We take a look inside Barrow’s Masonic Temple and consider the role of this historical society in modern-day Britain
LEADERS of the local group of Freemasons have added their voice to the national campaign to end discrimination against the society.
It follows the full-page advertisement taken out in several national newspapers by the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) last week.
In it, UGLE CEO declared members felt “undeservedly stigmatised” and calling for an end to the “gross misrepresentation” and “discrimination” they face.
The story has renewed a national curiosity in an ancient order that has a reputation for secrecy and symbolism. More pernicious, though, are the portrayals of the Freemasons as a nefarious organisation wielding undue influence in the political, legal and policing spheres.
It prompted an open invitation from David Grainger, assistant provincial grand master of the West Lancashire Freemasons, to take a tour of the Barrow lodge in Fairfield Lane, and to dispel a few of the myths that persist about the group.
“There have been many recent articles calling us into question and it is important for our 200,000 members that we take a stand,” Mr Grainger said.
“We don’t feel we have been given a fair voice in the national media and it is important that we take this stance and not let this discrimination remain unchecked.”
“There have been many occasions of sensationalist stories being published which are factually incorrect.
“The proliferation of these recently means we must fight back – enough is enough.”
After an introductory cup of tea, we enter the Masonic Temple – the main chamber used in the society’s various ceremonies. Mr Grainger – assisted by group publicity officer Dave Sear – explains the meanings behind some of the symbols.
The chequered floor represents the dark and the light – the good and bad in everyone. The “all-seeing eye” shows deference to a higher power – though the society is open to all religions, prospective members must believe in the existence such a deity.
Initially, some of the symbols seem a little strange, and perhaps disconcerting, but when explained prove rather interesting. Much of the symbolism refers to society’s historical origins in the craft of stonemasonry, rather than the bizarrely persistent links to the occult.
A familiar trope is the Freemason being a powerful individual who leverages his power in business or politics to covertly influence and promote fellow members. However, Mr Grainger refutes any suggestion that this is the case.
He said: “Despite the rumours which abound, it is part of the ethics of the organisation that political and religious topics are forbidden at our meetings.”
“Likewise, networking in order to further careers or business opportunities is not permitted.”
Elitism is another criticism levelled at the organisation, but Mr Sear emphasised that many professions are represented in the modern-day Masons, with members sitting side-by-side regardless of status in their professional life.
Much more important to the members are the various charitable initiatives that the group participates in. These now form a central purpose of the modern-day Freemasons: the national campaign highlighted the £33M donated to good causes in 2017.
In Furness and South Lakeland, foremost among these efforts is the Annual Boxing Evening held at Grange. Last year’s event – the 32nd edition – raised in excess of £10,000. The total raised over the years stands at over £200,000.
An annual concert is held at the Coronation Hall in Ulverston, raising considerable amounts for the hospice and hospital appeals. Members also assist in the marshalling of the annual Brathay Marathon.
“The money we donate comes from the pockets of Freemasons,” Mr Grainger explained.
“We do not collect in the streets or pack bags in supermarkets, but raise the funds from among members.
“We are pleased, and grateful, that our local press has carried stories of not only our charitable efforts but other events such as a new master being appointed in a lodge.”
That said, some members prefer to remain anonymous, though the group were remarkably keen to share insights and information about their activities.
The public are welcome to daily tours of the Freemasons’ Hall in London – an imposing Art Deco building which serves as the national organisation’s headquarters.
Mr Grainger explained that previously, the society had embraced publicity much more freely.
He said: “Originally the affairs of masonic lodges were reported in the press. This practice stopped in the early 1920s but we are now once again trying to make more people aware of our activities.
“Locally, we try to be as open as we can and welcome inquiries about who we are and what we do.”
However, the society remains selective in who it admits. When challenged about the organisation’s policy of gender exclusivity – women are not allowed to join – Mr Grainger highlighted the organisation for women Freemasons that has existed since 1908.
There are 4,700 women Freemasons, and both male and female organisations are happy with the current separate status.
The Order of Women Freemasons dates back to the early 20th century, with the first female lodge opening in 1908. Perhaps surprising is that many prominent suffragettes – including Annie Beasant and Charlotte Despard – were part of a Masonic society.
Though membership is in decline nationally, the group remains optimistic about its health for the future, with waiting lists for some lodges in the area and younger members playing an active role in recent years.
“It is hoped that all members will be proud to say they belong to this wonderful organisation,” Mr Grainger concluded.
“But some do not feel able to do that due to the lingering prejudice and discrimination that exists in certain quarters.
“By seeking to be more open about who we are and what we do the ill-informed and discriminatory prejudices our members face will become a thing of the past.”
A “Secret Society”
Throughout the 20th century, an image of secrecy surrounding the Freemasons has persisted.
The “secret handshake” has helped to perpetuate this idea, though none of the Masons present could remember the last time they’d greeted a fellow member in such a way.
They see significance in many aspects of their ceremonies and symbols.
But by promoting their activities in the regional and national news, the Freemasons hope to dispel the “Secret Society” myth.