In the heart of Bristol, Freemasons' Hall library and museum houses a treasure trove of artefacts that point to the city's unique masonic history, as Yasha Beresiner discovers
Bristol holds a unique status in English Freemasonry. In 1373, Edward III granted the citizens of Bristol a charter whereby the town was constituted a county free of the rules and regulations of adjoining counties. In 1542, Henry VIII established a bishopric and Bristol became a city. In 1786, against this historic background, the celebrated Thomas Dunckerley (the alleged illegitimate son of George II) suggested Bristol should be made a masonic Province – duly approved by Grand Lodge in London – making it the only city to have a Provincial Grand Lodge in its own right.
With the exception of Jersey in the Channel Islands, Bristol is the only Province where all masonic meetings are held under one roof – Freemasons’ Hall, 31 Park Street. Prior to 1871, this elegant building was the home of Bristol’s Philosophical Society.
A UNIQUE PROPOSITION
Bristol differs in several other ways. It claims to continue the ritual as it was before the Union of 1813. The semi-apocryphal story is that the representative of the Lodge of Reconciliation visited to instruct the Province on the new standardised ritual, was effectively hijacked, wined and dined by the brethren and sent back to London, task unfulfilled. Thus, Bristol’s Craft and Royal Arch rituals differ from elsewhere in England.
Bristol’s uniqueness is evident in the contents of its library and museum – a vast collection of books and artefacts under the charge of archivist Philip Bolwell. Bristol does not use printed rituals, with candidates keeping handwritten versions. The archives include the first-recorded minutes of an English Royal Arch meeting of lodge No. 220 held at the Crown Tavern, Bristol, on 13 August 1758, when brother William Gordon was ‘raised to the degree of a Royal Arch and accepted’.