The heart of the hall
With 11 November 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the Library and Museum of Freemasonry looks at how a record of the masons who gave their lives in the First World War came to be immortalised in bronze and stained glass
Walking up the grand staircase in Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street, you may have noticed a casket sitting beneath a stained-glass window. It contains the Roll of Honour for the masonic dead of the First World War and, in the area known as the ‘Shrine’, sits at the heart of this art deco landmark that began life as the Masonic Peace Memorial.
First considered in a meeting of Grand Lodge on 2 December 1914, the Roll of Honour was described a year later by Sir Alfred Robbins as ‘a permanent memorial of active patriotism displayed by Freemasonry in the momentous struggle still proceeding’. The Roll of Honour would give the names of brethren of all ranks who had laid down their lives in the service of their country, based on returns made by lodge secretaries.
On 27 June 1919, an Especial meeting of Grand Lodge was held at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the peace. A message was read from the Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Connaught, in which he appealed for funds,
to create a perpetual Memorial of its [i.e. the Craft’s] gratitude to Almighty God…[to] render fitting honour to the many Brethren who fell during the War. I desire that the question of the Memorial be taken into early consideration… The great and continued growth of Freemasonry amongst us demands a central home; and I wish it to be considered whether the question of erecting that home in this Metropolis of the Empire, dedicated to the Most High, … would not be the most fitting Memorial.
Following an international architectural competition in which 110 schemes were submitted to a jury chaired by Sir Edward Lutyens, a design by HV Ashley and F Winton Newman was chosen and building work began in 1927. The new Masonic Peace Memorial was dedicated on 19 July 1933, with the theme of the memorial window in the vestibule area outside the Grand Temple being the attainment of peace through sacrifice. Its main feature is the figure of peace holding a model of the tower facade of the building itself. The lower panels depict fighting men from ancient and modern times, civilians and pilgrims ascending a winding staircase towards the angel of peace.
SHRINE TO THE FALLEN
Five years later in June 1938, the Building Committee, in its final report, announced that it had given instructions for a Memorial Shrine and Roll of Honour to be placed under the Memorial Window. At the Grand Lodge meeting on 5 June 1940, by which time the country was again at war, it announced that the work had been completed.
The Memorial Shrine was created in bronze by Walter Gilbert (1871-1946). Its design and ornamentation incorporated symbols connected with the theme of peace and the attainment of eternal life. It takes the form of a bronze casket resting on an ark among reeds, the boat indicative of a journey that had come to an end. In the centre of the front panel a relief shows the hand of God set in a circle in which rests the soul of man. At the four corners of the Shrine stand pairs of winged seraphim carrying golden trumpets, and across the front are four gilded figures portraying Moses, Joshua, Solomon and St George.
The Roll of Honour is guarded by kneeling figures representing the four fighting services at the time it was designed (the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Flying Corps). On either side of the Shrine are the bronze Pillars of Light decorated with wheat (for resurrection), lotus (for the waters of life) and irises (for eternal life) with four panels of oak leaves at their base. The Roll of Honour displayed at the Shrine on a parchment roll includes more than 350 names not included in the Roll of Honour book and additional lodge details for about 30 names already known.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry provides regular guided tours of Freemasons’ Hall, offering visitors the chance to see first-hand the beautiful craftsmanship of the Roll of Honour and the Shrine.