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John Hamill dispels some persistent myths of Freemasonry

Myths and legends

Director of Special Projects John Hamill puts paid to some intriguing rumours that began circulating about Freemasonry after World War II

Over the past thirty years a great deal has been done by Grand Lodge, Provinces and Districts to dispel some of the myths that grew up about Freemasonry after World War II, when our organisation lost the habit of communicating with the non- world. It is necessary work as there is little doubt that the repetition of those myths in the media and other areas has deterred candidates from joining the Craft. But members themselves have also been guilty of propounding stories that have little, if any, basis in reality, two examples being public access to membership registers and the role of the black tie.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians and public bodies were beginning to demand public registers of Freemasons, many brethren asked: ‘Why do they need them? Grand Lodge already has to send lists of members to the police.’ Not so, but there was a kernel of distorted truth at the centre of this one.

In the 1790s, in the wake of the French Revolution, the government began to pass legislation to control radical political clubs, trade combinations and societies. This culminated in the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799, which made illegal any association or society that required its members to take an oath or obligation. Had it gone through in its original form, Freemasonry would have become illegal.

Fighting fiction

Timely intervention by Lord Moira and the Duke of Atholl, explaining Freemasonry’s apolitical nature and that the only ‘secrets’ were the traditional signs, tokens and words used as a test of membership, led to clauses in the Act exempting Freemasonry, with one major proviso. Once a year, every lodge had to send to its local clerk of the peace a return of all the members of the lodge with their names, ages, addresses and occupations. Those returns were available only to the magistrates. The provision continued in force until 1966, when the Criminal Law Amendment Act removed a huge raft of what was considered obsolete legislation, including the Unlawful Societies Act.

When the Craft tie was introduced as an alternative to a black tie there was an outcry among members. When questioned as to why they thought we wore black ties, the usual response was because the Craft was in mourning, for a multiplicity of personalities – from Hiram Abiff to Queen Victoria. The most prevalent claim, however, was that they were adopted in memory of those who lost their lives during World War I. Not true! The central memorial to those brethren is Freemasons’ Hall itself in London. 

Fortunately, Freemasons have never been averse to being photographed and there is a wealth of evidence to show how they dressed for meetings. From late Victorian times up to the 1930s, lodge dress was white tie and tails. Towards the end of World War I, with cloth becoming scarce, brethren began to wear dinner jackets with black bow ties. It was not until World War II that long black ties began to appear, for two reasons. In the face of clothing rationing, Grand Lodge relaxed the dress code, and in areas that were subject to the attentions of the Luftwaffe, meetings began to take place in daylight so that the brethren could get home before the air raids started.

Normal professional day wear at that time was a short black jacket, white shirt and club or regimental tie. On leaving their workplace to go to lodge, brethren simply changed their tie for a long black tie, instead of the usual bow – and so began the habit of wearing morning dress for masonic meetings. 

We learnt a valuable lesson about communication after the war. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of fact, it appears that a half-heard story could fill that space when it came to Freemasonry.

‘Freemasons have never been averse to being photographed and there is a wealth of evidence to show how they dressed for meetings.’