Is it possible to belong to a gang of leather-clad bikers and stay true to the principles of Freemasonry? Adrian Foster summons up the courage to meet with the Widows Sons on their own turf and find out for himself
In a bleak, concrete-walled car park at the rear of the Masonic Hall in Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, a group of leather-clad bikers are relaxing next to their silver steeds. They have not stopped off for a break on their way to a rock festival, they are in fact Freemasons who have just presented a cheque to The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. They call themselves the Widows Sons.
For the uninitiated, the Widows Sons Masonic Bikers Association (WSMBA) is an international association that is open to Freemasons who enjoy motorcycling and have a desire to ride with their fraternal brethren. Though not a masonic order, the WSMBA serves as a recruiting drive to help raise awareness of Freemasonry while attending public motorcycling events, supporting Craft lodges and actively raising funds for charities and good causes.
Among the motley crew assembled today is Peter Younger, President of the Northumberland Chapter of the Widows Sons, together with Justin ‘Jay’ Waite and Chris Bush Jnr, Vice President and President of the National Chapter of the Widows Sons, respectively.
‘My association with them started when I was on the internet and I googled “Freemasonry and motorcycling” to see what came up,’ explains Jay. ‘I discovered a website that Widows Sons’ founder member Jon Long had set up, emailed them and we arranged to meet. I went out on a ride with them, had a really enjoyable day and saw that they were involved with a lot of good work for charity, so I asked there and then whether I could join them. Foolishly, they accepted me, so here I am today,’ he laughs.
MERGING MASONIC INTERESTS
Jay emphasises that the WSMBA is not a masonic lodge, although it has aspirations to form one in the future. ‘What we are is an association of bikers who are all Master Freemasons. We all belong to different lodges and we carry masonic insignia on our leathers and clothing. But when we attend our lodge meetings we all dress as you’d expect us to and wear our normal lodge regalia. Widows Sons has members as far afield as Land’s End and Aberdeen and it would be very difficult to get us all together in one place for meetings.’
Peter Younger reveals tentative plans to establish a bikers’ lodge and that the Northumberland Chapter of the Widows Sons is building up funds to enable this in the next two to three years. ‘We have had informal discussions at Provincial level and they have no objections to the idea. I started the Northumberland Chapter, so this could be my next project. I can see Freemasonry swinging more in the direction of shared interest lodges. The article in Freemasonry Today about the Morgan Lodge is a good example of this.’
But is the notion of bikers as Freemasons a contradiction in terms? ‘I’m sure people would think we’re worlds apart because I’m here dressed in biking leathers, not a suit,’ answers Jay. ‘But motorcycling is a fraternal pastime and in the biking world we refer to one another as brothers, and the two associations build bonds of friendship between their members. Both bikers and Freemasons do a lot of charitable work and I’m certain there are other overlaps too.’
Chris Bush agrees, adding: ‘It was my father who introduced me to motorcycling and Freemasonry. We are two of the remaining seven founding members of the Widows Sons (UK), which had its first meeting in February 2004 here in Goldsmith Street.’
Peter Younger admits that there is still work to be done in convincing some of the non-biking masonic fraternity. ‘It’s been a bit of a learning curve,’ he says. ‘If we’d tried to set up the Widows Sons fifteen years ago it might not have had the positive reception we get today. But the benefit is that it’s providing a new, younger face. Freemasonry is very good at hiding itself away – we hide behind doors that you have to knock on to get in, but if more people had a clearer idea of what we do they’d be queuing up to become masons.’
Peter believes that Freemasonry needs to be far more open. ‘There’s no good reason why it can’t be – I don’t think anyone in Freemasonry would say they are ashamed of what they do. I proudly wear the square and compasses on my lapel as a Freemason and I am glad to be associated with the Widows Sons,’ he says, making the point that there are golfing, fishing and shooting societies, so why not a motorcycling society?
‘We’re ordinary people who have pastimes and hobbies just like anybody else. I once heard a great saying by Woody Allen that “tradition is the illusion of permanence”. Tradition has for too long been the scapegoat for people in Freemasonry who don’t want things to change. People hide behind tradition because they’re not willing or courageous enough to try something new. I feel we need to break that pattern and new associations should be formed. Giving a public, modern face to Freemasonry is one of the most important things Widows Sons can do.’
Force to be reckoned with
The Widows Sons chooses to raise funds for The Royal British Legion (RBL) because many of its own members are forces veterans. ‘It’s a charity that’s very close to our hearts,’ says Jay, who approached Bob Privett from the RBL’s Poppy Appeal in Nottinghamshire in 2010.
‘We raise over £500,000 each year for the Poppy Appeal and spend a similar amount on the welfare of ex-servicemen and their dependents,’ explains Bob. ‘The RBL will be spending £50m over the next ten years on a new Battle Back Centre for injured servicemen returning from military operations.’
Bob admits that The Royal British Legion tends to conjure up images of old soldiers on parade. ‘This perception leads the public to assume that we are there only for old soldiers,’ he says, ‘but already this year we have dealt with 20,000 cases from the Afghan and Iraq war zones.’
Letters to the Editor - FreemasonryToday No.17 - Spring 2012
It’s no secret that attendances at Lodge meetings and the numbers of candidates coming forward for initiation into Freemasonry are falling in certain parts of the country. With this in mind, I set off for Malvern, home of the quintessentially English Morgan sports car, to meet founding member and Past Master Richard Smith and members of The Morgan Lodge, to discuss the emergence of so-called ‘hobby lodges’ and discover why they appear to be bucking this trend.
Somehow, meeting members of The Morgan Lodge, No. 9816, in the snug of the majestic Abbey Hotel in the heart of Malvern seemed the most appropriate and civilised way of delving into the past, present and future of this iconic Lodge.
Which reason is why I was grateful to Richard Smith; Director of Ceremonies Clifford Pratt; Senior Warden Paul Harris; and Dutch founding member, Hans Spaans, for kindly agreeing to chat to Freemasonry Today instead of jumping into their beautiful Morgan sports cars and heading for the open road.
Establishing the Lodge
Inevitably, my first question concerned how the lodge was formed: Richard revealed that The Morgan Lodge had been consecrated in March 2006 by Delmund Penney and himself.
‘We met via an Internet chat room where we were idly talking about Morgans and we discovered that we were both Freemasons. We decided that we’d try to find out whether there were many other Morgan-owning Brethren, so I wrote to Freemasonry Today and to Morgan International and we were inundated with Morgan-owning Masons from all over the world,’ recalled Richard.
To begin with, the two Morgan enthusiasts didn’t know where they wanted the Lodge meetings to take place, other than they had to be central, at weekends and during the daytime.
‘Because we didn’t want this to be just another masonic lodge, we agreed to run our meetings around the philosophy of Morgan ownership: ergo, when you buy a Morgan you become part of a wider family. Sadly, Delmund died just a week before our first Installation, when he would have been installed as Master,’ he added.
But surely setting up something as radical as a car-based lodge must have encountered overwhelming difficulties, I suggested? ‘On the contrary’, he replied, ‘it was a relatively straightforward task to set up The Morgan Lodge because everybody was so enthusiastic about the idea.
People wanted to pitch in and help and nobody tried to take over or dictate terms to us.
‘We’ve already got over thirty members and more than ninety percent of those own Morgans. Unlike regional lodges, we have members from all over the world and owning a Morgan isn’t a prerequisite, but it helps if you are a Morgan enthusiast. I’m convinced we have currently got at least three lodge members who would not have been Freemasons were it not been for the Morgan connection,’ added Richard.
Inevitably, opinions are divided on whether or not so-called ‘hobby lodges’ encourage new members at the expense of trivialising Freemasonry. When I put this question to Richard he was forthright in his reply:
‘No, I believe it’s vital for Freemasonry to continue to attract new members at a time when ‘old’ lodges are handing in their warrants. I think new, focused, or ‘special interest’ lodges that attract new members are an important part of Freemasonry because in this way we bond cars, owners and Freemasons together through a mutual interest. And it’s a very good social outlet because all of us are basically car ‘nuts’ as well as Freemasons and The Morgan Lodge brought us together. In combining these two elements, I don’t think things could get much better than this, masonically or car-owning wise,’ he enthused.
Indeed, Richard may well be right as there has been an undeniable growth in the number of ‘common interest’ lodges within the United Grand Lodge of England. For example, some are attached to golf, fishing, insurance brokers, narrow boats, airports, and there’s a new Mike Hailwood Lodge in Warwickshire which will surely appeal to motor cyclists.
‘In my view, as Freemasons we have been our own worst enemies for far too long. The Morgan Lodge shows nonmasons that we’re just like them, with interests and hobbies apart from Freemasonry. In the old days, we’d have had processions though the streets flying our banner. I don’t know why we don’t do that anymore. We should be shouting what we’re doing from the rooftops!’ insisted Richard.
We then went on to discuss whether or not preserving old, often valuable cars for the future sets the right example at a time when we are all being urged to recycle more and reduce exhaust emissions from our cars.
‘I would argue that Morgans are ecofriendly simply because there’s such a long waiting list that owners don’t scrap them, they rebuild them. One can also argue that there’s a saving to be made in new materials, energy and manufacturing, thereby creating less environmental pollution as a consequence. Surely it makes more sense to restore an old car than to set up tooling and manufacture a new one from scratch?’ argued Richard. And he clearly has a point, because the Morgan Motor Company has coped neatly with European legislation by utilising modern power units supplied by mainstream car manufacturers including Ford, Jaguar and BMW, which of course conform to current and future ‘green’ standards and legislative requirements.
Indeed, Morgan, which has promised to bring out a new model every two years from now on, recently announced its ‘Lifecar’ project, which is going into production in 2012 and which seems likely to be a very ‘green’ car indeed. ‘That’s the beauty of Morgans – you get the modern engines with the oldfashion look and feel of the cars,’ concluded Richard.
Before I bade farewell to Richard Smith and the members of The Morgan Lodge, I was unable to resist the offer of a quick spin around the block in lodge Director of Ceremonies Clifford Pratt’s immaculate 2002 Morgan Le Mans Special Plus 8.
Finished in spotless British Racing Green with white roof and no bumpers, it was produced as a special limited edition to commemorate the Morgan class win at Le Mans forty years previously.
Clamber behind the leather steering wheel and into the plush cream leather seats and for a moment you feel cosseted in luxury. Then fire up the burbling V8 engine, heave on the clutch pedal and you are catapulted forwards - or rather backwards into a time when sports cars were synonymous with rock hard suspension, baffling gearboxes and herculean steering. In this respect the Morgan has changed little, but therein lies the charm of Malvern’s finest. As we thread our way through the back streets and out onto the open road, the sonorous V8 comes on song with its glorious, throbbing soundtrack. The whole car seems to come to life and suddenly motoring becomes an exciting, pleasurable experience to be savoured once again.