As Letchworth marks its one-hundredth year, John Hamill reports on the centenary of a very special lodge
On 28 March 2011 in Lodge Room No. 10 at Freemasons’ Hall in London, almost 150 brethren gathered for an emergency meeting. Nothing unusual in that – until you look at the signature book and discover that those present included the Pro, Deputy and Assistant Grand Masters, the Metropolitan Grand Master for London, the President and Deputy President of the Board of General Purposes, the Grand Chaplain, Grand Secretary, Grand Director of Ceremonies, Presidents of the Grand Charity and the Masonic Samaritan Fund, and other senior brethren.
What, you might wonder, other than a Quarterly Communication of Grand Lodge, would bring such illustrious company together in one tyled meeting? The reason is a joyous one – to take part in the centenary celebrations of Letchworth Lodge, No. 3505. But why such eminent brethren for a Hertfordshire lodge? The answer, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is all in a name. The ‘Letchworth’ after which the lodge was called is not the delightful Hertfordshire town, but Sir Edward Letchworth who was Grand Secretary from 1892 to 1917. As for why the celebrations were in London, when the membership of the lodge was formed in 1911, it was restricted to the permanent clerks in the Grand Secretary’s Office. And even today is limited to those employed in the capital’s masonic headquarters.
Although a Secretary to the Grand Lodge was appointed in 1723 (becoming Grand Secretary in 1734) and the premier Grand Lodge had a permanent building in Great Queen Street from 1775, it was not until 1838 that the Grand Secretary’s Office came into being. From the of the two Grand Lodges in 1813 until 1838, the Grand Secretaryship was a joint office shared by William White, who had held the same office in the premier Grand Lodge, and Edward Harper, who had been Deputy Grand Secretary of the Antients.
In 1838, Harper ‘retired’ and White was asked to take on the role of Grand Secretary. He agreed but on one condition: that Grand Lodge employed two full-time clerks to assist with paperwork. As a result of the expansion in members and lodges in the Victorian period, by the time Letchworth became Grand Secretary in 1892 the office had grown to seven clerks. As they had to be Master Masons it was suggested they should have a lodge. There was one problem: nine was the minimum number of petitioners and there were only seven clerks.
By 1911, there had been an expansion of the Craft and clerk numbers grew to 15. They approached Letchworth to petition for a lodge, and the consecration took place on 28 March 1911. Sir Edward himself was the Consecrating Officer, assisted by the President of the Board of General Purposes, the President of the Board of Benevolence (now the Grand Charity), the Grand Chaplain and Grand Director of Ceremonies and the Chairman of the Board’s Officers and Clerks Committee.
Sir Edward stated that the lodge’s purpose was ‘to meld the clerks into greater harmony’. It would also assist Grand Lodge by bringing into Freemasonry suitable candidates that might become clerks in the office; and get brethren through the Chair in a reasonable time for additional duties. The latter was important, as many lodges had more than 100 members and it could take 15 or more years to reach the Chair.
The lodge’s first year was a busy one with two candidates and three installations. The Master designate had been installed at the consecration and at the July and November meetings two of the senior clerks were installed. In 1913, the lodge began a practice that was to continue until the 1970s – that of initiating as serving brethren members of the portering and maintenance staff of the Hall. They were to assist the Grand Tyler by laying up the lodge rooms and acting as Assistant Tylers whenever Grand Lodge met.
The First World War halted progress of the lodge and office, as half the staff were on active service. Only one did not return, Ponsonby Cox, and another, Guy Mercer, was awarded the Military Cross. Those too old for military service kept the lodge and office going. To help in the office, the rule requiring clerks to be Master Masons was put into abeyance and three lady clerks and two ‘lady typewriters’ were taken on. The latter, Miss Haigh and Miss Winter, proved far from temporary, spending the rest of their working lives as private secretaries to Grand and Deputy Grand Secretaries.
The huge increase in the Craft four years after the war, and the plan to rebuild Freemasons’ Hall as a permanent war memorial, led to an increase in office size. Between 1925 and 1927, five boy clerks were taken on as ‘temporary’ staff ; each of them eventually becoming members of the lodge. There were similar problems during the Second World War, when again the rule on clerks being Master Masons was set aside and women were taken on. They proved so popular and useful that in 1949 the rule (No. 33 in the current Book of Constitutions) was put into abeyance. The lodge had difficulties meeting and reduced its wartime gatherings to two per year. The only ceremonial work was the annual installation of the Master.
The immediate post-war years saw an enormous growth in the Craft. This led to expansion of the office and an increase in the membership of the lodge. Much of the work was in making serving brethren, as the portering and maintenance staff had also grown, and many took on additional work as Tylers for lodges meeting at Freemasons’ Hall.
By the late 1960s, however, things were slowing down and doubts were expressed about the future of Letchworth Lodge. Membership had been limited to Permanent Clerks, but in 1977, Grand Secretary James Stubbs was approached about opening the lodge to the full office, to which he agreed. In the early 1980s, under Grand Secretary Michael Higham, the lodge was opened to the whole of the male staff at Freemasons’ Hall and the staff of other masonic headquarters in London. This has resulted in a vibrant lodge with a steady stream of candidates. The changes have also brought the staff of the various masonic offices in London closer together. Sir Edward Letchworth’s hopes at the consecration can truly be said to have been achieved.
As the Grand Secretary’s lodge, Letchworth has had great support from Sir Edward and his successors. Sir Philip Colville Smith became an honorary member when he became Grand Secretary in 1917. (Sir) Sydney White joined the lodge when he was appointed Chief Clerk in 1918, was its Master in 1920, and was a regular attendee even after election as an Honorary Member when he became Grand Secretary in 1937. (Sir) James Stubbs was elected an Honorary Member when he was appointed Assistant Grand Secretary in 1948, while Michael Higham became a joining member when appointed Deputy Grand Secretary in 1978, and is still active. Nigel Brown joined when he was appointed Grand Secretary in 2007 and members are delighted to have him as their Centenary Master. He was thrilled to have been installed by Michael Higham.
Being involved in central masonic administration, the members of the lodge were only too aware of the privilege extended to them to have the Pro Grand Master present the Centenary Warrant. The happy occasion was followed by a reception and banquet in the Grand Temple vestibules.
They key role played by John Knight in the Royal Arch in Cornwall is outlined by John Mandleberg
For speculative Freemasons, times have always been a-changin’, and the erection of the Premier Grand Lodge by ‘Four Old Lodges’ in 1717 was itself a novelty. When, in 1722 the Grand Master, the Duke of Wharton, laid down the procedure for constituting a new Lodge, this was almost revolutionary.
Not only had it not occurred to anyone before this that a special ceremony was needed to do such a thing, but it was the first time since 1717 that the detailed ritual for any ceremony had been written down. When, during the next 30 years the Royal Arch emerged from the shadows, many brethren in the Premier Grand lodge considered this not only a novelty, but an outrage – it was not ‘Pure Ancient Masonry’.
Those who founded the Grand Lodge of the Antients in 1751 took the opposite view – they regarded the Royal Arch as “the heart and marrow of Masonry.” However, by the end of the century the Premier Grand Lodge – the Moderns – had not only recognised the Degree, but had set up a Grand and Royal Arch Chapter, something which the Antients never effectively did.
Often too little thought is given to how Masonic developments taking place in London affected Brethren and Companions in the rest of the country. The “collective wisdom of the tribe” to use Galbraith’s phrase, is that communications in England were so poor at the end of the 18th century that it is a wonder that changes made in London ever filtered down to distant communities. And where was more remote than the north coast of Cornwall, 300 miles from London, the other side of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor.
Here, Freemasonry flourished in many towns, including Redruth, where for some 40 years before his death in 1828 John Knight was the leading Masonic figure.
In fact, Knight was to correspond at considerable length with leading London masons – Thomas Dunckerley, Robert Gill and Edward Harper for example – with little more difficulty than he would have experienced today.
Weekly at 2pm each Friday the mail coach left neighbouring Truro for London, where it arrived on Monday morning, and weekly it left London at mid-day on Tuesday and returned to Truro on Thursday. In 1791 Dunckerley, “the Grand Master of Royal Arch Masons”, could reply from Hampton Court on 15 July to a letter written in Cornwall three days earlier.
Parcel post took no longer, for packages of regalia, Books of Constitutions and Lodge and Chapter furnishings travelled on the same mail coach. Cornish Freemasons could be made aware of developments in London as they occurred, little more slowly than would be the case today.
The letter which Dunckerley wrote on 15 July 1791 provided a Dispensation to open the Druids Chapter of Love and Reality in Redruth – at the time there was a tradition in Cornwall that the Ancient Druids had brought Freemasonry to the country.
It was a Dispensation and not a Warrant or Charter “as the Grand Chapter will not meet til the last Thursday in Oct.” Dunckerley wrote it out in due form in his own hand on the back of the letter. John Knight was named as the First Principal Z., an office which he was to occupy for the rest of his life.
Consecrations differed somewhat from what we are used to today. A senior Companion would be delegated to install the three principals, who appointed their officers at the following meeting.
For example, in 1810 John Foulstone, the Grand Recorder, was delegated to travel to Falmouth to install the principals of the newly Warranted Valubian Chapter. He took the Chair of ZX, with John Knight acting as H. Foulstone “opened [a Chapter] in Ample form the several Comps who had not passed the Chair of Zerubi being duly passed with the proper Signs & Words.”
In other words, all those present were made Passed Zs so that they could witness the installations. [To have been Exalted, a Brother would already either have presided over a Lodge as it Master, or have been through a ‘Passing the Chair’ ceremony.]
When the Druids Chapter of Love and Liberality had been founded in 1791, Knight had evidently wanted the Companions to be properly clothed. He wrote to Dunckerley in August 1792 wishing to obtain “proper Royal Arch Masons Aprons”, but received the reply that “Royal Arch aprons were directed to be worn by the old Chapters, but to have been discarded for several years, & Sashes being deem’d sufficient.”
Dunckerley omitted to point out that the reason why sashes had been “deem’d sufficient” was because Grand lodge had refused to allow Companions to wear their red-bordered aprons in Craft Lodges, with the result that in a fit of pique Grand Chapter ordered them to be discarded.
In the early 19th century new regalia was designed for Royal Arch Companions, so that John Knight could write to London in 1803: “You mentd. in your last letter that patterns of Jewells & aprons to be worn by officers and companions of the order were to be fixed on & when ready shall be glad to know what they are.” The new aprons had the indented red and blue border with which we are familiar today.
But these were minor changes compared with those imposed by Supreme Grand Chapter when it was formed in 1817, four years after the Union of the Grand lodges.
For example, while each Antient Chapter worked under the Warrant of the lodge from which it had sprung, a Modern Chapter such as Love and Liberality had been granted its own separately numbered Warrant.
Now, every Royal Arch Chapter had to be sponsored by a regularly Warranted lodge, the number of which it assumed.
Supreme Grand Chapter then issued Charters of Confirmation” to each Chapter which complied with this instruction, those formerly Modern and Antient alike. For some reason this gave John Knight particular concern. He involved himself in considerable correspondence to ensure that the new Charter would fit exactly into the frame which surrounded the former Warrant.
John Knight then summoned the Companions of his Chapter to an especial meeting “for the purpose of framing Bye- Laws, entering into Annual Subscription, Electing members for the Better Regulating & Support of the Royal Arch Chapter.”
Up to this time there had been no well defined ‘Membership’ of a Chapter. Now, in accordance with the new Regulations of the order, all those who had previously been Exalted in the Chapter had to make the decision whether they should formally become members of it.
This would involve them in paying an annual subscription and adhering to its bye-laws – which had yet to be written – or being excluded from it except as visitors.
Several Companions who had formerly considered themselves part of the Chapter declined to become subscribing members.
However, John Knight was elected to continue as First Principal.
The records of how John Knight and his Companions reacted to the further changes which were made in his lifetime have not survived, and Love and Liberality Chapter itself did not long survive his death in 1828. His 35-year reign may have made it impossible to find anyone to follow him.
Redruth was then without Royal Arch Masonry for nearly 40 years.
John Mandleberg is Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, the premier Lodge of Masonic research
Royal Arch Masons and Knights Templar at Redruth, Cornwall, 1791–1828, C J Mandleberg and L.W. Davies, QCCC Ltd.