Have you heard the one about the three Essexboys?
The Essex Cornerstone Club is bringing younger masons together to create new connections across the Province, as Peter Watts discovers from three of the founding members
Lazy stereotypes abound when it comes to Essex, yet it’s one of England’s most diverse and under-appreciated counties. It boasts a lively mix of busy commuter towns, rural villages, regal Roman settlements and colourful seaside resorts. Essex also has a huge number of Freemasons, with around 10,000 members meeting in hundreds of lodges.
Since 2016, Essex has also been home to the Cornerstone Club, which was founded to connect young masons from across the Province. Three of its founding members – self-declared, born-and-bred ‘Essex boys’ – talk among the cockle sheds of Leigh-on-Sea, which sits on the northern side of the Thames Estuary: ‘With the Cornerstone Club, we want to capture the spirit of Essex,’ announces chairman Elliott Chevin. ‘It’s such a large Province with so much to offer.’
Elliott and his co-founders Jack Gilliland and Jack Saunders discuss the beginnings of the club, which has attracted 150 members from Essex’s large but not particularly youthful masonic community. Elliott, 41, took to Freemasonry enthusiastically in his 20s, but only realised the full range of potential masonic experiences as he moved higher up the ranks, out of his own lodge and into the wider Province. This was also when he began to meet other young Essex masons.
‘There was an age gap between me and everybody else in my lodge,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed the meetings, the meals, the beer, and I loved meeting different people, but the interests of somebody in their 20s can be very different to those of someone in their 60s.’
After Elliott became more involved at the Provincial level, he met more people of a similar age and formed a circle of younger masonic friends. ‘I wanted to find a way to extend this, as I knew there were masons in Essex who had never had that sort of access.’
Supported by Deputy Provincial Grand Master Paul Reeves, Elliott recruited a six-man team of young masons, among them Jack Saunders. Now 31, Jack has been a Freemason for three years and helps to manage the Cornerstone Club’s social media presence.
‘We looked at the data for the Province and saw there were around 500 masons under 40 – one or two per lodge – and we wanted to join them together,’ says Jack. ‘It’s great being with different people [in lodge], but sometimes you want to speak to someone who has the same life experience.’ The club has blossomed, and half its 150 or so members are under the age of 30 – the youngest being 19.
The Essex Cornerstone Club combines its home county’s get-out-and-do-it spirit with a deep respect for masonic tradition. ‘We didn’t want to create another commitment, something that was compulsory,’ says Elliott. ‘We wanted to create something so compelling they’d want to be there. It’s not just meetings and beer – although beer and meetings are important – but a mix of social and educational events that deepen and strengthen knowledge as well as being fun.’
Events have included a tour of the museum at Freemasons’ Hall, playing paintball, a trip to a local brewery, a chance to go inside an Apache helicopter, a family day at Romford Greyhound Stadium and marshalling at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for a charity run raising funds for Haven House Children’s Hospice.
The imagination demonstrated by these activities may account for the club’s success. ‘We expected an initial burst of interest but have continued to build on those numbers every month,’ says co-founder Jack Gilliland, 33. ‘After every event, people have talked about it on social media, and we always get new members. It’s the mix. We’re not just a drinking club; we have thrown in educational events and charity and community engagement.’
‘The club is all about connecting with people – creating an extended family’ Elliott Chevin
The club is focused on holding events in different parts of the Province to enable members from all over Essex to participate, but also to ensure all new young Freemasons in the county are aware of the club. Here, the support of the Province is essential.
‘When a new young mason signs up, we will go to a meeting to welcome them and talk about how to connect with Freemasons of a similar age,’ explains Elliott. ‘We also try to be there every time they do a ritual or event. The Province was very supportive [when setting up the club] and it was important we moved in step with them in order to use their ability to communicate with Essex’s 10,000 Freemasons.’
Jack Saunders admits the club initially had to reassure lodges that it wasn’t planning to poach any younger masons. Now lodges all over Essex help to spread the word, understanding that the Cornerstone Club operates to everybody’s benefit. ‘It’s supplementary, not competitive,’ he explains.
Jack Gilliland is one of three generations at his lodge, which he attends alongside his father and grandfather, and believes this mix of ages is one of the appeals of Freemasonry. ‘There aren’t many other places where people in their 20s and their 80s can discuss life experiences,’ he says. ‘I’ve never had that outside family and Freemasonry.’
MORE THAN A CLUB
Rodney Bass, Provincial Grand Master for Essex, appreciates the way the Cornerstone Club has enriched masonic life in his Province. ‘It’s clear by the significant number of young Freemasons who have signed up to the club just how enthusiastic our younger members are about Freemasonry, and this bodes well for the future,’ he says.
The club is active on social media and Elliott is excited by the potential of technology to build a national or international network of young Freemasons. It uses Facebook to give younger masons a private support system, so they can discuss masonic principles without fear of embarrassing themselves in front of older masons or non-masonic friends.
Elliott is now considering the creation of a Cornerstone Lodge, as a way of maintaining friendships for those who have become too old to attend the club itself; at 41, he is already anticipating his own retirement.
‘Wouldn’t it be great to create a Cornerstone Lodge; a way for people to stay connected to the club for life?’ he says. ‘The club is all about connecting with people – creating an extended family. Before the club existed you had to hope you’d make a connection with somebody or, if you were lucky, find there was somebody of a similar age in your lodge already. Now people can make an instant connection with others around their own age while also expanding their masonic knowledge. That could help somebody stay in Freemasonry for 50 or 60 years.’
FIND OUT MORE: Read more about the club at www.essexcornerstone.com