Freemasonry and the Masonic Hall at Beamish

Kate Reeder

 

Visitors inspect the lodge room
The interior of the lodge room at Beamish now and (below right) as it appeared in 1907

The opening of the Masonic Hall at Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum in April 2006 was the culmination of a project that began in 1988. Beamish is an open-air museum set in a 300-acre site in the north east of England, between Durham and Newcastle. Threatened significant buildings from around the region have been physically moved to the museum and set in the landscape. They are interpreted by people in costume; the buildings are set in 1913 or 1825 depending on the area in which they are located.

Beamish lodge room in 1907

The purpose of the museum is to preserve the history of the North East. The Masonic Hall provides an insight into the changing world of freemasonry. Set in 1913 the building, with its costumed interpreters, allows members of the public to explore Edwardian freemasonry at their own pace. At that time the institution was much more public, visible and thriving than it is today.

Although masonic halls, or ‘temples’ as they are sometimes known, are not considered to be places of worship, there are obvious similarities between their architecture and the ecclesiastical architecture of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, not only in terms of size and form, but also in terms of the threats they now face.

FREEMASONRY

In England, freemasonry is a society for men that focuses on moral and spiritual values, and for many years freemasons have followed three great principles; brotherly love, relief (charity and care), and truth. A belief in a ‘supreme being’ is the essential qualification for freemasonry: God by whatever name a man’s religion dictates. Membership is open to men of any religion or race who can fulfil this essential qualification and who are of ‘good repute’. Members progress though a hierarchical system which includes apprentices, fellows and masters. These ‘degrees’ of craft masonry progress a man through masonry using plays containing symbolism following ancient forms. The plays use stonemasons’ customs and tools as their basis which are learnt by heart and performed within the local branch or ‘lodge’.

Facade of the masonic hall, Cheltenham
The masonic hall, Cheltenham (by GA Underwood, 1818–23): one of the most magnificent of the early purpose-built examples in the country.

The secrets of freemasonry are the traditional methods of recognition: the handshake and particular phrases. These codes stem originally from the need to be able to recognise a qualified freestone mason in the Middle Ages. However, it is not a secret society since all members are free to acknowledge their membership and will do so in response to enquiries for respectable reasons. Furthermore, its constitution and rules are available to the public, and there is no secret about any of its aims and principles. Like many other societies, it regards some of its internal affairs as private matters for its members.

Although its actual origins are now uncertain, the history of freemasonry is a fascinating trail. The word ‘freemason’ is a shortening of ‘freestone mason’, freestone being the close grained material used for decorative carving. Historical use of this term has caused a great deal of confusion when researching the origins of freemasonry as this term was only adopted by the movement in the early 1800s. Prior to this they referred to themselves as ‘accepted’, ‘adopted’, ‘freed’, ‘free’ or ‘free and accepted’ masons. It is thought that this was to distinguish those men who actually worked in stone from those who were members of freemasonry.

Historically, researchers have seen links between early masons’ marks in stone and the symbols used in freemasonry. These links are not proof of early freemasonry but proof that the symbols used in freemasonry were widely used. Freemasonry’s apparent reliance on symbolism dates back to the 1600s when recorded freemasonry began, and few people could read and write. Many organisations, including the church, used symbols to teach values at this time, and freemasonry adopted some of these. The square and compass, now universally recognised as the symbol of freemasonry, was already in use by the church as a visual representation of leading one’s life within God’s regulation and direction.

It was not until the late 1800s that any investigation into the history of freemasonry really began. At its most simplistic, the debate is: does freemasonry directly descend from stonemasons’ lodges or is it simply an organisation that uses stonemasonry as a symbolic base? Masonic ritual centres around what could now be regarded as a creation myth. When King Solomon built his temple at Jerusalem in approximately 950 BC there were two classes of skilled stonemason working on the building. There were three grand masters overseeing the work and keeping a certain secret, and one of them was murdered because he would not divulge the secret. Substitute secrets were adopted, until the original secrets could be re-discovered, and these became the rituals and secrets of freemasonry. There are, however, no known credible direct links between operative and speculative freemasons at any point in history.

One of the more romantic notions is that freemasonry was established by the Knights Templar who fled France in 1314, although this, like many other stories, has now been completely discredited. Perhaps more plausible is the idea that freemasonry was established as a self-help group owing to the lack of a welfare system in the 1600s. Some theories link freemasonry to the political and religious tensions of the 1500s and 1600s when groups could have posed as operative lodges in order to meet, even though members were of all different political and religious views, with the idea of working together towards social improvement and tolerance.

However the organisation began, one of the first written records of making a freemason was in October 1646, in the diary of Elias Ashmole. By the late1600s there is a great deal of evidence about masonic lodges. By the late 1690s the freemasons were clearly large enough and prominent enough that antimasonic leaflets were being printed. On 24 June 1717, English freemasonry became centrally organised when the first Grand Lodge was formed. Despite splits within the organisation, and their virtual outlawing under the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799, freemasonry united and grew in strength, particularly by the late 1800s. It was in this period that a number of the purpose-built masonic halls rose around the country. Early freemasons had met in rooms in inns and coffee houses, but with the growth of lodges this was no longer a practical option. In 1814 there were 637 lodges for the whole country; by 1901 there were 2,850.

 

The Egyptian revivalist facade of the masonic hall at Boston, Lincolnshire The facade of the masonic ‘temple’ in Ilfracombe, Devon, showing a variety of classical influences at work
Above left: the Grade II* listed masonic hall at Boston, Lincolnshire was built in 1860-63 to a design based on David Roberts' drawings of 'The Temple of Dandour, Nubia' published in 1848. (Photo: Patricia Beaton, Boston Borough Council). Above right: The masonic ‘temple’ in Ilfracombe, Devon, designed by H M Gardner in 1899, is listed Grade II. Its facade is a fine example of the late Victorian eclectic approach to Classical architecture. (Photo: North Devon District Council)

FREEMASONRY IN COUNTY DURHAM

There is evidence of masonic meetings in County Durham in the 1600s. Each lodge had its own characteristic, often relating to the occupation of its members, such as the Sea Captain’s Lodge at Sunderland. Some even took their name from where they met: the Marquis of Granby Lodge is named after the inn where it used to meet. As the lodges grew in strength in the mid-1800s and moved into purpose-built premises, this stability allowed for greater financial and fraternal benefits, giving members a sense of identity. Such buildings did take the masons out of regular public contact, but they continued to maintain strong public links through hosting events such as special charity theatre evenings which they would attend in regalia. The construction of a hall also showed the world the permanency and dedication of the movement.

Durham was a progressive province in terms of the number of dedicated masonic halls. County Durham boasts the oldest continuously occupied masonic private premises in England, built by Phoenix Lodge in 1785 in Sunderland. The lodge first proposed building its own hall in 1763, although it wasn’t until 1775 that a site was found. Unfortunately, the building they erected burned down in 1782, and the building standing there today is its replacement. Progress in Country Durham continued and, by 1869, 11 out of 19 lodges in the county met under their own roofs. In 1871 the Provincial Grand Master expressed his desire never to see freemasons meet at inns again, and the province obliged.

MASONIC ARCHITECTURE AND SYMBOLISM

The exterior of these purpose-built 19th-century buildings usually reflects the grand architecture of contemporary civic buildings, and there are a few spectacular examples, such as one in Boston, Lincolnshire which is modelled on the Temple of Dandour, Nubia, and a fine regency example in Cheltenham. However, when walking down the street there is often very little on the exterior to distinguish them from civic buildings or, in some cases, from non-conformist churches, apart from the words ‘Masonic Hall’ and, as in the case of the building at Beamish, a few masonic symbols. It is only the interior that is unique.

Typically, a hall has a minimum of three main rooms, the robing room, the lodge room, which is the main ceremonial meeting space, and the dining room. Depending on the size and number of lodges meeting in the building, there may also be duplicate rooms and additional rooms such as a library, committee room and tyler’s room. (The tyler is the man who prepares the lodge room and guards the door.)

Each hall has its own characteristics and each lodge room has its own peculiarities: throughout the whole country no two lodge rooms are the same. Before World War II the majority of halls appear to have been decorated in a contemporary style. After World War II, hall interiors began to assume a more corporate scheme, although a number have retained a more traditional approach. It is the lodge room which in its layout and architecture is identifiably masonic. Ideally, this room is a double cube like the one at Beamish, which is 25 foot wide, 25 feet in height and 50 feet long. Many halls have a ceiling that is vaulted and decorated with the constellation. The Beamish Hall ceiling is decorated as the night sky would have appeared on 24 June 1717 when the Grand Lodge of England was first formed. The constellation represents a number of masonic ideals and helps with the story of freemasonry; it is often said to remind brethren that everyone lives under the same sky. Many lodges have a sunburst in the centre of the ceiling, or a setting sun above the Senior Warden’s chair and a rising sun above the Master’s chair in the east, as during a meeting the sun rises with the Master and sets with the Senior Warden. The Beamish Lodge has a sunburst in the centre of the ceiling, copied from the Phoenix lodge room in Sunderland, which is said to be the only part remaining from the original 1775 building. In the centre of this is a ‘G’ within the circle of eternity represented by the snake eating its tail. The ‘G’ stands for the Great Architect, the Supreme Being believed in by all freemasons. All lodge rooms have a symbol like this hung in the centre of the room, and the G is typical in England. The seven stars within the circle represent the seven liberal arts and sciences, grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. The majority of lodge rooms have no windows as they were unnecessary. Lodges met in the evening and often lit the hall in a specific manner during ceremonies.

All lodge rooms have a chequerboard floor covering; in some lodges this is a carpet rolled out for the occasion and in other cases it is a marble floor. The pattern represents light and darkness, the joys and sorrows of life, which although opposite are inseparable and make a complete life. In some lodges this black-and-white floor is set square while in others it is diamond set. At Beamish it is diamond set and made from marble to cope with the number of visitors walking across the surface.

All lodge rooms are set out with the Master, the Senior Warden and the Junior Warden in the same positions relative to each other. Each has a chair, often carved with the symbol of his office, a pedestal and a candlestick and in the case of the two wardens, a column. The Master is situated on the east side, from where he opens, rules and directs the lodge. His symbol is the square, said to be the controlling force. The Junior Warden represents the sun, marking it at its highest point and is seated on the south side. The plumb rule is his symbol of justness and upright behaviour.

The Senior Warden, representing the moon after sunset, sits opposite the Master in the west, from where he attends to the closing of the lodge. His symbol is the level showing equality. The candlesticks also represent the roles played by the three men using the three main orders of architecture: Ionic, Doric and Corinthian. The Master’s is of the Ionic order denoting wisdom; the Senior Warden’s is of the Doric order denoting strength, and that by the Junior Warden of the Corinthian order denotes beauty.

THE BEAMISH HALL

The hall now at Beamish is a typical example of the type of hall built in the late 1800s. Originally it was built by St John’s Lodge of Sunderland, which had met in 14 different hotels and two other masonic halls between 1806 and 1870. In 1869 they laid the foundation stone with full masonic ceremony, moving into the building a year later. This was used by freemasons until the 1930s when a larger building was required. They sold the old one to the Durham Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and it was used later by the adjoining church. By the 1970s it had been abandoned. It was in 1988 that Beamish and the masonic province of Durham sat down to discuss where they might find an appropriate building to move to the museum site. At this meeting it was suggested that that they walk around the corner from the provincial office to see the old hall, which they then did, only to find that the building was in the process of being demolished to make way for a development of modern flats. Negotiating on the spot the Museum secured the frontage of the building as that was all that remained intact enough to re-erect. Then began several years of fundraising to find £1.2 million to rebuild the hall. The funding came partly from the masons themselves and partly from ERDF grants and the rebuild was finally completed in April 2006.

Since only the frontage of the building could be rescued, the rest of the building is a modern construction. It is built from modern building materials in line with modern regulations. The interior room layout follows that of the original building, except for the lodge room, which was increased in size at the request of the masons to be the perfect double cube. The rooms and doorways have been increased in size for ease of access. Fire doors have had to be added and the building that joins the hall to the bank is a fabrication to hide the lift that was required to comply with modern access regulations.

Facade of the masonic hall at Beamish before reconstruction The facade after reconstruction
Interior of the reconstructed reading room Black and white photograph of the hall in the distance and its original setting
The masonic hall at Beamish before reconstruction (top left) and afterwards (top right). Above left: the reconstructed reading room. Above right: the building in its original setting in Durham

As there was no time to properly retrieve evidence from the original building, other sources of evidence had to be used to recreate the interior of the building. There is one description of the interior written in 1965 by a man who was relying on collective memory of the building in the 1930s when the masons moved out. The written account is detailed, but as there was a fire in 1914 inside the building, it does not wholly identify the interior decorations used in 1913. The only picture of the interior is in the 150th Anniversary Festival of the Palatine Lodge programme produced in 1907. This picture in black and white shows the inside of the lodge room, presumably in late 1906 or very early 1907 as the programme was produced for 14 January 1907. It has been used as the basis of the reconstruction.

To help with the reconstruction a number of other sources were used. The Marquis of Granby Lodge, which met at the masonic hall in Durham, also had its 150th Anniversary in 1913 and produced a souvenir programme. This programme contains a number of pictures of the interior of the hall. In 1884 the lodge room of the United Grand Lodge was redecorated. Amazingly, the possible colour schemes that were presented to the committee have survived in the form of watercolour sketches. These were used to inform the choice of decoration in the lodge room at Beamish, because by a remarkable coincidence the hall had also been repainted and altered in 1884.

The lodge room is as close to the original as could be achieved. Some of the paintings and furniture from the original room have been returned to the Beamish site. Other items were sourced from masonic halls around the country, many from the Province of Durham. The decorative scheme uses traditional paint colours from Farrow and Ball along with historic painting techniques of marbling and graining wood to make it look more expensive. The aim was to try and make the building feel as it would have done in 1913, and to ensure that the modern requirements of fire doors and plasterboarded walls did not detract from the historic feel of the building. According to visitor feedback, masons and non-masons all feel the building is a success. Few realise that only the frontage is original and that is a tribute to all who helped create the building and continue to interpret it.

 

 

This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2007

Author

KATE REEDER is Curator of Social History at Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum and has been involved with the Masonic Hall project since her arrival at the Museum in 2004. She studied history at the University of Nottingham,
specialising in medieval women and religion, and has a masters degree in Museum and Artefact Studies from the University of Durham.

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