Inspired by Freemasonry

The Library and Museum is one of seven London archives that has taken part in a collaborative project between Poet in the City and Archives for London, funded by Arts Council England

The project, Through the Door, encouraged leading poets to explore archive material and then produce new work, with the aim of sharing the capital’s heritage more widely, as well as introducing poetry and the archives to new audiences.

The Library and Museum worked with David Harsent, who recently won the TS Eliot Prize for poetry. He produced six sonnets and a shape poem inspired by masonic archives. 

All the poems have been published in a book called Through the Door, which is available from Letchworth’s shop, and some of the archive material is currently on display in the museum.

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Story tellers

A grant from Arts Council England has enabled the Library and Museum to catalogue its medal collection and uncover details of the tension between Britain and Germany before WWI

The Library and Museum has received a grant from Arts Council England to catalogue its collection of nearly two thousand art medals. These have been produced since the 1700s to commemorate individual Freemasons and masonic events. Although there are several notable English examples, such as the Freemasons’ Hall medal of the 1770s, there are also many examples from across Europe.

One is a medal that commemorates the visit of the Pro Grand Master, Lord Ampthill, to Germany in May 1913 at the invitation of the three Prussian Grand Lodges. It was significant that both Ampthill’s father and grandfather had been ambassadors to Berlin and the visit took place after some years of increasing political tension between Britain and Germany.

The visit was reported in the Grand Lodge meeting in June 1913 and recommended that ‘the exchange of ideas between the Craft in this country and the Craft in Germany is maintained and extended’. However, this was not to be, as just over a year later the two countries were at war.

One of the best-documented art medals is that which celebrates the centenary of Minden Lodge, No. 63, in 1848. Its striking design incorporates names including those of the Master (Frederick Oliver, a bandmaster) and Wardens (Clarke and Robertson) at the time of the centenary.

This was a military lodge established in the 20th Regiment of Foot and took its name from the vital role it played at the Battle of Minden in 1759.

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From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Spooks, the stunning corridors, Grand Temple and distinctive exteriors of Freemasons’ Hall have played a crucial supporting role on screen. Ellie Fazan goes behind the scenes

In 2009 a member of the public, concerned by the presence of American soldiers loitering on the steps of Freemasons’ Hall, phoned the police in panic. Had the relationship between the UK and US broken down? Were the soldiers about to declare the Hall a forward operations base?

‘We were filming with Matt Damon for Green Zone,’ remembers Karen Haigh, Head of Events, who has overseen the film career of Freemasons’ Hall thus far. While things can get surreal, her first priority is to ensure filming does not obstruct the Hall’s primary function. So while Matt Damon was saving the world downstairs, meetings were going on upstairs as usual.

Karen has been working with Jenny Cooper from Film London to promote Freemasons’ Hall as a location. Funded by the Mayor of London and The National Lottery through the British Film Institute, and supported by the Arts Council England and Creative Skillset, Film London operates as the city’s film agency. It works to promote London as a major international production centre, attracting investment from Hollywood and beyond.

The agency looks after the capital’s most iconic backdrops, including The Savoy hotel and King’s Cross St Pancras station, but the Hall has also become a star, playing MI5’s base, gentlemen’s clubs and even Buckingham Palace. ‘Its versatile nature and flexible, friendly management, as well as the unique and lavish interior and central London location, have made it a firm favourite over the past ten years,’ says Cooper.

In 2012 Film London launched a tiered membership scheme, of which Freemasons’ Hall is a Gold Member, but the relationship goes back much further. Cooper explains: ‘Around seven years ago we got organisations, including the United Grand Lodge of England, to agree to work with Film London in promoting the city as a film-friendly destination.’

The response has been ‘tremendous’ with a notable rise in filming in London, where seventy-five per cent of the UK industry is now based, making it the third busiest production city behind New York and LA.

So expect sightings of US soldiers and alien landings to become more common on Great Queen Street.

‘Its unique and lavish interior and central london location have made Freemasons’ Hall a firm favourite’ Jenny Cooper

Take five: These days you’re almost as likely to see Robert Downey Jr in Freemasons’ Hall as another Freemason. Karen Haigh picks her top five films and TV shows at the Hall over the past ten years

1. Green Zone (2010)

The high-octane war thriller starring Matt Damon used the Hall as a bombed-out palace in Baghdad. For this role the building had a bit of a make-under, with debris everywhere and blown-out wires hanging from walls. ‘It was a great example of how even when a huge Hollywood production is here, our first priority is that the Hall can function for its members,’ says Karen. ‘So while Matt Damon was running around saving the world downstairs, there was a big provincial meeting going on upstairs.’

‘Johnny English was such a fun film. It was the first time I thought, This could really work’ Karen Haigh

2. Spooks (2002-2011)

Freemasons’ Hall played MI5 headquarters Thames House in this clever and compelling spy drama, focusing on the undercover work of a team of super spies. ‘It was amazing to have a starring role in such a groundbreaking TV show.

It showcased the Hall in such a fabulous way,’ recalls Karen. The only downside of being so involved in the production of the show, she says, was that the traditional end-of-series cliffhanger never had quite the same impact for her.

3. Johnny English (2003)

Peter Howitt’s action comedy parodies the James Bond franchise, with Rowan Atkinson playing an inept spy. The opening credits take a veritable tour of the building. ‘It was such a fun film and there was a lovely atmosphere. Rowan Atkinson is a British institution, and for many of our members he is the most exciting actor that we have had here,’ says Karen. ‘I think it was the first time I thought, this could really work. Film London gave us lots of support, because they knew we had potential as a film location.’

4. Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Some of the exhilarating scenes of the first Sherlock Holmes movie, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr, were filmed in the Hall. ‘Guy Ritchie had been to the Grand Lodge before and really wanted to use it as a location,’ Karen reminisces. ‘You could see during filming that it was going to be really good.’ Karen and her team built such a strong relationship with the film-makers during shooting that the star-studded press conference was held at the Hall on the day of the premiere.

5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Douglas Adams’ comedy tells the story of hapless Arthur Dent after aliens destroy Earth. The Grand Temple took on its first starring role, as the Nose, the base for John Malkovich’s character. ‘I carefully pick the films that shoot here,’ says Karen. ‘This film is very tongue-in-cheek and seemed a wonderful way of saying that we can laugh at what people say about us. We built a great relationship with Disney, so they held the premiere party here.’

 

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