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High Hopes - Freemasons fund lifesaving ladder

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

London Fire Brigade’s newest piece of kit was unveiled at the Lord Mayor’s Show in November 2021, taking up prime position next to Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. This remarkable machine was a fire engine with an enormous 210-foot ladder, the largest in the UK, that seemed to go on forever. It towered into the sky above the City to gasps from the gathering crowd. When the Lord Mayor came over to have a look for himself, he had to hold his feather-trimmed tricorn hat in place as he craned his neck to see the top

Watching with pride were members of the Metropolitan Grand Lodge, which ran a two-year campaign to raise the £2.5 million needed to design, develop and deploy two super-aerial, extended-reach 210-foot turntable ladders – double the size of anything in the fleet. These machines give London Fire Brigade more options when fighting tower block fires like the blaze at Grenfell Tower in 2017.

‘The Lord Mayor’s Show was the first time we could reveal to the public what we were funding and it was the first time that London could see the appliance,’ says John Parry, Metropolitan Grand Inspector, organiser of the Metropolitan Grand Lodge entry into the show. ‘It was a moment of personal and collective pride. Our members were amazingly generous, even with COVID, so raising the money wasn’t any more difficult, I am constantly amazed by the generosity of Freemasons.’

Andy Roe, commissioner of London Fire Brigade, said, ‘I am very grateful of our partnership with Freemasons of London. The ladders are the tallest in the UK and will improve our ability to respond to a variety of incidents by allowing us to reach greater heights. Each of the vehicles has a rescue elevator to transport firefighters and casualties to the ground from height safely and quickly, and can deliver 2,500 litres of water per minute at any height. On behalf of London Fire Brigade, I express my gratitude to Freemasons of London and their members who have raised an extraordinary amount to fund vehicles that will help us protect Londoners.’

The fire appliance fundraiser follows two previous campaigns by the Metropolitan Grand Lodge to fund an Air Ambulance and a CyberKnife, a robotic radiotherapy device that can reduce some cancer treatments from six months to two hours. All three projects are united by a desire to support London’s frontline services by providing them with potentially lifesaving equipment.

‘They are ploughing the same furrow,’ says John. ‘That means members have faith in us. They know that we have done our research and will have found a project they can support that will improve life for Londoners. We actually exceeded the target for the air ambulance, so we bought five rapid-response vehicles too.’

The decision to target the extendable ladders was the result of an informal chat between a London Freemason and a member of London Fire Brigade. When the Freemasons made an approach, it was not even known whether London’s streets could support extendable ladders of this size, as the narrow roads would restrict how large the base vehicle could be. While London Fire Brigade did its research, Freemasons got into action. Funds are raised through individual Freemasons’ donations, summer parties, balls, auctions and other occasions, and one such event took place in 2019, where prizes such as Novak Djokovic’s tennis racket were on offer. But the pandemic meant Freemasons had to improvise – devising new events such as online magic shows and Zoom quizzes.

Once the technical challenges were resolved, the vehicles were constructed in Germany and delivered to London in time for the Lord Mayor’s Show. London Fire Brigade purchased three – two with money from Freemasons and one from their own funds. These are being located in Wimbledon, Old Kent Road and Dagenham. Both of the Freemasons’ vehicles were at the Lord Mayor’s Show: one in the procession, the other deployed at Mansion House.

This was the latest chapter in a relationship between London Freemasons and the Lord Mayor’s how that goes back 14 years. At first, it had been difficult to persuade Freemasons to take part in the show, and the first float was pretty low-key – a London bus with a thermometer on the side showing the amount of money that had been raised that year. Now, Freemasons are annual attendees, carrying banners that celebrate supported causes. The Freemasons’ float is accompanied by representatives of these different charities and, in 2021, Freemasons from The Order Of Women Freemasons and Freemasonry For Women joined the parade for the first time. 

‘Fourteen years ago, the public perception was quite negative and along with many other things our presence at the Lord Mayor’s Show has served to change that perception,’ says John. ‘Some Freemasons were cautious wearing their regalia as we can’t usually wear it in public. They said they felt as if they were walking out into the streets naked and everybody would be staring at them. But during the parade, you are surrounded by fire-breathing teenagers turning somersaults on stilts, so 50 chaps on a bus wasn’t that radical. Every year, the people who take part are glowing, and the response of the public is so positive. There is nothing but praise.’

So, on a fine weekend in November, these two threads came together and London’s Freemasons were able to display the two vehicles they had bought for their home city. When John, a Freemason for 30 years, sees the results of the fundraising, it reminds him of why he became a Freemason in the first place. He likens it to his professional career as a BBC sound recordist and independent producer where he made groundbreaking documentaries about Greenpeace, homelessness, and early IVF treatment that transformed lives for those impacted.

When you see the results of the money we have given – where we have helped feed the hungry or saved a life – that’s a source of a great pride,’ he says. ‘It shows that somebody such as myself, an ordinary chap without the means to do any of these things on my own, is part of an organisation that with its numbers and its mindset has enabled myself and others to instigate enormous change.’ And with another successful campaign completed, John and the Metropolitan Grand Lodge are already eyeing up their next mission, which again focusses on supporting London’s emergency services by providing them with life-changing equipment.