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Edgbaston Treasures

Wednesday, 01 September 2010
Yasha Beresiner Returns To The Masonic Museum And Library Of Warwickshire

It was a pleasure to return to the spacious premises of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Warwickshire in Stirling Road, Edgbaston, and view again the delightful masonic collection displayed on the first-floor balcony encircling the main entrance hall.

Michael Baigent and I were warmly welcomed at the library and boardroom by Assistant Provincial Grand Master, John Emms, the recently appointed chairman of the museum and library. He was able to explain to us the ongoing reorganisation of this long established body founded in 1908. A small group of volunteers are cataloguing the three thousand books in the library and relabelling the artefacts on display. The new committee, consisting of representatives of the 192 lodges in the province, will be meeting for the first time in the coming months to receive reports on developments and discuss progress. John has taken initial steps in talking to various bodies, most recently to the Temple Councillors and Liaison Group, where he presented a paper on the museum and library. Meanwhile the new computerised catalogue has a listing to date of some 1800 books, which are dispersed in the shelves of the cabinets in the library. The relocating of these books into thematic categories will be undertaken after the completion of the catalogue.
     Several of the rarities in the library are housed in a safe in an anteroom and John placed some on display for us: 1st and 2nd editions of Anderson’s Constitutions dated 1723 and 1738 respectively; an illuminated testimonial highlighted in gold and unique by its very nature, dedicated to the Mark Provincial Grand Master for Warwickshire, Lt. Col. Zaccheus Walker (1919-31); the only known copy of the 1728 edition of the Engraved Lists of Lodges by John Pine and a personalised ‘autograph book’ dated 1889 containing a collection of photographs and autographs of masonic dignitaries, which belonged to the Master of Lodge No. 1180, William Tolladay.
     A group of books indirectly related to Freemasonry had also been bound in the same intricate gilt decorations: a 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, known as the Breeches Bible and a copy of the later, and possibly rarer, first edition folio size Baskerville Bible, the property of Lodge of Industry, No. 5123. The name is derived from John Baskerville’s (1706–1775) invention and design of the new typeface in 1757. This bible, dated 1763, is considered his master work, and is printed in his own typeface, ink and paper.
     Also in this collection of quasimasonic books is a copy of Robert Plot’s The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, 1686. This folio volume contains the earliest recorded account of accepted masonry known as the Plot Abstract. Its importance lies with its summary of the legendary history, its description of contemporary Freemasonry and criticisms of the fraternity as well as the unresolved matter of the sources for his information, specifically his reference to the ‘large parchment volum they have amongst them’ which is otherwise unknown.
     One cabinet in the library, dedicated to documents and prints, includes a theatre poster for The Theatre Royal Birmingham, Thursday, December 14, 1854 which refers to the ‘Distinguished patronage of Lord Leigh Provincial Grand Master of Warwickshire and the Freemasons of the Province’. Lord Leigh also features in an accumulation of manuscript letters dated between 1871 and 1877, the majority signed by him in correspondence with the organisers of the Lifeboat Fund for Warwickshire. William Henry, 2nd Lord Leigh, was Provincial Grand Master from 1852 to 1905, an unbroken record by this or any other province. He was also Grand Superintendent of the Holy Royal Arch for Warwickshire, 1864-1905 and the first Grand Master of the newly formed Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of England, 23 June 1856.
     The Warwickshire Masonic Museum is comprehensive and well displayed, easy to view and friendly to the visitor. The many cabinets and sideboards surrounding the whole of the balcony on the first floor are interspersed between the six entrances to the lodges and chapters that meet on location. It is thus continuously exposed to Brethren attending meetings; an enviable circumstance for any museum.
     Glass cases house an attractive collection of old and new aprons belonging to the Craft and the Orders beyond. Flat tiered display cabinets cover the whole range of masonic objects: beautiful pieces of china include three – gallon transfer – decorated Sutherland ware pitchers, manufactured in that size to accommodate an old regulation that limited one jug per table. An unusual ceramic piece of Sutherland Lustre circa 1820 is a ten-tier diminishing block 120mm high with an ashlar square base 160mm square. The black pedestal, which stands on four decorated feet, is made to appear as a separate wood block. The whole, however is a single piece. The designs along the s ides incorporate inter alia squares and compasses, a pentagram and six pointed star. The letter ‘G’ being prominent suggests that this is from a Scottish or foreign presentation to the province. Made as a table piece, it would have at some time adorned festive boards.
     The very extensive glass cabinets have interesting pieces: a yellow stained drinking glass just 30mm wide at the mouth in the shape of a lady’s boot with the square and compasses prominently engraved on both sides; an unusual flat glass whisky or port flask decorated with masonic emblems on one side and a measure scale up to six quarts on the other; a decanter with the second verse of the well known ‘Enter’d ‘Prentices Song’ engraved within a floral frame: This is the earliest known masonic song, which appears in James Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 with the comment: ‘by our late Brother Mr Mathew Birkhead, deceas’d. To be sung when all grave busi-ness is over, and with the Master’s leave.’ The words and music were adapted from an old Irish ballad and are attributed to the actor-singer and comedian, Mathew Birkhead (d.1723)
     A few shelves placed in flat cabinets display an array of minor and fascinating everyday objects with masonic emblems: buttons and seals, tie pins, money clips, watches and prisoner of war-related artwork. We saw an excellent collection of early nineteenth century snuff boxes, one wooden box in particular exceptionally attractive, shaped as a triangle and the inside hallmarked silver gilt. The decorative carving of the wood included along the sides, ‘Honour the Queen’, ‘Love the Brotherhood’ and ‘Fear God’. The circular brass disk centrally placed shows this to have been a presentation by Lord Leigh to the Lodge of Light, No. 689, on the occasion of his Mastership in July 1854. Also carved on the side is the name Stoneleigh which was Lord Leigh’s residence and the wood for the snuff box was said to have been taken from this property.
     John Emms paid tribute to the work of the late Mike Connett, who sadly passed away in August this year after a long illness, whose initial dedication and enthusiasm was the catalyst for the present rejuvenation of the library. The province’s web site states that ‘The library has been described as one of the hidden mysteries of Masonry’. Clearly that is no longer so and the province looks forward to welcoming Brethren to utilise the library and museum.

The Museum is opened daily except weekends between 10 am and 4 pm. Those wishing to visit the library can do so by contacting John Emms via the Provincial Office on 0121 454 4422.