These days you’re almost as likely to see Robert Downey Jr in Freemasons’ Hall as another Freemason. Karen Haigh picks her top five films and TV shows at the Hall over the past ten years
1. Green Zone (2010)
The high-octane war thriller starring Matt Damon used the Hall as a bombed-out palace in Baghdad. For this role the building had a bit of a make-under, with debris everywhere and blown-out wires hanging from walls. ‘It was a great example of how even when a huge Hollywood production is here, our first priority is that the Hall can function for its members,’ says Karen. ‘So while Matt Damon was running around saving the world downstairs, there was a big provincial meeting going on upstairs.’
‘Johnny English was such a fun film. It was the first time I thought, This could really work’ Karen Haigh
2. Spooks (2002-2011)
Freemasons’ Hall played MI5 headquarters Thames House in this clever and compelling spy drama, focusing on the undercover work of a team of super spies. ‘It was amazing to have a starring role in such a groundbreaking TV show.
It showcased the Hall in such a fabulous way,’ recalls Karen. The only downside of being so involved in the production of the show, she says, was that the traditional end-of-series cliffhanger never had quite the same impact for her.
3. Johnny English (2003)
Peter Howitt’s action comedy parodies the James Bond franchise, with Rowan Atkinson playing an inept spy. The opening credits take a veritable tour of the building. ‘It was such a fun film and there was a lovely atmosphere. Rowan Atkinson is a British institution, and for many of our members he is the most exciting actor that we have had here,’ says Karen. ‘I think it was the first time I thought, this could really work. Film London gave us lots of support, because they knew we had potential as a film location.’
4. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Some of the exhilarating scenes of the first Sherlock Holmes movie, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr, were filmed in the Hall. ‘Guy Ritchie had been to the Grand Lodge before and really wanted to use it as a location,’ Karen reminisces. ‘You could see during filming that it was going to be really good.’ Karen and her team built such a strong relationship with the film-makers during shooting that the star-studded press conference was held at the Hall on the day of the premiere.
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Douglas Adams’ comedy tells the story of hapless Arthur Dent after aliens destroy Earth. The Grand Temple took on its first starring role, as the Nose, the base for John Malkovich’s character. ‘I carefully pick the films that shoot here,’ says Karen. ‘This film is very tongue-in-cheek and seemed a wonderful way of saying that we can laugh at what people say about us. We built a great relationship with Disney, so they held the premiere party here.’
Details of the 150 oil paintings in the collection at Freemasons' Hall in Great Queen Street are now available online as part of a joint project between the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC to put on line all the oil paintings in the UK. More than 200,000 paintings at 3,000 venues across the UK are to be included.
Freemasons' Hall is just one of many institutions (including many Oxford and Cambridge colleges) that are not in public ownership which have joined the project for the benefit of wider public awareness and research. For more information see: www.bbc.co.uk/yourpaintings You can search for the Library and Musuem of Freemasonry as a venue to see all the paintings at Great Queen Street.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry has been working with the Public Catalogue Foundation for the last two years to have all the pictures photographed and to provide details of the artists.
With visitors invited to explore Freemasons’ Hall, director of the Library and Museum Diane Clements explains to Caitlin Davies how this is leading to greater transparency
Covent Garden is one of London’s tourist hot spots and this sunny Saturday in September is no exception. The area is crowded with people sightseeing, shopping and visiting bars. But at the end of Long Acre, where it meets the corner of Great Queen Street, is another city attraction altogether. It’s a large, almost monumental, stone building with little to identify its purpose to those who don’t know.
Come a little closer, however, and a plaque states it was opened in 1933 by Field Marshall HRH The Duke of Connaught, Knight of the Garter and Most Worshipful Grand Master. This is Freemasons’ Hall and today it sports a welcoming sign as part of the annual celebration of the capital’s architecture – ‘Open House London’. Now in its twentieth year, the scheme has seven hundred and fifty buildings opening their doors for free, from iconic landmarks to private homes. A steady stream of people head through the Tower entrance to Freemasons’ Hall, where a steward hands out a leaflet. ‘Welcome to Freemasons’ Hall,’ he says. ‘It’s a self-guided tour.’ ‘People often walk or cycle past and have never been in,’ says Diane Clements, who is overseeing today’s proceedings and is director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. ‘People don’t know what they’re going to see – there is a sense of amazement when they get inside, the building is far more elaborate than you might think. The fact that they can come in shows how open we are and helps address misconceptions about Freemasonry.’ Diane has run the Library and Museum for thirteen years, and relishes the opportunity to work with a world-class collection of objects that have interesting stories to tell. ‘The public has a continuing desire to learn about Freemasonry. I’d like to think the Library and Museum has played a part in improving their understanding.’
Wandering at will
Each year thirty thousand people visit the Library and Museum, and most come for organised tours of the Grand Temple. Freemasons’ Hall has taken part in Open House London since 2000 and the logistics of running the event are considerable. ‘For Open House we couldn’t get enough people through the doors using our usual guided method,’ explains Diane, ‘so it’s the only time you are basically given a leaflet and left to look around.’ Her role is to make sure that the two thousand, five hundred visitors on Open Day have ‘an enjoyable and informative visit’, and over the years she’s learnt to always ‘wear comfortable shoes’.
On the right of the cloakroom a sign shows visitors where to start, then there’s a murmur of voices and creaking of knees as people go up the stairs. The building has a library feel to it, but this changes in the first vestibule, which is flooded with glorious yellow light reflected from the stained glass windows. A man crouches to take a picture of a small golden figure, part of the shrine designed by Walter Gilbert. Meanwhile, a woman from West Sussex says she wasn’t sure what to expect: ‘My dad is in a lodge and I always thought he just meant he went to a room somewhere. But it’s fantastic. It’s really beautiful.’ Another visitor, Dermot, just happened to walk past this afternoon. And what did he imagine was inside? ‘That’s the thing,’ he replies, ‘I didn’t know what to expect.’ For a lot of people it is curiosity that has brought them here today.
‘All our buildings are chosen for the quality of their architecture, that’s our criteria,’ explains Victoria Thornton, director of Open-City, which runs Open House London. ‘Some, like Freemasons’ Hall, may have a quiet façade, behind which lies real exuberance.’
In the second vestibule, steward Peter Martin is presiding over a table of free literature and says the event is even busier than last year. Eric from Kent has been to several Open House events today. ‘I started at Lloyds and worked my way along Fleet Street. I’ve seen Unilever and Doctor Johnson’s house… the stained glass is awesome here.’
The question of gender is a popular one. In the third vestibule a woman asks a steward if only men can join Freemasonry. He explains women can join one of two Grand Lodges in England, but they are not allowed in the men’s Grand Temple, and vice versa.
In the Grand Temple there are fold-down seats like a theatre and it’s here that many visitors take the opportunity for a rest. Voices are respectfully hushed. ‘It is contemplative,’ says Diane. ‘There’s never a huge noise in here. It’s not like the Sistine Chapel – we don’t have to say “Quiet please.”’ One steward answers a barrage of questions about rituals and pledges. ‘Is it true the Queen is a Freemason?’ asks one visitor. The answer is no.
An outside walkway leads to the Library and Museum where an exhibition traces the relationship between Freemasonry and sport. The tour ends at the exit on Great Queen Street, where members arrive for their lodge meetings and are watched with interest by departing visitors, one of whom takes a final snap.
Kent reopening for Library and Museum
The Kent Masonic Library and Museum Trust has been reopened by Geoffrey Dearing, Provincial Grand Master for East Kent, after an extensive 18-month redevelopment
Located in the heart of Canterbury, in St Peter’s Place, just a ﬁve-minute stroll from the 11th-century cathedral, the museum was originally opened in 1933, and has probably the ﬁnest collection of masonic material in the UK outside London.
As well as masonic paintings, glassware and porcelain, the displays include unique 19th-century stained-glass windows that originally adorned the old Freemasons’ Hall in London. The solid oak entrance doors came from St Mary’s College, part of the Jesuit Monastery in Hales Place, Canterbury, which was demolished at the same time as the museum was being designed by its architect, Brother FG Haywood of Market Square, Dover.
The ﬁrst change evident to visitors is a striking new entrance in St Peter’s Place that catches the eye of the thousands of passers-by. The building is open daily from 10am to 4pm and is wheelchair accessible. Entry is free of charge, with donations welcome.
Twice a year, Freemasons’ Hall plays host to shows for London Fashion Week, with press from around the world in attendance. Ellie Fazan finds out what happens when fashion and Freemasonry come together
Visitors to Freemasons’ Hall on London’s Great Queen Street are being greeted by a stylish young woman bedecked in a studded leather jacket. With a clipboard in one hand and wristbands in the other, she is very much in charge.
Upstairs in one of the 21 lodge rooms, frantic preparations are under way for design duo Leutton Postle’s Spring/Summer 2013 show. It is not a scene you would expect to find in Freemasons’ Hall: there is an impossibly tall model having her make-up done wearing nothing but underwear and sparkly high heels, while a team of assistants hurriedly make final adjustments to various hairstyles and outfits.
In the midst of it all, two young women are trying to control the chaos. They are Jen and Sam, otherwise known as Leutton Postle, and this is their third show at Freemasons’ Hall. Their work is being showcased by Vauxhall Fashion Scout – an initiative that offers young designers a space to show their collections. ‘Hello, we’d love to stop and say hi but…’ Before they can finish, they are swept away in a sea of assistants.
‘The building hosts such a vibrant and eclectic mix of people... but it still maintains the elegance of the purposes it was built for’ Karen Haigh
The frenzied atmosphere permeates the room. The majestic corridors are full to the brim with brightly coloured clothes, with fun oversized collars, playful patchwork and lots of glitter. A photographer is shooting a catalogue for the designers today, and has set up a makeshift studio in the cleaning cupboard. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady leans on her mop looking unfazed. She watches on while the call ‘Girls in shoes please’ sends everyone into a panic.
Start the show
Outside Freemasons’ Hall, the fashion crowd is queuing around the block: it’s one of the most anticipated shows of the season, and the designers here are the ones to watch. The Temple vestibule starts to fill with guests, and techno music begins to blast. The clothes are the main attraction – big, bold and attention grabbing – but they don’t detract from the space. Three models at a time appear in the three carved archways before taking to the perfectly polished floor. The contrast between the futuristic collection and the stately, solid building is powerful.
One of the finest Art Deco buildings in England, Freemasons’ Hall has been available for use as a location for television productions and photoshoots for more than a decade. ‘One of the location managers I’d worked with on a film project asked if we hired the venue to outside events such as fashion. We hadn’t before, but I just said yes,’ remembers Karen Haigh, UGLE Head of Events. ‘That led to us piloting the first London Fashion Week shows for Vauxhall Fashion Scout in 2009. All events are special in their own way, but working twice a year with Vauxhall Fashion Scout has become part of the venue. It’s bigger than ever now and it has been wonderful to see it develop each year. It’s like being a parent!’
Offering an opportunity
Freemasons’ Hall is an integral part of London Fashion Week, placing it alongside Somerset House as one of the most important events spaces in the capital, hosting the most cutting-edge shows. The designers here are the ones to look out for. This year fashion’s punk princess Pam Hogg showed, with celebrities and fashion editors alike coming to watch.
For Karen Haigh it’s an exciting time, with no friction between the long-term residents and the temporary inhabitants. ‘The building hosts such a vibrant and eclectic mix of people during this time, but it still maintains the elegance of the purposes it was built for. It really makes me smile when members come into the building during that period and can’t hide their surprise at some of the outfits on display!’
Vauxhall Fashion Scout is helping young people in their chosen fields – one of Freemasonry’s founding principles. Hand in hand they are offering young designers a space. Sam and Jen agree. ‘We couldn’t do this without their support,’ the pair say. ‘It means that as designers we can grow. We’ve learnt so much since last year.’ And what do they think of the building? ‘It’s intense! Even though we have permission to be here, it’s so awe-inspiring it makes us want to run around here at night!’