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James celebrates 60 years in Masonry

The members and guests of Crosby Lodge No 3714 gathered for the very special occasion to celebrate the important milestone of James Firth’s 60 years in Freemasonry. Attending the meeting as the principal guest and to preside over the evening’s celebration was Assistant Provincial Grand Master Robert Wright, who was accompanied by the Bootle Group Chairman Ian Gee.

James Firth

James Firth

Before opening the lodge the WM Mark Sands warmly welcomed the brethren to the special evening. Once the initial lodge business was completed, Mark opened to the second and third degrees, where the Deputy Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies Mark Barton was admitted into the room. Mark announced Robert Wright was without and demanded admission and was duly admitted into the lodge in an impressive procession, with David Youlds who acted as an assistant to the Provincial Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies, followed by the Provincial deacons and the grand officers, David McCormick, Ian Gee, Peter Levick and Brian Cunliffe.

Mark warmly welcomed Robert to the lodge and thanked him for his attendance on this very special occasion. On accepting the gavel Robert said he was looking forward to his visit to the Bootle Group. Robert then invited James to sit in a chair which had been placed in front of the master’s pedestal, asking him to relax and enjoy the evening. The brethren were then treated to a splendid account of James’s life.

Robert started his presentation to James by informing the brethren of some of the notable births and events from the year James was born, Frankie Vaughan, Bruce Forsyth, Fats Domino, Bob Monkhouse were all born in 1928. Also that year the world lost some famous Victorians – Thomas Hardy, Field Marshall Haig, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

George V was on the throne and during the year the River Thames flooded killing 14 people, the Oxford English Dictionary was completed, Alexander Fleming re-discovered penicillin, The International Red Cross and the Flying Doctors service was formed, experiments proved the existence of DNA, the first machine to slice and wrap a loaf of bread was sold and John Logie Baird broadcasted a TV signal from London to New York.

James attended Crosby Road Council School, before progressing to Waterloo Council School and then in 1940 attending St Mary’s College Crosby. Discipline there was administered with the strap and that was the norm in those days.

Starting piano lessons from the age of eight, (before then James had played the piano by ear) and going to a teacher who lived nearby Mona Nelson, who recognised James musicality but insisted from then on he should learn to read music which would enable him to develop as a pianist in the future. In time, James’s mother became upset that his lessons were being disrupted by Mona’s life, so she found a new teacher Edgar Brown who was primarily an organist and his instruction led to James receiving the lowest pianist marks. Once again James’s mother sought and found a new teacher, Marie Gough Ghilchrist from Lytham, and on hearing James’s name, she not only knew of him, but immediately made space to include him as one of her pupils. Marie would travel from Lytham to Rushworths in Islington to give the lessons. James’ first teacher Mona had also been taught by her, so he had her technique already in his skill set.

With the advent of the Second World War, James’ life was disrupted sleeping through the air raids in the Anderson shelter in the garden and for a short period being evacuated to his aunty Eva in Wexhill. On his return to his piano lessons, they were split between libraries, teacher’s homes and schools. James practised hard, entered festivals and exams and progressed rapidly.

Robert Wright (left) being welcomed by Mark Sands.

Robert Wright (left) being welcomed by Mark Sands.

Leaving school at the age of 15, James went to work in a routine job with ATM Automatic Telephone and Electronic Ltd on Edge Lane, but all he could think about was practice and working on his piano technique. James entered many competitions and one that he entered at that time was the Crosby Festival. Robert informed the brethren by saying: “Once again brethren I was amazed that we could make another connection as Smiths were one of the founders of the Crosby Festival.”

James had informed Robert that in 1947, Smiths had donated a Welmar upright piano to be presented to the overall winner of piano classes at a festival and he remembers well that although he won the advanced class he was pipped to the post as overall winner by Doreen Sayers who won the intermediate class.

It was at that time the adjudicator; Maurice Jacks who was one of two assessors for Lancashire County Council scholarships quietly said to him: “Not to worry, there would be more in store for you.” And so it was that in 1947 James won a Lancashire County Council Scholarship to attend the Royal College of Music. Due to start in September 1947 but such is the way of life that whilst on holiday James damaged his arm so couldn’t start until January 1948.

James initially stayed at a hostel but that didn’t work out, being introduced to Mrs Fowler who rented lodgings in Clapham, where he had happier times living there.

Studying as a first study piano student under Professor Arthur Benjamin, who himself was an accomplished composer and pianist and former pupil in 1911 at the Royal College of Music. Robert said that James recalls that on giving him his timetable Arthur asked what James’ second study would be. Suggesting the organ might be useful, Arthur’s reply was; “Not under me you won’t, my first study pianists need to develop their piano technique. Organ sounds are dependent on the stops etc on the instrument.” It is noted that many piano players play the organ and organists play the piano but you don’t find true concert pianists playing the organ.

James took his advice; one of the students Professor Arthur Benjamin taught was Sir Benjamin Britten the renowned composer. At the end of that period and having been awarded the honour of being made an Associate of the Royal College of Music James then attended a one year course in School Music at Bretton Hall, West Riding, Yorkshire; a teaching training college later affiliated to Leeds University. Having then achieved his Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, James was able to turn to teaching and so began his career as Head of Music which took him to several schools around the country. One of those schools was Crosby County Secondary School and one of his former pupils was Peter Levick.

During the late 1960’s James played for three years at Christmas shows at the Everyman Theatre for Peter James, who was one of the three founders of the Everyman Theatre and went on to be one of the country’s leading theatrical directors. James has travelled widely around the country and his talents have been heavily in demand. In 1976, James was invited by Lancashire Education Committee to teach piano at the newly established music department at Mabel Fletcher Technical College, working part time, but was to return to his love of communicating his passion for teaching piano. James was also busy performing at Liverpool School Prize nights, choir competitions and concerts at various venues including the Philharmonic Hall.

Robert (left) presenting James with his jubilee certificate.

Robert (left) presenting James with his jubilee certificate.

This work kept James busy until his retirement in 1993 aged 65. James described his time as a full life story in music and as such Masonry has taken second place. Nonetheless playing music at functions at Garston, Bootle, Litherland, Woolton, Southport and Hope Street Liverpool has always been a source of satisfaction and happiness for him. Robert said James remembers performing at ladies nights when they were true ladies’ nights with over 200 people and the ladies’ song was followed by up to six songs.

Apart from James’s passion for music is other interest is researching his family tree, having traced his family back to the 1700’s, being related to some notable people, second cousin to classical pianist Peter Katin who also attended the Royal Academy of Music when he was 12 and such was his fame that at the age of 25 he was invited to appear on Roy Plumley’s Desert Island Discs, Robert recalled that Peter sadly died last year.

Another relative was James’ great grandmother’s cousin who was a music hall artist named J Arthur Roberts who was famous in the late 19th century for risqué songs and indeed in 1897 he caused the Evans’s Music and Supper Rooms to lose their licence for one year as a result. His other claim to fame was that in 1925 aged 76 years old he married an actress aged 26. James has spent much time over the years visiting both Belfast and Dublin, researching church records and looking around graveyards to find all his information.

Robert then went on to inform the brethren about James’ Masonic life. James’s first experience of Freemasonry was when he took part in a recital, put together by his teacher Edgar Brown, for his lodge at Christmas. James had no idea of what Masonry was all about then but luckily it must have made a favourable impression and he was initiated into Alexandra Lodge No 7245 on 12 March 1956 at the Carlton Masonic Hall, Eberle Street which amalgamated with Waterloo Lodge No 6832 in 2002 and sadly they surrendered their warrant in 2013. At various times James has been a member of Alexandra Lodge and also has been a member of Old Grammarian Lodge of Waterloo No 6776 where he celebrated his 50th but which also sadly surrendered its warrant in 2011. As James had previously been a member of Crosby Lodge, he re-joined them in 2014. James also attends the Incorporated Society of Musicians Lodge No 2881 at Great Queen Street.

As James was busy in his career as a professional pianist and although he assisted the lodges over many years with his music, he has never progressed through to the chair of King Solomon. James has enjoyed nothing more than accompanying singers at festive boards; like Sid Benson, Frank Jenkins and Alan Atkinson.

On 21 May 1999 The Province of West Lancashire recognised James’ contribution to Freemasonry in general and appointed him to the rank of Past Provincial Assistant Grand Standard Bearer. Celebrating 50 years in Freemasonry in Old Grammarian Lodge of Waterloo on 22 March 2006, the presentation on that evening was performed by David McCormick who was once again present on this occasion.

Robert finished his presentation by saying: “James, you have filled your Masonic career with dedication and commitment and have enjoyed recognition for your valuable contribution to Freemasonry.” After the detailed account of James’s life and Masonic career so far, Robert asked the Bootle Groups Vice Chairman John Marsden to read out the jubilee certificate, before Robert presented the certificate to James. Following this Robert handed the gavel back to Mark, who presented a cheque to Robert for £600 to go to the Litherland Masonic Hall.

After closing the lodge, the brethren made their way to an excellent festive board which was enjoyed by all. Peter Levick proposed the toast to James, saying: “It is a privilege to be proposing the toast to James this evening to celebrate his 60 years in Freemasonry.” Peter explained to the brethren that he first met James in 1955 at Crosby County Secondary School when he was a pupil being taught by James. In response to the toast James thanked Robert Wright and his team on the evening, for the ceremony and Peter for the toast to his health. Mark then presented James with a special 60 year lapel badge as a memento of the occasion.

During the evening a raffle was held raising £163.20 which will be donated to Litherland Masonic Hall. With the formalities of the evening being drawn to a close, Mark on behalf of the lodge presented Robert with a display of flowers for his wife Tina. The evening finished after much celebration in good company complete with lots of jovial fun.

Pictured centre from left to right, are: Robert Wright, James Firth and Mark Sands with the Provincial team and grand officers.

Pictured centre from left to right, are: Robert Wright, James Firth and Mark Sands with the Provincial team and grand officers.