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John Hamill on the mythical golden age of Freemasonry

Rose-tinted glasses

Director of Special Projects John Hamill crunches the numbers to show why we should not hark back to a bygone age when Freemasonry was thriving

The sad aspect of reading the business paper for each Quarterly Communication of Grand Lodge is the list of lodges that are closing. There is a perception that this is a modern occurrence linked to declining membership in the past thirty years, but this isn’t so.

That there was a golden age of Freemasonry during which the membership and the number of lodges was on a continual rise, is a myth. During this halcyon era, lodges had large attendances and many had enrolment waiting lists. While there have certainly been periods of expansion in membership – for example, immediately after the end of the First and Second World Wars – there have also been times when membership barely moved or was in a period of decline. A graph of membership over the past three hundred years would not show a gradually ascending line peaking in the late 1960s and then beginning to descend, but one of peaks and troughs.

The same would be true of a graph showing the number of lodges. Our perceptions have been coloured by life in the late Victorian era and the early twentieth century – a period of stability in English Freemasonry. If we look at the period between the formation of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717 and the 1870s we get a very different picture.

The Cycle of Freemasonry

In the eighteenth century the average lodge would have about twenty-five members and a life of about forty years. Lodges closed so often that, from the premier Grand Lodge first numbering its lodges in 1729 until the of 1813, it renumbered its lodges on six occasions to close up gaps on the register.

When the last renumbering took place in 1863, the last lodge on the register was Pentalpha Lodge, Bradford, which was warranted as No. 1276 on 16 June 1863. When the renumbering took place later that year its number dropped down to 974.

With all the lodges that had existed before June 1863 having at least two numbers, the Library and Museum developed a serial number system so that all the material relating to a particular lodge is filed in one place. More than 2,500 serial numbers are used, which means that given there were just 974 lodges in existence in 1863, another 1,500 lodges must have gone out of existence, which had been warranted by the premier, Antients or United Grand Lodge between 1717 and 1863.

Mercifully for the lodges concerned and the filing systems at Grand Lodge, there has not been a renumbering of lodges since 1863. The latest warrant to be issued is No. 9884, which would imply that there is that number of lodges on the current register? Not so. In March of each year the Board of General Purposes gives a statistical table of the number of lodges on the register for the last ten years. The latest table shows that at the end of 2012 there were 7,696 lodges on the register.

Therefore, if 9,884 lodges have been numbered, but only 7,696 existed, we can deduce that between 1863 and 2012 some 2,188 lodges came into existence, flourished, waned and died.

Part of that figure is covered by lodges that were warranted to meet in the former colonies and withdrew from our constitution to form their own Grand Lodges. The majority, however, form part of a cycle that has always been present and, to my mind, paradoxically, are evidence that Freemasonry is very much a living institution.

All is not doom and gloom, as new lodges continue to be formed. However, the answers to why new lodges are made rather than old lodges preserved are many, complex and for a future occasion.

Letters to the editor – No. 23 Autumn 2013

Rose-tinted glasses

Sir,

I read with both interest and sadness John Hamill’s article ‘Rose-tinted Glasses’ (summer 2013 issue) regarding the number of lodges closing each year. Whilst I appreciate his comment that this in fact is ‘evidence that Freemasonry is very much a living institution’, it raises the serious question of why it is that once a lodge (or chapter) has handed back its warrant, it can never again be ‘resurrected’.

We would all accept that some lodges are not suitable for resurrection – for example a school lodge where that particular school had closed long ago – but some old and venerable lodges could surely be ‘put on the shelf’ and resurrected as the demand for a new lodge in the same area grew?

Martin Day, Cyngesburie Lodge, No. 5607, London 

 


 

Sir,

The director of special projects has written an uplifting paper, meaningfully entitled ‘Rose-tinted Glasses’ (summer 2013 issue), with an equally uplifting belief that Freemasonry continues to be a living institution. I heartily agree with both, subject to the following proviso. 

Of recent years a notion has become rife that recruitment can be increased by decreasing standards of entrance. Who has not visited a lodge where the Festive Board has the ambience of a four-ale bar? However much recruitment falters, it must never be restored at the cost of reducing standards. To do so would be an affront to the brethren and Freemasonry alike.

Herbert Ewings, Septem Lodge, No. 5887, Surbiton, Surrey