Blog

200 years of grand union

Working as one

With December marking the bicentenary of the union of the Grand Lodges, John Hamill explores the people and planning behind the creation of the United Grand Lodge of England.

The formation of the Antients Grand Lodge in 1751 – instigated mainly by Irish brethren in London who had been unable to gain entry to lodges under the premier Grand Lodge – marked the start of a period in which two Grand Lodges existed side by side. Initially there was great enmity between the two, and both sides threatened dire consequences against any members who became involved with their rival. But as time went on, except at the centre, relations relaxed, particularly in the Provinces where the beady eyes of the respective Grand Secretaries did not extend. Even in London, a number of prominent brethren had a foot in both camps. 

Indeed, it was because of two such brethren that the first serious attempt, in 1801, to start negotiations towards a union foundered. When it was announced that talks might begin, there were groups within both Grand Lodges who did not wish to see it happen and sought to wreck it. Charges were brought in the Antients Grand Lodge against Francis Columbine Daniel for being active in both Grand Lodges, resulting in his expulsion. Daniel was a doctor and apothecary, best remembered today as having invented the inflatable life vest and for receiving an ‘accidental knighthood’. Daniel believed that the new Deputy Grand Master of the Antients, Thomas Harper, had engineered his expulsion and sought his revenge.

Rooted in rivalry

Harper had been very active in both Grand Lodges, being a Grand Steward in the premier Grand Lodge in 1796 when he was also Deputy Grand Secretary of the Antients. He was a jeweller and printer, making jewels that are now highly prized and collected. Quite how someone so prominent had got away with being so publicly active in both Grand Lodges is the subject of another article, but Daniel forced the premier Grand lodge to recognise the fact and they expelled Harper in 1803, bringing any talk of a union to a halt.

In 1806, the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge since 1791, was elected Grand Master Mason of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. As he had done in England, he appointed the Earl of Moira as his Acting Grand Master. Moira seems to have seen the Prince’s election as an opportunity to bring the premier Grand Lodge and Scotland closer together. However, the Scots saw the election as simply allowing for a closer relationship between the two Grand Lodges, rather than an actual joining together.

‘Even in London, a number of prominent brethren had a foot in both camps.’

Nevertheless, talk of union seems to have turned the minds of the Prince and Moira to the situation in England. In 1809 they approached the Antients with the idea of setting up a joint committee to explore a possible ‘equable union’. A stumbling block was the fact that Harper was still Deputy Grand Master of the Antients and was very much in charge in the extended absences of the Grand Master John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl. The negotiators were appointed and in 1810 Harper was welcomed back into the premier Grand Lodge.

Apart from the formal Grand Lodge Minutes and odd bits of correspondence, little evidence survives about the negotiations, which dragged on for nearly four years. Part of the problem was that while the premier Grand Lodge team had been given authority to make decisions, those representing the Antients had to have any decisions agreed within a quarterly meeting of their Grand Lodge. 

A grand achievement

Matters were not helped by the fact that the Antients’ Grand Secretary, Robert Leslie, was firmly against the project. A somewhat prickly character, he had been Grand Secretary since 1790 and, unlike his counterparts in the premier Grand Lodge, was a salaried official, earning £100 a year. Indeed, so much was he against the union that even when it was accomplished he refused to hand over the records of the Antients Grand Lodge.

Proceedings might have ground to a halt in 1813 had it not been for major changes at the head of both Grand Lodges. The Prince of Wales resigned as Grand Master and was succeeded by his younger brother the Duke of Sussex. In November 1813 the Duke of Atholl resigned as Grand Master of the Antients, who elected another royal brother, the Duke of Kent, as their Grand Master. 

It says a great deal about the authority of princes in those days that within six weeks they had knocked heads together, and agreed and drawn up Articles of Union. They also planned the great ceremony, which took place at Freemasons’ Hall on 27 December 1813, when the union was declared and the Duke of Sussex was installed as Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.