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.

Published in Features

Free talk at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry

Sir Alfred Robbins: Prime Minister of Freemasonry and the First World War

Thursday 2nd October 2014 
6–7.30pm 
Freemasons’ Hall, London

Dr Paul Calderwood will talk about Sir Alfred Robbins and his role in Grand Lodge from 1913 to his death, looking in particular at the impact of the First World War. 

The evening will include a private view of the new Library and Museum exhibition on Freemasonry and the First World War which opens in September 2014. 

Wine will be served.

Free but please reserve your place by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Published in More News
Monday, 01 December 2003 13:22

Sir Alfred Robbins's Greatest Defeat

Andrew Prescott Looks at the First Attempt to Form a Metropolitan Grand Lodge

The inauguration on 1 October 2003 of a Metropolitan Grand Lodge will mark the end of over 200 years of debate about the organisation of London Freemasonry. It will also, after nearly 90 years, bring to fruition a project close to the heart of Sir Alfred Robbins (1856-1931), who as President of the Board of General Purposes from 1913 until his death, was described as ‘the Prime Minister of English Freemasonry’, and who suffered one of the few reverses of his Masonic career in his attempt to reorganise London Freemasonry.

London Freemasonry remained outside the Provincial Grand Lodge structure which evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries, being administered directly by Grand Lodge. In 1992, Lord Eglinton and Winton, the Assistant Grand Master, declared that ‘London is not a province and, masonically speaking, a geographical accident: many meet there because it is equally inconvenient for all’. This view of London Freemasonry as anomalous has a long pedigree, dating back to the 18th century. As early as 1767- 8, Premier Grand Lodge attempted to appoint General Inspectors or Provincial Grand Masters for London Freemasonry, but was prevented by the opposition of London lodges. 

In the revised Book of Constitutions issued in 1815, two years after the Union, London lodges were defined as those meeting within ten miles of Freemasons’ Hall. This included places like Wandsworth, Chelsea and Putney at a time when they were still country villages. The ten mile radius can be seen as administratively forward-looking, allowing Grand Lodge to cope with the growth of London, but the reason for its adoption was more prosaic. London lodges paid higher subscriptions and the ten mile radius maximised subscription income from London lodges. Between 1851 and 1911, the population within the ten mile radius increased from more than two and a half million to over seven million. Like many other institutions, Freemasonry struggled to cope with the problems created by this rapid growth. As the city’s suburbs grew, there was a demand for new masonic lodges. However, Lord Zetland, Grand Master from 1844 to 1870, routinely vetoed proposals for new London lodges because he thought there were already sufficient. 
While Zetland’s successors accepted the need for more London lodges, they were slow in coming to terms with the challenges posed by the growth of London Freemasonry. As the number of lodges increased, Grand Lodge became larger and more unwieldy. Freemasons’ Hall was unable to accommodate all those entitled to attend Grand Lodge, and provincial brethren frequently travelled to London for quarterly communications, only to be turned away because the hall was already full. There were complaints that London masons used Grand Lodge to pursue local disputes. London masons themselves were disgruntled about the lack of an honours system for London lodges. 

A Grand Lodge for London

Alfred Robbins was the London correspondent of the Birmingham Daily Post. He was initiated in 1888 in Gallery Lodge No. 1928, which catered for members of the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, and in 1901 became Master of that lodge. Robbins was dismayed by the failure to tackle the problems of London Freemasonry. He tried to bring a motion in Grand Lodge for the creation of a London Grand Lodge, but was ruled out of order. 
This snub to Robbins prompted a distinguished group of London masons to form a committee to investigate the best form of administration for London Freemasonry. The committee took a poll of London lodges, held a public meeting of London masons, and organised a petition calling for a London Grand Lodge. To head off this discontent, the Duke of Connaught as Grand Master announced in December 1907 the creation of London Rank, the first time that London was recognised masonically as an entity. 
Much of the opposition to a London Grand Lodge came from the Pro Grand Master, Lord Amherst, who resigned in 1908. Amherst was succeeded by the youthful Lord Ampthill, who felt that Grand Lodge needed a thorough overhaul. In 1910 Ampthill circulated Provincial and District Grand Masters with proposals for reform of Grand Lodge, and a special committee of the Board of General Purposes was established to consider the matter. Robbins was a member of this committee, and he made such an impression on Ampthill that in 1913 he was appointed President of the Board of General Purposes. Ampthill and Robbins were a formidable partnership. 
Robbins presented the report of the Board of General Purposes on the future government of the craft to Grand Lodge in December 1913. The report recommended the establishment of a Grand Council, consisting of a mixture of Grand Officers, elected members and members nominated by the Grand Master, to ‘exercise all the administrative, legislative and judicial duties at present exercised by Grand Lodge’. 
The main problem in establishing the Grand Council was London. Since London did not have a provincial structure, it was difficult to organise elections there. The use of electoral colleges was considered, but it was feared that these would increase factionalism. Organising the London lodges geographically was impossible, since two thirds of the London lodges met at or within a mile of Freemasons’ Hall. Another problem was that, in order to ensure that London masons had the same chance of achieving honours as their provincial brethren, it was necessary to create not just one, but a number of Grand Lodges for London. The report proposed the creation of ten Metropolitan Grand Lodges for London. Each Metropolitan Grand Lodge would be designated by a roman numeral, and lodges would be assigned to that Metropolitan Grand Lodge whose number corresponded to the last digit of the lodge number. Grand Lodge decided that lodges should be allowed three months to put forward their views on these proposals. 
The report triggered an enormous debate within Freemasonry. When the consultation was complete, it was found that voting by lodges and by individuals was respectively 57% and 60% in favour of the changes. However, while the Provinces and Districts supported the proposals, the London lodges mainly voted against them. This made the proposed reform no longer viable, since the creation of the Grand Council depended on the establishment of the Metropolitan Grand Lodges. Robbins hoped that the scheme could be rescued, and a committee of Grand Lodge was formed to arrange consultative conferences with London lodges. However, as Robbins himself wrote, ‘By this time, it was June 1914; and, before a single conference could be arranged, the Great War had broken out. In accordance with the general feeling that that was not a time in which to engage in a large plan of constitutional change, ... the task was set aside by common consent.’ 
Thus this scheme to create Metropolitan Grand Lodges foundered. No attempt was made to return to the issue after the First World War, although Robbins, still smarting from his earlier experiences, bravely declared shortly before his death that ‘all who closely watch the work of Grand Lodge know that the subject, though dormant, is far from dead’. 
When on 1 October the Metropolitan Grand Lodge is constituted at the Royal Albert Hall, we can be sure that Sir Alfred Robbins will be there in spirit, and will feel that his greatest defeat has finally been reversed. 

Professor Andrew Prescott is Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield. A fuller version of this paper was given to a joint meeting of the Manchester Association for Masonic Research and the Sheffield Masonic Study Circle, May 2002.

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