Director of Special Projects John Hamill wonders if resources spent on maintaining masonic buildings would be better used elsewhere
Recently I was accused of betraying my principles as a historian and supporter of the preservation of our masonic heritage. I had had the temerity to suggest that, sadly, there were times when we had to be hard-headed and pragmatic, particularly so when it comes to the huge heritage of masonic buildings.
In the context of the long history of the Craft, the idea of purpose-built lodge rooms and halls is a relative innovation. Originally, lodges, and even the two eighteenth-century English Grand Lodges, met in private rooms in inns and taverns. There were, of course, exceptions. In 1775, the premier Grand Lodge built the first Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, London. The oldest purpose-built Provincial Hall – still in use by the lodge that built it – appeared in Sunderland in 1778. In the early nineteenth-century, halls appeared as far apart as Bath and Newcastle upon Tyne but none survived the economic problems of the 1830s and 1840s.
The great period of masonic building was in mid-Victorian and Edwardian times. Freemasonry was rapidly expanding, and was seen by the public as a respectable association. To the growing middle and professional classes, who were the core membership of the Craft at that time, inns and taverns were not respectable places and so began the move to having specific premises limited to masonic activity.
The development of masonic buildings mirrored what was happening in ecclesiastical and civic circles, with the building of huge parish and free churches and palatial town halls. Just as they were expressions of Victorian religious and civic pride so the new masonic halls were an expression of the integrity and stability of the brethren who built them. Many of them were built in the new districts of the expanding towns and cities and reflected Freemasonry’s position as one of the pillars of the local community.
Life, however, moves on and changes. In the fifty years after the Second World War this country experienced the greatest economic and social upheaval since the industrial revolution. One of the effects in urban areas was that the former prosperous districts became subject to dereliction and decay as businesses and industries failed or downsized and moved out. The masonic halls became almost like islands in a sea of dereliction – islands which no one wanted to visit, especially on a dark winter’s night.
Combined with a contracting membership regularly asked to dig deeper into their pockets to cover ever rising costs and what at first had seemed a glorious heritage soon became an increasingly heavier millstone around the necks of those who used them.
To my mind, the purpose of Freemasonry is to bring together men from disparate backgrounds and traditions, to instil in them the principles and tenets of the Craft and to explore what we have in common and build on that commonality for the good of society as a whole. It is not the purpose of Freemasonry to act as a sort of National Trust to preserve a heritage of buildings which, while they have served the Craft over a long period, are no longer fit for purpose. The time, energy and finance which is spent in trying to preserve them could be put to much better masonic effect.
The major concern for the Craft in recent years has been attracting and retaining new members. The fall in membership appears to be bottoming out and in some areas there are real signs of growth. I would argue that the next major area of concern will be the problem of our heritage of property. In some areas it is being addressed and schemes have evolved – like the events business at London’s Freemasons’ Hall – to share masonic buildings with others to bring in additional income. But there will be times when hard decisions have to be taken, and on those occasions it is the head that should rule rather than the heart.
Letter to the Editor - FreemasonryToday No.17 - Spring 2012
I wholeheartedly support his thoughts. There is, in addition to John’s comments, one aspect that I have put forward many times in the past. Smaller, more local masonic meeting halls lend themselves to involving Freemasons in the communities in which they reside, which are the sources of their Entered Apprentices. The doors of small, local masonic halls should be opened to the local community to demonstrate that Freemasons are part of it and that their halls are not places to be frowned upon. Indeed, the very idea of a masonic centre militates against the concept of openness. If communities of non-masons continually see men in black suits with black cases driving or walking into large, sometimes forbidding, old buildings with large gates closing behind them, often in the dark, it becomes the breeding ground for the unfounded suspicions that have hounded our meetings for many years.