On 15 February 2018, more than 200 guests gathered in London’s Freemasons’ Hall to hear four speakers at a symposium hosted by Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076, called ‘1717 & All That’. Questioning the accuracy of historical records from that time, the debate centred around whether the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, with two speaking against, and two supporting, the historical consensus

AGAINST

Andrew Prescott, Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Glasgow

Andrew Prescott was first to take the lectern, arguing against the historical consensus that Grand Lodge was formed in 1717. 

His argument centred around the reliability of historical sources as well as the honesty, or otherwise, of some of those masons who chronicled the early history. In particular, Prescott drew attention to the ‘unscrupulous’ James Anderson, who wrote The Constitutions of the Free-Masons in 1723, which was contentiously updated in 1738. 

Acknowledging that historical sources are complex things that historians have to continually revisit, Prescott focussed on the earliest written record on the founding of Grand Lodge. This included the announcement that describes the installation of the Duke of Montagu as Grand Master in June 1721, when other lodges gave up their separate rights to create a Grand Lodge. He contended that if this occurred in June 1721, then, logically, Grand Lodge could not have existed before. 

Prescott argued that, given that Grand Master George Payne’s regulations dated to 1721, three of the most important elements of Grand Lodge Freemasonry – the surrender of powers by other lodges; the approval of Payne’s regulations; and the installation of Montagu – all took place in 1721. While Prescott accepted that Grand Lodge Freemasonry must have grown from somewhere, he noted that it wasn’t unheard of for 18th-century clubs to spring up almost overnight. 

Prescott went on to question the traditional narrative. He noted that many references that support the 1717 origin story were written in the 1730s or later and are now believed to be unreliable and arguably invented. 

The issue of honesty was highlighted, with Prescott suggesting that Anderson was inspired to create a fictitious history of Freemasonry in 1738 for his own gain and that he altered some of the early minutes to support the story. Prescott also noted that the story of 1717 was a minor feature of Anderson’s grand redrawing of the masonic narrative.

‘Historical sources are complex things that historians have to continually revisit’

Susan Sommers, Professor of History, Saint Vincent College

Susan Sommers focussed on the specific historical, social and political context of James Anderson’s background. 

Her central thesis stressed the importance of undertaking a comparative study of Anderson’s theological and masonic writings to understand his character and how Constitutions came into being. 

Sommers introduced Anderson as a ‘complex and conflicted character’. She then explored his early life and his education in Scotland and discussed some of the wider historical events of this tumultuous era, including the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Detail was then given on the specific nature of Anderson’s religious beliefs against this political-religious backdrop, exploring and explaining the meaning behind some of the particular phrases he later came to employ in the expanded 1738 edition of Constitutions.

With Anderson slipping into debt and then losing his position as minister of the Presbyterian church in Swallow Street, he undertook the 1738 rewrite of Constitutions ‘primarily for financial reasons’, Sommers noted. He was paid by the page, which may explain the great length of the book, but he never escaped his debts, dying in Fleet Prison in 1739.

Sommers explored the religious language used by Anderson in Constitutions, while also looking in detail at the differences between the 1723 and 1738 editions, which included the decision to anoint 1717 as the founding date of Grand Lodge for the very first time. 

Noting the importance of recognising and understanding Anderson’s religious background to see why he used some of the language that can be read in Constitutions, Sommers argued that it was necessary to compare Constitutions with Anderson’s theological writing, specifically Unity In Trinity. 

Constitutions, she suggested, cannot be seen as a reliable historical study of the origins of Freemasonry as much as a rather over-lengthy continuation of Anderson’s theological arguments, written for profit and without a sole or even primary masonic meaning.

FOR

Richard Berman, Visiting Research Fellow, Oxford Brookes University

Richard Berman’s talk in support of 1717 as the founding date for Grand Lodge began with the admittance that he felt ‘sorry for Mr Anderson, as the chap’s not here to defend himself’. 

Berman went on to offer a wider perspective on the surrounding religious and political context in which early Freemasonry developed, exploring how and why masonry took the form it did. 

Berman explained that he was interested in looking at the drivers that led to the creation of a Grand Lodge. Masonry sprang from the need for Protestantism to defend itself against the threat of Catholicism following the Glorious Revolution. This was a danger that confronted England on many fronts. The Duke of Montagu and other leading masons were very concerned by the Catholic onslaught, as were the Protestants and Huguenots, and diplomats and politicians. Many of these individuals met at the Horn Tavern, the most important and socially connected lodge of the four founding lodges. 

The Horn Tavern lodge had over 70 members, more than the other three put together, and these included members of the aristocracy, as well as leading military and judicial figures. These men used the other three lodges ‘as a veil’ with the explicit intention of creating an organisation that could be used as an instrument to promote Whig and Huguenot interests.  

Berman also touched on the conundrum of the Apple Tree Tavern in Charles Street, Covent Garden, one of the founding lodges and the stated location of an early meeting of the four lodges in 1716. Although it is now accepted that the Apple Tree Tavern was not located on Charles Street, Berman points out there was an inn with this name only 40 yards away at White Hart Lane. Anderson, he suggests, might have made a simple error, but in so doing inserted the sort of small mistake that allows people to question an entire narrative.

John Hamill, Director of Special Projects, UGLE

John Hamill, the final presenter, agreed that historical researchers should not be afraid to challenge preconceived evidence regarding the origins of Freemasonry. 

Hamill contested Andrew Prescott’s central claim that Grand Lodge must have post-dated 1717, as there was no evidence for this date other than Anderson’s work, written 20 years after said event.

While Hamill accepted that the date of 24 June 1717 appears to be Anderson’s alone, he pointed out that when Anderson wrote the 1738 Constitutions there were many leading masons who would have been able to prevent such a simple error. Moreover, there was simply ‘no convincing reason’ for him to lie. Hamill said that it was no great surprise that no press reports from 1717 mentioned Freemasonry, as there was no interest in the Craft until the arrival of the Duke of Montagu as Grand Master.

Hamill looked at reports that named the three Grand Masters who preceded Montagu. Chief among these was a letter written by the Duke of Richmond, Grand Master in 1724, in which he spoke unequivocally about the three Grand Masters who came before Montagu. The letter, Hamill suggested, shows that Grand Lodge existed before Montagu, but it was only the politically motivated appointment of Montagu that enabled Freemasonry to grow into something far bigger.

Hamill stated that Sommers’ and Prescott’s arguments relied upon a ‘major conspiracy involving many people’. He questioned why evidence that dated to later in the 1700s should be considered suspect simply because of when it was written, and posited that this was essentially ‘a semantic argument about what constitutes a Grand Lodge’. 

The concept and some of the traditions of a Grand Lodge were clearly already in place, even if it had not yet embraced George Payne’s regulatory principles. In that sense, said Hamill, 1717 was the beginning of something that, even now, continues to evolve.

‘There was simply no convincing reason for James Anderson to lie’

The speeches can be watched in full on YouTube via www.quatuorcoronati.com/meetings/past-events

Tuesday, 23 January 2018 12:13

1717 and all that

Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, the world’s premier Masonic research lodge, is hosting an exciting and historic event at Freemasons’ Hall on Thursday 15 February 2018 to discuss differing perspectives on the foundation of the world’s first Grand Lodge

A debate, chaired by Professor Aubrey Newman, will commence at 2pm between UGLE’s Deputy Grand Chancellor John Hamill and Dr Ric Berman on the one hand, and Professors Andrew Prescott and Susan Sommers on the other.

The former will argue that the first Grand Lodge came into formal existence on 24 June 1717, while the latter will challenge the established view by arguing that recently examined evidence puts that date four years later on 24 June 1721 and that further professional research needs to be carried out.

The members of each team will have defined time slots during which to present their respective arguments, followed by an open discussion for the fielding of questions from the audience.

This unique event is expected to attract an exciting mix of attendees from around the world to enjoy the historic revelations on both sides.

Attendance at the Symposium is free and to register your interest, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. – stating your name, number of seats, constitution, lodge name and number or 'none'.

Sunday, 01 May 2011 11:44

Freemasonry and the Empire

The Canonbury Masonic Research Centre (CMRC) has unveiled its programme for its thirteenth annual conference, which this year will be on the subject of Freemasonry and Empire.

The event will take place on 22-23 October and will include plenary lectures by Dr. Jessica Harland-Jacobs, Associate Professor at the University of Florida, Professor Andrew Prescott, University of Glasgow, and Professor Cécile Revauger, University of Bordeaux III. A fourth plenary speaker will be announced soon.

Several leading advocates of Empire such as Lord Kitchener, Sir Stamford Raffles and Rudyard Kipling were enthusiastic masonic devotees, and many members of indigenous communities also sought membership of English lodges.

Conference proposals should consist of about 300 to 400 words and should be sent, along with a potted CV, to Matthew Scanlan at the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, Canonbury Tower, Canonbury Place, London N1 2NQ. The Call for Papers will close on 20 May.

Tickets for the conference are now available priced £99 (this includes conference entrance and two buffet lunches) and reservations for the Saturday evening dinner are an additional £40 (please provide details of any special dietary requirements).

Cheques should be made payable to 'CMRC' and sent to the conference organiser at the above address. Further information can be obtained from the CMRC website: www.canonbury.ac.uk

Published in Features
Monday, 01 December 2003 13:22

Sir Alfred Robbins's Greatest Defeat

Andrew Prescott Looks at the First Attempt to Form a Metropolitan Grand Lodge

The inauguration on 1 October 2003 of a Metropolitan Grand Lodge will mark the end of over 200 years of debate about the organisation of London Freemasonry. It will also, after nearly 90 years, bring to fruition a project close to the heart of Sir Alfred Robbins (1856-1931), who as President of the Board of General Purposes from 1913 until his death, was described as ‘the Prime Minister of English Freemasonry’, and who suffered one of the few reverses of his Masonic career in his attempt to reorganise London Freemasonry.

London Freemasonry remained outside the Provincial Grand Lodge structure which evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries, being administered directly by Grand Lodge. In 1992, Lord Eglinton and Winton, the Assistant Grand Master, declared that ‘London is not a province and, masonically speaking, a geographical accident: many meet there because it is equally inconvenient for all’. This view of London Freemasonry as anomalous has a long pedigree, dating back to the 18th century. As early as 1767- 8, Premier Grand Lodge attempted to appoint General Inspectors or Provincial Grand Masters for London Freemasonry, but was prevented by the opposition of London lodges. 

In the revised Book of Constitutions issued in 1815, two years after the Union, London lodges were defined as those meeting within ten miles of Freemasons’ Hall. This included places like Wandsworth, Chelsea and Putney at a time when they were still country villages. The ten mile radius can be seen as administratively forward-looking, allowing Grand Lodge to cope with the growth of London, but the reason for its adoption was more prosaic. London lodges paid higher subscriptions and the ten mile radius maximised subscription income from London lodges. Between 1851 and 1911, the population within the ten mile radius increased from more than two and a half million to over seven million. Like many other institutions, Freemasonry struggled to cope with the problems created by this rapid growth. As the city’s suburbs grew, there was a demand for new masonic lodges. However, Lord Zetland, Grand Master from 1844 to 1870, routinely vetoed proposals for new London lodges because he thought there were already sufficient. 
While Zetland’s successors accepted the need for more London lodges, they were slow in coming to terms with the challenges posed by the growth of London Freemasonry. As the number of lodges increased, Grand Lodge became larger and more unwieldy. Freemasons’ Hall was unable to accommodate all those entitled to attend Grand Lodge, and provincial brethren frequently travelled to London for quarterly communications, only to be turned away because the hall was already full. There were complaints that London masons used Grand Lodge to pursue local disputes. London masons themselves were disgruntled about the lack of an honours system for London lodges. 

A Grand Lodge for London

Alfred Robbins was the London correspondent of the Birmingham Daily Post. He was initiated in 1888 in Gallery Lodge No. 1928, which catered for members of the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, and in 1901 became Master of that lodge. Robbins was dismayed by the failure to tackle the problems of London Freemasonry. He tried to bring a motion in Grand Lodge for the creation of a London Grand Lodge, but was ruled out of order. 
This snub to Robbins prompted a distinguished group of London masons to form a committee to investigate the best form of administration for London Freemasonry. The committee took a poll of London lodges, held a public meeting of London masons, and organised a petition calling for a London Grand Lodge. To head off this discontent, the Duke of Connaught as Grand Master announced in December 1907 the creation of London Rank, the first time that London was recognised masonically as an entity. 
Much of the opposition to a London Grand Lodge came from the Pro Grand Master, Lord Amherst, who resigned in 1908. Amherst was succeeded by the youthful Lord Ampthill, who felt that Grand Lodge needed a thorough overhaul. In 1910 Ampthill circulated Provincial and District Grand Masters with proposals for reform of Grand Lodge, and a special committee of the Board of General Purposes was established to consider the matter. Robbins was a member of this committee, and he made such an impression on Ampthill that in 1913 he was appointed President of the Board of General Purposes. Ampthill and Robbins were a formidable partnership. 
Robbins presented the report of the Board of General Purposes on the future government of the craft to Grand Lodge in December 1913. The report recommended the establishment of a Grand Council, consisting of a mixture of Grand Officers, elected members and members nominated by the Grand Master, to ‘exercise all the administrative, legislative and judicial duties at present exercised by Grand Lodge’. 
The main problem in establishing the Grand Council was London. Since London did not have a provincial structure, it was difficult to organise elections there. The use of electoral colleges was considered, but it was feared that these would increase factionalism. Organising the London lodges geographically was impossible, since two thirds of the London lodges met at or within a mile of Freemasons’ Hall. Another problem was that, in order to ensure that London masons had the same chance of achieving honours as their provincial brethren, it was necessary to create not just one, but a number of Grand Lodges for London. The report proposed the creation of ten Metropolitan Grand Lodges for London. Each Metropolitan Grand Lodge would be designated by a roman numeral, and lodges would be assigned to that Metropolitan Grand Lodge whose number corresponded to the last digit of the lodge number. Grand Lodge decided that lodges should be allowed three months to put forward their views on these proposals. 
The report triggered an enormous debate within Freemasonry. When the consultation was complete, it was found that voting by lodges and by individuals was respectively 57% and 60% in favour of the changes. However, while the Provinces and Districts supported the proposals, the London lodges mainly voted against them. This made the proposed reform no longer viable, since the creation of the Grand Council depended on the establishment of the Metropolitan Grand Lodges. Robbins hoped that the scheme could be rescued, and a committee of Grand Lodge was formed to arrange consultative conferences with London lodges. However, as Robbins himself wrote, ‘By this time, it was June 1914; and, before a single conference could be arranged, the Great War had broken out. In accordance with the general feeling that that was not a time in which to engage in a large plan of constitutional change, ... the task was set aside by common consent.’ 
Thus this scheme to create Metropolitan Grand Lodges foundered. No attempt was made to return to the issue after the First World War, although Robbins, still smarting from his earlier experiences, bravely declared shortly before his death that ‘all who closely watch the work of Grand Lodge know that the subject, though dormant, is far from dead’. 
When on 1 October the Metropolitan Grand Lodge is constituted at the Royal Albert Hall, we can be sure that Sir Alfred Robbins will be there in spirit, and will feel that his greatest defeat has finally been reversed. 

Professor Andrew Prescott is Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield. A fuller version of this paper was given to a joint meeting of the Manchester Association for Masonic Research and the Sheffield Masonic Study Circle, May 2002.

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