Behind the scenes
As the masonic adviser in the private office, John Vazquez is the Mr Fix-it of Freemasons’ Hall, providing all the expertise, support and sometimes regalia to make sure that lodge meetings go without a hitch
Q: How did you come to work at Freemasons’ Hall?
A: Before I was called up to national service in Spain in the 1970s, I was working for a retailer in Oxford Street. My mother used to work at Freemasons’ Hall cleaning the Grand Temple and when I returned to the UK, she said there was as a job going as a porter. I took the role in 1980 and thought I’d eventually get back into retail management, but here I am thirty-three years later. I got to know the people and enjoyed it. Back then it was very family oriented and sometimes you felt that you’d rather stay in the Hall than go home.
When I first walked into the building, I thought how wonderful it was – I was amazed by it and still am. It’s not what you expect; there are lots of cubby holes and even now I’m discovering new things. My favourite place is room seventeen; everyone likes the Grand Temple and room ten, but I like room seventeen’s old-fashioned wood panels and the antique furniture.
‘I am still amazed by the Hall. It’s not what you expect; there are lots of cubby holes and even now I’m discovering new things.’
Q: What was your first lodge?
A: I became a member of the staff lodge, Letchworth, after the bylaws had changed to allow ‘downstairs’ staff to become full members. I then joined the half English, half Spanish St Barnabas Lodge. It was a dying lodge, maybe fourteen or so members, but it’s up to around fifty-two now. I get to meet such a wide variety of people – that’s the great thing about Freemasonry.
Q: When did you start helping to run events?
A: After becoming foreman porter, my job changed to deputy lodge liaison officer. When Nigel Brown came in as Grand Secretary, it developed into the role I have now: using my knowledge to look after the masonic events in the building. From Grand Lodge through to Provincial lodge meetings, I’m always in the background making sure everything is working.
My job is to ensure each day is perfect. I help set up rooms, making sure all the props are there, as well as providing advice. I want to make all the masons watching feel comfortable and for them to walk out with a smile on their face, saying what a wonderful day they’ve had. I’m a calm person and I say to people when they come for a meeting, ‘Don’t worry. If I look anxious, then start worrying, but until then assume everything’s OK.’ I try not to get too stressed.
‘I don’t have an average day, it’s not like working in an office. One side of my job is practical – it’s a good thing I was in the Scouts.’
It doesn’t matter who you are, I will treat you in the same way. It goes back to the principles of Freemasonry and it’s a wonderful thing about the Craft. You do get individuals who think they’re special and need reminding of where they are, that this is not their building: it’s mine and they should behave! I’m lucky that I’ve been here a long time and people know me, so if I say something is going to happen, then it will.
Q: How would you describe your job?
A: I’m a Mr Fix-it. I don’t have an average day and it’s not really like working in an office. One side of my job is practical, like replacing broken chairs, and I’m responsible for all the regalia, making sure it’s clean and repaired – it’s a good thing I was in the Scouts. But my job is also about understanding Freemasonry, knowing what you can and can’t do in a ceremony. If I know I can’t do it, then I know someone else probably can’t either. A lot of people do take my recommendations, but it’s only advice.
When we started hosting non-masonic events at the Hall, the Grand Tyler Norman Nuttall and I used to organise them. As demand increased, the external events were given to Karen Haigh to oversee and I now work closely with her to make sure our masonic and non-masonic events don’t clash. When we first held things like Fashion Week here, there were a few raised eyebrows from masons coming to the Hall, but I think they’re used to it now.
Q: Have things changed since you joined in 1980?
A: Freemasonry has opened up quite a lot, as much as people think it hasn’t. When I first came here you weren’t allowed to go to the Library and Museum unless you were a mason or accompanied by one. While basic masonry hasn’t changed, the people around it have. Younger masons are looking at things in a different way, which is good.
Freemasonry was here before I came and it’ll be here after I’m gone – just like this building. To me it’s a privilege and honour to come and work here. It was fantastic to be part of the two hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations in 1992 at Earls Court. There was a lot to organise; we had to set the arena up as the Temple and two lodges, but we got it done. It’s the same with the three hundredth celebrations. I won’t panic and I’m actually looking forward to it. We will make masons proud.
New storage facilities for Lodges and Chapters at Grand Lodge are a big improvement, says Stuart Whitehead
Since 1933, when Freemasons’ Hall was completed, each Lodge and Chapter which uses the facilities have had their regalia and equipment stored in individual lockers. However, due to the requirements of health and safety (H & S) legislation, UGLE have undertaken a review of current working practices.
At present, Lodges and Chapters have their regalia and equipment stored in metal and wooden lockers which are in units up to 15 feet high. H & S requirement would these days state that fork lift trucks or specialised hydraulic equipment would have to be used to remove the locker and trays from the higher units when the UGLE porters transport each tray to the designated Lodge or Chapter room.
Another problem the change of storage system encountered was the security aspect, because at present the individual Lodge and Chapter regalia and equipment, although stored in locked lockers in individual trays, over the years a number of these lockers have had their locks broken and not replaced.
As well as the trays being transported by the porter staff to each Lodge or Chapter room, these trays are left open and unattended for some time, while specific items are often 'borrowed' for a specific ceremony and not returned.
The new system that will replace the current practices, provides adequate security for each Lodge and Chapter and conforms to the H & S needs for UGLE porters to undertake their specific role. Each Lodge or Chapter will have their own metal drawer appropriately labelled, with their regalia sealed within a locked metal lid.
Three keys will be issued to the Secretary or Scribe, and these will be separately numbered with no duplication for other drawers. The individual drawer will be kept in a cabinet containing six drawers, which conforms to the H & S regulations as it will only be just over six feet high. These cabinets will be stored in a locked room environment with access only allowed to UGLE porter and security team. A new cabinet and drawers will be on display in the ante-room of Lodge Room No. 1 for Brethren to view.
This current review has also meant that a new racking system will be installed for the storage of banners, which will all be hung from rails. This was not the case previously, as several banners used to be rolled for storage, but this new method of hanging the banners will ensure longer life and less chance of damage to the delicate materials from which several of them are made.
Unfortunately, the cost of the Lodge drawers is being increased from £25 to £40 per annum. These are double the size of the Chapter drawers, which remain at the existing charge of £25 per annum. Likewise, the banner cost remains the same as before at £25. These charges for storage in central London are still very cheap, but with the added security for Lodges and Chapters.
The Lodge Liaison team, in particular John Vazquez, will be undertaking a role during the duration of the installation of this project and will be available on 020 7395 9283 to answer any queries. This will ensure that any disruption is kept to a minimum, and he will liaise with Lodges and Chapters regarding the issuing of keys by the UGLE security team. It is envisaged that this new format for Lodge and Chapter storage will last well into the 22nd century, providing an efficient and secure service to the users of the facilities at Freemasons’ Hall.
Stuart Whitehead is Facilities Manager at Grand Lodge