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The multifaceted career of Freemason and master jeweller Thomas Harper

Friday, 07 December 2018

How did a renowned masonic jeweller come to play a pivotal role in the union of the two Grand Lodges? Dr James Campbell explores the life and times of Thomas Harper

Visit any masonic meeting in England or Wales and you will find members dressed in the same aprons: sky-blue with rosettes for Master Masons; sky-blue with plumb rules for those who have been through the Master’s Chair; and garter-blue for Grand Lodge and Provincial Grand Lodge Officers, with standard jewels suspended from their collars. While this regalia is well known, the people who came up with these designs have been largely forgotten. One of them was Thomas Harper (c. 1736-1832).

UNIFYING DESIGNS

Before 1813 there was no standard masonic regalia. There were special aprons that denoted rank, but huge variations remained in the designs – as can still be seen today in Scottish masonry. 

When the two Grand Lodges of England and Wales (the Premier or Moderns and the Antients) came together on 27 December 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England, an effort was made to standardise designs, including warrants, certificates, the ritual and the regalia. The Duke of Sussex, the new Grand Master, formed a Board of Works charged with working out the details. The first meeting was held on 7 February 1814. The minutes survive and record that Thomas Harper was in the chair. 

There are some people for whom Freemasonry is an agreeable but small part of their otherwise busy lives, and others whose lives become so devoted to Freemasonry that it defines them. The latter was most definitely the case for Thomas Harper. 

Harper’s origins remain obscure: we know nothing about where he was born or where he grew up. His first appearance in the historical record is because of his Freemasonry. We know that he was by 1774 a member of Lodge of the Antients, No. 190, in Charlestown, South Carolina. It is believed he probably first became a mason in 1761 in Bristol before setting sail for the American colonies. 

A loyalist, Harper returned in 1781 with his wife and child, moving to London and setting himself up as a silversmith. He registered his mark at Goldsmith’s Hall and soon distinguished himself as a jeweller, rising to eminence in the City and acting as Master of the Turner’s Company in 1798, 1813 and 1829. 

It is chiefly as a jeweller that Harper is remembered today. He made jewellery for several livery companies, but his principal output was in masonic jewels of all kinds. These are exceptionally fine and have become the most sought-after of all masonic jewels, instantly recognisable by his maker’s mark featuring his initials ‘TH’ on the reverse. His shop was in Fleet Street and he later moved to nearby Arundel Street.

There are some people whose lives become so devoted to Freemasonry that it defines them. This was most definitely the case for Thomas Harper

ANTIENTS AND MODERNS

Harper’s skill as a jeweller was such that it has largely overshadowed his other achievements and involvement in the Craft. To say that Harper was a keen Freemason is an understatement. On his return to England he had joined Lodge No. 5 of the Antients, now Albion Lodge, No. 9, whose most prominent member was Laurence Dermott, the first Grand Secretary, and the driving force behind the formation of the Antients Grand Lodge. 

Harper rose quickly through the ranks of the Antients, being elected their Junior Grand Warden in 1785, Senior Grand Warden from 1786-88 and Deputy Grand Secretary from 1792-1800, before being elected Deputy Grand Master in 1800 and serving until the Union. He became a member of the Antients’ Grand Master’s Lodge, No. 1 and became Senior Warden in 1788, Master in 1793 and Treasurer from 1794-1829. 

Harper was also prominent in the rival Moderns Grand Lodge. He had joined Globe Lodge, No. 13 (now no. 23) in 1787, which was then, as now, one of the lodges that nominated a Grand Steward and in 1794 his name was put forward, although it is not clear whether he took up the office. 

INTRIGUE AND EXPULSION

In 1792, Harper had joined William Preston’s breakaway Lodge of Antiquity (No. 1 in the Moderns, now No. 2), helping organise its reunion with the remainder of the Lodge No. 1 in 1792, becoming its Treasurer from 1792-1803. He was thus for a brief time Treasurer of both Lodge No. 1 of the Antients and of Lodge No. 1 of the Moderns. His membership of both Grand Lodges was not without incident and he was briefly expelled from the Moderns in an intrigue in 1803 – but the expulsion was reversed in 1810. 

After Dermott’s death in 1788, Harper took over producing the constitutions of the Antients (mysteriously entitled Ahiman Rezon). Like Dermott, he believed in the reunion of the two Grand Lodges, and became a prime mover in this effort. He was ideally placed as Deputy Grand Master of the Antients and a previous member of several Moderns’ Lodges, and played a leading part in the proceedings. 

As a reward he was made a member of both the Board of Works and the Board of General Purposes in 1814, the ruling committees of the new United Grand Lodge of England. In these capacities he became involved in the designs for new jewels, aprons and certificates. 

Harper also produced aprons alongside his business in masonic jewellery. He supplied Sir John Soane’s apron when he joined Grand Master’s Lodge, No. 1 in 1813. Both the apron and the receipt are retained in Sir John Soane’s Museum. 

Harper chaired the first meeting of the Board of Works, which discussed the masonic jewels to be attached to the collars of the various officers. In the following weeks the coat of arms of the new Grand Lodge and the form of the aprons were discussed, with Harper present and involved in all of them. 

It may be going too far to say he designed it, but Harper was undoubtedly an important influence on the regalia we have today, and a key player in forming modern Freemasonry.