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Freemasons in public life

A new exhibition looks at how changes in society and its attitudes have affected the ways in which Freemasons have felt able to be part of the wider public life of the country

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry is exploring the history of public activities. There are few towns in England and Wales without a hall and civic foundation-stone layings and processions frequently had a component, with buildings as diverse as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and Truro Cathedral enjoying ceremonies at their beginnings. More recently, hundreds of Freemasons in regalia inaugurated the rebuilt Hall at Beamish Open Air Museum and Freemasons regularly feature in the Lord Mayor’s Show in the City of London.

Another example of the active role masons played in public life can be found in the building of the first bridge across the Wear river in Sunderland, which was an important factor in the area’s economic development. The foundation stone was laid by local Freemason and MP, Rowland Burdon, in 1793 and the stone itself records that the event was attended by Freemasons, magistrates and ‘principal gentlemen of the County of Durham’. Although the bridge only took 10 days to put up, the formal opening did not take place until three years later in a masonic ceremony attended by the Duke of Gloucester.