Head above water
Instrumental in the construction of Tilbury Docks, Augustus Manning met Kaiser Wilhelm II eight years before the start of World War I, thanks to a shared interest in yachting. Richard Burrell navigates this Freemason’s intriguing life
Throughout his life, it would be fair to say that Augustus George Sackville Manning liked making waves. Born on 3 November 1837 in Chelsea, he was the son of a share broker and married in October 1868, fathering five children. Manning was the chief engineer for the East & West India Dock Company and principally responsible for designing the docks at Tilbury in Essex. In later life, he was to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and the last emperor of Germany, after joining the Yacht Racing Association.
Manning was also one of the founders of Tilbury Lodge, No. 2006. He was not a great ritualist, only performing one ceremony during his time there, and he never held office after leaving the chair, but without him it is very unlikely we would have a Tilbury Lodge today.
In 1880 the two main dock companies on the Thames were the East & West India Dock Company and the London & St Katherine Dock Company. Great rivalry existed between the companies, of the sort that is mostly found today between fans of opposing football teams.
For many years shipping had been moving from sail to steam, with ships becoming larger. It was a time of falling commodity prices, which also affected shipping rates. While the East & West India Dock Company had not made the investments it should have, its rival had bought the Victoria Dock at a discount after the financial crash of 1866. The company then used its profits wisely to build Albert Dock, which employed the latest technology, was able to take the largest ships afloat and was considered the best dock in the world when it opened in 1880.
Not to be outdone, the new chairman of the East & West India Dock Company called a shareholders’ meeting on 30 September 1881 and proposed the dramatic idea of moving down the river to Tilbury. By moving, he said, they could save the twelve or even twenty-four hours that large ships had to spend opposite Gravesend waiting g to have enough water to get them into London. The chairman said that if the shareholders did not approve the move, they might as well vote for liquidation.
Manning was one of the very public faces of the East & West India Dock Company. He gave evidence in a select committee meeting chaired by Prime Minister Gladstone’s son that examined the inadequacy of the current docks for London’s purposes. On 3 July 1882 the Act of Parliament received Royal Assent and construction was started with an elaborate ceremony to mark the cutting of the first turf on 8 July 1882.
Something in common
The principal engineers on the project soon realised that they were fellow masons and the notion of starting a new lodge was formed. The initial idea is believed to have come from Frank Kirk and Donald Baynes, with Manning, Joseph Randall, John Morgan Ross, Alexander Dudgeon and John Hamilton completing the founding circle. A friend of Baynes, Hamilton was Provincial Senior Grand Warden of Kent and the only founder not associated with Tilbury Docks; included for his masonic connections, he took on the role of Director of Ceremonies.
In June 1883 the Warrant of Constitution of Tilbury was signed, with the consecration taking place in the engineers’ office at the Tilbury site in January 1884.
Out of the sixteen members proposed by the founders, ten were proposed by Manning.
All was not plain sailing for Tilbury Lodge, however. On 10 July 1884, Manning and Baynes sacked the main dock contractors Kirk and Randall in a payment dispute. In effect, the Senior Warden and Master had sacked the Treasurer and Secretary of the lodge. Hamilton, in his Provincial role, likely knew Kirk and Randall – both Kent masons – and resigned from Tilbury Lodge after attending only three meetings. Ross, a friend of the contractors, did not attend meetings after June 1885. And the partnership of Manning & Baynes Engineers was dissolved in March 1887, with Baynes effectively leaving the lodge at this point. In just over three years, the lodge had lost five out of its seven founders.
Despite these fallings out, Tilbury Docks survived, the location providing an attractive loading point for steamships. In later life, Manning stayed on the water, becoming vice president of the Yacht Racing Association, where he chaired the committee that established the rules to standardise yacht measurement. His efforts were to capture the attention of Kaiser Wilhelm, and the Nottingham Evening Post of 30 October 1906 reports what happened when members of the committee were invited to meet him in Potsdam:
‘His Majesty, in the course of conversation, told his visitors that he owned a schooner yacht. It was suggested that it would be well for him to also have a first-class cutter. In reply the Kaiser in his usual excellent English said: “That’s all very well, but I have a large family growing up and the expenses are as much as I can meet. I am also a grandfather.”’
That there is a Tilbury Lodge today is due in large part to Dudgeon, who became the second master and was a member for thirty-two years. It is also due to some degree to Manning, who stayed with the lodge until his death in May 1910 at the age of seventy-two.
The author would like to thank Colin Tredwell and Andrew Woods of Granite Lodge, No. 1328, for information on the masonic careers of Frank Kirk and Joseph Randall; Bob Flynn of Pattison Lodge, No. 913, for information on the masonic career of Randall; Robert Riseley, great-grandson of Augustus Manning, and David Riseley for the portrait of Manning; Simone Hull for information on her great-grandfather Frank Kirk; Pauline Watson and staff at the Greenwich Heritage Centre; Jackie Reid of the Royal Yachting Association for extracts from the story of the RYA, Minute by Minute, and other information on Manning; Jonathon Catton of Thurrock Museum for his advice and contact work with the PLA.
The founders of Tilbury Lodge
|Name||First office||DOB||Mother lodge||Initiated||Occupation|
|Frank Kirk||Treasurer||1843||Pattison Lodge, No. 913||1867||Partner in Kirk & Randall, the main construction
contractor for the Tilbury Docks project
|Donald Baynes||Worshipful Master||1848||White Horse of Kent Lodge, No. 1506||1879||Partner in Manning & Baynes Engineers,
who were the engineers to the owner for the
Tilbury Docks project
|Augustus Manning||Senior Warden||1837||Lodge of Fidelity, No. 3||1865||Partner in Manning & Baynes Engineers, who
were the engineers to the owner for the
Tilbury Docks project
|Joseph Randall||Secretary||1839||Pattison Lodge, No. 913||1871||Partner in Kirk & Randall, the main construction
contractor for the Tilbury Docks project
|Alexander Dudgeon||Junior Warden||1848||Britannic Lodge, No. 33||1871||Consulting engineer for the Tilbury Docks project|
|John Morgan Ross||Senior Deacon||1844||Merchant Navy Lodge, No. 781||—||Timber merchant and supplier to Kirk & Randall|
|John Hamilton||Director of Ceremonies||1846||White Horse of Kent Lodge, No. 1506||—||Partner in the firm of Hamilton Sinclair & Company,
who were the Hamilton Companies London agents
Derbyshire’s festival finale
Freemasons and their families in Derbyshire have made a £2.4 million donation to the MSF after a six-year fundraising appeal
More than eight hundred Derbyshire Freemasons and guests gathered at the magnificent Devonshire Dome in Buxton for a gala dinner to celebrate the finale of the Derbyshire 2014 Festival, which raised the tremendous sum of £2,414,016.
During the meal, diners were entertained by the Three Waiters, singing popular operatic tunes, and a Fab Four tribute band playing Beatles hits. For the first time in an MSF Festival, and the second time in Derbyshire’s history, every masonic unit in every order made a donation. Members of Craft lodges in the Province donated an average of £741 each.
Assistant Grand Master Sir David Wootton congratulated the Province on its fundraising and on organising the occasion. MSF President Willie Shackell added, ‘Not only will this generous donation help the Fund to support the health and care needs of individuals but it will also enable us to continue funding much-needed medical research.’
Supporting wider needs
The MSF has expressed its thanks to all its fundraisers for their generosity in ensuring that sufficient funds are available to meet demand
Commenting on the MSF’s achievements in the last financial year (Oct 2013-Sep 2014), Chief Executive Richard Douglas notes that the Fund has allocated more grants than ever before: ‘1,578 grants have been given to support 1,462 applicants covering all areas of the Fund’s work: medical, dental, mobility, home adaptation, respite, counselling and consultation needs. This is a 12% increase in funds allocated and a 21% increase in the number of individuals supported compared with the previous year. The Fund allocated nearly £4.4 million to individuals, or £12,000 a day, across the year.’
Recipes and Reminiscences
The RMBI’s Recipes and Reminiscences cookbook is the perfect way to bond with loved ones during the festive season
Created from recipes contributed by the residents and staff of RMBI care homes, Recipes and Reminiscences explores how food is linked to memory and brings people together through their life experiences. In many cases, a person with dementia can vividly recall memories from the past, so focusing on longer-term memories, through reminiscence, is a good therapeutic tool.
Recipes and Reminiscences is a journey through time, with popular recipes from the 1940s to the present day. The book looks back over the years and includes a foreword by star of The Great British Bake Off, Mary Berry.
From beef stew and fruit cake, to baked Alaska and chocolate cupcakes, the book collects together more than fifty of the nation’s favourite recipes that have stood the test of time.
Recipes and Reminiscences is available to purchase online from www.rmbi.org.uk
Stronger than any disaster
It has been more than a year since one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded tore across the Philippines. Peter Watts reports on how Freemasons came together to help to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure
On Friday, 8 November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with terrible impact. More than 6,000 people were killed when 195mph winds and storm surges flattened entire cities. ‘People were hopeless, desperate, traumatised,’ explains Cynthia Guerra, programme manager at Plan UK’s Philippines office. ‘Children were begging for food and money, unable to return to school. Houses were destroyed.’
One year later, things are starting to improve. The reconstruction work has included the rebuilding of fourteen classrooms and two health centres that were obliterated or badly damaged in eastern and western Samar, two of the worst hit areas. These rebuilding efforts were made possible by Freemasons, who donated £185,000 after seeing the scale of the devastation.
‘The International Red Cross and Red Crescent launched an appeal for over £60 million so we knew it was a large disaster,’ says Katrina Baker, Head of Non-Masonic Grants for The Freemasons’ Grand Charity, which considers emergency grants after major natural disasters. ‘It was the scale, affecting 14.1 million people. The extent of the destruction was awful.’
The Grand Charity sent £50,000 to help provide immediate relief in the form of hygiene kits, emergency shelter and medical aid, but many Freemasons wanted to do more. ‘The masonic community called on us to set up a dedicated Relief Chest,’ says Baker, and it was these donations that were used towards the second phase of the recovery operation. ‘Phase two is the transition from immediate assistance offered on the ground to long-term recovery work. The government, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and local partners conduct in-depth assessment of need in the area.’
The typhoon marked the seventh time a dedicated Relief Chest had been created by the Grand Charity, the first coming after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami when the masonic community – individuals and lodges – insisted they wanted to help. With Freemasons contributing £185,000 to help the people of the Philippines, the Grand Charity passed on the money to Plan UK, a charity that specialises in working with children in some of the world’s poorest regions.
‘We have three or four NGOs that we know are reliable and have worked with in the past,’ explains Baker. ‘We ask them each to submit a project, then the Council decides on the most suitable one. We like it to be something tangible, so people can see where their money has gone, but it also has to be something that is necessary. In this case, it was schools and health centres.’
‘The Grand Charity sent £50,000 to help provide immediate relief in the form of hygiene kits, emergency shelter and medical aid, but many Freemasons wanted to do more.’
In the Philippines, Plan UK consulted with village leaders, but also spoke to women, children, farmers and fishermen to ‘gather their priority needs’. Plan UK’s Guerra takes up the story: ‘Due to the magnitude of the damage, health services were not operational, which caused major problems,’ she says. ‘Education had also been hampered as more than 2,500 schools were damaged.’
Known as Yolanda in the Philippines, the typhoon first hit land in eastern Samar. Sixty-six health centres were destroyed and thirty-five damaged in eastern and western Samar. Schools were also devastated, with more than two hundred damaged or destroyed in the two regions. Marie, a student in eastern Samar, gives an idea of what children and teachers faced: ‘Some classrooms were flattened; others had roofing blown out,’ she said. ‘Students were all in one room and standing as there were not enough seats. Our books were unusable.’
Plan UK was able to rebuild and stock several health centres and schools, something that will help around 4,720 people. These are permanent buildings with first-class facilities, built to withstand any future disaster.
‘The health centres have birthing facilities including scales, blood-pressure apparatus, wheelchairs and examining tables with stirrups,’ says Guerra. ‘For schools, we provide blackboards, learning materials, tables, chairs and toilets. All the structures are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.’
Plan UK lets the Grand Charity know how things are progressing by sending regular updates. ‘Plan UK is a great organisation to work with,’ says Baker. ‘They get back to us immediately if we need to hear from the project, and report to us every three months. We can speak to people on the ground ourselves if needed, but we’d rather let them get on with the work.’ Baker notes that Plan UK is so engaged that it is still informing the Grand Charity of projects that were funded in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The message is that masons have contributed to projects that are built to last, ensuring short-term relief with long-term benefits for a hard-pressed community.
‘Children and communities have expressed so much appreciation,’ says Guerra. ‘The project both restores physical structures as well as bringing back dignity.’
Or, as one student put it: ‘We consider this an early graduation gift. Typhoon Yolanda may have been the strongest typhoon we have ever encountered, but together we are stronger than any disaster that may come our way.’
Connecting with cafe culture
A pioneering initiative by the RMBI is showing how reminiscence can play an integral part in dementia care
Previously underused space at Prince Michael of Kent Court in Watford has been developed into a café with a 1950s theme. It provides a relaxed and homely environment and has shown that people living with dementia, when given the right setting, are more able to participate in daily life activities.
The café aims to create familiarity. The decor and memorabilia help residents to recall memories, while also boosting interaction with other café users. The residents, staff and visitors contribute to its success by baking and holding events, to which all residents are invited. This has helped to break down the barriers between those living in the dementia support unit and those living in other parts of the home.
The idea for the café initially came from the home’s management team and an application was then made for a grant from the government’s dementia care pilot project. The project group consisted of residents, staff, visitors and a local contractor, and everyone had a part to play in its development, from choosing the wallpaper and furnishings, through to plumbing and decorating. Residents enjoyed helping out with key decisions and designing the new space.
Since opening the café in April 2014, the impact has been remarkable. Alan Russell, whose aunt is a resident at the home, said, ‘The new café is wonderful. It provides a peaceful area for visitors and residents to relax in a homely environment.’
What unites us
Picking and choosing which principles of Freemasonry apply, such as discussing religion or politics, risks undermining the very essence of the Craft, argues Director of Special Projects John Hamill
Recently I had the privilege of presenting a new Master Mason with his Grand Lodge certificate. The recipient, afterwards, asked me why I had emphasised that he should contact Freemasons’ Hall before attempting to visit lodges overseas and what exactly irregular Freemasons were.
I explained that overseas there are many organisations that call themselves Freemasons and in many ways follow our practices, but they differ in that they have rejected what we would regard as fundamental principles of the Craft. In particular, they do not require their candidates to have a belief in a Supreme Being and allow their lodges to discuss matters of religion and politics, as well as make public comment on politics and state policy. We therefore do not regard them as true Freemasons and bar our members from associating with them.
The subject of regularity has been much discussed at meetings of European Grand Masters and at the annual meetings of European Grand Secretaries and Grand Chancellors, as well as being a topic of conversation when masonic leaders attend each other’s Grand Lodges. The rules covering regularity were developed over a very long period and were codified by the United Grand Lodge of England in 1929 when we promulgated our Basic Principles for Grand Lodge Recognition. They have since become the standard against which regular Grand Lodges measure new Grand Lodges seeking recognition.
So if there are rules, why does the subject have to be discussed? The short answer would be that Freemasons love to discuss and question long-held views. The more serious answer is that there are groups within regular Freemasonry who seek a more liberal interpretation of our fundamental principles and landmarks.
That, to my mind, is dangerous and will lead to there being no difference between regular and irregular Freemasonry. Regular Freemasonry has developed over a long period and imbues its members with a strong sense of morality combined with fairness and kindness to others. It seeks to bring people together so they can discover what they have in common, rather than what divides them, and how they can use that for the good of the community.
‘Freemasonry in no way replaces religious belief but its teachings of morality, tolerance, charity and kindness can support the individual’s personal faith.’
We insist that candidates have a belief in a Supreme Being because it is the one thing that unites us. Freemasonry draws its members from disparate backgrounds – the membership has always been a microcosm of the society in which it exists. The one thing we have in common is that we have a belief, however we practise it and whatever religion we may follow. Freemasonry in no way replaces that belief but its teachings of morality, tolerance, charity and kindness can support the individual’s personal faith.
The banning of religious and political discussion goes back to the earliest records. Most historians now believe that Freemasonry as we understand it developed in the seventeenth century, which was a period of intense religious and political turmoil. Those who developed Freemasonry were seeking to provide a setting in which men of goodwill could come together in peace. By knowing what divided them, they could discover what they had in common and use that for the good of the community.
Freemasonry became, in the words of the First Charge, ‘the centre of union between good men and true, and the happy means of conciliating friendship among those who must otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance’. That sentiment is worth defending.
Letters to the Editor - No. 29 Spring 2015
What unites us
I have always been an enthusiast for the papers of John Hamill, Director of Special Projects, and agree invariably with what he has written. His article, ‘What Unites Us’, in the winter issue of Freemasonry Today is no exception. He mentions: ‘The one thing we have in common is that we have a belief, however we practise it and whatever religion we may follow.’
Masonry is clearly not a religion but it does bear the imprimatur of religiosity.
It has long been my conviction that our beautiful rituals were written by clerics or men of a religious bent. If only the love and decency experienced in the lodge could be extended to the wider world, we would be giving a priceless gift to mankind.
Herbert Ewings, Septem Lodge, No. 5887, Surbiton, Surrey
Greg plays an ace
Encouragement and support from the RMTGB helped Greg Boxer to pursue his tennis ambitions
In 2002 Greg Boxer, then thirteen years old, was a young, talented tennis player whose exceptional abilities secured him support from the RMTGB’s TalentAid scheme. With professional coaching, he went on to compete at the Queen’s Club in London.
RMTGB support increased, however, when his father became ill and maintenance grants were provided to Greg’s family. Sadly, in 2008, while Greg was at university, his father passed away.
Greg graduated in 2011 and decided this year, aged twenty-five, to join the organisation that supported him through difficult times. His initiation into the Old Halesonian Lodge, No. 7104, Province of Worcestershire, in October 2013 made him the fourth generation of his family to become a Freemason.
‘The generosity of the RMTGB has been incredible,’ said Greg. ‘It really helped me when pursuing my passion and also through university into adulthood. That backing is one of many reasons I have decided to join this amazing organisation.’
Turning the tide
With a partnership that stretches back more than one hundred and forty years, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Freemasonry have a shared history. John Hamill charts its origins
As a seafaring nation with a proud naval history – and a great delight in messing about in boats – it is not surprising that one of our best known and much loved national charities is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
Its founder was Sir William Hillary, who resided on the Isle of Man. He had witnessed many shipwrecks around its coast and had on numerous occasions helped in rescuing people from the wrecks. He began to lobby for a national organisation to assist ships in distress, resulting in the formation, in 1824, of what is now the RNLI.
The RNLI relies entirely on the generosity of the public to fund this essential work, and rescues an average of twenty-two people every day. It is able to provide its services because the crews who man the lifeboats, those who look after the lifeboat stations and equipment, and those who do the local fundraising are all volunteers.
It costs around £385,000 a day to keep the service going, which might seem a lot until you start to consider the costs of building, maintaining and fuelling the lifeboat fleet, as well as providing the crews with protective clothing and the equipment that is vital for their work.
What is less well known is the long association between Freemasonry and the RNLI.
It was in 1871 that members of Lodge of Faith, No. 141, London, came up with the idea of providing a lifeboat for the RNLI. They raised £260 and petitioned Grand Lodge to provide the additional funds to purchase a boat. Grand Lodge agreed and, learning that the lifeboat at North Berwick needed replacing, provided the funds for a thirty-foot, state-of-the-art vessel, together with a lifeboat carriage to get it to the water. The boat provided sterling service for sixteen years.
In 1875, HRH Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, was installed as Grand Master. He was sent on an extended tour of India to represent Queen Victoria, who had become Empress of India. This was a journey not without its hazards and dangers in those days, so when Albert returned, Grand Lodge decided to mark his safe homecoming in some permanent way.
To the rescue
A committee recommended that Grand Lodge provide £4,000 to build two new lifeboat stations, complete with lifeboats, where the RNLI had no presence; Clacton-on-Sea in Essex and Hope Cove in Devon were the chosen sites. The boat at Clacton was named Albert Edward in honour of the Grand Master and Hope Cove’s was named Alexandra after his wife. The lifeboat station at Hope Cove still exists and is adorned with the Prince of Wales’s insignia, as well as a plaque marking its origins.
The last occasion on which Grand Lodge, through its Board of Benevolence, provided a lifeboat was in 1980. The fifty-four-foot Arun-class lifeboat has worked all round the British Isles as part of the RNLI General Reserve Fleet, and was named the Duchess of Kent in honour of the Grand Master’s wife. The naming ceremony took place on the Thames alongside County Hall on 27 April 1982, when His Royal Highness was in the curious position, as Grand Master, of presenting the new lifeboat to himself as president of the RNLI.
The Grand Master had been president since 1969, when he succeeded his mother, HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. She, in turn, had succeeded her husband, HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, who was our Grand Master from 1939 until his death in war service in 1942.
In total there have been fourteen masonic lifeboats (see panel) but it is not just through the provision of lifeboats that Freemasonry has supported the RNLI. Over a long period, many Provinces, lodges and individual brethren have made regular donations to the RNLI.
Nor has support been limited to the Craft. The last masonic lifeboat to be launched was funded by the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons in 2009 and is named the Mark Mason, operating out of Angle in Pembrokeshire. And, of course, many of the volunteers who work for the RNLI are Freemasons.
Masonic lifeboat history
North Berwick, 1871–1887
Hope Cove, 1878–1887
Hope Cove, 1887–1900
City Masonic Club
Relief Fleet, 1910–1918
Hope Cove, 1903–1930
Duke of Connaught Peterhead, 1921–1939
General Reserve Fleet, 1939–1951
Duchess of Kent
General Reserve Fleet,
Angle, Pembrokeshire, 2009–present
• Lady Leigh was the wife of Lord Leigh, Provincial Grand Master of Warwickshire, 1852–1905.
• HRH The Duke of Connaught was Grand Master 1901–1939.
• Valerie Wilson was the wife of Leslie Wilson, former Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Middlesex.
Letters to the Editor - No. 29 Spring 2015
I could add to the article on Freemasonry and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in the winter 2014 issue of Freemasonry Today with another lifeboat launched and supported by Lodge of Friendship, No. 5909, in October 2007.
The Master of the lodge named the new Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat at Aberystwyth, at the naming ceremony and service of dedication in April 2008.
The Atlantic 85 was the most advanced inshore lifeboat ever produced by the RNLI and its introduction at Aberystwyth is thanks to the legacy of Joan Bate, sister of a Past Master of the lodge, the late Arthur Bate. Lodge of Friendship is honoured to be associated with this lifeboat at Aberystwyth and has continued to support it.
Alan Harris, Lodge of Friendship, No. 5909, Birmingham, Warwickshire
I read with great interest John Hamill’s article, ‘Turning the Tide’, in the winter issue of Freemasonry Today. It reminded me that in 1997 the Grand Charity donated £30,000 towards a new Severn-class lifeboat based at Spurn Point on the River Humber, and she is aptly named Pride of the Humber.
The Grand Master accompanied by the then Deputy Grand Master Iain Ross Bryce, who was the Chairman of the Northern Area Appeal Fund, attended the naming ceremony and dedication service, which was held at the Promenade, Hull Marina on 24 September 1997. After the dedication service Iain Ross Bryce invited the Grand Master to name the new boat, in which they then travelled down the river.
The Duchess of Kent lifeboat gave excellent service to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) for over twenty years and was launched two hundred and fourteen times, saving seventy-one lives.
It was eventually retired out of service in May 2003 and sold.
The lodges and chapters within the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding and the sister Province of Yorkshire, North and East Ridings continue to support the RNLI with some donations going to the new boathouse, which was opened by Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Kent on 7 September 2007.
I think Freemasonry in general can be very proud of its support for this charity because the RNLI staff are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job.
Alan Hurdley, Rugby Football Lodge, No. 9811, Huddersfield, Yorkshire, West Riding
World of his own
When the red carpet was rolled out at Freemasons’ Hall for A Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, 1,400 devoted fans came to see the king of epic fantasy fiction. Sarah Holmes takes a trip to the Seven Kingdoms
Staff at Freemasons’ Hall are accustomed to seeing visitors explore this glorious Art Deco building from time to time. They’re even used to seeing fashionistas queue around the block to get a glimpse of the latest sartorial creations during London Fashion Week. But when a medieval warrior showed up on the steps this summer… well, that was something they weren’t quite prepared for.
Wielding an old-fashioned war hammer, the bearded warrior lumbered back and forth, drawing a fascinated crowd on the piazza opposite. Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will have, of course, recognised him as Robert Baratheon, the ferocious ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and a central character in George RR Martin’s wildly successful fantasy fiction series, A Song of Ice and Fire.
The actor portraying Baratheon on this occasion was one of a medley of costume players tasked with bringing Martin’s captivating world to life as part of an elaborate publishing event in late August.
‘Harper Voyager presents George RR Martin and Robin Hobb in conversation’ sought to unite two of fantasy fiction’s greatest exponents in an exclusive interview that saw more than 1,400 fans descend on Freemasons’ Hall. A further 5,000 people tuned in online, courtesy of a Blinkbox live-streaming service.
‘It garnered a lot of attention,’ says Karen Haigh, Head of Events at the Hall. ‘More than one million people tweeted and posted about the event on social media, and inside, the Grand Temple was filled from the main floor right up to the balconies.’
The live streaming aspect posed a new challenge for the team at the Hall. ‘It takes a lot of equipment to produce a live webcast, so it was a feat trying to integrate that into a Grade II listed building,’ says Karen. ‘But our IT specialists worked tirelessly to make it happen.’
While the fantasy fiction community convened upstairs, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the man dubbed the American Tolkien, in the rest of the building it was business as usual. ‘We organise our events so there’s no disruption to the meetings,’ says Karen. ‘The members are used to seeing queues of people, but for this event I think they were quite fascinated. Many would have liked to have attended themselves.’
Remarkably, very little was added to the temple to distract from its intricate features. Three golden thrones were mounted on a stage, but otherwise there was a refreshing lack of gimmickry. From the carved illustrations on the hefty bronze doors to the vivid mosaic cornice depicting Pythagoras and Euclid, the rich architecture of the Hall was enough to capture the audience’s attention.
‘We wanted somewhere grand and fantastical,’ says Jane Johnson, longtime editor of both authors and chair for the event. ‘Great halls and exotic palaces feature in both writers’ literature, so it felt very apt. Although it’s fiction, there’s a historical element to the books, which was beautifully channelled through the Grand Temple.’
‘It’s fiction, but there’s a historical element to the books, which was beautifully channelled though the Grand Temple.’ Jane Johnson
Martin’s intensely constructed saga of a wealthy dynasty overthrown by popular revolt draws inspiration from history – defying the magical expectations of the genre. It is this penchant for antiquity, from an author who used to submit historical fiction instead of academic essays to his college professors, that helped to endear his novels to a mainstream audience.
Back in the Grand Temple, visitors craned their necks to get a better view of the magnificent artwork on the ceiling. It was a heartening sight for Karen. ‘It proves that it’s not some secret society,’ she says. ‘Freemasonry is a modern organisation with traditional values. It has an incredible history that everyone is welcome to discover through places like Freemasons’ Hall.’
That message rang true for Johnson, who had always harboured an interest in the Craft: ‘I’ve always been struck by the beauty of Freemasons’ Hall, but I never expected to go inside, let alone host an event. I’d always thought women weren’t allowed into the inner sanctum, but we were made to feel incredibly welcome. I know George and Robin loved it.’
For Robin Hobb, this was the latest in a long line of events promoting her most recent novel, Fool’s Assassin. However, it was a rare appearance for Martin at a time when there were concerns over his health and whether he would finish the last book in the series. All rumours were deftly quashed as he cut a spry figure on stage.
It wasn’t long before conversation turned to the inspiration and lives of the authors, with both Hobb and Martin providing candid insights never volunteered in an interview before.
‘I’ve been to sold-out events before,’ remarks Johnson, ‘but none could rival the atmosphere of this one. It was bigger and yet intimate – a truly marvellous evening.’
More than a video game
Lifelites has been chosen to receive an award of £62,571 from GamesAid, a video games industry charity. The donation is one of only seven to be made during 2014 and follows the successful canvassing of votes from members of the games industry by the small team at Lifelites. The funds will support the provision of specialist technologies for terminally ill and disabled children in baby and children’s hospices in the British Isles.
Chief Executive Simone Enefer-Doy said, ‘Lifelites aims to select the best technologies to enhance the lives of children in hospices, and the generosity of this award will really help us to deliver this. There is no end to the fun, creativity and chance to communicate that technology can bring to these children, helping to give them unlimited possibilities. Thank you isn’t sufficient to express how grateful we are to GamesAid for this terrific donation.’