Freemasonry explained in Yorkshire

Thanks to a donation to Harrogate’s Royal Hall, a masonic exhibition has returned a portrait of Henry Lascelles to Yorkshire

The Royal Hall at Harrogate, one of the finest Edwardian theatres in the country, is a Grade 2 listed performance hall and theatre. With support from many local benefactors, led by industrialist Samson Fox, the building opened in 1903 as the Kursaal. Designed by Robert Beale and Frank Matcham, one of the most prolific theatre architects of his time, it was loosely based on the design of the Ostende Kursall in Belgium. 

Over the years, the Royal Hall has provided a superb home for the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Yorkshire, West Riding, the first one being held in 1937. However, its masonic links go back to the Royal Hall’s origins. Samson Fox, Robert Beale and Frank Matcham were all Freemasons, as was Julian Clifford, the Royal Hall’s musical director for many years, and Alderman David Simpson, four times Mayor of Harrogate, who laid the foundation stone in 1902.

In 2001, the Royal Hall Restoration Trust was formed to raise funds towards the restoration of this important National Heritage building. Supported by the actor Edward Fox, a great-grandson of Samson Fox, donations were received from local benefactors, Harrogate Borough Council, Harrogate International Centre and the Heritage Lottery Fund which allowed for a fully authentic interior redecoration and the restoration of the Dress Circle. In 2008, the patron of the Royal Hall Restoration Trust, HRH the Prince of Wales, led the Hall’s official re-opening.

Since that time, the Trust has remained in existence to continue with those improvements not included in the major project, including the further development of the Heritage Lounge. In 2010, the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding, was pleased to make a generous donation towards the Restoration Fund, and, in particular, towards the refurbishment of the Heritage Lounge.

Part of this work included the provision of a run of seven large display cabinets, some of which the Trustees intended to fill with items of interest from those heady days when the Royal Hall attracted many outstanding 'stars' of international reputation.

Furthermore, another part of the refurbishment included an ambitious project to provide a 2 screen audiovisual system which would show different aspects of Harrogate and the Royal Hall.

As the Royal Hall, including the Heritage Lounge, is a feature of the ‘Harrogate Heritage Trail’, it is open to the public on a good number of days each year. It is also used for a variety of corporate events and as a bar during concerts or other performances held in the Hall.

When the Trustees, therefore, offered us the long term use of two of the display cabinets to house a masonic exhibition and also the opportunity to develop a module to be incorporated into the audio-visual system, W Bro Martin Stray, Assistant Provincial Grand Master, had no hesitation in gratefully accepting this very generous offer. After all, this would be the first time that a permanent exhibition of Freemasonry would be available for public viewing in a non-masonic context.

It soon became clear that there was much work to be done if we were to develop an exhibition of which the Province would be proud, hence we – W Bro Stuart Ross and W Bro Peter Smith – were commissioned in July 2011 with the task of making it happen.

Immediately we busied ourselves finding out exactly what was available in the way of interesting items suitable to be included in the exhibition. A trip to the Library and Museum of Freemasonry at Grand Lodge proved to be a very positive starting point. Diane Clements (Director) and Mark Dennis (Curator) offered invaluable assistance in creating a wish list of available items. Rooting through various cellars, cupboards and other dark and mysterious places around the Province soon unearthed further treasures which could be included. 

Early in the project, from research pursued by W Bro Stray, we were made aware of a magnificent portrait of George Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood, who was Provincial Grand Master of Yorkshire, West Riding 1926–1942, Pro Grand Master 1935–1942 and Grand Master 1942–1947. This portrait was commissioned by the Province in 1937 and to which each of its lodges subscribed. The portrait was painted by Sir William Nicholson and presented to the Earl to be hung in Freemasons’ Hall, London. 

Having expressed our interest in bringing this painting back to Yorkshire, representations were made to the Board of General Purposes, which agreed to the loan for an initial period of five years. This is the first occasion that the portrait has been seen outside London since it was presented all those years ago. Whilst we were naturally delighted to hear this news, it very soon became apparent that moving a fifteen foot painting from London to Harrogate was not going to be such an easy proposition. However, that was a problem for the future!

Having instigated our search for interesting exhibition items, it now became important to switch our attention to the development of our audio-visual module and to define the structure and content. We settled on the module being split into three parts i.e. an introduction, then two options: ‘What is Freemasonry’ and ‘Freemasonry and the Community’. 

From the start, we were clear that everything to do with this exhibition was to be aimed at non-masons. With this in mind, suitable text was prepared for each of the three modules and appropriate images sourced or created to support our message. When the text had been recorded as an audio file, the software company had all that they needed to work their magic on our base material, which they did with great skill. The final flourish to the module was the development of an interactive keyboard, which appears on the touch screen at the end of each module, allowing for the entry of a name and email address for anyone wishing to receive more information. Data collected in this way is then immediately sent via the internet to the Provincial Office at Bradford. 

Meanwhile, having agreed on a goodly number of artefacts from the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, it was time to look at what would be available from some of our local Lodges. We were fortunate in that De Grey and Ripon Lodge No. 837 agreed to lend us the Provincial chain, jewel and apron of the Earl de Grey and Ripon (later the Marquess of Ripon), Provincial Grand Master 1861–1874 and Grand Master 1870–1874. We then raided the Provincial archives where we found a wonderful set of Consecration Vessels, some charity posters and the beautiful Registrar’s Purse. Finally, we found some interesting items from Philanthropic Lodge No. 304.

Once transport had been arranged to bring the portrait and artefacts from London to Harrogate, we then had to consider just how the portrait was going to be raised some thirty feet in the air without damaging it. The weight of the portrait was such that special brackets had to made and cemented into the wall so that the portrait could hang safely. These brackets could only be fixed in position with the help of a scaffolding tower. Once the cement was set, the portrait would need to be hoisted up the wall and hung on to the brackets. All this had to be carefully timed to coincide with the portraits’ arrival from London.

With the portrait in place and the artefacts chosen, one would have thought that there was very little more to do other than arrange the displays in the cabinets. However, before that could be done, loan agreements had to be drafted for all the items which were to feature in the exhibition. Each artefact needed to be described in great detail, indicating any damage, and in most cases photographic evidence was required to support the description and value.

Once insurance was in place, the displays and information cards for the individual items could progress. We decided to use quite different approaches to the displays in our two allocated display units. 

Firstly we decided that the public would be interested to see items that a Freemason would himself use or see on a regular basis as a member of the Craft. Hence the main feature of the first cabinet is a Mason’s case overflowing with items of regalia, dress, jewels and other printed ephemera. 

A full box of working tools is to be found nearby, together with a number of ceremonial mauls and trowels commemorating the laying of various Foundation stones around the Province. This part of the display is supported by a superb collection of interesting glassware and ceramics, including a collection of Leeds Creamware complete with masonic symbols and two rather interesting ‘dice’ glasses.

The second cabinet holds a more limited number of larger, spectacular items, with the central focus being the Registrar’s Purse. This purse is a replica of the one belonging to United Grand Lodge and was used by the Provincial Grand Registrar to carry official documents on ceremonial occasions. This magnificent piece is a work of art in its own right and was created from silk velvet, using stump work with raised gold bullion thread, plate and sequins.

The purse is complemented by a set of decorated gilt Consecration vessels, comprising the Cornucopia (for corn), the two Ewers (for wine and oil) and the Salt. 

The colourful Provincial Grand Master’s apron and chain, used by the Earl de Grey and Ripon, then show an interesting contrast with the light blue Master Mason’s apron in the adjoining cabinet.

To provide an eye-catching backdrop to the displays, a series of superbly ornate Charity certificates from the late 19th Century were borrowed from our Provincial archives and attached to the back wall.

The exhibition opened on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Grand Lodge on May 29th 2013, when many of the distinguished visitors and brethren attending the meeting were able to view the exhibits, watch the audiovisual presentation and admire the portrait of the Earl of Harewood on its return ‘home’. Seeing the way the exhibition was received made all the hard work and effort worthwhile, but it must also be remembered how important the support of both Harrogate Council (particularly the Royal Hall staff) and the Library and Museum of Freemasonry had been to the overall success of this development.

The exhibition is now open to the public on various days throughout the year and is also usually available for those attending events and performances in the Hall. If you would like to see the display, visit the Royal Hall website: www.royalhall.co.uk and follow the link to Royal Hall Open Days.

Very shortly after this exhibition had been completed, the opportunity arose for another exhibition to be created at the Bradford Industrial Museum. This exhibition has the double benefit of a much greater floor area to work with and an impressive attendance of around 40,000 adults pa.

At the time of writing this article, we are in the process of selecting and agreeing the items to be displayed, creating the loan agreements and putting the finishing touches to what will be yet another opportunity for the non-masons within this Province to share in the wonderful history of Freemasonry.

The exhibition, entitled 'A masonic Experience: Freemasonry Explained' is on schedule to open to the public in early December. Once again, we are indebted to the Library and Museum of Freemasonry for their continued support. We also appreciate all the hard work and effort from the staff at the Bradford Industrial Museum and the Bradford lodges: their assistance has been invaluable in helping to create this exhibition.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 09:03

On the record

Mark Dennis, curator of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry at Freemasons’ Hall, explains to Luke Turton why his job is all about challenging assumptions


Why did you join the Library and Museum of Freemasonry?
I answered the advert in Museums Journal, which is how qualified curators find their jobs. It was visiting the museum before I applied that made me want the post – as someone with a prior interest and specialism in uniforms and regalia, these fantastic collections were something I really wanted to explore. As a non-mason it has been a fascinating journey into the heart of Freemasonry and towards realising what it means to its members and the outside world. I previously worked as curator for HM Customs and Excise so dealing with an organisation that people are prone to misunderstand or have strong views about came naturally.

How have the collections changed since you started working here?
We’ve been looking for the more commonplace. If it’s rare and it’s precious, we’ve probably got six, but if it’s average, we probably haven’t got one because it wouldn’t have occurred to a mason to give it to the Grand Lodge. When we got here, there wasn’t a case showing basic Craft regalia because the assumption was that everyone knows what it looks like – but the public don’t. That process of openness continues today. When I got here, we wouldn’t have had a case on women’s Freemasonry, yet a few years ago we had an entire exhibition on a female grand lodge centenary.

Have the visitors changed over the years?
Things are shifting. We get a younger and more diverse audience who are genuinely curious and don’t have preconceptions. It’s all about making people think about their views on Freemasonry. With all the regalia and ritual, they might find what Freemasons do mysterious, but go back sixty years before the welfare state and every working man, as well as many women, were in friendly societies – it was the only way you got sick pay or death benefits. All these societies had regalia and ritual, so did the trade unions. The profile of the Freemasons and of this Grand Lodge in particular is the last visible bit of what used to be completely understood before the Second World War.

What is the Library and Museum trying to achieve?
The museum was originally designed for Freemasons to advance in their knowledge. The museum therefore presumed visitors knew what was going on. However, in recent years we and our predecessors have been working through the material culture of Freemasonry, using it to build up a picture of masonic life on an exhibition-by-exhibition basis. We’ve done things on masonic dining and sociability; the relationship between Freemasonry and religion; women in Freemasonry; and additional degrees – some Freemasons don’t realise there are twenty additional masonic orders that you can join so there’s the spotters’ guide up on the wall. We don’t have an agenda but we do want people to realise the depth, richness and complexity of the subject matter. We’ve also designed it so that if you are a Freemason, you can use the displays to talk to family members or potential candidates. This is the museum of the Grand Lodge and we should never forget that it is primarily for the members.

How do you decide what to put on display?
For the exhibitions, we look for facets that people wouldn’t know about. I wouldn’t show anything that spoiled the surprise of any of the rituals – for example, an object that is used. However, we are looking to be comprehensive in terms of lodges that come under the United Grand Lodge of England. We want something from every single lodge in the constitution, be it ephemera, lodge history or a jewel.

We have a display of Henry Muggeridge, who was a very famous Victorian mason, and we have the jewel worn by his proposer, his handwritten notes when he was in his eighties and everything in between. We collect people not things. They have a financial value but they’re also irreplaceable historically. We have a gavel made from a rifle captured in battle (pictured above right) and used in masonic meetings in the combat zone, and jewels made in a lodge held in a Japanese internment camp in the Second World War. How do you put a price on those? If the building’s burning down, none of us will head for the gold and silver, we’ll all go for the one-off pieces that tell a story.

How much restoration work do you carry out?
We don’t take things in poor condition unless they’re absolutely vital for the story – we’re not miracle workers. We are working through our collections and looking at things that need conservation, like books and fabrics, but we’re here to archive, we’re a service industry. We do publish academic papers, but primarily we are here to make people aware of the collections, wake people up to the fact that it’s here and hope they ask us questions so that we can start digging around. It’s the same in the lodges – if it weren’t for the fact that lodge archivists have been keeping records and writing histories for the past two hundred and fifty years, so much would have been lost. The things in our museum now are a unique resource.

Where else could I find Freemasonry artefacts?
Apart from the provincial masonic museums, the display of Freemasonry in the UK is next to nil – I think museums are afraid of it and that they might get it wrong. What keeps me here is that, as a curator, I’m doing something that no one else is. It can get a bit lonely but it’s fascinating. We want to point out that the world is moving, that people do have an interest in fraternity in the broadest sense, as well as in Freemasonry, and that maybe the time is coming for it to be displayed in other collections. Museums out there are missing a trick.

Do you show how Freemasonry is interpreted throughout the world?
The main thing is to pick out a core message of the Grand Lodge, like brotherly love, and then find out more about the stories that relate to that core. However, under the surface of what we do there is historical tension when looking at global Freemasonry in all its diversity, against how it was originally created in the UK. While it’s a very adaptable organisation in the UK, especially if you look at how its changed in the last few years, it has still kept its core beliefs of no politics or religion. When this changes around the world, is it still Freemasonry? The public have no idea about regularity or recognition, for them if someone calls themselves a Freemason, that’s what they are. But it’s not that simple, it’s a sensitivity that we’re working on and is an interesting line to walk.

What do you like about your job?
I came here for three years and I’ve been here for twelve. I said I’d leave when I get bored and that hasn’t happened yet. The joy of this collection is that it makes people really think and, as curator, it’s at the root of what I do: to wake people up and make them consider why it is that they hold certain ideas and beliefs.


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