Masonic Buildings - Historical Millstones
Director of Special Projects John Hamill of UGLE
Wednesday, 14 December 2011
Reprinted without alteration with permission of Jody Porter | Website Content Editor, UGLE
(Devotion’s Editor – The above link was sent to me by Senior Freemason in UGLV and reader of Devotion News. It has to be admitted all of us have biases and no doubt mine shine through in Devotion News, but we do try to get some sort of balance and opinions counterpoint to those often expressed herein. Such can only be good to continue our conversations. Naturally I throw my three cents in at the end! )
“Director of Special Projects John Hamill wonders if resources spent on maintaining masonic buildings would be better used elsewhere
Recently I was accused of betraying my principles as a historian and supporter of the preservation of our masonic heritage. I had had the temerity to suggest that, sadly, there were times when we had to be hard-headed and pragmatic, particularly so when it comes to the huge heritage of masonic buildings.
In the context of the long history of the Craft, the idea of purpose-built lodge rooms and halls is a relative innovation. Originally, lodges, and even the two eighteenth-century English Grand Lodges, met in private rooms in inns and taverns. There were, of course, exceptions. In 1775, the premier Grand Lodge built the first Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, London. The oldest purpose-built Provincial Hall – still in use by the lodge that built it – appeared in Sunderland in 1778. In the early nineteenth-century, halls appeared as far apart as Bath and Newcastle upon Tyne but none survived the economic problems of the 1830s and 1840s.
The great period of masonic building was in mid-Victorian and Edwardian times. Freemasonry was rapidly expanding, and was seen by the public as a respectable association. To the growing middle and professional classes, who were the core membership of the Craft at that time, inns and taverns were not respectable places and so began the move to having specific premises limited to masonic activity.
The development of masonic buildings mirrored what was happening in ecclesiastical and civic circles, with the building of huge parish and free churches and palatial town halls. Just as they were expressions of Victorian religious and civic pride so the new masonic halls were an expression of the integrity and stability of the brethren who built them. Many of them were built in the new districts of the expanding towns and cities and reflected Freemasonry’s position as one of the pillars of the local community.
Life, however, moves on and changes. In the fifty years after the Second World War this country experienced the greatest economic and social upheaval since the industrial revolution. One of the effects in urban areas was that the former prosperous districts became subject to dereliction and decay as businesses and industries failed or downsized and moved out. The masonic halls became almost like islands in a sea of dereliction – islands which no one wanted to visit, especially on a dark winter’s night.
Combined with a contracting membership regularly asked to dig deeper into their pockets to cover ever rising costs and what at first had seemed a glorious heritage soon became an increasingly heavier millstone around the necks of those who used them.
To my mind, the purpose of Freemasonry is to bring together men from disparate backgrounds and traditions, to instil in them the principles and tenets of the Craft and to explore what we have in common and build on that commonality for the good of society as a whole. It is not the purpose of Freemasonry to act as a sort of National Trust to preserve a heritage of buildings which, while they have served the Craft over a long period, are no longer fit for purpose. The time, energy and finance which is spent in trying to preserve them could be put to much better masonic effect.
The major concern for the Craft in recent years has been attracting and retaining new members. The fall in membership appears to be bottoming out and in some areas there are real signs of growth. I would argue that the next major area of concern will be the problem of our heritage of property. In some areas it is being addressed and schemes have evolved – like the events business at London’s Freemasons’ Hall – to share masonic buildings with others to bring in additional income. But there will be times when hard decisions have to be taken, and on those occasions it is the head that should rule rather than the heart.
Letter to the Editor – Freemasonry Today No.17 - Spring 2012
I was extremely interested to read the ‘Historical Millstones’ reflection by John Hamill in the Winter 2011 issue of Freemasonry Today. This is a subject on which I have long held strong convictions.
I wholeheartedly support his thoughts. There is, in addition to John’s comments, one aspect that I have put forward many times in the past. Smaller, more local masonic meeting halls lend themselves to involving Freemasons in the communities in which they reside, which are the sources of their Entered Apprentices. The doors of small, local masonic halls should be opened to the local community to demonstrate that Freemasons are part of it and that their halls are not places to be frowned upon. Indeed, the very idea of a masonic centre militates against the concept of openness. If communities of non-masons continually see men in black suits with black cases driving or walking into large, sometimes forbidding, old buildings with large gates closing behind them, often in the dark, it becomes the breeding ground for the unfounded suspicions that have hounded our meetings for many years.
In my experience, limited as it is, it is the small, local halls which prove to have few if any financial problems, and the masonic centres that do. Masonic centres can be an excellent means of providing a home for a large number of lodges. But if the upkeep is beyond the means of the membership who use the building, then it seems very pertinent to actively consider using a small local hall, as was the case for most lodges 100 to 150 years ago.
Fernhill Lodge, No. 7707
New Milton, Hampshire and Isle of Wight “
Comments from Devotion News Editor, WBro D Hudson;
Our buildings stand and fail on one thing – income.
It’s good to hear that in some areas under UGLE, systems “have evolved – like the events business at London’s Freemasons’ Hall – to share masonic buildings with others to bring in additional income” – YES YES! I wonder if they call it the Collingwood Model?
Of course our buildings as Masonic Centres stand on another critical factor – members – we must continually find men who will benefit from Freemasonry and who Freemasonry can benefit from. However there are buildings throughout the world that survive with one lodge – they are not “an increasingly heavier millstone around the necks of those who used them. “ but sources of income and pride. The difference the responder Bro Dowrick notes in the use of Community and Masonic Halls with few financial problems is income, and opening our halls to others is a critical aspect in securing it. (Income must also be managed properly within a sound financial structure administered by capable and not just well meaning people).
It must be acknowledged that the purpose of Freemasonry is not buildings, but IT IS THE PURPOSE of Freemasonry to act as a National Trust of sorts - a trust of values and ideals. It is preserved in our oral tradition passed on for hundreds of years, now often written down in ritual books in many jurisdictions. Freemasonry is not a research institution – but our Lodges of Research flourish. Neither is Freemasonry a charity, but charity is central to our activities and beliefs. Neither is Freemasonry a music society, but for members of the Grand Lodge Choir and many others, singing is a vital part of Freemasonry. Neither is Freemasonry a car club, but the rev heads gather in corners and discuss pistons, engines and fabrication. Neither is Freemasonry a Media Outlet, but newsletters and web sites abound. Neither is Freemasonry a dance school or dining club, but balls and dinner dances are held all over the world. The time, energy and finance which is spent in all these endeavours may be better spent elsewhere, but they are what interest and inspire us. These are all things which bring people from disparate backgrounds together.
Buildings are likewise an important focus for many brethren, not just preserving our history, but providing a place for our activities to occur, particularly our ceremonies and socials. Preserving buildings is one of my inspirations and vocations in my life as a Freemason.
What do you think ? What inspires you ? Find it in Freemasonry and apply yourself to it. You will get much more and give much more in your Masonic journey if you do that.