As the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys celebrates its two hundred and twenty-fifth year, Chief Executive Les Hutchinson explains how the charity has evolved
How did you first hear about the RMTGB?
In the 1980s the face of masonic charitable support for children underwent a major change. Previously there had been two children’s charities – a girls’ charity and a boys’ charity – and they had come together to form the trust as we now know it. Having identified a need for additional skills within the new organisation, a letter was sent to every masonic Province asking: ‘Do any of your members have a son or daughter who is educated to A-level standard, capable of completing a degree and interested in a career in accountancy or management?’ My father was an active Freemason in Cheshire and North Wales and heard about the vacancies. I applied and joined the trust as a management trainee in January 1988.
What were your first impressions?
Until five years ago, the trust was based in offices opposite Freemasons’ Hall. When I first walked into the building, with its polished walnut panelling and open fireplaces, I felt like I had travelled back in time. It all seemed so old-fashioned, but the constant rattle of typewriters and adding machines suggested that the trust was a very active and focused organisation.
How did you progress from trainee?
I spent my first few years learning the ropes within the finance, petitions and fundraising departments.
At the end of my training I was drawn to petitions, as I enjoyed being at the heart of the charity, seeing first-hand the difference that our grants could make. A few years later I became a team leader, then worked my way through the ranks, taking on more responsibility as my career developed. All four masonic charities do a fantastic job, but my heart is with the trust. I was delighted to be appointed Chief Executive in 2008.
What major challenges does the RMTGB currently face?
Whether they have experienced the death or disability of a parent, or encountered a family break-up, all the children we help have experienced a significant event that has led to financial distress. It concerns me when I meet Freemasons or their families who hold deep-rooted misconceptions about our work. Often these views prevent them from coming forward in their hour of need or make them less likely to support our work. One of our biggest challenges is to ensure that people understand what we actually do.
‘We are currently helping around two thousand children. Last year we received the highest number of new applications since the trust was formed’
What are your main responsibilities?
In addition to the day-to-day management of the charity and reviewing applications for support, an important part of my role involves visiting lodges and provincial meetings. Festival appeals are a major source of income and under the current system, each Province usually supports each of the four charities once every forty years. I must ensure that we use this period of fundraising to maximum effect. Wherever I go I am always astonished and very grateful for the warmth and generosity shown towards the trust.
Has the type of support you give changed?
During my twenty-five years with the trust, the focus of our work has evolved to meet the changing needs of our masonic family, but there are those who think we exist simply to provide a posh education for posh kids. This is one misconception that we have to overcome. More than ninety per cent of the children we support go to a state school and live at home. We have also worked hard to identify how we can more effectively help children of distressed Freemasons succeed in life and today many of our grants target specific items like computers and school trips. In some circumstances, we also support the grandchildren of Freemasons, something that is not widely known within the Craft.
How are families assessed?
All our support is subject to a financial test. A family has to have a very low income – less than £5,000 a year to receive our maximum support – and nothing that we give replaces what the state should provide. Our welfare specialists help families look at what state benefits they can claim, and we review the circumstances of every family that we support each year. First and foremost we are a poverty charity.
Is the RMTGB under increasing pressure?
We are currently helping around two thousand children and young people and last year we received the highest number of new applications since 1986. Applications arising from redundancy, bankruptcy and unemployment are all increasing, as they did during previous recessions. Families often turn to us only when they reach breaking point; we would always prefer them to contact us as soon as possible. It is tragic when we are alerted to children whose well-being has suffered because the family assumed we could not help or they were too proud to contact us.
How do the four masonic charities work together?
In my view, the cooperation and understanding between the charities is closer now than it ever has been. We are all fundraising within the same group and supporting the same beneficiaries – albeit at different points in their lives. Sometimes there could be two or three masonic charities supporting the same family, so it made sense for us to move closer together. Our relocation into offices in Freemasons’ Hall helped with this process, as has the use of a single application form. We are also far more proactive and consistent in our support for almoners and charity stewards.
What’s next for the RMTGB?
Two hundred and twenty-five years have passed since the establishment of the first charity for supporting children of Freemasons. When you look back at what we have achieved, the hundreds of thousands of young people we have helped, you realise how important the trust’s work is. The needs of our masonic family will continue to change and, working ever closer with the other masonic charities, we must prepare ourselves for the challenges of the years ahead.
True to its aims
The mission of the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB) is: ‘To relieve poverty and advance the education of children of a masonic family and, when funds permit, support other children in need.’
This year, the charity celebrates its two hundred and twenty-fifth birthday and can reflect on a shifting social landscape that has nevertheless seen the RMTGB stay true to its aims.
In 1788, Chevalier Bartholomew Ruspini and the Duchess of Cumberland set up a school for the daughters of distressed masons. A similar provision for boys was established in 1798. As these charities grew, financial assistance was also provided to support children living at home. Eventually these grants constituted the main work of the charities and a decision was made to move away from running schools altogether. A combined grant-making charity, now known as the RMTGB, became active in 1986.
Today the RMTGB provides help to children and young people by awarding financial grants to relieve poverty and help remove barriers to education. In recent years, schemes such as TalentAid and Choral Bursaries have been established to support exceptionally gifted young people. Initiatives such as Stepping Stones and the ongoing support for Lifelites (Registered Charity No. 1115655) demonstrate the RMTGB’s commitment to thousands of other disadvantaged children without a masonic connection.
To find out more about the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys, visit www.rmtgb.org
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.’
Details of the 150 oil paintings in the collection at Freemasons' Hall in Great Queen Street are now available online as part of a joint project between the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC to put on line all the oil paintings in the UK. More than 200,000 paintings at 3,000 venues across the UK are to be included.
Freemasons' Hall is just one of many institutions (including many Oxford and Cambridge colleges) that are not in public ownership which have joined the project for the benefit of wider public awareness and research. For more information see: www.bbc.co.uk/yourpaintings You can search for the Library and Musuem of Freemasonry as a venue to see all the paintings at Great Queen Street.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry has been working with the Public Catalogue Foundation for the last two years to have all the pictures photographed and to provide details of the artists.
With visitors invited to explore Freemasons’ Hall, director of the Library and Museum Diane Clements explains to Caitlin Davies how this is leading to greater transparency
Covent Garden is one of London’s tourist hot spots and this sunny Saturday in September is no exception. The area is crowded with people sightseeing, shopping and visiting bars. But at the end of Long Acre, where it meets the corner of Great Queen Street, is another city attraction altogether. It’s a large, almost monumental, stone building with little to identify its purpose to those who don’t know.
Come a little closer, however, and a plaque states it was opened in 1933 by Field Marshall HRH The Duke of Connaught, Knight of the Garter and Most Worshipful Grand Master. This is Freemasons’ Hall and today it sports a welcoming sign as part of the annual celebration of the capital’s architecture – ‘Open House London’. Now in its twentieth year, the scheme has seven hundred and fifty buildings opening their doors for free, from iconic landmarks to private homes. A steady stream of people head through the Tower entrance to Freemasons’ Hall, where a steward hands out a leaflet. ‘Welcome to Freemasons’ Hall,’ he says. ‘It’s a self-guided tour.’ ‘People often walk or cycle past and have never been in,’ says Diane Clements, who is overseeing today’s proceedings and is director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. ‘People don’t know what they’re going to see – there is a sense of amazement when they get inside, the building is far more elaborate than you might think. The fact that they can come in shows how open we are and helps address misconceptions about Freemasonry.’ Diane has run the Library and Museum for thirteen years, and relishes the opportunity to work with a world-class collection of objects that have interesting stories to tell. ‘The public has a continuing desire to learn about Freemasonry. I’d like to think the Library and Museum has played a part in improving their understanding.’
Wandering at will
Each year thirty thousand people visit the Library and Museum, and most come for organised tours of the Grand Temple. Freemasons’ Hall has taken part in Open House London since 2000 and the logistics of running the event are considerable. ‘For Open House we couldn’t get enough people through the doors using our usual guided method,’ explains Diane, ‘so it’s the only time you are basically given a leaflet and left to look around.’ Her role is to make sure that the two thousand, five hundred visitors on Open Day have ‘an enjoyable and informative visit’, and over the years she’s learnt to always ‘wear comfortable shoes’.
On the right of the cloakroom a sign shows visitors where to start, then there’s a murmur of voices and creaking of knees as people go up the stairs. The building has a library feel to it, but this changes in the first vestibule, which is flooded with glorious yellow light reflected from the stained glass windows. A man crouches to take a picture of a small golden figure, part of the shrine designed by Walter Gilbert. Meanwhile, a woman from West Sussex says she wasn’t sure what to expect: ‘My dad is in a lodge and I always thought he just meant he went to a room somewhere. But it’s fantastic. It’s really beautiful.’ Another visitor, Dermot, just happened to walk past this afternoon. And what did he imagine was inside? ‘That’s the thing,’ he replies, ‘I didn’t know what to expect.’ For a lot of people it is curiosity that has brought them here today.
‘All our buildings are chosen for the quality of their architecture, that’s our criteria,’ explains Victoria Thornton, director of Open-City, which runs Open House London. ‘Some, like Freemasons’ Hall, may have a quiet façade, behind which lies real exuberance.’
In the second vestibule, steward Peter Martin is presiding over a table of free literature and says the event is even busier than last year. Eric from Kent has been to several Open House events today. ‘I started at Lloyds and worked my way along Fleet Street. I’ve seen Unilever and Doctor Johnson’s house… the stained glass is awesome here.’
The question of gender is a popular one. In the third vestibule a woman asks a steward if only men can join Freemasonry. He explains women can join one of two Grand Lodges in England, but they are not allowed in the men’s Grand Temple, and vice versa.
In the Grand Temple there are fold-down seats like a theatre and it’s here that many visitors take the opportunity for a rest. Voices are respectfully hushed. ‘It is contemplative,’ says Diane. ‘There’s never a huge noise in here. It’s not like the Sistine Chapel – we don’t have to say “Quiet please.”’ One steward answers a barrage of questions about rituals and pledges. ‘Is it true the Queen is a Freemason?’ asks one visitor. The answer is no.
An outside walkway leads to the Library and Museum where an exhibition traces the relationship between Freemasonry and sport. The tour ends at the exit on Great Queen Street, where members arrive for their lodge meetings and are watched with interest by departing visitors, one of whom takes a final snap.
Twice a year, Freemasons’ Hall plays host to shows for London Fashion Week, with press from around the world in attendance. Ellie Fazan finds out what happens when fashion and Freemasonry come together
Visitors to Freemasons’ Hall on London’s Great Queen Street are being greeted by a stylish young woman bedecked in a studded leather jacket. With a clipboard in one hand and wristbands in the other, she is very much in charge.
Upstairs in one of the 21 lodge rooms, frantic preparations are under way for design duo Leutton Postle’s Spring/Summer 2013 show. It is not a scene you would expect to find in Freemasons’ Hall: there is an impossibly tall model having her make-up done wearing nothing but underwear and sparkly high heels, while a team of assistants hurriedly make final adjustments to various hairstyles and outfits.
In the midst of it all, two young women are trying to control the chaos. They are Jen and Sam, otherwise known as Leutton Postle, and this is their third show at Freemasons’ Hall. Their work is being showcased by Vauxhall Fashion Scout – an initiative that offers young designers a space to show their collections. ‘Hello, we’d love to stop and say hi but…’ Before they can finish, they are swept away in a sea of assistants.
‘The building hosts such a vibrant and eclectic mix of people... but it still maintains the elegance of the purposes it was built for’ Karen Haigh
The frenzied atmosphere permeates the room. The majestic corridors are full to the brim with brightly coloured clothes, with fun oversized collars, playful patchwork and lots of glitter. A photographer is shooting a catalogue for the designers today, and has set up a makeshift studio in the cleaning cupboard. Meanwhile, the cleaning lady leans on her mop looking unfazed. She watches on while the call ‘Girls in shoes please’ sends everyone into a panic.
Start the show
Outside Freemasons’ Hall, the fashion crowd is queuing around the block: it’s one of the most anticipated shows of the season, and the designers here are the ones to watch. The Temple vestibule starts to fill with guests, and techno music begins to blast. The clothes are the main attraction – big, bold and attention grabbing – but they don’t detract from the space. Three models at a time appear in the three carved archways before taking to the perfectly polished floor. The contrast between the futuristic collection and the stately, solid building is powerful.
One of the finest Art Deco buildings in England, Freemasons’ Hall has been available for use as a location for television productions and photoshoots for more than a decade. ‘One of the location managers I’d worked with on a film project asked if we hired the venue to outside events such as fashion. We hadn’t before, but I just said yes,’ remembers Karen Haigh, UGLE Head of Events. ‘That led to us piloting the first London Fashion Week shows for Vauxhall Fashion Scout in 2009. All events are special in their own way, but working twice a year with Vauxhall Fashion Scout has become part of the venue. It’s bigger than ever now and it has been wonderful to see it develop each year. It’s like being a parent!’
Offering an opportunity
Freemasons’ Hall is an integral part of London Fashion Week, placing it alongside Somerset House as one of the most important events spaces in the capital, hosting the most cutting-edge shows. The designers here are the ones to look out for. This year fashion’s punk princess Pam Hogg showed, with celebrities and fashion editors alike coming to watch.
For Karen Haigh it’s an exciting time, with no friction between the long-term residents and the temporary inhabitants. ‘The building hosts such a vibrant and eclectic mix of people during this time, but it still maintains the elegance of the purposes it was built for. It really makes me smile when members come into the building during that period and can’t hide their surprise at some of the outfits on display!’
Vauxhall Fashion Scout is helping young people in their chosen fields – one of Freemasonry’s founding principles. Hand in hand they are offering young designers a space. Sam and Jen agree. ‘We couldn’t do this without their support,’ the pair say. ‘It means that as designers we can grow. We’ve learnt so much since last year.’ And what do they think of the building? ‘It’s intense! Even though we have permission to be here, it’s so awe-inspiring it makes us want to run around here at night!’
Kent reopening for Library and Museum
The Kent Masonic Library and Museum Trust has been reopened by Geoffrey Dearing, Provincial Grand Master for East Kent, after an extensive 18-month redevelopment
Located in the heart of Canterbury, in St Peter’s Place, just a ﬁve-minute stroll from the 11th-century cathedral, the museum was originally opened in 1933, and has probably the ﬁnest collection of masonic material in the UK outside London.
As well as masonic paintings, glassware and porcelain, the displays include unique 19th-century stained-glass windows that originally adorned the old Freemasons’ Hall in London. The solid oak entrance doors came from St Mary’s College, part of the Jesuit Monastery in Hales Place, Canterbury, which was demolished at the same time as the museum was being designed by its architect, Brother FG Haywood of Market Square, Dover.
The ﬁrst change evident to visitors is a striking new entrance in St Peter’s Place that catches the eye of the thousands of passers-by. The building is open daily from 10am to 4pm and is wheelchair accessible. Entry is free of charge, with donations welcome.
From building staircases and painting intricate floral plasterwork through to restoring corridors to their former glory, Stan, Damien and Stuart are part of a devoted team of craftsmen at Freemasons’ Hall who ensure that the building is preserved in all of its Art Deco grandeur. Luke Turton reports
Stan Johnstone gazes at the exquisitely polished doorways and columns that frame the Processional Corridor in London’s Freemasons’ Hall. ‘Everyone said I was mad when I did this – it was in a terrible state and had never been polished,’ he says with a mixture of pride and relief as he recalls the amount of effort he had to put into the job. ‘I was on my own and it took three months but it’s a lovely building and I’ve always tried to do the job that I believe it deserves.’
Stan is a French polisher and is part of a team of professionals who keep Freemasons’ Hall looking as pristine as it did when it was built 80 years ago. Not just the heart of the United Grand Lodge of England, the hall is a heritage site in itself. As well as being one of London’s most beloved landmarks, the Great Queen Street building is one of the finest Art Deco monuments in the country, and its operations team has the tricky task of keeping it in tip-top shape.
‘The upkeep of the building means looking after its structure and its parts, as well as keeping it up to date with current legislation,’ explains Roger Carter, Director of Special Projects (Technical) at Freemasons’ Hall. ‘It has individual requirements and we have specialist skills that would be difficult to obtain in normal circumstances. We have more than enough work here to keep these skilled craftsmen working full time.’
Freemasons’ Hall has invested a lot in its crop of craftsmen and is home to electricians, heating engineers, plumbers, painters and an upholsterer. ‘All of these people do things that require more than what would be expected of an ordinary builder,’ Roger says, pointing to the carpenters at the hall who, while more than capable of making standard repairs to the woodwork of the building, are also able to create new things – from furniture through to structural features.
BUILT FROM SCRATCH
‘We repair all of the masonic furniture; there are lots of original chairs that have been here since the 1930s. The joints dry out because they used animal glue and the tendons snap. Then you get project work like the goods entrance on the ground floor. We built that from scratch,’ says carpenter Damien Nolan of the impressive access entrance that seamlessly blends in with the rest of the hall. ‘I also made the staircase cladding for the masonic charities, it was one of the first jobs I did. There was nothing there before and it all came from my head – there were no drawings and then I built it.’
While Damien will deploy modern carpentry techniques where the work will be hidden, old methods and materials will be used for anything visible, for example using old flat head screws rather than their contemporary equivalent. ‘When you’re repairing something old, you’re putting it back to the way it was, there’s no modern method of restoring it. If I have a broken scroll-arm chair, I’ve got to fit a new bit that will make it look like the original. That’s a lot of work cutting the piece out and matching the grain.’
Stuart Alloway has worked for five years as a painter at Freemasons’ Hall. With highly detailed, decorative paintwork throughout the building, Stuart admits to initially finding his job a little intimidating. ‘It was the first historical building that I’d worked on but getting up close, it wasn’t as daunting as I’d feared. It was quite a challenge but when I looked back at it a year later I thought it looked really good. To be part of that and to put your own stamp on it is a nice feeling – it’s a little bit of a buzz.’
Standing in the Prince Regent Room, Stuart peers up at the intricate floral plasterwork that patterns the ceiling. ‘We’re due to decorate this room at the end of the month and we’ve been given five weeks. Even with three of us in the painting team, that’s a lot of neck and back ache but I like it,’ he says. ‘I go back and look at the jobs I’ve done and have a good feeling. We’ve recently talked over a five-year plan that will touch all parts of the building. They’re looking for us to do it all in time for the tricentenary in 2017. It’s going to be a very busy period for us, but it’s good to be working.’
Freemasons’ Hall is particularly proud of its French polishers who employ an intensive technique that achieves a high shine and finish on wood. ‘These skills are very hard to obtain,’ says Roger Carter. ‘Our French polishers are highly skilled – one’s a real artist – and we’ve had contractors in who haven’t always produced the standard we expect.’
ARTISTS AT WORK
The artist Roger is no doubt referring to is Stan Johnstone, who is retiring next year after working at the hall for 12 years. His trolley is filled with different shades of shellac, from a deep garnet through orange to pale yellow, which he can apply to wood using a rubbing pad lubricated with oil. Stan is passing his knowledge onto his replacement Michael as he makes his way methodically around the corridors, lodges and meeting rooms that make up the hall, repairing
and maintaining its surfaces as he goes.
‘Polishing is all about colouring and you can’t get it out of a can. Whatever colour we use, we create ourselves. When we do repairs, a lot of it is about getting that colour so you lose the scratch. The wood soaks up the oils and you’re building it up in order to get the shine,’ explains Stan. ‘We take pride in it and I’ve enjoyed my time here. When I arrived it was in a bit of a state and the lodge rooms still need a bit of work, but what we’re trying to do is to bring the building back to its former glory. I hope what I’m passing on is a craft.’
Letters to the editor - No. 20 Winter 2012
Running out of time
I refer to your article ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ in the autumn issue. It gave real insight into the interior of Grand Lodge and the way it is being preserved and returned to its original condition. As I read the article I thought how different it is to the building I have attended for the past 45 years. Our temple is almost 200 years old and in a very bad state of repair, with water, roof and ceiling damage and quotations out of our range. The two lodges that meet there have only raised about half the cost for one small roof repair. The cold, unsatisfactory environment means some brethren will not attend and there is a subsequent loss of dues and charities. I fear that without help in five years’ time both lodges will cease to exist and the Craft will be left with a derelict building. I am sure we are not alone, yet letting lodges fail is killing the goose that lays the golden egg and we need help before it is too late.
Hundreds of young people descended on Freemasons’ Hall when it hosted the launch party of a kids’ TV show set in an English boarding school. Anneke Hak reports
It’s a balmy spring day and for anyone enjoying the sunshine near Great Queen Street, a sense of intrigue must surely have caught them. For, snaking around the corner of the Freemasons’ Hall front entrance, is a queue of young children and their parents, hundreds long. Some have been there for hours, others have made their way to Covent Garden from as far afield as Chester, and they are all here for one thing: the launch of Season Two of a teen-mystery series called House Of Anubis that will air on the Nickelodeon television channel.
In the grand building, through the Tower entrance on the corner of Wild Street, stands a man dressed in long black robes, with thick eyeliner framing his eyes and completing his Egyptian god get-up. Photos are taken and the children are given orders to pass up the stairs and try to unlock the secrets to the temple. Some children quake with fear as loud, doom-laden music blasts through the stone building, others take it in their stride, keen to get going on their quest.
‘This kind of looks like a church, it’s so cool!’ one child exclaims. He’s right. Freemasons’ Hall couldn’t have been a better location for the party – its high ceilings, temple-like atmosphere and brilliant ambience fit perfectly with the show’s theme about children at an English boarding school who discover hidden mysteries and House Of Anubis’s secrets.
Running up the stairs, the children head eagerly towards the first section of the temple, where they receive the riddle sheets they must complete to gain the sacred access. Two figures dressed in black robes explain the rules. ‘We’re actually Egyptian cult followers of the fearful brother Eden,’ the gentleman tells me, staying in character and refusing to divulge his real name. ‘We are in charge of making sure that only the very wise can enter the inner sanctum of the Temple of Anubis’, he explains, adding ‘We’ve set them a series of difficult challenges, and I don’t think all of them will make it through. Those who don’t will, of course, be sacrificed. Or else they’ll probably just have to leave.’ After this gruesome revelation the cult follower did come out of character long enough to confide, ‘I didn’t even realise non-Freemasons were allowed in. I mean, there’s a gift shop. It’s not what you imagine Freemasonry to be, is it?’
It really isn’t. A lot of work has gone into the event, which includes popcorn stalls, magicians, themed characters from the show and, of course, a dress rehearsal. ‘It’s funny,’ laughs the robed one, ‘because when we were rehearsing, we were told to take our cloaks off as there was a guided tour coming through and they were worried that the tour group would believe all the silly conspiracy theories that Freemasonry was some sort of cult, which this event being held here today disproves.’
science and riddles
As the children march around looking for the next answer, riddle sheets in hand, it becomes clear that not all of the answers are obvious and some are even hidden. On entering one room, I come face to face with a herd of children huddled around what looks like a science experiment as they try and guess how long it will take a piece of metal spinning on glass to stop – will it be shorter or longer than the time it takes to stop on wood? I leave, not confident about my GCSE physics, and bump into another Egyptian Cult Follower in the Hall.
‘I used to fly but now I’m stuck on the ground, black as night in the caretaker’s office I can be found! What am I?’ he crows. Yet again completely stumped, I move on swiftly. That’s the delightful thing about these riddles: you need to be a big House Of Anubis Season One fan to understand them, and therefore gain entrance to the main temple, where House Of Anubis Season Two’s first episode will be screened at 4pm.
A crowd gathers outside the hall, and I ask a few of the children about the fun they’ve been having while we wait. ‘We’ve had a great time,’ says Millie, aged seven. ‘The best bit has been meeting Jamie and Hannah from the show, who were walking around too. We got to speak with them!’
‘I like the mystery of today. I’m kind of good at solving the riddles,’ says Kerry, who is nine. ‘We’ve got all the clues today. Meeting all the famous people has been great – we’ve had our picture taken with Heather from EastEnders.’
Of course, this wouldn’t be a launch event without some well-known faces, and soap actors can be seen flitting around with family and friends. I stop to have a chat with Patsy Palmer, who plays EastEnders’ Bianca. ‘I know nothing about House Of Anubis, you’ll have to ask my children,’ she laughs as they run up to tell her about what they’ve seen. ‘This place is pretty impressive though.’
Finally the clock strikes four and the doors open. We all lurch forward, keen to get a look inside the Grand Temple. I find a seat behind eight-year-old Ryan. ‘I’m really brave, so the building hasn’t been that spooky,’ he tells me. ‘But I thought it would be a bit smaller than this – this is probably the biggest room I’ve ever been in!’
It’s also the first time a screening has been held inside the Grand Temple. Head of Events at Freemasons’ Hall Karen Haigh tells me that the venue is well prepared for the influx of hundreds of young people into the building. ‘Nothing’s going to go wrong,’ she smiles. ‘We’ve checked and double-checked everything – and it’s great to be able to hold new kinds of events. Especially ones like this, which the kids enjoy so much.’
The characters from the show are introduced to screams of applause as they gather on stage to answer questions from a compere, and the audience buzzes with anticipation of what is to come. It’s time for the lights to go down and a hush instantly falls over the 1,400 crowd of young children, teenagers and parents. The premiere of Season Two of House Of Anubis begins and another event at Freemasons’ Hall can be claimed a roaring success.
John Hamill looks back on the construction of Freemasons’ Hall from the perspective of those who worked there
Despite the economic problems, the 1920s was a period of great expansion for Freemasonry. It appealed to those coming back from the war – both as a means of continuing the camaraderie they had experienced on active service and giving them a sense of stability and tradition in a much changed world.
With the growing popularity of Freemasonry, the great project of building the present Freemasons’ Hall in London was undertaken as a memorial to those who had given their lives in the First World War. Changes of this magnitude and the increased work in raising money for the new building put enormous strains on the small office run by the Grand Secretary.
In 1919, the office consisted of the Grand Secretary, Assistant Grand Secretary, sixteen permanent clerks, four junior clerks and two ‘lady typewriters’, Miss Haig and Miss Winter. The two ladies had come in towards the end of the war as temporaries but were to spend the remainder of their careers in the Hall as secretaries to the Grand Secretary and his assistant.
The daily running of the building and the letting of lodge and committee rooms was under the charge of the Grand Tyler, who lived in the hall. He had an assistant, two porters, a night watchman, a ‘furnace man’ who looked after the primitive heating system and the open fires in the offices and committee rooms, and a floating number of cleaners.
Six of the boys taken on between 1925 and 1929 – some of whom came directly from the old Royal Masonic School for Boys – were each to spend forty-nine years in the service of the Grand Lodge: Gerry Winslade, Harold Brunton, Llew Hodges, Bill Browne, Derek Chanter and Bob Hawkins.
Dickensian is probably an overused adjective, but it aptly describes the conditions under which the clerks worked. Freemasons’ Hall had been extended in the 1860s and what were termed commodious offices had been provided for the Grand Secretary and his clerks. Even the provision in 1906 of two new rooms in a house attached to the west end of the old Hall did little to give proper working space.
As the steel work for the new building began to rise in 1927 it gradually became apparent that much would have to change in the future. It was to cover two and one quarter acres with four principal floors, a large basement area and mezzanine floors in various parts of the building. Routine maintenance would be of ‘Forth Bridge’ proportions, to say nothing of security.
Not surprisingly, many of those who had been involved in raising the building applied for jobs and spent the rest of their working lives caring for it, some of them working into their mid-seventies. Carpentry, electrical and engineering workshops were set up in the basement, together with a paint shop and upholstery department. When the time came to demolish the Victorian Hall, the office was transferred to temporary accommodation in what was to be one of the new lodge rooms so that the administration could continue. The conditions were far from ideal but they knew that before long they would be moving to what one of the clerks described as a ‘demi-paradise’.
The new office for the clerks was built in the undercroft of the Grand Temple and matched it in size. Unlike the Grand Temple, it had enormous windows allowing much natural light to come in from the light well which surrounds it. Unlike the cramped Victorian offices, it was open plan giving a great feeling of airy lightness and space. Visitors came in through large glazed bronze doors to find a long enquiries counter, always manned by a senior clerk who could deal with their enquiries or quickly fetch the appropriate clerk who dealt with the particular matter. While waiting to be served, the visitor had a view over the whole of the office.
At the back of the room was a mezzanine floor where the cashier and his clerks had their office. The sensitive nature of their work dealing with Grand Lodge finances and staff payroll was carried out without any fear of being overlooked by staff or visitors. In those halcyon days it was the only part of the office where the doors had locks, the rest of the office was always accessible even when the clerks had left for the evening.
In time, as the Craft continued to expand – particularly after the Second World War – the office again became crowded. In addition, areas had been partitioned off to provide small offices for individuals and the whole open-plan design had been submerged. When a major structural reorganisation of the Grand Secretary’s office took place in 1999 the old partitions were torn down and the feeling of light and space returned. Apart from the modern furniture and the computers, were one of the 1932 clerks to return to the office today they would find it little changed from that ‘demi-paradise’ they were the first to occupy.
Freemasons’ Hall is one of London’s landmark buildings and, as part of the process of maintaining it, there are a small number of highly skilled artisans working there.
The skill base is maintained partly by recruiting junior craftsmen and training them to a level not usually found elsewhere.
A recent recruit as a junior painter is Arthur Smith. He is just 18 and last year started an NVQ course at Lambeth College in Painting and Decorating. He has done so well that he was asked by the college, as part of their Ofsted inspection, to allow the inspector to visit him during his work at Freemasons’ Hall. With Arthur about to progress to the second year, the college is now considering entering him into various local, national and European skills competitions.