True to the data

Monday, 19 April 2010

John Hamill Plans a Fresh Look at Freemasonry’s Contribution to English Social History

As part of the celebrations marking the tercentenary of Grand Lodge a major study of masonic history is planned, one which looks at the broad impact of Freemasonry on society in England and Wales over the last three hundred years. John Hamill, former Director of the Communications Department at Freemasons’ Hall, London, has been appointed to head the team tasked with making this ambition a reality.

This challenge is formidable but, as John Hamill explains, such a project is ‘a researcher’s dream.’ He is realistic, only too aware that it is going to involve a huge amount of team work, but he emphasises that it will also be enjoyable. Historical research has long been his great interest and to now have the opportunity to plunge himself into such a project will be not only creative but a pleasure. 

Few Freemasons realise that despite the enormous amount of work to date on masonic history there is still much more to be uncovered. All too often research in Freemasonry has involved merely rearranging known data rather than seeking new sources. This is to change. 
The existing archives of the United Grand Lodge of England held at Freemasons’ Hall as well as those at many other masonic centres throughout England and Wales need to be methodically studied and analysed. Furthermore, many new sources of data remain to be discovered. Just recently, all the records of the Masons’ Company have been made available to John and he is looking forward to working through them. 

A Love of History

John grew up in Newcastle, moving south to take a degree in modern history from London University. He was fascinated by the interplay between people and politics; the way in which individuals affected events, for good or ill; the way one person could make large changes. This led him into the history of the transmission of ideas and here he realised the importance of Freemasonry. 

He joined Freemasonry easily: men from both sides of his family were members and at the age of 22 he was initiated by his father. He quickly became intrigued by the mystery surrounding the historical aspects of Freemasonry and the vagueness about its origins. At the same time he was impressed by the loyalty it commanded from its members: for example, despite the persecution suffered by many Freemasons on the Continent the idea survived turbulent times. Quite obviously there was something very special about Freemasonry which men responded to. 

Working in the Public Library Service gave John few opportunities for research so he began to explore alternatives, particularly research libraries. He heard that an assistant Librarian was needed at Freemasons’ Hall, applied and gained the position. That was in 1971. Now, in 2009, he is the longest serving member of the Grand Secretary’s staff. 

The first masonic meeting he attended in London was that of the research lodge, Quatuor Coronati, No. 2076, and he quickly joined the Correspondence Circle. He gave his first paper to the Lodge in 1973 and in 1977 was joint winner of the Norman Spencer Prize for a paper on the development of Lodge Warrants. As a result of this paper he was elected a full member of the Lodge. He was Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 1985-86 and during this time his book The Craft was published. 

Meanwhile, in 1983, he had been promoted to Librarian and Curator for Grand Lodge. 

Head of Communications

In 1984 he was asked by the Grand Secretary to appear on the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme: suddenly he found himself serving as a spokesman for Freemasonry. He became increasingly involved with public relations and in 1998 was asked to set up a specialised Communications Department for Grand Lodge; unfortunately, this meant leaving his post as Librarian and Curator. This was a wrench; he missed the research, the contact with people and the excitement when someone appeared with a new document or masonic artifact. 
John drew into the Communications Department people who were aware of the problems Freemasonry was having with the outside world and who understood the need for a proactive and open approach. This was important since at the time Freemasonry had considerable problems with its public image. 

John played an active role in combating this negative perception which had been allowed to flourish; he twice appeared before a House of Commons Select Committee speaking on behalf of Freemasonry. 

John was also involved in the establishment of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at Sheffield University. Initially the University authorities were sceptical about the existence of sufficient primary material to maintain such a research centre so John invited the University librarian to London to see the archives held at Freemasons’ Hall. The librarian was astonished; he and his colleagues had no idea of the riches available including early minute books, annual returns and correspondence going back to the 1750s. 

The Tercentenary research Project

The aim is not to produce a history just of Grand Lodge but something much broader: to record the contribution Freemasonry has made to the social, economic and political development of English and Welsh society since the earliest records began. 

The plan is to first discover what is available. A team of researchers is being assembled to study specific areas and to produce comprehensive research papers. Importantly, there will be no restrictions placed on the research, there will be no ‘canonical interpretation’ of masonic history to limit the team’s analysis. As these papers are completed they will be made available on both the Grand Lodge website and that of Sheffield University’s Centre for Research into Freemasonry. 

Secondly, beginning around 2013, the data in these papers will be brought together by an editorial group which will produce a book both academically sound and easily read. 

This is a courageous venture: it will not be looking at the evidence in order to support a preconceived theory of origins but it will be true to the data ‘warts and all.’ It will be looking particularly at local communities: how Freemasonry has impacted the history and life of the towns in which it existed over the centuries. 

‘For too long,’ John explains, ‘we have looked at Freemasonry in isolation but it has never existed apart from society, it has always been an integral part of it.’ 

Bringing the history of the two together again is one important ambition of this project which will make a significant contribution to understanding the true extent of Freemasonry’s impact on the development of our modern era.

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