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John Hamill details the history of Metropolitan and Provincial Grand Lodges and Masters

Process of evolution

The rules that define Freemasonry are not set in stone, but rather adapt with changing times, as John Hamill, Director of Special Projects, explains

 Ask a group of members why we do a certain thing or organise in a particular way and the response will be, ‘Because we’ve always done it that way.’ But as anyone who’s read a little of our history knows, that statement is rarely borne out by the facts.

Today, with the exception of five London lodges under the direct supervision of the Grand Master, all our lodges at home are grouped under the Metropolitan Grand Lodge of London or one of the 47 Provincial Grand Lodges. Each group is headed by a Metropolitan or Provincial Grand Master who is appointed, by patent, by the Grand Master as his personal representative within his defined area. 

All lodges in the Metropolitan or Provincial Grand Master’s area come under their supervision and are required to hold a meeting of that Metropolitan or Provincial Grand Lodge at least once a year. They are also empowered to appoint Metropolitan or Provincial Grand Officers, promote existing officers and appoint brethren to past Metropolitan or Provincial rank.

So embedded is the system that it is natural to assume it has always existed, the more so as the office of Provincial Grand Master is one of the oldest in our constitution. The first was Francis Columbine, acknowledged by the Premier Grand Lodge as Provincial Grand Master for Cheshire in 1725. 

Grand Masters under the premier Grand Lodge made many appointments from 1727 onwards but the appointment of a Provincial Grand Master in no way implied the existence of a Provincial Grand Lodge. Columbine was empowered to appoint ‘Grand Officers pro tem’ to assist him, particularly in constituting new lodges or carrying out public ceremonies. Once the event was over, those ‘Grand Officers’ reverted to their original status. 

The death or resignation of a Provincial Grand Master by no means guaranteed the appointment of a successor, unless the lodges in the Province petitioned the Grand Master for a replacement. In a number of cases an appointment was made for a county in which no lodges existed, presumably in the hope that the appointee would stimulate the formation of lodges. In other cases, it is known that the appointee had no connection with and never visited his charge!

The idea of holding an annual Provincial Grand Lodge seems to have been introduced by Thomas Dunckerley, who between 1767 and his death in 1795 was Provincial Grand Master for eight Provinces. He took his duties seriously, regularly visiting his charges to hold Provincial Grand Lodge meetings, stimulating the formation of new lodges and ensuring that his lodges made their annual returns to the Grand Lodge.

The idea of Provinces or Provincial Grand Masters was unknown under the Antients Grand Lodge at home but they did warrant Provincial Grand Lodges overseas. The warrant designated the first Provincial Grand Master but empowered the Province to elect his successors. It also gave them permission to constitute new lodges, which were to be reported to London to be issued with a Grand Lodge warrant. Because of the distances and precarious nature of travel at that time, many constituted lodges never made it onto the Antients Grand Lodge Register.

A foundation for today

Changes brought about by the Union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813 laid the basis of our present system. The appointment of Provincial Grand Masters remained the prerogative of the Grand Master but they were enabled to appoint Provincial Grand officers, who were given their own distinctive regalia and jewels. If a Provincial Grand Master died or resigned, the Province ceased to exist until a successor had been installed. The current system of the Deputy Provincial Grand Master being in charge was introduced as late as the 1880s.

Although the 1815 Constitutions required at least annual Provincial Grand Lodge meetings, it was not until the 1860s that the rule was fully complied with and Provinces began to send annual reports of their doings to the Grand Secretary. So rather than existing since time immemorial, our Metropolitan and Provincial system has gradually evolved and continues to evolve and adapt to the times we live in.

‘In a number of cases, an appointment was made for a county in which no lodges existed; in other cases, it is known that the appointee had no connection with and never visited his charge!’