London Masonic Walk

Masons-Avenue250It’s astonishing how vestiges of masonic influence abound in contemporary London and are, for the most part, simply taken for granted.

But let’s step back a little. To what extent did freemasonry contribute to British global supremacy in the 18th and 19th centuries?

I recently came across an excellent book on this subject: Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717-1927 by Jessica Harland-Jacobs. This eminent professor argues that freemasonry proved central to the building and cohesion of the British empire: it presented the means and had a motive.

The means were clear. The fraternity constituted one of the first global institutional networks that linked far flung Britons to one another and brought them into contact with other European imperialists throughout the world with whom ideas were shared. Freemasonry fulfilled the role social media does in society today.

The motive is also apparent. As a movement freemasonry aggressively affirmed its loyalty to the Crown with public demonstrations, orations, charity, and military service; and of course it readily identified with the ideals of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, such as universal brotherhood, sociability, tolerance, and benevolence. Freemasons were dyed in the wool imperialists.

A tour of masonic London in the charge of WBro Mike Neville reinforces the notion that freemasonry and the establishment of the world’s largest empire were synchronous and closely aligned.

The walk is very much a canter through selected personalities and the geopolitics of freemasonry against the backcloth of an ever expanding British empire. Many, if not most, movers and shakers of the time were, it seems, members of the fraternity.

Our walk began at Wellington’s statue in central London (yes, Wellington was a freemason), adjacent to the Bank of England, where we were surrounded by icons of masonic history. The Bank’s architect was Sir John Soane (1753-1837), also a freemason, who as an aside did great things architecturally to Freemason’s Hall.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Sir Thomas Gresham

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-79), a London merchant, financier, liveryman – and of course freemason – founded the imposing Royal Exchange. It made him a rich man, wealth he bequeathed to the foundation of Gresham College, which opened its doors in 1597 as the first institution of higher learning in London.

The walk took us on to Cheapside and Mason’s Avenue, so named to mark the site of the first Freemason’s Hall. A diary left by Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and founding Fellow of the Royal Society, offers one of the first recorded insights into active freemasonry in seventeenth century England.

Ashmole was a prominent freemason most of his life. His diary entry for 1682 reads: “About 5 H: P.M. I received a Sumons to appeare at a Lodge to held the next day, at Masons Hall London.

The following day, 11 March 1682, he wrote: “Accordingly, I went … I was the Senior Fellow among them (it being 35 yeares since I was admitted) … We all dyned at the halfe Moone Taverne in Cheapeside, at a Noble Dinner prepaired at the charge of the New-accepted Masons.

site-of-GrandLodge220Next stop was St Paul’s Churchyard, and to the site of the Goose and Gridiron Ale-House. It was here on 24 June 1717 that four lodges met and founded the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster. A plaque marks the spot.

And so to the river and Somerset House where we learn of the masonic patron Thomas Dunckerley (1724-1795). If freemasonry began as a sort of Enlightenment social club, as a means of connectivity, support, and personal advancement, Dunckerley was in many ways its personification: for in him we have the juxtaposition of naval power, overseas expansion, freemasonry, and royalty.

Dunckerley, a Portsmouth based naval officer, was a hugely influential freemason, being appointed Provincial Grand Master of several provinces, founder of Mark masonry, and responsible for fusing Royal Arch to craft masonry. True to type, he was also a bellicose advocate of British imperialism. Dunckerley also had the distinction of being the illegitimate son of King George II.

Cleopatra's Needle

Cleopatra’s Needle and the plaque to Erasmus Wilson at its base

Our tour pondered the Ancient Egyptian obelisk on the Embankment that is Cleopatra’s Needle. The granite edifice, towering above the Thames at 69 feet and weighing in at 224 tons, dates from 1450 BC. It was presented to the UK Government in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan to commemorate Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile.

The government of the day was reluctant to fork out the funds necessary to bring the ediface to London, and so the obelisk remained in Alexandria until 1877 when Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished dermatologist to whom we owe today’s popularity of saunas and spas, sponsored its transportation to London at the then colossal cost of some £10,000. The masonic connection? You guessed it – Sir William was a prominent freemason.

Cleopatra’s Needle and the plaque to Erasmus Wilson at its base

Augustus Harris memorial fountain

Augustus Harris memorial fountain

Our final character to consider was Sir Augustus Henry Glossop Harris (1852 –1896), British actor, impresario, and dramatist. As manager of the Drury Lane Theatre he was known as the ’Father of Modern Pantomime’.

And so we learn that this great bon viveur, member of London County Council, founder of the pantomime, was an active freemason for most of his adult life. He’s commemorated by a publicly funded memorial fountain featuring masonic symbols next to Drury Lane Theatre.

WBro Mike Neville’s walking tours and lectures are commendable. I thoroughly enjoyed the Masonic London walk, and found it informative and entertaining in equal measure. What’s more I learned that Mike has raised over £25k for masonic charities and other good causes – even more reason to support his efforts.

For more information on Mike’s tours & lectures visit http://iurl.no/0257d

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