Inside the Masons - dispelling the myths

WHAT'S it really like to be a freemason? Is it really a secret society bound together by strange rituals? JAMES MARSTON investigates.

James Marston

WHAT'S it really like to be a freemason? Is it really a secret society bound together by strange rituals? JAMES MARSTON investigates.

STRANGE symbols, mysterious initiation ceremonies, secretive membership, funny handshakes and, of course, rolled-up trouser legs.

Are they a rather strange sect in a strange world of their own? Or a group that keeps secrets and doesn't say much? Is this your view of the masonic movement?

You might be forgiven for thinking all of the above - the Masons have been a bit cagey about what they are and what they do.

But there was a reason for this.

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Trevor White, a member of the Ipswich-based Gippeswyk Lodge, and information officer for the Suffolk's Freemasons' Hall in Soane Street, explains.

He said: “We are much more open about Freemasonry now. Being a Mason is not something you shout about either and nor would we deny if it asked.

“I think the secrecy arose during the war years when Hitler persecuted the Masons and we tended to be a bit inward looking after that. Like any group we have our secrets but we aren't a secret society.

“We do have handshakes and signs that we use but they aren't used much outside the lodge. There's no need.”

The fact that there's even an information officer to the county's masonic community is something that might surprise many but today the Freemasons are far from hidden - in fact there are details of much of their activities and membership lodged in the county's libraries in the Suffolk Freemasons' Year Book.

Setting up an interview was easy and journalists are now welcomed by an organisation keen to dispel some myths and highlight the group's serious work.

Barry Ross, a 70-year-old retired oil executive, is the current Provincial Grand Master of Suffolk.

He is keen to show off the fascinating interior of the Soane Street building.

With the feel of a gentleman's club and the décor in the classical tradition, the building is an architectural treat that you might expect from an organisation that had its foundations in the medieval stone masonry guilds.

We start with a morning coffee in the building's bar

Barry said: “Around the world there are about five million members so it's a large organisation. In this province - which is basically the county, there are 3,000 members that support 66 lodges across Suffolk.

“There are a total of 21 masonic centres that we either rent or own. The province was founded in 1772 and the Grand Lodge in the UK was founded in 1717.

“We operate a movement that has been very successful for a long time. It is based first and foremost on having a great deal of fun.

“It is only available to men but ladies have a strong and independent movement of their own with more than 800 lodges throughout England and Wales.”

Barry said the organisation operates on a three pronged remit:

BROTHERLY LOVE - “This is about promoting mutual respect and understanding amongst men.”

RELIEF - Every lodge has an almoner and he looks after the welfare of the members of the lodge. We also get involved with supporting outside events in the community in terms of physical support and fundraising.

“We have raised more than £250,000 during the last four years that has gone to non-masonic charities such as the hospices. Nationally the Freemasons spend about £2.7million a year on non-masonic charities.”

Barry said there are also a number of masonic charities that the members support.

- The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution which runs 19 care homes for Masons and their relatives.

- The Masonic Trust For Girls and Boys which offers support for the education of children and youngsters including undergraduate and post graduate studies.

- The Masonic Samaritan Fund used to support those in need of health care.

- The Grand Charity which is used to assist in times of national disasters across the world and UK national charities.

Funding for the charities comes from the Masons themselves, fundraising events and subscription.

TRUTH -“We abide by the laws of the country. We are non political and non religious at our meetings and these two things are not expected to be discussed. We are keen to maintain harmony in the lodge.”

Freemasons' Hall is used by each of the town's 18 lodges.

John Elmore, chairman of Freemasons' Hall and a retired scientist, said: “The hall was built in 1879 and it is grade two listed including the staircase. It is owned by a public company called the Ipswich Masonic Hall Trust.”

As we walk through the lobby and up the stairs there are several portraits of former provincial grand masters hanging on the walls - each is in full masonic regalia which include a colourful apron and collar.

At the top of the stairs is a landing, there are swords and other objects and plaques decorating the walls and sitting on tables, commemorating anniversaries and events.

Masonic symbolism is everywhere, stained glass depicts the square and compass logo of Freemasonry, even the doorways are angled representing the imperfect world of the outside and the masonic world and its codes of behaviour within.

Each of the town's 18 lodges use the hall for monthly meetings and after using the building's robing room to put on their regalia assemble in the hall's temple.

Inside there are chairs set out in choir fashion - facing each other. At one end of the room is the lodge master's chair. The lodge secretary and other officials have their own set places. At the other end of the room is a pipe organ and on the floor is a black and white pattern rather like a chess board representing night and day. Around the walls are shields of each lodge that uses the temple.

David Harries, 56, a Felixstowe retailer and provincial secretary, is a member of the Felix United Service Lodge that was founded in 1918.

He said: “Music is an important part of the meetings. We sing an opening and closing hymn which we call odes and we often sing the national anthem. Each meeting is followed by a meal in our dining room, which we call a festive board.”

David said each lodge also has a tyler - a position that guard's the privacy of the lodge meeting.

He said: “The tyler stands outside and carries a ceremonial sword. He also organises people to sign the presence book which records attendance and is useful for fire regulations.”

Upstairs there is a second temple which houses masonic artefacts and a collection of jewels.

Rather like medals, the jewels are awarded to masons for carrying out different functions.

Trevor said: “If you give a certain amount to charity or join another masonic order or take on a particular role or found a lodge you are awarded a jewel which becomes part of your regalia.”

Downstairs the panelled dining room is where the lodge members assemble after meetings. It is also hired out for events such as wedding receptions.

David said: “There is a structure to the masons that a lot of men like. Lewdness is frowned upon. It's very civilised and well mannered.

“We have drink in the bar after the meeting and before the festive board. We always say grace and we always toast the Queen and the grand master the Duke of Kent. But it very relaxed as well and there is a great atmosphere.”

You can't help getting the impression that being a mason is rather like a grown-up version of the boy Scouts.

There are codes of behaviour, an emphasis on fun and conviviality and a serious side to membership that takes its obligations to the community and fellow Masons seriously.

What there isn't is much evidence of secrets and mystery - and throughout the tour no question goes unanswered.

But what about the rolled-up trouser leg stories - myth or reality?

Barry puts the record straight.

He said: “The initiation ceremony is an important event for new members and a memorable event. I don't want to go into too many details and spoil it by telling everyone what happens.

“It is correct that candidates roll up their trouser legs during the three ceremonies they go through when being admitted to membership. Taken out of context this may seem amusing but like much of freemasonry it has a symbolic meaning.”

So who can join?

THE essential qualifications for admission are a belief in a supreme being - though the Masons are a non- religious body - and to be over 21.

Barry said: “We have about 150 new members in Suffolk a year. You have to ask to be a member. It is also important that partners are supportive of membership and aware of the commitment as there are social events that exclude partners.

“It's basically a hobby. Members are often friends or acquaintances of existing members.”

“It costs between £70 to £100 a year in subscriptions and the meal afterwards costs about £14. People also give what they can to charity but there's no pressure and family always comes first.”

Did you know?

The oldest masonic lodge in Ipswich is the British Union Lodge founded in 1762.