Making history - Buckinghamshire initiates more than 100 members at Freemasons' Hall

Monday, 06 December 2021

Sunday 12 September 2021 was an historic day for Freemasonry. Freemasons’ Hall played host to an unprecedented event for the Buckinghamshire Freemasons when more than 100 new members were initiated in a single day

But before we tell you more, we have to go back to June 2017, when a decision was made in Buckinghamshire that would culminate in this memorable occasion. The then new Provincial Grand Master (ProvGM), John Clark, decided to make membership the number one focus for the new administration. The rationale was that by focusing on membership, the other elements of the Province such as ritual, communications, marketing and mentoring would have to be in order, too.

As such, the ProvGM set out to build a team of dedicated Buckinghamshire Freemasons whose brief was simple – attract and retain members. It was decided that to attract young, enthusiastic candidates, the marketing and communications strategies had to reflect the behaviours of that group, while the membership and mentoring strategies should be standardised to ensure an optimal experience for all who used it.

The Deputy Provincial Grand Master, Hugh Douglas-Smith, was challenged to produce a digital platform that would manage and track the membership enquiries for the Province, but also allow for streamlined processing of membership data, executive reporting and the appointment and promotions procedures.

The Provincial Marketing Officer, Phil Whitney, and the Provincial Communications Officer, Matt Perkins, were tasked with producing a marketing and communications strategy that brought the good works, camaraderie and mystery of Freemasonry to the attention of the public. By taking a single communications message across social media, the website and the Provincial magazine, Concord, it ensured that no matter where someone encountered Buckinghamshire Freemasons, they received the same content presented in the same way. The development of a new Provincial logo and inclusion of the recommendations from the survey on attitudes to Freemasonry were also key parts of this sea change. 

The formation of a landing page (www.buckspgl.org/info) meant that all communications would have a call to action, and direct interested parties to a contact form linked to the membership team.

In January 2020, Provincial Membership Officer Simon Williams implemented a structured and detailed membership pathway, including methodology to allocate enquiries to suitable Lodges based on geography and availability. Little did Simon know that instead of assessing, vetting and allocating candidates to Lodges, he would soon have to keep them interested for 18 months during the first suspension of Freemasonry in 300 years.

The changes to the marketing and communications strategies soon started to yield results, with improved engagement across all platforms and, most encouragingly, with the number of people filling in the contact form increasing from one-to-two per week to one-to-two per day. This was naturally a cause for celebration, with many prospective candidates stating they were interested in Freemasonry after seeing the good works that we do, but also the friendships that are built by the fraternity. The hard work of the whole team was starting to pay off by February 2020.

Then in March 2020, disaster struck and Freemasonry was suspended due to the pandemic. Many of our members work in key-worker roles and were at the frontline of the COVID effort. Under the tireless leadership of the Provincial Executive, large numbers of Buckinghamshire Freemasons mobilised to provide urgent relief to those in need in the local communities.

Initiatives included donating tonnes of food to local food banks; providing hot meals to the elderly, vulnerable children and women’s refuges; delivering PPE to NHS hospitals; delivering pamper packs and food to carers; undertaking marshalling duties at NHS vaccination centres; and providing support within NHS hospitals and clinics.

These activities rightly attracted a lot of attention on social media and in the local and national press. So what was thought to be a disaster for our new recruitment initiative actually led to a further increase in the membership enquiries, with potential members seeing the benefits of our institution and wanting to join a community of like-minded people who were bringing help to their local communities. Membership enquiries went up and the membership team set about creating a programme to engage these potential members and keep them interested until such a time as they could be initiated. This included Zoom calls, family quiz evenings and virtual pub nights, which proved very popular with all. 

As the lockdown persisted, membership enquiries mounted. With more than 200 candidates through the Provincial channels, plus Lodges’ own recruitment efforts, more than 300 candidates were awaiting initiation, many having waited more than a year to join because of the lockdowns.

Buckinghamshire now had a lovely problem: what to do with everyone? The Provincial Grand Master had a solution and asked the Rulers to allow him to initiate as many as possible in Freemasons’ Hall. He was met with a great wave of support. The Grand Master His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent gave a special dispensation to meet on a Sunday as this was the only day of the week when the whole of Freemasons’ Hall would be available for use – this in itself was historic as Freemasons cannot usually meet on a Sunday. The Buckinghamshire Initiations at Grand Lodge Day was born, affectionately known as BIG.

The Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies, Worshipful Brother Bill Smithson, assembled a team and planning began with less than 12 weeks to go. A monumental effort from the membership and communications teams meant that engagement with potential members was huge, with a final social barbecue being organised that pushed the number of candidates booked in to 103. 

The day arrives

More than 100 candidates had booked in to be initiated into Freemasonry in a single day. In the morning, both Freemasons and candidates boarded all types of transport to get them to the event.

The day started early, setting up all the temples, and the Provincial Grand Lodge was opened at 9:30am so that the officers from the ‘lost year’ of the pandemic had their opportunity to perform their roles in the Grand Temple. At 10:30am, the formalities began and the initiates were arriving thick and fast. Some Lodges were initiating four, five or even six candidates and were calling off during the day for refreshments. The day ran incredibly smoothly with a lovely lunchtime Festive Board in the Gallery Suites for those Lodges initiating in the morning sessions. After lunch, the Lodges continued to initiate their own candidates, with visitors there to increase the support for every Lodge.

Entertainment day and night

During the day, the members were entertained by a harpist and a saxophonist.

The beautiful new café in Freemasons’ Hall was ideal for the provision of much-needed refreshment. It was also the perfect location for members and candidates from all over Buckinghamshire to meet and update each other on news.

At 15:30pm, everyone gathered in the Grand Temple for the main event. Marcellians Lodge No. 4450 was initiating its candidates in the Grand Temple, with more than 619 Freemasons staying all day to witness it, and the Provincial Grand Master in the Chair.

It was a flawless ceremony with the Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies acting as Junior Deacon. Once the newly installed candidates retired from the Lodge, 88 of the new initiates who had stayed to the very end took to the floor to receive the Charge on Initiation with their new brothers. The sight of nearly 90 entered apprentices on the floor of Grand Lodge was an unforgettable experience.

The Charge was given in spectacular fashion by Deputy Provincial Grand Master Hugh Douglas-Smith. There was then a most enlightening demonstration of the First Degree Tracing board before the Lodge was closed. Before the processions out, singer Jenny Ball serenaded the crowd from the balcony of the Grand Temple.

The evening dining – the Festive Boards – took place both in the vestibule and the Gallery Suites. The exquisite food, wine and entertainment made for a most enjoyable occasion.

In summary, the BIG Day was one that will stay in the memory of all that attended – especially the newly made Freemasons, who are now members of a very special group – as an event like this is unlikely to ever happen again. And, of course, we still have 150 more candidates to initiate, not to mention the second and third degree ceremonies to carry out. Perhaps another BIG third event is in order?

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