The first record of the ‘making’ of an English Freemason is Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian and herald, whose collections formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He recorded in his diary that a lodge met at his father-in-law’s house in Warrington, Cheshire on 16 October 1646 to make him a Mason. None of those involved was a stonemason. In the later 1600s there is further evidence for the existence of Freemasonry as a separate organisation unrelated to groups controlling the stonemason’s craft.
Organised Freemasonry became established on 24 June 1717 when four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House, St Paul’s Churchyard, formed themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, as their Grand Master – the first Grand Lodge in the world. Initially the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast for lodges in London but in 1721 John, Duke of Montagu, was elected Grand Master and the Grand Lodge met in ‘quarterly communication’ and began to establish itself as a regulatory body, attracting to it lodges meeting outside London.
In 1723 the first rulebook – the Constitutions of Masonry – was published and William Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments, was appointed Secretary to the Grand Lodge to keep minutes of its meetings. By 1730 the Grand Lodge had over 100 lodges in England and Wales under its control and had begun to spread Freemasonry abroad, warranting lodges to meet in Madrid and Calcutta.
For historical reasons separate Grand Lodges were formed in Ireland (1725) and Scotland (1736). Between them the ‘home’ Grand Lodges took Freemasonry around the globe. From the 1730s lodges were set up in Europe, the West Indies, North America and India.
Growth was to continue in the 20th century, particularly in the years after the two World Wars. It seemed that after those two great cataclysms were over and as a result of the great social changes they brought about, large groups of men looked to Freemasonry as a calm centre of tradition and certainty in which they could continue the fraternity they had found in the services.
The period leading to the outbreak of the Second World War was to have consequences for today. A great deal of anti-Masonic propaganda came out of Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain in the late 1930s. In both countries Freemasonry was banned and many Freemasons were imprisoned and killed. Plans were laid by the Nazis to seize prominent Freemasons when they occupied Britain.
English Freemasonry turned in on itself and continued to be excessively private after peace came. Allied to that, from the 1950s there was a deliberate policy of not dealing with the media and, more importantly, not correcting factual errors. As a result a mythology grew up of Freemasonry as a secret society serving its own aims. In effect Freemasonry was taken out of the community of which it had been a very visible part for nearly 250 years. Since 1984 the United Grand Lodge has been actively countering that mythology pursuing a policy of openness on Freemasonry.
The latter part of the 20th century saw two major celebrations. In 1967 over 6,500 Freemasons, including delegations from other Grand Lodges around the world, gathered at the Royal Albert Hall, London, to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the formation of the Grand Lodge of England. Central to the celebration was the installation of HRH The Duke of Kent as Grand Master, a position to which he has been annually re-elected ever since.
On 10 June 1992 over 12,500 attended a Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge at Earls Court to celebrate the 275th Anniversary of the formation of Grand Lodge and the 25th Anniversary of HRH The Duke of Kent’s installation as Grand Master. For the first time, in addition to English Freemasons and delegations from 94 other Grand Lodges, ladies and non-Masons (representing the many Charities which Freemasonry has supported over the years), and the press and television attended the meeting. The meeting was followed by a banquet for 4,000.
From the four Lodges which formed Grand Lodge in 1717, Freemasonry under the United Grand Lodge of England has grown to an organisation of over 300,000 members grouped in nearly 7,700 lodges. Its membership has included men of rank and those who have become distinguished in many fields of human endeavour but the membership has always been a microcosm of the society in which it currently exists reflecting the social, religious and ethnic composition of our diverse society.