Here to help
Having had a career in the army and charities that has focused on safeguarding the welfare of others, Willie Shackell, new UGLE Grand Secretary, wants to ensure that Freemasons have all the support they need
Did you always want to be in the army?
Well, the first thing one has to decide is what career best suits you. In my early days, I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to be a vicar or be in the army, but I ended up joining the latter.
I went off to Sandhurst in 1960, was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1962, then went to the University of Cambridge from 1963 to 1966, which was paid for by the army. What a lucky chap. I came out as a young officer, having been a student for three years. It took me some time to settle back into army life, but fortunately I had a very persuasive Commanding Officer.
I then went off to the Naval Staff College and did a couple of tours in Germany as a Major before getting promoted and going off to Nigeria to the staff college in Jaji. I was 39 and the placement was an indication for me that I wasn’t in the top flight of Lieutenant Colonels. Throughout one’s career, one’s got to accept that there are people better than you and it’s a great lesson in life.
I got promoted in 1988 to Colonel and was made responsible for the army’s Welfare, Conditions of Service and Casualties Procedures. The Gulf War took place during that period and it was the first time in my army career that I’d had a large degree of autonomy. I brought in computer networks and extra staff and we ran a very successful operation. I was appointed CBE for this work, promoted to Brigadier and went to command a brigade up in York, before becoming the first Director of Reserve Forces and Cadets. Realising I wasn’t going to be a General, I retired at the age of 52 having had a great career and absolutely no regrets – I would recommend it to anyone.
What did you do after leaving the army?
My attention was directed towards charities when I came to leave the armed forces. I felt I had an empathy with that side of life, having dealt with service welfare and enjoyed that aspect of work.
I moved on to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) and my first job was to set up a contract for SSAFA to run the community health services in Germany. We had a very successful partnership with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and the Army Medical Service. I ran the department for three years, then supported the volunteer network and managed the housing assets for five years. My last five years on the staff were spent as Company Secretary, and I finished as the Vice Chairman of Trustees. During this time, I also held a number of posts in the voluntary sector.
When I retired from SSAFA, I applied to become the UGLE Grand Secretary. I was interviewed, but got a letter saying I hadn’t got that particular job.
I was, however, rung up a little bit later and asked if I would be the President of the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI). It was a total surprise, I can tell you, but I said yes and what a marvellous experience it was.
What was your agenda coming into the RMBI?
I suppose it’s rather like my agenda on joining any organisation. I go in, look at it for three months, and then decide what my goals are. There were a lot of plans for rebuilding care homes to bring us into the 21st century – I took the opportunity to go to all the care homes because I believed I couldn’t discuss change unless I’d visited them all.
I then looked at the trustee board. My feeling was that we needed to have more people with the right skills and I wasn’t bothered whether they were Freemasons or what gender they were. It was a culture change for the RMBI, but my reasoning was accepted and we brought our first lady on to the board. We put more emphasis on accommodating those with dementia, improved fire safety and updated the homes. It was a major undertaking costing about £35 million, but we had tremendous staff support and it all needed to be done.
After six years, I felt that I had achieved what I set out to do and when asked to do another four years I said no. I was then made President of the Masonic Samaritan Fund, taking over from Hugh Stubbs, who had been a quite outstanding president. I just had to keep the ship ticking along, which gave me time with my fellow charity presidents to start work on planning the formation of the Masonic Charitable Foundation. My task was to coordinate the governance and then bring together the grant-making activities of the four charities.
Having retired as President of the Masonic Samaritan Fund on the formation of the Masonic Charitable Foundation at the end of April, I then got a phone call asking if I would take on the position of Grand Secretary on an interim basis. I spent a weekend chewing it over with my wife before accepting it on a three-day-a-week basis and on the understanding that I was fully accountable to the board. I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
What is your approach as Grand Secretary?
Communication is the key to most things. Certainly at the United Grand Lodge of England, one of the first things I’m trying to do is to improve the internal communications. We’ve got a good team; we’ve just got to talk among ourselves a bit more.
My first goal is to get the trust and respect of the people here. Until you’ve got that, you’re not going to achieve a great deal. And probably the second most important thing I’ve tried to do is to make sure everyone understands that we’re all here as servants of Freemasonry. We’re here to support the many volunteers working in Provincial and District offices as well as any other Freemason with a problem – we’re the paid staff and our job is to help members promote the values of masonry out in the field, to understand it, to enjoy it and to have fun.
‘I’m in the comfortable position of not doing the job for a career... but because I love Freemasonry.’ Willie Shackell
A lot of the administration of the building is done by the Chief Operating Officer, whereas I’m involved in the administration between the Provinces, the lodges and Great Queen Street. Freemasons should see me as the person they contact and I’m very content in that role. I’m in the comfortable position of not doing the job for a career or because I need to be employed but because I love Freemasonry and believe I can contribute to our future.
Why did you become a Freemason?
I joined Freemasonry back in 1963. My dear old dad had been a mason for many years; he became one before the war. Dad was in the Infantry, which hadn’t been very pleasant, and there were no counselling services for people like him. You just had to get on with life and re-establish yourself. After the war, life wasn’t easy. Dad was a teacher, which wasn’t particularly well paid, and as a child I could feel the tension. But whenever he went off to one of his masonic meetings with his little brown bag, he’d come back relaxed. It was noticeable.
I joined my father’s lodge at 22 in 1963. I found that wherever I was in the world, there was masonry. I joined the Grand Lodge of British Freemasons in Germany and went through the Chair; in Nigeria I joined the Northern Nigeria Lodge in Kaduna; when I went to Northern Ireland with my Territorial Army regiment, I attended the Belfast Volunteers Lodge; and in the Netherlands I joined a French Constitution Lodge.
What do you want to have achieved by the time you leave?
I’d like to have improved the systems and internal communications and to have run a happy ship. We know people will grumble at us because we’re the headquarters, but we’re here to support them.
An American at the Naval Staff College once said to me, ‘You appear a really laid-back guy, but I can tell you’re paddling like mad underneath that water!’ Maybe he was right. I think I always want to do the best I can. I’ve never had a problem with accepting responsibility – I think I’m better at that than the fine detail. I’ve always had a vision as to what I want to achieve, and I’m a believer that as you aim for a goal the detail will get sorted as you get nearer to it.