Interview with Richard Camm-Jones of the Grand Charity

Friday, 05 December 2014

A sense of loyalty

Secretary of the Grand Charity Richard Camm-Jones has spent forty-seven years working in Freemasons’ Hall, walking its corridors and discovering its grand rooms. He reflects on the people and places that have shaped his career

How did you come to work at Freemasons’ Hall?

I came here when I was seventeen and started work in the Grand Secretary’s office on 10 July 1967. That was four weeks after HRH The Duke of Kent had been installed as Grand Master. James Stubbs was the Grand Secretary then and I was employed as a member of his temporary staff, paid £7 a week. In those early years, I did amateur theatre at Eltham. It was my main interest in life as I had never really enjoyed school, so working at Freemasons’ Hall was just a means to an end – I couldn’t wait to go home and get ready for the next rehearsal or performance.

What did you think of the Hall?

My first impression of working here was that it was like walking into a Dickensian novel. Everyone wore three-piece pinstripe suits and it was all very old-fashioned. There were a lot of other temporary staff members who were in their eighties sitting at slanting desks that had bronze cradles over the top of them to hold boxes of files. It didn’t worry me because there were enough younger people and everyone was interesting. Ted Manning and Albert Bastable, for example, were lovely chaps, both well into their eighties, who filled out the Grand Lodge certificates all day long in beautiful copperplate lettering. 

I didn’t know anything about 1930s architecture when I joined, but I wandered the building in awe during my lunchtimes, exploring wherever I could. In the basement strong rooms were dusty old records belonging to the Charity Committee going back to the time of the Battle of Waterloo, all beautifully handwritten. Up on the roof there are wells on either side of the tower and I remember how some of the staff used them as plunge pools during the summer. Some even played cricket on the roof. 

How did your career progress?

I had the opportunity of going into the Cash department in 1968, where I stayed for three years. In 1971, I was appointed to the Grand Secretary’s permanent staff and moved to the Board of Benevolence department, which administered Grand Lodge’s benevolent fund, known appropriately enough as the Fund of Benevolence. They wanted an assistant and could see I wasn’t enjoying it in finance. Sir John Stebbings was President of Grand Lodge’s Board of Benevolence at the time. A lodge would submit an application, I’d help to prepare the papers, the Board would make a decision, Sir John would sign the cheque I’d written out and that would be sent off to the lodge, which would pass it on to the recipient. That was almost how it had been done since the time of the Battle of Waterloo and it is g still how it happens now within the Grand Charity’s administration, but in a more modern, electronic way. 

‘At the Grand Lodge meetings there’s a magnificent procession and people come from miles away to experience it – there’s a real sense of occasion.’

How did you become a Freemason?

After four years at Freemasons’ Hall, when I was twenty-one, I was expected to join, so I filled in a proposal form and was initiated in February 1972 into the Grand Secretary’s staff lodge, Letchworth, No. 3505. I was initiated by the Deputy Grand Secretary, Dennis Barnard, passed by a junior clerk in the finance department and raised by the then Grand Lodge Librarian and Museum Curator, Terry Haunch. Doing amateur theatre helped when it came to learning the ritual, but I couldn’t say I always understood it. I liked to perform, I liked to show off and dress up, and there is a certain theatricality to the masonic ceremonies. At the Grand Lodge meetings there’s a magnificent procession and people come from miles away to experience it – there is a real sense of occasion. I’m sure many of us try to emulate that in our lodges, too.

How did you become involved in the Grand Charity?

In 1980, Grand Lodge established the Grand Charity and in 1981 moved all of its Fund of Benevolence into the new body. The same staff carried on as before, but working under a new title. Like the Board of Benevolence before it, the Grand Charity helps masons and their dependants, but the charity’s creation enabled greater giving to non-masonic charities as well. The message is always that the money is given on behalf of the Craft as a whole, so in effect it is still Grand Lodge’s benevolent fund. 

I took over as Head of the Grand Charity department in 1991, became Registrar in 1999 and have been Secretary of the Grand Charity since 2004. There were just three members of staff in the office when the charity started. Since then we’ve created our own dedicated finance section, which also operates the Relief Chest Scheme. We have people who deal with publicity, staff to deal with applications from national charities and the Masonic Relief Grants team now operates with five people. We also have more applicants to consider. It used to be just thirty a month; now it’s more like two hundred – maybe that’s because we’ve been more open so more people know about us.

What have you enjoyed most about working at the Hall?

I think it must be the many people I have met, especially the staff. My boss for the first thirteen of the forty-seven years I worked at Freemasons’ Hall was James Stubbs. 

He always referred to the clerks in his office as ‘his loyal staff’. He was a strict and slightly austere boss – he’d been a schoolmaster – but he would have nothing said against his staff and he would back them in every difficult situation if he could.

In 1974, when Ted Heath’s government limited the use of electricity to just three days each week, Sir James (as he became in 1980) asked for temporary lighting to be installed in order to carry on working on the other two days in the already dark offices of Freemasons’ Hall. Unfortunately, it could only be gas lighting, which meant that there were yards of rubber tubing running all over the floors to connect to the large gas cylinders that had been wheeled into the offices. The potential hazards of tripping, gas escaping and explosions would certainly not be allowed these days, but back then the loyal staff sailed on and worked the full week in spite of everything.

I remember Irene Hainworth, who was Sir James’s private secretary. She could be very formal and would always call me Mr Camm-Jones. She would get me to do her photocopying or change her typewriter ribbon while she was at lunch. One day I remember mentioning to Miss Hainworth that I was going to Malta on holiday. She suggested that we should meet up as she was going to be there at the same time. I was rather taken aback by the idea, but we met up together with our respective holiday friends, had lunch, went swimming and even ended up playing with a slightly deflated ball on the beach. I was Richard for a while, but once we were back at Freemasons’ Hall, it was: ‘Mr Camm-Jones, can you change my typewriter ribbon please?’ 

What does Freemasonry mean to you?

I do believe that dignity is important. I remember worrying once when I was Master that I’d got something wrong at a lodge meeting and someone told me that it didn’t matter because I had been dignified. If nothing else, I have tried to be that in all that I do now. There are times when the mistakes are what make a meeting interesting. You’re a human being first and there are many who have family and a day job to think about. 

Then there is the ritual to learn, but as long as you make the candidate feel special, then your work is done. 

After the formal ceremonies there are the dinners at which everyone can relax – the atmosphere and friendliness of people with whom you might not otherwise associate is as much a part of the evening as the ritual. You may not recall much detail two weeks later but you do remember that you want to go back. All these things are part of a learning curve, but then Freemasonry is full of that.

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