Attention to retail
With Freemasons from across the world flocking through its high-arched doors, Letchworth’s is proving to be a popular draw for visitors. Manager Kevin Duffy reveals why the shop at Freemasons’ Hall offers so much more than souvenirs
What attracted you to the position of shop manager?
I applied to work in Letchworth’s eleven years ago.
I’d managed high street stores before; I’m not a mason myself, but the idea of working for Freemasonry was intriguing. The shop was much smaller then, perhaps twelve foot by twelve foot with some cabinets and a till. There was nothing there really, but Diane Clements (Director of the Library and Museum) handed me the keys and said, ‘Off you go.’ It was the perfect challenge.
How have things changed in the shop?
For one thing, it’s three times bigger! We’ve just completed our third refit to include a clothing section and a jewellery counter. What started as a modest collection of Grand Lodge publications has expanded into nine different product ranges, including regalia, homeware, audio and the usual quirky gifts like teddy bears, book lights and heraldic shields.
Why has the shop been so successful?
The shop wouldn’t be anything without the knowledge of the Freemasons in this building. With so many products, it’s impossible to know everything about all of them, so I rely on the expertise of the people around me. Whether it’s a London Grand Rank Association volunteer relaying customer requests or somebody from the Library and Museum giving me advice about regalia, I listen to what they have to say. All that has come together to produce the incredible shop we have now; it’s been a communal effort to get to where we are.
How has the internet affected sales?
Some people see it as a threat, but for Letchworth’s it’s been a massive advantage as so many members live outside London. Ever since we launched the website eight years ago, the number of overseas visitors has also grown tremendously. It’s been a fantastic resource for spreading the Letchworth’s name, as well as bringing in sales of its own. In 2007, online accounted for twenty per cent of all sales, but today it brings in just under half when combined with mail order. It’s fantastic when you get visitors from the other side of the world coming in and saying they wish they had something like this where they come from. They also spend more than the British customers; average spend for overseas masons is from £70 to £80, but for UK Freemasons it’s from £20 to £30.
Is there competition in the world of masonic retail?
There’s a friendly rivalry with the external masonic shops, especially those based across the road from us. We all want Freemasonry to be a good experience.
All the profits that we make in Letchworth’s are gift-aided to support the work of the Library and Museum.
Are masonic items always high quality?
There are always some companies out there who try to get involved in any market in the cheapest way possible. You can tell in an instant if it’s a poor product, and we won’t touch it. If you stock bad-quality products, word will spread – one customer will tell ten others and then your business goes backwards. On the flip side, if you provide good products and great service, it cements a good reputation.
‘The shop wouldn’t be anything without the knowledge of the Freemasons in this building... it’s been a communal effort to get to where we are.’
How has Freemasonry changed over the past decade?
Freemasons’ Hall has become much busier, and that’s had a direct impact on the shop. Seven years ago, the building had maybe six lodge meetings on a Saturday; now there can be up to twenty-nine. There’s also a more open feel about the Hall. That’s probably down to the public tours and an increased international interest in Freemasonry.
What’s your favourite part of working at the shop?
I love working here, but it’s the people who really make it. The camaraderie is what helps drive the business forward. I rely so much on the input of my staff and volunteers, especially when it comes to expanding the range. My performance as a manager is very much tied up with theirs, and fortunately we have a dynamic team.
What does the future hold?
My ultimate goal is to keep developing the shop.
You’ve always got to keep moving forward in business, and that’s what I strive to do by challenging the staff, volunteers and United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) to keep coming up with new ideas. We could easily fill a shop three times the size of what it is now. But we wouldn’t fill it with any old product; it would have to have good-quality stock that I would be proud to sell.
How it all began
Past Junior Grand Deacon and long-time member of the UGLE team, Ken Garrett recalls Letchworth’s early days
Our first purchases were very modest and in line with items that could be found in most museums and buildings open to the public – key rings, coasters and a set of postcards of sites within the building. We were able to back these up with the Grand Lodge publication Freemasons’ Hall, which had colour slides and an explanation of most of the photos.
We recruited sufficient brethren from the London Grand Rank Association to man the shop full-time, then we waited to see what the outcome would be. After a slow start the shop got accepted, first by visitors and then – somewhat reluctantly, it seemed – by members, who usually only made a quick visit before going to a meeting. We steadily increased the number of items for sale as demand arose.
From small beginnings, Letchworth’s has blossomed into a major shop and I trust fulfilled the hopes of all who recall its birth.
HRH The Duke of Kent explains why recruitment and retention should be your responsibility, whatever your rank
Whether you have been appointed to or promoted in Grand Rank, I want to emphasise that two of your key tasks are recruitment and retention.
It has become clear from the research carried out by the Membership Focus Group, chaired by the Deputy President of the Board of General Purposes, that these tasks are more important than ever before.
I am particularly concerned to hear that very few members recruit at all, and that there is an unacceptably high loss rate after each of the three degrees – and, indeed, during the first ten years of membership.
The Membership Focus Group has been formed to analyse the statistics and to make proposals to stem the loss of members. It is already clear that the mentoring scheme will play a vital role going forward. It is therefore important that lodge mentors appoint appropriate personal mentors to look after each new candidate, rather than trying to do all the mentoring themselves.
Naturally, I expect you will also be good examples to others, whatever their rank – not only in your good conduct and supportive approach but also by demonstrating your enjoyment of Freemasonry.
I hosted a dinner for Provincial and District Grand Masters. The support of and direction from your respective Provincial and District Grand Masters is paramount and I am pleased to hear how closely they, in turn, are working with the centre at Freemasons’ Hall. This inclusive approach is core to the future of the English Constitution.
I continue to hear of the good work done by the Provinces in their local communities and there is no better example than the help given to the victims of the recent floods, especially in the West Country. This good work was supported when I had the opportunity to visit two Provinces – in Gloucestershire, where I also attended their annual service in Gloucester Cathedral, and in Cornwall. I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the members I met in both.
Seven marathons in seven days
Bristol Freemason Bill Doody ran seven marathons in seven days in support of the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) and the NSPCC. Fundraising on behalf of the Province of Bristol’s 2019 Festival Appeal for the MSF, he covered more than 183 miles in one week. Bill began his incredible challenge by running from Bristol to London, finishing off with the London Marathon on 13 April.
He visited several lodges and attended meetings at Wiltshire, Berkshire, West Kent and Freemasons’ Hall in London.
Go to www.justgiving.com/samaritan for more information
Coming to the rescue in flooded areas
Working with the Provinces, the Grand Charity has been providing help to those in need following winter floods
The start of 2014 saw the wettest January reported since records began, and the severe weather continued into February, causing widespread damage. Entire villages were cut off and thousands of people had to abandon their homes and businesses. It is estimated that more than five thousand properties were flooded, with many underwater for up to six weeks.
Richard Hone, QC, President of the Grand Charity, said: ‘The thousands of people whose homes were flooded have had their lives turned upside down. Not only do they face financial hardship as a result, they also face tremendous emotional difficulties as so much of what they held close to their hearts may have been lost. Months of living in temporary accommodation while they coordinate repairs to their homes will take a tremendous toll on their well-being. We should not forget how damaging the floods have been to people’s lives, and why it is so important that we help.’
The Freemasons’ Grand Charity liaised with Provinces in affected regions to work out the best way to deliver support. Provincial funding efforts in Somerset, Berkshire, Devonshire and West Wales were matched with grants totalling £12,500. In addition, two emergency grants were issued in February 2014.
The first, for £25,000, was donated to the Somerset Community Foundation via the Provincial Grand Lodge of Somerset. A second grant of £20,000 was awarded to the British Red Cross to help fund its relief efforts across England and Wales.
In addition, Freemasons across the country rallied together and generously contributed to fundraising efforts in the Provinces of Essex and Somerset, whose appeals have so far raised more than £185,000.
The supporting role of The Freemasons’ Grand Charity
The charity’s grants are given to assist communities in desperate need of help due to disasters such as the major earthquake in New Zealand in 2011, the typhoon in the Philippines in 2013 and monsoon flooding in India in 2013. The Grand Charity has also consistently supported relief efforts for flood victims with emergency grants, while hundreds of thousands of pounds have been donated through the Relief Chest Scheme thanks to additional support from Freemasons nationwide.
To find out more about emergency grants for disaster relief, go to www.the-grand-charity.org
Royal naval celebrates master
The spring edition of Freemasonry Today contained an article about the inventor of the life preserver, Francis Columbine Daniel. Shortly before its publication, a talk on the same topic was given in Royal Naval Lodge, No. 59, by Senior Warden Forbes Cutler.
The talk was part of the celebrations held to mark the 275th anniversary of the lodge, of which Daniel was master for many years. The Metropolitan Grand Stewards Demonstration Team also performed, and a cheque to honour the anniversary was received on behalf of the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution by Dr John Reuther.
RMTGB honours founder Ruspini
On 5 March, the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB) held a church service to dedicate a memorial tablet in honour of its founder, Chevalier Bartholomew Ruspini, at his burial place, St James’s Church, Piccadilly. The service was attended by more than 100 people, including current and former trustees, staff from the masonic charities, and staff and pupils from the Royal Masonic School (RMS), established by Ruspini in 1788.
David Williamson – at his final formal engagement as Assistant Grand Master – delivered the first of two readings, the other being read by RMS Headmistress Diana Rose. The main address was delivered by RMTGB President Mike Woodcock, who spoke about the world in which Ruspini lived and his pioneering contributions to dentistry and philanthropy.
Letters to the editor - No. 26 Summer 2014
While I was at the University of Surrey I spent a year working as an intern at publishing companies in London. It was thanks to the Freemasons and to Freemasonry Today that this was possible. My ambition is to work in the field of publishing, but as almost all publishing houses are in London and I live in Dorset, I was becoming despondent.
I knew I could not afford to take up offers of unpaid internships in London, but then my Grandad read, in his Freemasonry Today magazine, an article about Ruspini House and about the help given to the children and grandchildren of Freemasons.
I was given a grant and accommodation in Ruspini House several times during that year whilst completing internships at different publishing companies.
I was so grateful for the help of the Freemasons and went on to complete my course and gain a BA Hons in English Literature. How surprised and delighted I was to be given my degree by HRH The Duke of Kent, who I know is also Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. So, thank you Grandad and Freemasons everywhere.
The RMTGB’s Ruspini House in central London provides accommodation for students
Forget the box office. There’s a movie exclusive on the front cover of this issue of Freemasonry Today. Sarah Holmes goes behind the scenes of a new film about the Craft, and meets the cast and crew bringing it all to life
A film crew is recording Sam Colling as he tears a Subaru Impreza around a muddy racetrack in Oxfordshire. Attempting a hairpin bend, Sam is in his element. While others might consider this a nightmarish experience, for thrill-seeking Sam – one of three Freemasons chosen to appear in the United Grand Lodge of England’s (UGLE’s) latest film – it’s a great way of unwinding. The short film, to be found on the front cover of this issue of Freemasonry Today, aims to convey to people outside of the Craft exactly what Freemasonry is all about by showcasing the diverse mix of people who enjoy it as a hobby.
With his love of extreme sports, and a Navy career that sees him regularly navigating the stormy North Atlantic Sea, Sam isn’t what people may typically expect of a Freemason. Fortunately, London-based director Lee Cheney had no intention of playing to preconceptions when it came to casting the film.
Part of visual communications specialist VisMedia, Cheney was commissioned by UGLE in May 2013 to create a modern portrayal of the masonic world, as told by the members themselves.
‘This film is very different from anything I’ve seen on Freemasonry before, and that is the real merit of it.’ Nigel Brown
A change of scene
It’s a step in a new direction for UGLE, which was eager to investigate the potential of rich media for expanding awareness of Freemasonry. As a non-mason, Cheney brought a fresh perspective that fitted perfectly with UGLE’s aim to nurture a more relevant, outward-facing perception of the Craft.
‘This film is very different from anything I’ve seen on Freemasonry before, and that is the real merit of it,’ says Grand Secretary Nigel Brown. ‘Lee immediately understood it should be angled from the perspective of the non-mason, and particularly that of the families.’
Nigel was keen that the film – funded by UGLE at a cost of just 20p per member – supported the families of masons. ‘It needed to give them an understanding of what Freemasonry is and show them that their nearest and dearest are part of a fine community.’
Cheney’s brief was to demonstrate Freemasonry’s compatibility with a modern, balanced lifestyle – one that prioritises family and work over lodge meetings and dinners. So it’s no coincidence that Sam, Alastair Chambers and Anthony Henderson were chosen to provide a glimpse into the life of a Freemason.
‘We were concerned about presenting Freemasonry in an honest way, so it was paramount that we cast real, everyday people,’ explains Cheney. ‘Sam, Alastair and Anthony were ideal examples. They are just three interesting, friendly guys from completely different backgrounds who share a great set of values.’
The national response to the casting note was overwhelming, and a UGLE panel was tasked with the job of whittling down the one hundred and fifty applicants to a shortlist of thirty. After interviewing candidates on camera, the panel finally decided on these three. So began a busy winter of filming, which saw the crew trailing the length of the country to capture the starring masons and their families at home, at work, and even in the local pub.
The sets ranged from a living room in Bedfordshire to a windy rugby field in Gloucester. And although the project was storyboarded, Cheney reveals that ‘it was completely unscripted; our masons provided all of the content, which was then brought to life by the fantastic crew’. The improvised dynamic was something that Anthony, a Freemason of thirty-one years, found particularly challenging: ‘I was apprehensive,’ g he recalls, ‘but Freemasonry has given me so much over the years, I’m just glad I could finally give something back.’
‘We were concerned about presenting Freemasonry in an honest way, so it was paramount that we cast real, everyday people.’ Lee Cheney
Giving back is a key feature of masonic life. With The Freemasons’ Grand Charity donating more than £100 million to a wide range of causes since 1981, the film shines a light on the Craft’s enduring history of charitable initiatives. We meet Ian Simpson, the founder of one such venture, Teddies for Loving Care – a charity that gives teddy bears to children visiting A&E. And we hear from nurses and families who explain the therapeutic effect a teddy bear can have.
While it’s unsurprising that charity is important to a society where kindness, honesty, tolerance and fairness are core values, myths continue to abound about Freemasonry. ‘The truth is, it’s open to everyone,’ says Sam. ‘It’s not a closed door society – anyone can visit the lodges.’ As the film shows, even Freemasons’ Hall in London plays host to a wealth of external events, including the catwalks of London Fashion Week.
In its quest to challenge preconceptions, the film shows masonic life to be more multifaceted than many could have imagined. It presents a community that is all at once passionate and accommodating, modern yet historical – and always welcoming.
Meet the stars
Twenty-three, joined Portus Felix Lodge, No. 6712, in Yorkshire three years ago. When he’s not away at sea working as a Merchant Naval Officer he counts snowboarding and scuba diving among his many hobbies.
‘Freemasonry is relevant to anyone who wants to become a better person and be able to help others. It’s that simple.’
Thirty-two, joined Via Lucis Lodge, No. 9443, in Gloucester two years ago. He is a father of five, runs a construction company, is partner of a recruitment firm and manages a prison rehabilitation scheme.
‘Although we might all come from different walks of life and have different interests, we all share the understanding that everyone in the lodge is equal. No matter who you are, you will fit in.’
Fifty-seven, joined Russell Lodge, No. 4413, in Bedfordshire thirty-one years ago. As official babysitter for his grandson Finley, Anthony is a master Scalextric racer, although he intersperses track time with a career as a European business manager in the healthcare sector.
‘In the eighties, Freemasonry was surrounded by taboo. Now, thanks to films like this, I hope people will realise it’s nothing more than a social club that’s open to everyone, regardless of age or background.’
Letters to the Editor - No. 27 Autumn 2014
Masons on film
I have just finished viewing your UGLE video. Very nice! It was good to see and hear a young person give his opinions on Freemasonry, instead of ‘old folks’. It was something that we all can relate to – not too long, not too short – just a good, fresh look at an old institution. Well done.
Charles Cameron, Orange Grove Lodge, No. 293, Orange, Grand Lodge of California, USA
I am the Provincial Mentoring Coordinator for West Lancashire, and I’m being contacted by groups wanting to produce extra copies of the excellent DVD included in your last issue. They (and I) see it as a great recruiting tool, and would like to include it in their strategy to further advance membership.
Giles Berkley, Peace and Unity Lodge, No. 3966, Thornton-Cleveleys, West Lancashire
What do you get if you cross two trombones, a baritone horn and a tuba? For four Freemasons, playing in a Salvation Army brass band is the perfect complement to being a member of Standard Lodge
Standing in The Salvation Army’s Reading premises on a fresh spring morning, Colin Crosby, David Mortlock, Alex Mitchell and Russell Crosby are chuckling as they try and come up with different ways of posing with their musical instruments. The four players belong to the Reading Central band of The Salvation Army and can be found performing in the town’s main thoroughfare most Fridays. They are also members of Standard Lodge, No. 6820, London, which believes that Freemasonry and The Salvation Army share core fraternal and charitable values.
Founded in 1949, Standard Lodge’s invitation letter stated that it was desired that the founders and future initiates should be members of The Salvation Army or associates. It was to be a strictly temperance lodge and is one of three such lodges originally founded by Salvationists, the other two being Lodge of Constant Trust, No. 7347, and Jubilate Lodge, No. 8561.
The strong musical tradition of The Salvation Army means that many members of Standard Lodge have also played, or currently play, in a Salvation Army brass band. Colin Crosby joined Standard Lodge in the sixties and says that of the three lodges founded by the Salvationists, Standard is the only one that has kept to the strict Salvationist ethos of no alcohol, no smoking and no gambling. ‘That means that we can’t have raffles to raise money so we have to think of other ways of fundraising.’
‘The great thing about a brass band is that it can be very rousing and uplifting but it can also be very subtle and moving.’ Colin Crosby
Colin’s son Russell, an engineer by profession, feels strongly that The Salvation Army and the Freemasons have much in common. ‘There is a great deal of misunderstanding about Freemasonry. I see it as my personal mission to put things right and point out that there is a strong morality within Freemasonry,’ he says. ‘Like The Salvation Army, there is a great tradition of charitable giving and consideration for the well-being of others. I have talked about this with many of my fellow Salvationists – I think it really helps with the understanding of Freemasonry if all aspects of it are discussed openly.’
Colin plays the tuba and switches between the E-flat and the B-flat, while David plays baritone horn and Alex plays the trombone. Explaining his choice of instrument, Colin says: ‘I like to be in the engine room of the band, which is what I consider the tuba to be.’ Russell used to play tenor horn but switched to the trombone: ‘The opportunity came up because the band was short of trombone players and although I had to learn from scratch, I saw it as a challenge and managed to pick it up. I think I have a fairly decent tone now.’
The Reading Central Salvation Army band has played on many auspicious occasions, including at the Royal Military Academy. The band has performed in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace to celebrate its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary and has also played at the annual carol service in Grand Lodge for a number of years, as well as many other engagements up and down the country. In 1994 they toured, playing in the Republic of Korea and Hong Kong, while 2007 took them to Ontario, Canada.
The band plays a wide range of music, from hymn tune arrangements (many of which were composed specifically for The Salvation Army) through to popular film scores. ‘We mix up classical music with well-known tunes from films like The Great Escape or The Wizard of Oz,’ explains Colin. ‘Just as the audience are relaxing into it, we hit them with a nice old-fashioned hymn or classical song. That’s the great g thing about a brass band; it can be very rousing and uplifting but it can also be very subtle and moving.’
David Mortlock joined Standard Lodge in 1987. Also an engineer, he lived in the United States and India for many years. Although he used to be a bandmaster, David now plays the baritone horn. He misses conducting and echoes Colin’s pride in the range of music played by the Salvation Army band: ‘Music is such a powerful tool and can be used for inspiration, praise and worship, as well as meditative prayer.’
Many of the most well-known brass players in the country have come out of The Salvation Army band tradition. ‘Philip Cobb is the principal trumpet player with the London Symphony Orchestra,’ explains David. ‘Dudley Bright, who is principal trombonist for the London Symphony Orchestra, has also composed a number of pieces of music for The Salvation Army. His most recent composition, “The Cost of Freedom”, was given its first performance by The International Staff Band of The Salvation Army at the Sage Gateshead in May 2008.’
Alex Mitchell is a highly qualified musician outside of the brass band world, too. And as a retired school music teacher, he uses his teaching skills with the young people of the junior band and as a pianoforte and brass teacher.
All four men describe the feeling of fraternal companionship both in the band and in the Freemasons. ‘In both situations there is a feeling of solid friendship and moral support if you need it,’ says Alex. ‘In that way, Standard Lodge members are very lucky because they have both.’
Notes in a Brass Band
Invented in the 1500s, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the trombone became popular in England. Composers such as Beethoven described the trombone as the ‘voice of God’ because it has the ability to achieve perfect intonation at all times.
The marching band perennial was first invented in the 1700s, when it was played by stroking the instrument’s glass rods. Not to be confused with the euphonium, the baritone has three valves and less tubing in the horn.
Since its introduction into symphony orchestras in the mid-nineteenth century, the tuba is considered the anchor of the orchestra’s brass section. It comes in a range of pitches, from the deep bass of the subcontrabass to the much higher pitch of the tenor tuba.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - NO. 28 WINTER 2014
How absolutely refreshing it was to turn the pages of our journal to see the uniformed Salvationists and to read the article on brass and Freemasonry.
It brought back so many memories for me, not least being the fact that thirty-eight years ago I was introduced into Freemasonry by the Senior Past Master of Standard Lodge, No. 6820, Oly Allen, a retired Salvation Army divisional bandmaster. I am not a Salvationist but he took me into a meeting at his Reading lodge, namely Charles Nicholl, No. 7318, at the Berkshire Masonic Centre at Sindlesham where he was Secretary.
For several years I assisted him in arranging for the Central Band and Songster Brigade to render a programme performed in the Grand Temple at Sindlesham, which we entitled ‘Prelude to Christmas’. This now forms the annual Reading Borough Council double bill presentation held at the Hexagon.
I was able to pass many hundreds of pounds to our masonic charities for their efforts and, indeed, a small group of the bandsmen, including the four in the photos, regularly play for us at the Ladies’ Meetings and Christmas. As our church brethren often quote in this journal: ‘Freemasonry is a good handmaiden to Christianity’. Long may it continue, so thanks for the memory; it was so uplifting.
Ken Holloway, Lodge of Benevolence, No. 489, Bideford, Devonshire
Letters to the Editor - No. 27 Autumn 2014
Thank you for the music
I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your recent ‘Brass Standards’ article. Being a brother for the past twenty-seven years, as well as a professional musician, it was nice to see that the members put their time and talents to good use, and everyone in the group being brothers was just the icing on the cake. I congratulate them on their accomplishments and their desire to share their time and talents with the community.
Philip Chapnick, Goldenrule Clermont McKinley Lodge, No. 486, Grand Lodge F&AM State of New York, USA
Shipshape on the Queen Mary
During the Queen Mary 2 voyage from Southampton to Cape Town earlier this year, 18 masons and their partners entertained the ship’s master, Captain Kevin Oprey, in the Winter Gardens.
Peter Elvey of Kenlis Lodge, No. 1267, Cumbria & Westmorland, acted as the charity steward and Jim Duggan of Mowbray Lodge, No. 2993, Western Cape, was host and speaker, presenting a donation on behalf of the brethren to Captain Oprey for the Seafarers UK charities.
From the Nile to the Thames
One Freemason proposed the idea of presenting Cleopatra’s Needle as a gift to the British government. John Hamill explains how its eventual arrival in London was organised and paid for by another
Like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower and Big Ben, Cleopatra’s Needle is one of London’s most recognisable landmarks. It was presented to the British government in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan to commemorate the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria. But it was to lie in the sands outside Alexandria for nearly sixty years because successive British governments refused to pay the enormous costs of transporting it to London.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) was born in Padua. After various adventures in Italy, Prussia and Holland he arrived in England in 1803 and made his living as an entertainer. At six feet seven inches in height and with enormous strength, he was often billed as the ‘Patagonian Samson’.
Belzoni came into contact with some of the small circle who were to become the advisers to HRH The Duke of Sussex when he became Grand Master. It is not known where Belzoni was initiated, but he entered the Royal Arch in Cambridge and the Knights Templar in Norwich. His splendid Royal Arch jewel is worn today by First Principals of the Chapter of St James, No. 2.
Uncovering the ancient
In 1815, Belzoni was persuaded by the agent of Egypt’s Turkish ruler, Pasha Mohammed Ali, to go there to try and help restore that country’s prosperity. Arriving in Cairo, he became fascinated by ancient Egypt and from 1816 to 1820 carried out excavations at Abu Simbel, Thebes, Philae, the Valley of the Kings and Fayum.
Belzoni made many discoveries, not least the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I, making careful notes and extensive drawings of the temples, tombs and wall decorations that he discovered. He is rightly considered to be the father of modern Egyptology, but modern archaeologists would abhor his practice of removing statues, wall paintings and artefacts from his discoveries.
In 1821, Belzoni exhibited his Egyptian treasures in Piccadilly, to huge public acclaim. A narrative of his activities, published in the previous year, quickly went through three printings and was translated into French, German and Italian, while his collections were later auctioned off and bought by the British Museum.
It was Belzoni who suggested to Pasha Mohammed Ali that the obelisk now known as Cleopatra’s Needle be presented to the British government. Belzoni organised its transportation to Alexandria but did not have the finance to move it any further.
It was not until 1877 that the interest of another Freemason, Sir William James Erasmus Wilson (1809-1884), led to the obelisk finally making its journey to England. Wilson was a surgeon who made his name and fortune by specialising in dermatology. One of the first in this field, he wrote a number of works that became the standard textbooks on the subject. He is credited with introducing the idea that a daily bath was a simple way of remaining healthy, and was involved in the movement to provide local bath and wash houses to promote hygiene and public health.
Elected Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Wilson served on many of its committees and was its president in 1881. He was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and knighted for his services to medical science and his extensive philanthropy. Wilson was much involved in Freemasonry in London and Kent.
‘The whole exercise of transporting Cleopatra’s Needle and organising its final resting place in London cost Wilson almost £10,000.’
Having heard of the obelisk, Wilson began to plan for its transportation. On the advice of engineers, it was encased in an iron tube around which a pontoon was built, complete with rudder and sails. It was to be towed by a merchant vessel, with a small crew steering it from a covered ‘bridge’ built over the tube.
The final chapter
The journey from Cairo through the Mediterranean and out into the Atlantic was largely uneventful. However, disaster struck on entering the Bay of Biscay on 14 October 1877. A sudden storm almost overturned the pontoon, the tow lines broke and it was at the mercy of high seas. The small crew was rescued but in the attempts to retake control of the pontoon, several sailors perished. Eventually the pontoon drifted to the coast of France from where it was salvaged and reconstructed at a cost of £2,000.
The Needle was eventually towed up the Thames, and the wrangling then began as to where it should be erected. Initially it had been planned to stand the obelisk near the Houses of Parliament, but both Houses objected. Finally it was agreed that it should be erected on the new Victoria Embankment, then being constructed as a river road linking Westminster and the City of London. Wilson engaged architects to design a plinth and surroundings, to include two sphinxes, to display the obelisk.
The foundation stone of the plinth was laid with masonic ceremonies and on 12 September 1878 the obelisk was raised. The whole exercise of transporting Cleopatra’s Needle and organising its final resting place in London cost Wilson almost £10,000.
Letters to the Editor - No. 27 Autumn 2014
Giving the needle
I was very interested in John Hamill’s excellent article, ‘From the Nile to the Thames’, on the story of the transfer of Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to the Thames Embankment. However, there are a few extra points I’d like to add to the story.
Contrary to the usual tale, the famous queen did have something to do with the obelisk that bears her name. It was Cleopatra, and not Belzoni, who transferred the needle from Heliopolis to Alexandria to stand with its partner (now in New York’s Central Park) at the water gate of the Caesarium built by Cleopatra to honour the late Julius Caesar.
The needle was reported as lying flat by an English traveller in the seventeenth century. The final impetus required to move it to Britain was a threat by an Italian landowner who owned the area where the needle resided – he planned to demolish the obelisk to free the site for further development.
It was originally planned to be put in front of the Houses of Parliament, but fears about the safety of the District Line immediately below the site – rather than political squabbling – resulted in the decision to place the needle on the Embankment.
As an interesting adjunct, when the plinth was built, several artefacts were encased beneath it, including a wooden pole found at the opening of one of the so-called ‘air shafts’ in the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Perhaps one day, carbon analysis of this piece of wood will settle the age of the pyramid once and for all.
Brian Skinner, Lodge of Fraternal Unity, No. 7330, London
John Hamill’s interesting article on Cleopatra’s Needle brings to mind another example of Freemason Sir William James Erasmus Wilson’s generosity.
In his excellent book, Benevolence and Excellence, Alan Scadding states that in 1871 Dr Erasmus Wilson offered to the Royal Medical Benevolent College to build a house for the headmaster’s family and forty scholars.
Thus was established in 1873 Wilson House, which ran almost independently of the college for a period – the headmaster charging non-medical parents higher fees for their sons who would be educated ‘under the headmaster’s special eye’.
In 1896, the Royal Medical Benevolent College changed its name to Epsom College and today, Wilson House stands in its original building as a boarding house for girls and a fully integrated part of Epsom College.
The building stands on the Wilson terrace at the top of Wilson Steps, which access Wilson Pitch.
Peter Dodd, Old Epsomian Lodge, No. 3561, London