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Cecil Chubb: the Freemason who bought Stonehenge

Come full circle

Stonehenge’s history has inspired many outlandish theories linking Freemasons and druids. John Hamill recounts the real life of Freemason Cecil Chubb, who bought the landmark on a whim 100 years ago

Considering its status as a World Heritage Site, it is strange to reflect that until 1918 Stonehenge was private property. Interest in it was stimulated in the early 1700s through the writings of an early Freemason, Dr William Stukeley, a clergyman and archaeologist, whose voluminous manuscripts are now preserved in the British Library and the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. The connection between Stonehenge and the druids is usually ascribed to Stukeley, who not only made a study of the order but was one of those responsible for its revival in 1717.

By 1800 Stonehenge was owned by the Antrobus family, but when the heir to the baronetcy was killed in action in 1915, the family decided to sell the stone circle and the surrounding 35 acres of land at public auction. 

The sale took place at the new theatre in Salisbury on 21 September 1915. The purchaser was Cecil Chubb, who paid £6,600 (about £460,000 in modern terms) for the site. Family legend has it that he had gone to the auction to buy some chairs but having lived near Stonehenge for much of his life, decided to make the purchase to save it from a foreign buyer. Chubb bought the landmark as a gift for his wife, for which he was apparently not thanked. 

In 1918, knowing that there had been government interest in the stone circle, Chubb contacted what was then the Office of Works and offered to give the site to the nation as a gift. He had three provisos to his bequest: that Salisbury residents should continue to have free access to it; that the entry charge should never be more than a shilling; and that no building should be erected within 400 yards of the ancient stones themselves.

The government accepted the gift with alacrity, and to mark his generosity, created a baronetcy: in 1919, Chubb took the title Sir Cecil Chubb, Baronet of Stonehenge in the County of Wiltshire.

From humble beginnings 

Cecil Herbert Edward Chubb came from modest beginnings. Born in 1876 in the village of Shrewton, Wiltshire, where his father was the saddler and harness-maker, he was educated at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury. For a short period he was a teacher at the school before going for training at St Mark’s College in London. From there he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he earned a first in natural sciences in 1904 followed by a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1905. Returning to London, he was called to the Bar from Middle Temple and began a successful law practice.

In 1902 Chubb married Mary Finch, and when her uncle died in 1910, she inherited the Fisherton House Asylum psychiatric hospital near Salisbury. Chubb gave up law and moved back to Salisbury to run the asylum, which was one of the largest in the country. 

Chubb made a great success of the asylum and introduced innovative treatments to make the patients’ lives easier and return them to their families. Fisherton House also gave great service to military casualties affected by the horrors of trench warfare, to the extent that Chubb used his own home, Bemerton Lodge, as an overflow for the main asylum. It became a limited company in 1924 and part of the National Health Service in 1954.

Eye on the future

Chubb was also an astute investor, particularly in medical laboratories producing medications to aid the mentally ill. His careful financial management made him a rich man, enabling him to buy Stonehenge almost on a whim. He developed his own estate, keeping a notable breed of shorthorn cattle and had a number of very successful racehorses. In civic life, he served for many years on Salisbury City Council and was a Justice of the Peace.

Chubb came into Freemasonry in Salisbury, where he was made a mason in Lodge Elias de Derham, No. 586, on 26 October 1905, taking his second and third degrees in the two following months. He never sought office in the lodge or took part in any of the other orders of Freemasonry, being content to enjoy the company of his fellow lodge members as a backbencher and remaining a subscribing member of the lodge until his death.

There have been attempts to link Freemasonry with both the stone circle at Stonehenge and the druids who were reputed to have worshipped there. In reality the only true connections are the figures of Stukeley, who did so much to bring Stonehenge to public notice, and Chubb, who had so much love for the stone circle that he bought and presented it to the nation so that it would be preserved as a part of our national heritage for all time.

‘Family legend has it that Chubb had only gone to the auction to buy some chairs.’ 

Set in stone 

Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated and only surviving lintelled stone circle in the world:

• In its earliest form, the monument was a burial site. It is the largest late Neolithic cemetery in the British Isles.

• Two types of stone were used in its construction, both of which were transported over very long distances. The larger sarsens probably came from the Marlborough Downs 19 miles to the north, with the smaller bluestones coming from the Preseli Hills, more than 150 miles away.

• The stones were erected using precisely interlocking joints, unseen at any other prehistoric monument.