A year into his role, Charles Hopkinson-Woolley explains how his military background stood him in good stead for the office of Grand Director of Ceremonies
Charles Hopkinson-Woolley admits that the first time he received a phone call from UGLE’s then-Grand Director of Ceremonies Oliver Lodge, his first thought was, ‘What have I done wrong?’ The call was a friendly one, though – Oliver asked Charles to become one of his deputies. All the same, Charles was taken by surprise when he got another summons from Oliver several years later. This time Oliver asked Charles whether he would be interested in becoming his successor. Charles has now been UGLE’s Grand Director of Ceremonies since spring 2019.
'I have no idea how people are chosen, but that is the position I find myself in today,’ he says. ‘It’s a fantastic role and is often described as the best job in Freemasonry – you are at the heart of all the discussions and arrangements around the ceremonial side of things.’
Charles became a Freemason in October 1991, joining the lodge for his old school, Stowe. His father was a schoolmaster, and Charles spent his early years living on the Isle of Wight and in Oxford. He received his officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where he was awarded the prestigious Sword of Honour, and spent four years in the British Army with the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, mainly in Germany but including a tour of Cyprus. After leaving the Army, he went into the City, where he has remained ever since, initially working for Cazenove, at the time one of the UK’s last independent stockbrokers.
It’s that military experience that Charles feels has been particularly helpful in preparing him for the role of Grand Director of Ceremonies. ‘The Army teaches you the importance of reliability and integrity,’ he says. ‘Of being somebody that people can count on. That’s important in this role. You can’t not be there – you have to turn up, and you have to do a good job. It also helps prepare you to be able to think on your feet when the unexpected happens. Oliver had a military background as well.’
Oliver had been Grand Director of Ceremonies for 10 years, a longer term than usual, and the demanding and attention-dominating Tercentenary celebrations came in the middle of his time in office. Yet even with this considerable experience, Oliver didn’t try to tell his successor how to do the job.
‘The advice that everybody gave me was to do it my own way – not to try to copy anybody else,’ says Charles. ‘Oliver is a hard act to follow, because he was absolutely meticulous in his planning and had great authority. When he discussed the role with me, I did say I needed to think about it, but more importantly I needed to speak to my wife so she would understand the implications. Oliver was very understanding and actually made arrangements for my wife to talk to his wife about what it involved.’
Charles has always been an active Freemason. He agrees that this is part of his character – when he decides do something, he does it properly, ‘making as strong a contribution’ as he can. His membership in Freemasonry reflects this. In Stowe Lodge, No.9002, he started as a Steward and then worked his way through the offices, becoming Master in 2002 and Secretary in 2004. His progression continued when he was appointed Metropolitan Grand Pursuivant, then Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies and eventually Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies following that initial call from Oliver.
‘I felt I’d already been lucky to have had what I had, so I was absolutely bowled over,’ he says. ‘As an Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies you know the Deputy Grand Directors of Ceremonies and are frankly terrified of them, so being asked to do that role was highly flattering. It was a great chance to contribute something to Freemasonry, which I was getting so much from.’
His enthusiasm for Freemasonry comes across strongly in conversation. When asked what he most enjoys about it, he doesn’t hesitate before answering. ‘Freemasonry lets you meet a lot of interesting people, some of whom are a lot older, have done fascinating things in their lives and from whom you can learn a lot,’ he says. ‘The charitable side, the moral side, the volunteering side – these are all fantastic, but the most important thing is the social side and the impact it has on people’s lives. When people retire or lose their partner, it’s very easy for their social life to contract, and for them to lose a sense of meaning in their life. Freemasonry’s role in combating that is incredibly valuable, and if it didn’t exist it would have to be invented.’
The ceremonies that Charles oversees are an essential element of this side of Freemasonry. He draws a lot of satisfaction from putting on an impressive show. ‘You want people to say that it was special,’ he says. ‘I see them as clients and want them to go away happy. It’s all about enjoyment. If Freemasonry isn’t enjoyable, people won’t turn up.'
With events on hold during the coronavirus lockdown, Charles is anticipating a busy period when normal life resumes. Next year will bring the first lodge tercentenary celebrations, and there are Provincial Grand Masters to be installed, along with District Grand Masters and Grand Superintendents. There are always new things to do,’ he says. ‘Oliver was lucky enough to consecrate a new Grand Lodge – the Grand Lodge of Monaco. Will something like that happen? I don’t know. But periodically a Ruler will retire and a new one will be installed, and I may get the chance to help with that at some point. I just enjoy the role. I’m not a frustrated actor. I quite enjoy the fact I’m not the centre of attention, but I am the one who puts on the show.’
That’s not to say he doesn’t occasionally feel nervous. At the March 2019 Quarterly Communication, he found himself proclaiming HRH The Duke Of Kent as the newly re-elected Grand Master in front of no fewer than three of his predecessors. ‘As part of the meeting, you proclaim the Grand Master by his several styles and titles,’ Charles says. ‘That takes about two or three minutes, and it’s the one thing you cannot possibly get wrong.
‘I was doing this with Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes and Deputy Grand Master Jonathan Spence behind me and Oliver somewhere to my left, and I was very conscious of them all being there. I didn’t dare look at anyone, and instead delivered it directly to the balcony. I knew that 99 per cent of people there wouldn’t know if I got it wrong, but they certainly would.’