Celebrating 300 years
Tuesday, 12 September 2017 00:00

The return of Soane’s Ark

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.

Published in UGLE

The first united year

Dr Mike Kearsley was the honoured guest at Swinton masonic hall to give the Prestonian Lecture for 2014, ‘1814 Consolidation and Change: the first year of the United Grand Lodge of England’. The lecture, hosted by Egerton Worsley Lodge, No. 1213, Province of West Lancashire, is about the union of two rival English Grand Lodges that combined to become the United Grand Lodge of England.

The talk is seen through the perspective of three individuals who each played an important role in the union. They were HRH Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master; William White, the first Grand Secretary; and Sir John Soane, the first Grand Superintendent of Works.

Published in More News
Wednesday, 05 November 2014 21:13

Egerton Worsley Lodge hosts Prestonian Lecture

Prestonian Lecture held in West Lancashire raises money for dermatology charity DEBRA

Dr Michael (Mike) Kearsley was the honoured guest at Swinton Masonic Hall to give a presentation of the union of two rival English lodges, known as the United Grand Lodge of England, through the perspective of three individuals who each played an important role in the union. They were Frederick Augustus, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master; William White, the first Grand Secretary and Sir John Soane, the first Grand Superintendent of Works.

The emergency meeting was held by special dispensation and was hosted by Egerton Worsley Lodge No. 1213. On the nomination of the Board of General Purposes, the trustees of the Prestonian Fund appointed Mike as the Prestonian Lecturer for 2014. The subject is, ‘1814 Consolidation and Change: the first year of the United Grand Lodge of England’.

Mike is a former student of Liverpool University and he is the new editor of The Square masonic magazine, as well as being the Provincial Grand Orator for Middlesex. Since his appointment in January Mike has travelled to Israel, Portugal, Greece, Bermuda, New Jersey and New York to present his lectures and is planning to visit South Africa, Gibraltar, Sweden, Canada and hopefully his homeland of New Zealand.

Eccles Group Chairman Dave Walmsley greeted Mike along with grand officers, Stuart Shae, Ven Alan Wolstencroft, David McCormick, Tony Edden and Alex Neilson. Mike was welcomed into the lodge by IPM Frank Woodcock who was standing in for the worshipful master John Tooley, who was recovering from a hip and knee replacement who had sent his personal apologies to Mike.

The brethren were held for more than an hour by Mike with what can only be described as an impeccable presentation delivered in a professional manner. On conclusion of his presentation, Mike produced his book about the Prestonian Lectures and requested that if any brethren wished to have a signed copy that they offer a donation to Mike’s chosen charity DEBRA.

DEBRA is the national charity that supports individuals and families affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). Epidermolysis Bullosa is a group of rare genetic skin conditions, which is characterised by extremely fragile skin and recurrent blister formation, resulting from minor mechanical friction or trauma. It is referred to as the worst condition you've never heard of.

The skin has two layers: the outer layer is called the epidermis and the inner layer the dermis. Normally, there are 'anchors' between the two layers that prevent them from moving independently from one another. In people with EB, the two skin layers lack the anchors that hold them together and any action that creates friction between the layers, (like rubbing or pressure), will create blisters and painful sores. Sufferers of EB have compared the sores to third-degree burns.

The event was attended by over 80 brethren who were all magnetised by the very informative presentation delivered with lots of knowledge, a hint of humour and held the attention of the brethren who were fortunate to witness this special event.

At the festive board, in his toast to Mike, Ven Alan Wolstencroft paid homage to a wonderful evening provided by Mike and one that he was privileged to bear witness to and thanked him on behalf of all the brethren.

Mike responded saying that he has two responses, a short one and a long one: 'The first one is thank you and the second one is thank you very much.'

Group chairman Dave Walmsley presented Mike with the traditional Eccles cakes and expressed that he would always be welcome to visit Eccles sometime in the future. Mike thanked Dave and also his thanks to Stuart Shae and Godfrey Calcutt for organising the event and to all the brethren for their hospitality.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 10:22

City stories

Take a minute to look up from the pavement in the City of London and you will find historic gems that reveal a great deal about the founding of Freemasonry. Yasha Beresiner is your guide

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
Of English
First Met in 1717   
However, obtaining it was anything but simple. Persuading the City of London Corporation to place an official plaque within the City boundaries is no easy task. Our efforts began in 1995 with the formation of the Goose and Gridiron Society, and within twelve months the society had submitted a well-supported request to the City authorities for a plaque to commemorate the foundation of Freemasonry. Although the request was accepted, it then transpired that the building on which the plaque was to be placed was due for demolition.

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
Of Masons
A 1463 – 1865 D  
While the Masons Company has no connection with our Craft, it is notable that twenty-one of the City of London Livery Companies have an associated masonic lodge consisting exclusively of members from that particular livery.

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.
Published in Features

Sir John Soane (1753–1837) symbolises Britain’s architectural heritage of the late Georgian period at its best – the end of which coincided with his death in 1837. It is a period that gave England some of the nation’s most beautiful buildings and Soane’s unique style in some of them is still in evidence today. 

John Soane, during his long and distinguished career, became involved with Freemasonry before his initiation. When invited to join, he was put through the three Degrees in one single afternoon and he remained dedicated to the Craft and enthusiastic for the remainder of his life. 

He was born on 10 September 1753 near Reading in Berkshire and immediately after primary school his education was directed toward architecture. At 15 he joined George Dance the Younger (1741–1825), from the distinguished family of architects. Soane continued his training from 1772 under the equally celebrated architect Henry Holland (1745–1806), whose fame, among many other buildings, rests with the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. 

The young John Soane’s talents were soon to manifest themselves. In 1771 he was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art aged just 18 and within a year one of the drawings he submitted to the Academy’s competition won him the Silver Medal award. Four years later he received the prestigious Gold Medal, as a result of which he was introduced to George III by Sir William Chambers (1723–1796), the influential architect who was Soane’s patron. 

There were several ramifications, some Masonic, following this encounter. Soane’s extraordinary achievements induced the King to sponsor and fund him, through the Academy, on a three-year travel scholarship to Italy, from which Soane profited to the fullest. This was also the start to a Royal connection – later enhanced by Soane’s appointments as Clerk of the Works to St. James’s Palace and the Houses of Parliament (1791) and Deputy Surveyor to His Majesty’s Woods and Forests (1797) – which Prince Augustus Frederick, later the Duke of Sussex, the King’s penultimate surviving son and future Grand Master, would have noted. 

Intellectually armed with vast knowledge of fine ancient and renaissance buildings, in addition to well placed contacts in Europe, Soane returned to England in 1780 to set up his own business. His career took on a most positive turn when he followed in the footsteps of Sir Robert Taylor (1714–1788) as the newly appointed Architect to the Bank of England, in which capacity he continued until 1833. 

His vision and execution of the new greatly enlarged Bank of England building – of which today only the surrounding outer wall commonly referred to as ‘the curtain’ survives – is still considered a masterpiece of architecture. Sir Herbert Baker’s Bank of England, completed in 1928, which demolished most of Sir John Soane’s earlier building, has been described as “the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century” (Pevsner). 

In 1802 he became a full Royal Academician and was made the third Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806, a post that he held until his death. 

In his long and illustrious career John Soane was responsible for many remarkable works. Among some of the notable ones are the dining rooms of both numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, some buildings in Westminster and Whitehall, the Royal Hospital in Chelsea and Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, London, which had originally been built by Thomas Sandby (1721–1798), a Freemason and the first Professor of Architecture at the Academy, in 1775–76. 

As the agreement for a Union of the two Grand Lodges (achieved on 27 December 1813) was reaching its final stages in October 1812, Grand Lodge, under the supervision of the Deputy Grand Master, the Duke of Sussex, decided on the acquisition of properties next to the existing Freemasons’ Hall. 

The first step was for a survey and valuation of the property involved and the Grand Treasurer at the time, John Bayford, was instructed to approach John Soane for that purpose. Prior to March 1813, when Bayford finally made contact with Soane, there is no evidence at all to suggest that the architect had any interest in becoming a Freemason. 

He would have certainly had a passing knowledge of some of his eminent colleagues and predecessors having been members of the Craft. However, considering this was a time when Soane was at the peak of his professional career, the chances of his finding time for Freemasonry were clearly very limited. 

Nonetheless, on 19 November 1813, James Perry, Past Deputy Grand Master (1787–90) and a radical journalist and friend of Soane and Thomas Harper, Deputy Grand Master of the Antient, or Atholl Grand Lodge, proposed and seconded John Soane into Freemasonry in the Grand Master’s Lodge No. 1. 

At an emergency meeting held on 25 November 1813 at Freemasons’ Hall, London, Soane was Initiated, Passed and Raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason during the course of the same evening. Two other candidates, Jonathan Parker and Hymen Cohen Junior, were also bestowed the three Degrees at that meeting. 

The first Masonic meeting that Soane attended as a new member, was a rather important one. On 1 December 1813, in anticipation of the election of the new Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, the Duke of Sussex became an "Antient" Mason, thus allowing him to attend the installation of his brother, the Duke of Kent. The ceremony included several members of the Duke’s entourage of Grand Officers, which was later to facilitate the ceremony of the Union that took place later in the month. 

His meteoric rise in the ranks of Freemasonry continued. It was undoubtedly induced by the Duke, who involved himself in all aspects of the running of Grand Lodge. The Grand Master-elect met Soane personally in August of the same year when the latter’s Initiation, Passing and Raising, as well as his Grand Rank may well have been discussed and agreed upon. 

Having followed in the footsteps of his teacher and mentor, Thomas Sandby, as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Soane would have been attracted by the invitation to follow in Sandby’s footsteps as a highranking Freemason. 

Some time in December, Soane was appointed Grand Superintendent of Works and declared as such by the Duke of Sussex, (1773–1843), the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), on 27 December. He was reappointed in 1816 and held the same rank to his dying day. He was made President of the Board of Works in 1814, to enable him to supervise the building of the new Freemasons’ Hall. 

On 4 June 1823 Soane was elected to the UGLE Board of Finance for a four-year period and exactly five years later, in 1828, he was nominated to the Board of General Purposes, where he served for the next seven years. 

At the ceremony on 27 December an Ark of the Masonic Covenant was centrally placed in the temple and played a focal point in the proceedings when the two Grand Masters and their respective deputies advanced toward it to perform the symbolic act of Union of the two Grand Lodges. The Ark, an idea conceived by the Duke of Sussex, had been built by John Soane and presented to newly formed United Grand Lodge, at his own expense. 

The first Minutes record: “…the ark of the Masonic Covenant, prepared, under the direction of W. Brother John Soane, Grand Superintendent of the Works, for the Edifice of the Union and in all time to come to be placed before the Throne.” Sadly, the Ark was burnt and destroyed in the disastrous fire of 5 May 1883. 

His initial association with the Craft may have been on a purely business basis, which he had almost neglected. It took several letters from one of the joint Grand Secretaries, William Henry White, following on the Grand Treasurer’s initial approach, for Soane to submit finally his valuations, which were gratefully received and faithfully applied. 

Existing correspondence shows that in all transactions with Grand Lodge, there were delays in execution of the contracts and the final payments to Soane were delayed because of a shortage of funds in Grand Lodge. This caused considerable embarrassment to Grand Lodge and some concern to Soane, as recorded in his diaries. 

His involvement with the valuation and acquisition of the adjacent properties at 62 and 63 Great Queen Street extended to negotiations of price and counselling Grand Lodge on the excessive cost required by the vendors. On his advice alone, Grand Lodge refused to pay the price demanded. 

The two properties were placed in auction on 23 June 1814 and bid for and purchased on behalf of Grand Lodge by Soane, for less than one-third of the original price. 

Furthermore, the payment for the acquisition was made by Soane personally, who began to finance Grand Lodge. 

At one stage Soane was convinced that he would not be paid at all for the work. These were no mean sums of money and it took until 1820 for Grand Lodge to disburse their debts to him in full – far longer than it should have done. 

In 1833, John Soane bequeathed to the nation, by a private Act of Parliament, his house at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London which contained his museum and library. He had made extensions to his home during a period of 30 years since 1794, having purchased the two adjoining properties. 

This allowed him to fulfil, in practice, architectural concepts with which he wanted to experiment, whilst allowing for the housing of his vast and growing collection of classical antiquities and architectural paraphernalia salvaged from historical sites, all objects worthy of the British Museum. 

They are on view today at his museum: a sarcophagus of Seti I, Pharaoh of Egypt of c.1294 BC, dramatically situated beneath the dome; Roman bronzes from Pompeii from 79 AD; several Canalettos and a collection of paintings by Hogarth, including An Election which came directly from Hogarth’s family through the estate of David Garrick, among many other fascinating objects and paintings. 

The culmination of his achievements are reflected in the knighthood he received in 1831 and the special gold medal presentation made to him, three years after his retirement in 1835, by his colleagues in the newly founded Royal Institute of British Architects. Grand Lodge presented him with a Certificate of Thanks in March 1832, signed by the two Grand Secretaries. In the same year, he commissioned John Jackson to paint a full length portrait of himself in full Masonic regalia as Grand Superintendent of Works. The painting hangs prominently today in the Picture Room of the John Soane Museum. 

On 20 January 1837 Sir John Soane, now 84 years old, died, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church in the vault which he himself had designed for his wife and himself in anticipation of their inevitable mortality. 

The design of the vault was a direct influence on Giles Gilbert Scott’s (1880–1960) design for the red telephone box of 1926 – a permanent and visual tribute to a long and distinguished professional and Masonic career. 

Credits and Bibliography 

My sincerest thanks to Bruce Hogg for his kind skilled improvements to my written words. Also John Bhone, whose unpublished article submitted to QC’s London Education Initiative in June 2002 has been of assistance.

Burford, Douglas, The Ark of the Masonic Covenant, AQC 105 (1992).

Stroud, Dorothy, Sir John Soane, Architect, De la Mare, 1996.

Taylor, John E., Sir John Soane: Architect and Freemason, AQC 95 (1982).

Thornton, Peter and Dorey, Helen, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Laurence King, 1992.

Published in Features

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