As he nears his last Grand Lodge and retirement, Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes reflects on a rewarding Masonic career that invited a more open approach to Freemasonry
Peter Lowndes settles back comfortably into a deep-set armchair and takes a moment to reflect. We are in the Grand Master’s immaculate office, a large ground-floor room at Freemasons’ Hall that is lined with handsome wooden panels and glass-fronted bookcases. ‘I first stepped into this building in 1984,’ muses Lowndes as he contemplates his forthcoming retirement from the top of the Masonic tree. He started as Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies, the distant origin of a Masonic career that has taken him to the lofty heights of Pro Grand Master – ‘after which, I knew I couldn’t be over-promoted any further’, he says with typical self-effacement. Now, following 13 years in a job that has taken in the twin demands of the Tercentenary and Covid-19, Lowndes will step down in September, replaced by Deputy Grand Master Jonathan Spence.
As a subscribing member of seven Lodges, Lowndes will doubtless find plenty to occupy his time following retirement. He became a Mason in 1972 following a chance encounter with an old acquaintance in a pub with the appropriate name of the Rising Sun on London’s Ebury Bridge Road. Lowndes noticed his friend was wearing the Old Etonian tie, so asked where he was going. The destination was the Old Etonian Lodge at the former Constitutional Club on St James’s Street. Lowndes was intrigued, and six months later attended his first Lodge meeting.
‘Like most people at their first meeting, a lot of it passed me by,’ he admits. ‘But there were a lot of extremely nice people who were so excited at seeing a younger person [Lowndes was 24] that they were kind to me. I think it was the camaraderie that appealed. I liked the people, but found the ritual and floor work quite daunting. I was given office quickly and if I hadn’t been made to get involved, I think I would have just disappeared. But as you progress through the offices, you build confidence.’
Even now, Lowndes seems surprised at how well he took to Masonry. He rose through the ranks, first at the Lodge and then with the UGLE. A talented cricketer – his father had captained Hampshire and great-grandfather captained Surrey – he notes that, like all good wicket keepers, he was often ‘in the right place at the right time’, having been invited to become Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies after being recommended by a fellow member of the Old Etonian Lodge, who was himself acting as Deputy. After establishing the skill and temperament for office, Lowndes served as Grand Director of Ceremonies for eight years from 1995 before becoming Deputy Grand Master in 2004 and then Pro Grand Master in 2009.
‘If the Grand Master can’t attend, I am the Grand Master,’ he explains of his curious, but essential role. ‘And if the Grand Master is present, I don’t exist but I am always there. That’s not just ceremonies, though – this morning I was signing off paperwork that only the Grand Master can sign off. I have no executive powers, nor would I want them, but I will install new Provincial Grand Masters, preside at Grand Lodge and run the Grand Master’s Council. I personally can’t change anything, but very little happens without me being consulted.’
Although Lowndes notes he is the first commoner to be appointed Pro Grand Master following Lords Cadogan, Cornwallis, Farnham and Northampton, he can trace his ancestry back to 1066. His family were once significant landowners of property that included Lowndes Square in Belgravia. Lowndes was raised in Scotland and spent several years in the Outer Hebrides. After leaving school without any A levels – ‘it didn’t seem to matter at that time’ – he attended Royal Agricultural College, qualified as a chartered surveyor and began a career as an estate agent, ultimately chairing his firm for more than a decade. For somebody who downplays his talent and ambition, it’s noticeable that Lowndes has risen to the top both professionally and in Masonry, even if he describes himself only as a ‘a gifted amateur’. W hat explains such success? ‘I guess I must be a good man manager,’ he says. ‘I have always been a good delegator, which means you are probably a good judge of people because otherwise you don’t know who to delegate to. Of course, you could also argue that’s because you are always trying to avoid doing any work yourself.’
That’s said with a typical twinkle in the eye. Lowndes says that when completing the Grand Lodge ceremony, he is disappointed if he hasn’t got at least one laugh from the audience and he relishes telling stories against himself. ‘Obviously, it’s not my job to be a stand-up comic, but I do think we are there to enjoy ourselves,’ he says. ‘If somebody gets something wrong, it’s not the end of the world.’
He remains hugely grateful for the opportunities Freemasonry has given him, both as Pro Grand Master, with his privileged access to the Grand Master and at the centre of Masonic life, but before that as Grand Director of Ceremonies, when he met eminent figures such as John Kufuor, former President of Ghana. He notes that many improvements have taken place in Masonry, which he has played a part in changing. He looks forward to seeing this continue after he leaves. ‘I’m pleased that there is more open discussion and better communication between all aspects of Freemasonry, where previously there could be a bit of a them-and-us relationship between UGLE and the Provinces,’ he says. ‘Externally, we are now very good at picking our battles and understanding that we can’t keep rolling over when something is said or written that isn’t true. And we are the most brilliant organisation when it comes to raising charitable funds. The generosity of our brethren is something that never ceases to amaze me.’
Lowndes has no particular plans – other than ‘irritating my wife at home’ – as he now prepares for a very different role in Masonry, that of the elder statesman with no formal office, something he regards with mixed feelings. ‘I have my last Grand Lodge in June, which I will find pretty emotional,’ he admits. ‘In some ways I am looking forward to it as there will be a lot of friends there, but when we close Grand Lodge I know that I will find that difficult. There are some aspects of the job I shan’t miss at all, but I am sure I will have short-term withdrawal symptoms. I am supposed to stay away from anything formal for a year, which is completely right, and then after that year when Jonathan has bedded in, people will forget there was ever anybody before him.’
That’s hard to believe. It surely won’t be long before Lowndes’ familiar presence is again sighted at what has been his second home since 1984.