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The First World War and its impact on Freemasonry – Diane Clements

Fraught with fate

Diane Clements, Director of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, considers the impact of the outbreak of World War I on the Craft in England

Britain entered World War I on 4 August 1914. When the Grand Lodge held its regular Quarterly Communications less than a month later on 2 September, French and British armies had delayed the German advance in the south of Belgium, but their success at the first Battle of the Marne was still uncertain. Alfred Robbins, the President of the Board of General Purposes, later described the atmosphere at that meeting as being fraught with fate. ‘Not only for the British Empire and her Allies, but for all that English masons held dear,’ he wrote. ‘Darkness was descending on many a soul.’ 

Disrupted meetings

Calls for lodges to stop meeting were dismissed by the Grand Lodge, but two of them with the closest German links, Pilgrim Lodge, No. 238, and Deutschland Lodge, No. 3315, both ceased to meet for the duration of the war. Members of both lodges had been faced with the provisions of wartime legislation that had given ‘enemy aliens’ a matter of days to leave the country and forced all those remaining to register with the police. The activities of other lodges were disrupted as members, including the Pro Grand Master, Lord Ampthill, went to fight or became involved in the conflict. 

By mid-September 1914, Lord Charles Beresford Lodge, No. 2404, based in Chatham in Kent, had all its two hundred and fifty members serving while forty-three of the forty-five members of Alma Lodge, No. 3534, in Hounslow, whose members were drawn from the Royal Fusiliers, rejoined for war service. The lodge meeting scheduled for September 1914 didn’t take place and the lodge members weren’t to meet again until 1918.

Other lodges were forced to move out of their meeting places as buildings across the country were requisitioned. Several London lodges were forced to move from De Keyser’s Royal Hotel on the Victoria Embankment when it was requisitioned for the Military Aeronautics Directorate. The Lodge of Faith and Unanimity, No. 417, in Dorchester gave its hall to the Dorset County Hospital for use by wounded soldiers and met elsewhere. In May 1915, the lodge protested at their premises being used for ‘contagious and infectious diseases, or for enemy aliens’ and held the hospital accountable for ‘disinfecting, re-decorating, and rendering the lodge’, but it was able to return to its hall in January 1918.

An estimated 200,000 refugees arrived in Britain from Belgium, displaced by the war. The Grand Lodge made an immediate initial donation of £1,000, the equivalent of more than £40,000 today, to the Belgian Relief Fund. The returning refugees were dispersed across the country. Some were sent to Nottingham where they were housed in Chaucer Street properties that had been purchased shortly before the war for the site of a new hall. Funds were regularly raised for them at Provincial meetings until they were repatriated in 1919.

A £1,000 donation was made to the British Red Cross Society, where Sir Arthur Stanley, Provincial Grand Master of Lancashire, Western Division, was chairman of the executive committee. 

A ladies committee is born

With many businesses closing down or reducing their activity at the outbreak of war, there were fewer employment opportunities for single women as servants and secretaries. When the Queen’s Work for Women Fund was established, the Grand Lodge requested that the wife of the Pro Grand Master, Lady Ampthill, form a Ladies Committee to raise contributions for the Fund from the wives and daughters of Freemasons. An impressive £2,001 was raised. This was presented to Queen Mary in March 1915, with the funds divided between several bodies providing training and support for women.

Women soon began to replace men in clerical and manufacturing roles as the war continued, especially after the introduction of conscription in 1916, and the need for the Fund was much reduced.

Many organisations and communities established Rolls of Honour in the early months of the war. These were originally intended to record the names of those who had volunteered, but they also quickly became a record of casualties. The idea of a Masonic Roll of Honour was first considered by the Grand Lodge at its meeting in December 1914, its second meeting after the outbreak of war. 

Documents sent by the Grand Lodge to lodge secretaries asked for the name, military rank and masonic rank of brethren known to have died. The first list appeared in the 1916 Masonic Year Book – it was thirty pages long with five hundred names. 

The Library and Museum has a new, free temporary exhibition called English Freemasonry and the First World War, which opens on Monday, 15 September 2014 and runs until Friday, 15 May 2015. A richly illustrated book to coincide with the exhibition has been published and is available from Letchworth’s Shop at Freemasons’ Hall, priced £15.