Thirty years in the making, a replica of the Ark of the Masonic Covenant is being crafted to serve as a permanent memorial of the Union of the two Grand Lodges. John Hamill explains its history
Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was one of England’s greatest architects. He became a Freemason in 1813 and, after the Union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, was the first to hold the new office of Grand Superintendent of Works. As such, he was the professional adviser overseeing the maintenance and development of Freemasons’ Hall in London.
The first work he produced for Grand Lodge was what became known as the Ark of the Masonic Covenant. To bring the Union of the Grand Lodges into being, both parties had agreed Articles of Union that laid the foundations of the United Grand Lodge of England. As an important document, it was to be carried into each Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge by the Grand Registrar. Soane offered to produce an ‘ark’ to stand in front of the Grand Master’s throne into which the document could be safely placed while the meeting was in progress.
It was an impressive piece of furniture, triangular in shape with an Ionic, Corinthian or Doric column at each corner and surmounted by a dome topped by Soane’s signature lantern. It stood in front of the Grand Master’s throne from 1814 until 1883 when disaster struck. A fire broke out in the old Grand Temple, gutting its interior and destroying the portraits of former Grand Masters, most of the furniture and Soane’s Ark. Much was done to reconstruct the interior of the room and reinstate the paintings and furniture but Soane’s Ark was not replaced.
One of Soane’s 20th-century successors as Grand Superintendent of Works was architect Douglas Burford. He became interested in Soane’s masonic work and did a great deal of research in the archives at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. There he discovered Soane’s original plans for the Ark.
Burford wrote the subject up in a paper for Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076, and hoped to persuade Grand Lodge to have a replica constructed. It has taken 30 years for that dream to become a reality.
Burford was delighted to learn that, as part of the Tercentenary celebrations, Soane’s Ark was to be reconstructed. He was even more pleased to have an opportunity to travel to York to see the work underway.
The project has been one of cooperation between the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation and master wood carvers Houghtons of York.
The Factum Foundation is an organisation that uses digital technology to accurately record heritage items for conservation purposes, to enable facsimiles to be produced and, as in the case of this project, to reconstruct lost items.
Houghtons of York is an old family firm that uses traditional methods and materials to produce new architectural woodwork or furniture, as well as to restore and reconstruct damaged and lost items. The combined efforts of these two firms have produced a superb and accurate reconstruction of one of the lost treasures of Grand Lodge.
On completion, the new Soane’s Ark will be the centre of an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum opening on 11 October. Under the title Soane’s Ark: Building with Symbols, the exhibition will discuss Soane’s membership of Freemasonry and include other masonic items from his collections.
The Ark will then be transported to the Royal Albert Hall for the great Tercentenary celebration, where it will be dedicated by the Grand Master. Afterwards it will, like the original, take its place in the Grand Temple as a permanent memorial.
Responsible for the fabric of Freemasons’ Hall, Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella encourages a businesslike approach towards the management of every masonic building
What’s your professional background?
I’m a chartered surveyor by training, working for the first five years of my professional life for what was then the Greater London Council. I spent two and a half years doing slum clearance in the East End of London, acquiring properties that were medically unfit for human habitation. I learnt a little bit about surveying but a huge amount about life and social conditions that simply don’t exist today.
I then wanted the challenge of working in private practice. So I joined a firm of chartered surveyors called Montagu Evans, becoming a partner and eventually the head of valuation and professional services before retiring in 2002. Retirement is a bit of a strange term, because I’m now doing as much as I ever did.
What does the title Grand Superintendent of Works mean?
It’s a masonic title – I’m the property adviser or the surveyor, in very simple terms. I’m responsible to the Board of General Purposes and to the Rulers of the Craft for maintaining the fabric of Freemasons’ Hall. When Grand Lodge was first established there was no Grand Superintendent of Works, but they quickly realised they needed a property professional. Sir John Soane was the first, and over the years we’ve had architects, engineers and surveyors filling the post.
In my role I also guide the changes that may be needed within Freemasons’ Hall to help it to function as a building that fulfils the needs of Freemasonry today. Equally important is our property portfolio in Great Queen Street, both as an asset within the investment portfolio of UGLE and also for the income that it produces. This income helps to cushion the organisation from the day-to-day costs of managing an ageing building.
How did you become a Freemason?
My father was a mason and it’s one of my regrets in life that he died before I became one. His – and my – mother lodge, Molesey Lodge, No. 2473, was the lodge for Covent Garden. So the owners of the fruit businesses, the market workers, the local bank manager and the local solicitor were all members. One of my earliest memories was the atmosphere at home when it was the lodge meeting day. He’d be dressed in his masonic clothing with morning suit, and off he went. My uncle, who by then was Secretary of the lodge, said, ‘Come on, I think you’ll enjoy this.’ Eventually, I gave up the unequal struggle and joined.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. I met interesting people and no matter where I went, I felt welcome. I also got satisfaction out of the ritual as I’ve always been intrigued by analysing and understanding why we do what we do as masons. If you put some time and effort into understanding the ritual, it has an awful lot to tell you about life.
'Freemasonry is a craft but managing its buildings is a business’
What are the challenges facing masonic buildings?
One of my mantras is that Freemasonry is a craft but managing its buildings is a business. One of the reasons we have got into difficulties with some of our buildings is that masons have been visiting their lodges for many, many years. They feel comfortable, it’s all part of the tradition of that lodge and they’re reluctant to look objectively at what is happening.
I’m a director of Surbiton’s masonic hall, and a number of years ago, when lodge membership began falling, we realised we needed to complement the income that Freemasonry brought in with outside events. Some people think that’s straightforward, that all you do is put up a sign saying ‘we do weddings’ and it comes to you. That doesn’t tend to work. You’ve got to be professional about the way that you attract outside income.
We adapted the building so that there was a modern, elegant hospitality suite. We had wedding coordinators, we installed a professional kitchen, we created improved bar facilities – everything that a couple who wanted to get married would want.
The approach at Surbiton is only one example of the challenges in managing a building – one solution does not fit all. What we’re trying to do is encourage people to go to the right people and ask the right questions in order to make an informed commercial decision about their building.
How is UGLE helping at a local level?
We cannot do other than encourage common sense and good practice in the way in which lodges decide to use their land and buildings. It’s not our task to dictate. We want to encourage those who own and occupy masonic buildings to pause, sit back and ask themselves whether their buildings are not only fit for purpose today but will continue to be so in 10 or 20 years’ time.
While Freemasonry is about respecting tradition, we also need to be aware that the world is changing. Circumstances are forcing us to think about what we are doing with our buildings. We can either think about this in sufficient time to make an orderly and sensible decision. Or, we can wait until, all of a sudden, circumstances overwhelm us. That is when the problems arise, when people are forced to take critical decisions too quickly.
At the moment I don’t have a lot of contact with the Provincial Superintendents of Works. One of our objectives at UGLE is to try to create some form of forum for discussion
and the exchange of ideas. We can all benefit from the experience we have in different areas.
Is it hard for you to look at any building aesthetically?
It’s a standing joke in my family. Whenever we go into a house, my wife looks at the interior design, and I point out there’s a bit of damp and some shared rights of access that I feel uncomfortable about! I do look at everything through the eyes of somebody whose whole life has been concerned with buildings.
Some buildings are beautiful. Some are appallingly ugly. Since 1948, every building in this country has been through a formal approval process. If you see a terrible building in the wrong place, ask yourself how it came about, because somebody not only sat down to design it, someone else approved it too. Bad architecture should be the exception yet there’s so much of it about.
Do you enjoy your work?
I think I have one of the finest jobs in Freemasonry because I’m able to use my experience to achieve something tangible. By 2020, I hope we will have completed the work needed on our property investment portfolio, leaving us to concentrate on exercising sound management control. If I achieve a change of attitude towards the way we manage masonic buildings generally, I think I will have helped to achieve something worthwhile.
With a new Rating List coming into effect in 2017, Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella explains why masonic centres and halls could end up paying more
The financial pages of the popular papers may not be everyone’s idea of bedtime reading, but you will have been hard pressed not to have noticed articles predicting the consequences that might follow the recent revaluation of commercial properties for business rates.
In the public mind, businesses occupying property with a high value are assumed to be better able to make a greater contribution to the total tax take than those whose business is run from more modest premises. The logic behind this is difficult to challenge, provided that revaluations are accurate and are carried out regularly. This will mean that changes in relative value between different areas of the country and property types are picked up as changes in value occur.
Unfortunately, that continuous process of revaluation has not happened. Business rates payable in the current fiscal year are based on the 2010 Rating List, which was prepared by the Valuation Office Agency based on values on 1 April 2008. Many changes have taken place since then. It should not therefore come as a surprise that, in many cases, substantial increases in rateable value will form the basis for the payment of business rates from 1 April 2017 when the new Rating List comes into effect.
The Government’s position is that the total revenue raised under the new list will not increase as a direct result of the revaluation, and those facing a steep rise in business rates payable will be helped through transitional relief. The options being considered for transitional relief include capping the year-on-year increase for ‘large properties’ at between 33 per cent and 45 per cent, rather than 12.5 per cent in real terms under previous Rating Lists.
As the definition of ‘large properties’ is likely to be those with a value in excess of £100,000, the majority of masonic centres and halls may not be affected. However, for those that are, a steep increase in business rates could become payable in 2017, with little opportunity for forward planning.
What does this mean for masonic centres and halls generally? They are classed as ‘business premises’ and all will therefore have been included in the revaluation. While it is always dangerous to generalise, it is highly likely that many will face an increase in assessment that will carry though to an increase in business rates payable.
Faced with this unwelcome prospect, the first step is to check the new entry in the Rating List, take specialist advice in relation to the valuation and then ascertain whether the Small Business Rate Relief or other similar scheme might apply.
I cannot emphasise too strongly that rating valuation and practise is a specialist area of expertise. Challenging the Valuation Officer’s assessment and investigating possible reliefs requires knowledge and experience of property valuation, as well as the complex legal implications.
The challenge ahead
While there will be many firms offering to help on a no win, no fee basis, it is important to bear in mind that those offering this service are likely to be interested in the straightforward cases that can be challenged quickly and easily. Retail shops and offices, as an example, are let on a day-to-day basis. Evidence of value is easy to obtain, and the valuation process for rating purposes for these types of property is not unlike market practise.
Valuing masonic centres and halls is, however, more complicated. Open market transactions occur infrequently, and to cope with this the methods of valuation adopted can be complex. By way of example, particularly difficult cases could well involve a valuation approach that aggregates land value and the cost of rebuilding adjusted for age and obsolescence, before decapitalising to arrive at an annual rent.
If this all sounds confusing, you will understand why I am encouraging those responsible for managing masonic centres and halls to check their rating assessment and take advice. Don’t delay. Although there is no time limit at the moment for challenging valuations, if a saving can be made, the sooner the process is started the sooner overpayments will be returned.
Finally, do use the Improvement Delivery Group at Grand Lodge as a point of contact to put appointed surveyors in touch with each other to share knowledge and experience.
‘Valuing masonic centres is complicated. Open market transactions occur infrequently, and to cope with this the methods of valuation adopted can be complex’
When a group of lodges in Kidderminster wanted to relocate from the cellar of a hotel, joining a local cricket club proved to be the perfect solution
In December 2015 the Membership Focus Group launched a strategic paper that identified masonic centres as a key area for improvement in the organisational development of Freemasonry. With many centres not considered fit for purpose by the members who meet in them, the challenge for lodges is how to turn a legacy problem into an opportunity.
‘It is not uncommon for lodges to find that their existing premises become unsustainable owing to lack of critical mass if membership levels fall, or simply because of the structural integrity of the building itself,’ explains Provincial Grand Master for Yorkshire, North and East Ridings, Jeff Gillyon, who heads up the Masonic Centres Study Group.
For a group of lodges in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, this was particularly true when their 44-year tenure at The Briars pub came to an abrupt end. With the brewery selling up, the lodges moved to a local hotel’s cellar for four years while considering a new meeting place.
‘It certainly wasn’t ideal,’ says Peter Ricketts, a Past Master of Lodge of Hope and Charity, No. 377, which was among those affected. ‘The cellar was small and the walls were covered in mirrors because it was planned as a nightclub. But for four years it was home to three lodges, a chapter and a Knights Templar unit.’
With so many members under one roof, amalgamating with a lodge in another property was out of the question, so the board considered buying a property of its own. ‘Then somebody suggested partnering with the local cricket club,’ says Peter. ‘It was perfect really, because the cricket season starts in summer just as the masonic season ends.’
With two bars and a large car park, the Chester Road Sports and Social Club easily catered to the social aspect of Freemasonry, but it clearly couldn’t provide a masonic temple.
So, after prolonged talks, it was agreed that the Freemasons could build one adjoining the club.
Work started on the new temple in September 2011 under the careful watch of Mike Langdon of Old Carolian Lodge, No. 7599. As the retired owner of a construction company, Mike drew on his industry contacts to source supplies at cost. Mike, together with fellow Old Carolian Mick Insull and Martin Lawrence of Lodge of Hope and Charity, completed most of the building work themselves over six months.
‘Until that point, my construction credentials extended to the wooden shed in my back garden, and that was a bit rickety,’ says Martin, a retired police officer from Aldridge. ‘But within a couple of months we’d laid the foundations and completed most of the brickwork.’
Progress was so quick, in fact, that by 3 April 2012 the first lodge meeting had been held in the custom-built premises. Staggeringly, the entire project cost just £150,000 – with key savings being made by Martin, Mike and Mick providing labour at no cost. ‘While quality was paramount, we made savings wherever possible and brethren helped tremendously,’ says Martin. ‘When we said we needed to insulate the loft, one brother went to B&Q and emptied the store of fibreglass rolls using his pensioner’s discount.’
A willingness to adapt traditional ideas of how a temple room should look, while not compromising on quality, also helped to keep the project on budget. For instance, Martin explains, ‘It would have cost £15,000 to have a masonic carpet woven, but a brother footed the bill for a magnificent marble and granite floor, which was a fraction of the price.’
The project is a great example of the flexible approach lodges need to start adopting to meet the changing landscape of Freemasonry. As the Masonic Centres Study Group’s Jeff Gillyon remarks: ‘This is a good example of how innovative thinking can solve the problem, but it is only one solution.’
For John Pagella, Grand Superintendent of Works, while the history and familiarity of a lodge room is important, ‘what’s essential is that Freemasons can still meet, regardless of where that may be’.
If that means relocating to a more affordable property, John says the first port of call should be a qualified adviser to get an idea of the full value of the property being vacated: ‘Consider the property’s potential as a commercial building. As a masonic hall, it may no longer have value, but as a hotel or a restaurant it could have enormous potential.’
Should lodges decide to capitalise on the commercial possibilities themselves, John advises taking a serious look at the standard of competition, and considering how commercial facilities would sit alongside masonic purposes. ‘Only then should you consider any refurbishment works. You need to approach the running of your centre like a business – balance cost against income.’
For those staying where they are, John says looking after the fabric of the property should be the priority. ‘Keep an eye on the building’s condition to avoid any major expenditure further down the line, and consider establishing a contingency fund,’ he says.
Ultimately, every lodge is individual – what may work for one may not work for another. The key is to take a proactive approach, says John, and to think practically about future-proofing your lodge. It’s a sentiment Martin agrees with. ‘Looking back, I can’t believe we stayed in our room at the pub for so long. There was no heating, no space and no funding to maintain it. Now we have a custom-built temple with the lowest capitation costs in the Province.’
While Martin appreciates the prospect of change can be daunting, it is necessary to ensure that Freemasonry keeps pushing into the future.
‘If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this experience it’s that when it comes to the crunch, Freemasons pull together. We didn’t make it through the past 300 years without adapting.’
‘It was perfect, because the cricket season starts in summer just as the masonic season ends.’ Peter Ricketts
PLAN AHEAD: If your building is rented, start thinking now about alternative meeting places and set up a contingency fund by adding an extra £1 to capitation.
REACH OUT: Invest in your connections with the local community to keep your options open.
SCALE BACK: Charity starts at home, so if you’re struggling to cover costs consider reducing your charitable giving for a short while until the lodge is back on a stable footing.
Just like moving home?
Can personal experience of selling a house equip people to deal with what selling a masonic centre involves? Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella notes the similarities and differences
Moving house is said to be one of the most stressful experiences in life. From the large sums of money involved through to unfamiliar legal issues, the process can be highly traumatic. The same could be said of the challenges that masonic halls and centres face should an existing building no longer serve the needs of Freemasonry today.
Successfully relocating is a subject all of its own, but the starting point is realising the full value of the existing building. Masonic halls and centres are commercial buildings and their use is regulated by planning laws. You might think the laws and regulations are no different from those affecting residential property, but while the underlying principles are the same this is not the case once you look at the detail.
In relation to commercial buildings, planning use rights frequently embrace a range of business types within the same planning use category – planning is not directed towards preserving individual businesses or protecting their value.
A shop can fail in the hands of one business, but succeed in the hands of another with a different business model. As a result, the market value of a commercial building can be quite different from its value to the owner or occupier. Understanding this is particularly important where a business has run into financial difficulty, and managing a masonic centre is running a business. It therefore may not always be the building that explains the problem.
The next consideration is whether the building or its site has a higher value to a purchaser contemplating a change of use with or without refurbishment, adaptation or redevelopment.
Spotting this takes both knowledge and experience, and missing it can lead to underselling. The numbers can be substantial.
‘You might think the laws and regulations are no different from those affecting residential property, but this is not the case once you look at the detail.’
Recognising that a building or site has development potential is of fundamental importance. However, it is only the first step in a complex process that can all too easily lead to frustration and regret if experienced developers and their advisers are allowed to dictate the agenda. Is an option sensible, or should a conditional contract be considered? If a conditional contract is the right approach, should the vendor have an element of control over the timescale and planning agenda? If the answer to that question is yes, how can this be best achieved?
Proceed with caution
In some cases the answer could be for the vendor to explore the planning potential and obtain an outline or detailed permission before selling. Obvious though that might seem, it may not always be appropriate if, for example, there are a number of development options. I pose questions rather than offer answers for the reason that each case will be different, and what works for one may be quite wrong for another.
As to the question of whether experience of house sales can equip someone to manage commercial property transactions, I would suggest that proceeding without any guidance would be most unwise. Informed, experienced and independent advice from qualified advisers is essential. It will cost money, but provided you have the right adviser it will be money well spent.
Keeping the doors open
Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella looks at the challenge of maintaining masonic centres and halls in modern times
Freemasonry is by no means unique in finding that as times change, and the needs of its membership evolve, buildings once well suited to their function become too expensive to maintain. We need to ensure that if masonic use declines, our buildings adapt to attract outside interest, generating income and strengthening their connection with the local community.
While individual circumstances vary widely for each masonic hall and centre, the first step is to examine the potential for introducing outside uses. This is not achieved by simply advertising availability and hoping for the best. It requires analysis of the type of users for whom the building might be suitable, and consideration of whether what is needed can be managed while retaining masonic use.
London’s Surbiton Masonic Hall is a positive example of what can be achieved. Glenmore House was built as an imposing Italianate-style private villa in 1840 at a time when residential development was extending out from London into the surrounding countryside. By 1920, it had become one of the many houses that were too large and expensive to run as private homes, so was put up for auction.
It was purchased by four local masons, becoming known as Surbiton Masonic Hall, and was dedicated as a peace memorial.
For much of the 1900s the house flourished as a masonic centre, but as the century drew to a close it became clear that, once again, a change was required. Masonic membership was in decline, with fewer people attending meetings and a number of lodges handing in their warrants. A decrease in income meant that without a radical change in the way that the building was used, closure was inevitable.
Fortunately, the board of directors of Surbiton Masonic Hall included people with experience in building and development, as well as running commercial companies. They recognised that managing a masonic centre today is no different to running a hospitality company. Freemasonry is a craft but running masonic halls and centres is a business, requiring the same commitment, financial skills and disciplines.
Although the property’s design, finishes and furnishings were dated, the potential for creating a self-contained hospitality suite was recognised. The building included a large ballroom with its own independent bar, but while the existing kitchens had coped well for many years, they were not suitable to support the standard required for outside events. Complete modernisation was therefore needed.
Even if the refurbishment had been confined to these areas, much would have been achieved, but it was felt that the contrast between the facilities available to outside users and those offered to Freemasons would have been all too obvious. Furthermore, the loss of the ballroom for masonic dining would have reflected badly on the centre’s continuing commitment to its Freemasonry.
With this in mind, dining accommodation at first-floor level was also refurbished and moveable dividing partitions erected to permit two units to dine simultaneously. The adjacent bar was modernised to the same high standard as the bar in the hospitality suite.
A new lease of life
The revenue generated from opening Glenmore House up to outside use has been vital. It has not only secured its future as a financially viable masonic centre, but also enabled the centre to become more of a focal point for the local community. ‘Far from losing identity, the changes we made enabled the community to identify the values that Freemasonry actually represents today,’ said Robert Dobbie, Managing Director of Glenmore House. ‘For the past 10 years we have participated in the Heritage Open Days, we are used as a local polling station, we host a twice-weekly bridge club as well as monthly lunches for Barclays bank and the BBC.’
Masonic centres and meeting halls are all individual, and it would be wrong to suggest that what worked in this case would always be successful elsewhere. However, there are some general principles. First, masonic buildings exist to serve the needs of members, but that purpose can only be sustained if they are managed in a way that is financially viable. In many cases this will mean shared use, which must be approached with the needs of the outside user in mind. The competition can be fierce and that means adopting a more proactive strategy than just advertising accommodation for hire.
One final thought: those who take their own advice will in most cases have no recourse should things go wrong. If a masonic centre or hall has professional expertise within its members, by all means use it, but always consider the value of using outside consultants as well. Their more objective approach might be beneficial, and those giving outside advice may also have a legal liability.
‘Masonic buildings exist to serve the needs of members, but that purpose can only be sustained if they are managed in a way that is financially viable.’
Letters to the Editor - No. 32 Winter 2015
As Superintendent of Works for the past 40 years, I read with interest the article in the autumn issue by John Pagella, the Grand Superintendent of Works. I totally agree with him that because of rising costs it is a challenge to maintain masonic halls, especially old ones.
Ours was built in 1860. Fortunately, like Surbiton Lodge, we have members who are experienced in the building trade and have contributed to the maintenance of the lodge buildings, not taking any remuneration for their work. Also, we have a good social committee that provides us with funds to help pay for the work we cannot do and for materials.
I joined Freemasonry in 1966 when we had a lot of members who were textile business owners employing maintenance men to look after their buildings. I have always wondered why the lodge building was nearly in a state of dereliction when I became Superintendent of Works in 1975.
At that time we had retired members on fixed incomes and my thoughts were that if we can keep the costs of running the lodge low there would be no reason to increase subscriptions. This worked and still does. Our subscriptions are among the most reasonable in the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding.
I have read of many fine old masonic buildings being closed and sold, and most have accommodated multiple lodges. Big is not always good. We have only one Craft lodge and three side Orders meeting at our building, yet our subscriptions are among the lowest in the Province. I have noted some of the outside users John Pagella writes about who use their building and I will suggest to our lodge committee that we could do the same thing.
L R Hirst, St John’s Lodge, No. 827, Dewsbury, Yorkshire, West Riding
Hello and welcome to this tour of three of the historic masonic sites in the City of London that are inextricably linked with Freemasonry and its development. We start our journey on the spot where once stood the entrance to the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house, some fifty metres north of the last step leading to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is here that the foundation of the undisputed first Grand Lodge in the world took place on 24 June 1717.
Unfortunately, and rather surprisingly, there appear to be no mementos of this historic tavern situated in what was St. Paul’s Church Yard and the only surviving item, now in the Museum of London, is the pub sign. Up until the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Goose and Gridiron was known as the Mitre. After being devastated in the blaze, it was rebuilt and renamed The Lyre, on account of the tavern’s musical associations (a musical society met on its premises), and took as its sign Apollo’s lyre surmounted by a swan. However, this image was often unrecognised and misinterpreted and a new name was born from the error: Goose and Gridiron.
battle for the blue plaque
It was in this tavern that four London lodges came together to launch Freemasonry, electing Anthony Sayer (1672-1741/2) – the ‘oldest Master Mason and then Master of a Lodge’ – as its Grand Master. It must be noted here, however, that the only source for all the information we have about the premier Grand Lodge in 1717 is from James Anderson’s reports that were published more than two decades later in 1738.
Moving on now, if you look to your right you will see, on the last column of the building you are facing, the official blue plaque commemorating the foundation of the Grand Lodge. It simply states:
Near This Site
The Grand Lodge
First Met in 1717
Nonetheless, after eight years of perseverance, on 15 June 2005, the then Lord Mayor, Alderman Very Worshipful Brother Michael Savory, finally unveiled the blue plaque that we are now so proud of.
foundations of freemasonry
It is interesting to consider how amazed our founding forefathers would no doubt be at the spread of Freemasonry through the four quarters of the globe. You see, the four lodges did not originally meet with the aim of forming a Grand Lodge. Rather, their decision to unite stemmed from a need to strengthen each individual lodge’s membership. Indeed, in unity they found this strength and it was at the initiative of other lodges wishing to join the group that a Grand Lodge was declared and formed as a controlling body. Freemasonry has never looked back.
Follow me now please, past Paternoster Square, Goldsmiths, The Saddlers’ Hall and Guildhall Yard, and let us make our way into the passage entrance of Mason’s Avenue. Now, once we move twenty metres into the alleyway, we are standing in front of the Select Trust Building.
Let me first point out that the whole of this two- hundred-yard-long avenue has not changed in four centuries. The imitation Tudor-style buildings are recent, of course, but the shape and size of the alley has remained identical and right here, on what is now 12-15 Mason’s Avenue, stood the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Masons, one of the City of London Livery Companies with which our society is closely, and at times quite wrongly, identified.
The Masons Company has its earliest record dating to 1356 and received its Grant of Arms in 1472. By then the building on this site was already functional and it was only demolished in 1865, some four hundred years later. As a reminder of the old days, the present building, which was completed in 1980, has the beautiful stained-glass windows with masonic emblems incorporated into the design. A gilded inscription embedded into the wall serves as a further reminder. It reads:
On This Site Stood
The Hall Of The
A 1463 – 1865 D
For our third and sadly last stop on this tour, let us walk the short distance to the Royal Exchange. From this vantage point you have a particularly good view of the main entrance to the Bank of England, which is popularly known as ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’.
The Bank of England has been situated in this area since its inception in 1694, with three bank buildings rising on this same site since 1734. As an interesting aside, did you know that the Bank of England was the first purpose-built bank in the British Isles? Another notable, and quite surprising fact is that the Bank of England remained a private entity until the Parliament Act of 1946, after which it was finally nationalised.
soane’s speedy advancement
Returning to the building, Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was the bank’s third architect and worked on it for forty-five years (1788-1833). However, the only part of his work that still remains is ‘the curtain wall’, which is the elongated windowless screen wall that you can see along the front. This wall encloses the whole of the block, which consists of an area of three and a half acres containing the premises of the bank.
The Duke of Sussex, who was elected as the new Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, favoured Soane’s architectural work. As such, when the Duke of Sussex directed the extension of the Grand Lodge premises in Great Queen Street, one of his many dynamic and innovative activities, it was Soane who undertook and completed the task.
On 25 November 1813, an emergency meeting of the Grand Master’s Lodge, No. 1, under the Grand Lodge of the Antients, was held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. At this meeting Soane was initiated as an Entered Apprentice, passed to the degree of a Fellowcraft and raised to the degree of a Master Mason. In addition, following the inauguration of the United Grand Lodge of England, Soane was formally appointed President of the Board of Works and given the appropriate high masonic rank of Grand Superintendent of Works – both a well-deserved and speedy advancement by any standard.
This brings us to the end of our tour in which I hope to have shown you the significance of the City of London to the history of Freemasonry, along the way unearthing a few masonic gems that you may not have known existed. Thank you very much for joining me – I hope you have enjoyed your trip and I wish you a safe journey home.