On the home front
The sacrifices made by Freemasons during World War I came on every scale, from those fighting overseas and those who remained in England, as Diane Clements explains
By the early 1900s, many lodges met in purpose-built properties and others converted for use as masonic halls. But with the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act allowing the government to commandeer economic resources such as property for the war effort, several of these were requisitioned for military use.
Built in 1911, Wivenhoe Masonic Hall in Essex was requisitioned for an Army School of Instruction and subsequently for a ‘wet canteen’ – a catering facility that served alcohol. The newly built hall at Frinton-on-Sea was requisitioned in 1914 and never returned to masonic ownership. After the war, it became Frinton War Memorial Club and was dedicated to returning ex-servicemen.
On the outbreak of war, Lodge of Faith and Unanimity, No. 417, in Dorchester immediately gave its hall to Dorset County Hospital for use by wounded soldiers and met elsewhere. In May 1915, the lodge protested at its premises being used for ‘contagious and infectious diseases, or for enemy aliens’ and held the hospital accountable for ‘disinfecting, re-decorating, and rendering the Lodge’. It was, however, able to return to its hall in January 1918, with £100 spent on making it habitable.
In Brighton, several lodges met at the Royal Pavilion. From late 1914, however, this was used firstly as a military hospital for Indian soldiers, then as the Pavilion General Hospital for limbless men. During this time, the lodges had to find alternative meeting places.
In Chelmsford, Springfield Lodge, No. 3183, met in the church hall, and when this was requisitioned in 1917, it had dispensation to meet in the local prison. Other lodges continued to meet in local public buildings or in hotels and inns.
At the beginning of the war, three London lodges were meeting at the prestigious De Keyser’s Royal Hotel on the Victoria Embankment near Blackfriars Bridge. In September 1915, City Livery Lodge, No. 3752, was consecrated and held its first few meetings there. The hotel was run by Sir Polydore de Keyser, originally from Belgium but long established in London, where he had been Lord Mayor in 1887.
As it was popular with overseas businessmen, the Royal Hotel’s fortunes collapsed during the war. In May 1916, it became one of many sites in London requisitioned for use by the War Office, in this case by the Directorate of Military Aeronautics. Meanwhile, the three London lodges all had to find alternative meeting places, with several of them using Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street for at least the remainder of the war. The dispute between the government and the hotel’s owners about compensation later became a noted case in constitutional law.
RAIDS TO THE EAST
On 16 December 1914, the German Navy attacked three seaside towns: Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. The attack resulted in 137 fatalities and 592 casualties, many of whom were civilians. Old Globe Lodge, No. 200, was meeting as usual that evening in Scarborough but its minutes made no mention of the raid. The masonic hall in Hartlepool was slightly damaged during the raid but remained in use.
Towns on the east coast continued to be subject to bombardment and from 1915 were attacked by rigid airships or Zeppelins. Springfield Lodge, No. 3183, in Chelmsford took the precaution of paying three shillings to insure the lodge furniture against damage caused by hostile aircraft.
The heavy air raids could be heard at the Royal Masonic School for Girls at Clapham. During air raids, the girls were summoned down to the basement by the fire bell, taking their blankets and pillows with them. The girls particularly complained about Zeppelin raids on Sunday mornings. The combatants ‘evidently know that on that day we have an extra half-hour in bed, and seem very anxious to deprive us of it,’ wrote one pupil. The school laundry’s windows were guarded with blinds to prevent glass damage but the building was hit by anti-aircraft fire in 1917, with a subsequent claim for damage amounting to £4 18s.
‘By the self-sacrifice… of our people at home quite as much by the great sacrifices… by our gallant soldiers in the trenches’ Viscount Rhondda, Freemason in South Wales and Minister of Food Control, June 1917-July 1918
At the outbreak of war, Grand Lodge had urged restraint in lodge meetings and in dining arrangements at Festive Boards after lodge meetings. The Grand Master set an example by not wearing evening dress at masonic functions and many lodges began to dine much more simply.
In January 1917, the German government announced its intention to use unrestricted submarine warfare. Britain began to face problems with its food supply and David Alfred Thomas, Viscount Rhondda, an industrialist and Freemason in South Wales, became Minister of Food Control in June 1917. Food rationing was introduced in January 1918, beginning with sugar and then meat. A subsequent Grand Lodge circular to all lodges advocated strict economy in the consumption of food.
As Lord Rhondda explained at the time, the war was going to be won ‘by the self-sacrifice… of our people at home quite as much by the great sacrifices… by our gallant soldiers in the trenches’.