Freemasonry and its Origins in the North West of England
An Address Given by WBro Graham Dunne,
Junior Warden of the Hawke’s Bay Research Lodge No 305
5 May 2008
I would like to present to you a short address concerning Freemasonry and its origins in the North West of England - more particularly in my home town of Liverpool.
The province of West Lancashire is not only the largest of the provinces ranged under the banner of the Grand Lodge of England, it also has claims to be the birthplace of English Freemasonry. The initiation of Elias Ashmole in Warrington in Lancashire on 16th October 1646 is the earliest recorded initiation into English Freemasonry. All trace of that early Lancashire lodge, if indeed such a lodge existed, if it was not merely an ad hoc meeting of conveniently situated Freemasons, has disappeared. The oldest of the existing lodges is Lodge of Loyalty No. 86 in Prescott, dating from 1753 and still meeting on the Wednesday before full moon, although the Brethren can no longer rely on their horses to see them safely home in the moonlight.
The province, founded as Lancashire Western Division in 1826, became the province of West Lancashire in 1960 and covers that part of the ancient county of Lancashire, west of the Great North Road, but including Preston and Lancaster. It extends from the Lake District to the River Mersey and from Liverpool into the suburbs of Manchester. Its lodges now meet in five counties: Lancashire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire.
Any description of the province inevitably begins in Liverpool. Here is the headquarters of the province and the greatest concentration of lodges - 155 of them. The province, being so large, is divided into twenty-four groups, each with its chairman, vice chairman and secretary, ranging in size from the Preston group with thirty-five lodges to Leigh with just seven. Liverpool has no fewer than seven groups, with between eighteen and thirty-four lodges in each. The Masonic Hall stands on a famous street, Hope Street. The spectacular lantern crown of the Metropolitan Cathedral gazes down on one end of the street and the monumental Anglican Cathedral, the final blaze of gothic, looks down at the other end.
Although the provincial office is in Liverpool, the Provincial Grand Lodge has, for the last 25 years, met consistently in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool or in Preston, first in the Public Hall and then, since 1973, in the Preston Guild Hall.
Warrington is a fitting place to end this part of the history of the province of West Lancashire. It was here, after all, the birthplace where it all began with the initiation of Elias Ashmole. Like Wigan, Warrington was a fortified staging post on the Roman road from Chester to Hadrian's Wall and, like Preston, it is an important river crossing, but unlike them, it never acquired the status of a royal borough. The importance of Warrington as a crossing of the River Mersey is illustrated by the fact that the present bridge is at least the sixth.
Laying the foundation stone of the bridge of 1837 was an event of Masonic significance. It was to have been laid by the Provincial Grand Master, Colonel Le Gendre Starkie, attended not only by the town band and various dignitaries, but by the freemasons in full regalia, presumably members of the Lodge of Lights No 148, the only lodge in the town at that time. In the event the stone was laid by the Deputy Provincial Grand Master, since the Provincial Grand Master missed the train from Liverpool.
To continue - the Hope Street Masonic Hall was built to give Liverpool freemasonry a home, and a home that they could be proud of.
Originally the forefathers had a few different sites in mind for the building and after all the suggested sites had been appraised and their pros and cons weighed, it was 22 Hope Street (the house in the garden) which won the day. The property was purchased on the 27th April 1857 but it was not until the 23rd April 1858 that the committee met for the first time to discuss the possibility of converting the property for the purposes of Freemasonry. On 8th October 1858, amidst great rejoicing, the hall was declared open.
After much deliberation and organisation, plans to demolish the house in the garden and build the new hall on the land at 22 Hope Street were agreed to and on 2nd November 1872 the cornerstone was laid with full Masonic honours by the Right Hon Lord Skelmersdale, the Past Grand Warden of England and the Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the western division of Lancashire. Work went along rapidly and in 1874 the new building was ready for use.
Due to worldwide popularity of Freemasonry, Hope Street saw many new lodges forming under its roof and before long it became obvious that the building needed extending. In the 1920's it was brought to the attention of the Brethren that a strip of land running parallel to the lodge was for sale and a proposal was forwarded to purchase the land and extend the current lodge building. The land was purchased, the architecture was approved and funding was organised by the Brethren of the Masonic Hall Rebuilding Committee but with delays, due to the after effects of the Great War, it was not until 1932 that the work was completed and the hall is finally the building it is today.
The original 1870's building had a large grand entrance in its centre. For whatever reason, the grand entrance was done away with in the 1930's, in favour of a smaller entrance in the extension of the building. The old entrance was bricked up and the room behind it was turned into a meeting area and bar.
The extension made the building 25% larger than it had been previously. The centenary of a lodge building on the Hope Street site was enjoyed in 1958 and is therefore due for a 150 year celebration this year.
On the 14th April 1975, 22 Hope Street, Liverpool, was made a listed building. I wonder if the founding fathers knew what a legacy they had left for Freemasonry in Liverpool and if they ever imagined that the building would still be in use by Liverpool lodges today.
The four central Liverpool Masonic groups, namely Gladstone, Sandon, Trafalgar and Wellington, are, contrary to popular belief, actually named after four of the more famous Liverpool docks. The vast majority of the lodges meet at the Masonic Hall in Hope Street, but about half of those in the Gladstone group, and a small number in the Sandon and Wellington groups, meet at such diverse venues as the Brittanie Adelphi Hotel, the Liverpool Racquet Club, the Staff House at the University of Liverpool and the Greenbank Synagogue in Sefton Park. Between them, these Liverpool groups comprise a cosmopolitan array of different lodges with much fascinating heritage, reflecting the history and development of the city.
Some lodges are very old - there are several over two hundred years of age with one approaching two hundred and fifty - but many were founded since the Second World War, the most recent being in 1979. Most lodges meet in the evening during the week, but there is one lodge which meets at lunch time and a few meet on Saturdays. Some lodges hold many social events, including ladies nights, old English nights, barbeques and various fund raising activities, both for Masonic and non Masonic charities.
Charity is one of the great driving forces of Freemasonry, and every member is encouraged to contribute regularly to this worthy cause. The sums raised enable the Freemasons' Grand Charity to donate considerable amounts to nearly all the major national charities and has become one of the major sources of charitable giving in the country. In addition, the brethren also support local charities as well as the Masonic charities in the province of West Lancashire.
There are some lodges where membership is encouraged from particular groups of people such as those who work in similar trades or professions, those associated with particular schools or the university or ex servicemen. The size of lodges varies considerable. One has over three hundred members whereas most have between thirty and sixty members. All lodges are connected by a regulatory body for the province of West Lancashire and are held under the auspices of the United Grand Lodge of England.
Young people would not feel out of place in Liverpool Masonry as there are many members in their twenties and early thirties. At the other end of the scale there are many members these days that, because of work or other commitments, do not join until retirement.
As will be seen the scope for Freemasonry in Liverpool is very great and there are a variety of lodges in which any upright and honourable man, from whatever quarter in life, could feel at home, where he can make many firm and lasting friendships and where he can feel he is making a contribution, not just to his particular lodge, but to the good of society as a whole.
A Most Miserable Trade
The rise in prosperity in the fortunes of Liverpool as a major port (second in the UK only to London) owes itself to a most miserable trade and I would like to conclude with some details of that trade.
As David Harrison has revealed in The Involvement of Freemasons in the Slave Trade, the slave trade in Liverpool reached its peak during the late eighteenth century, with many Liverpool merchants and businessmen taking part in what they saw as just another legitimate business - making an acceptable profit from slavery. Liverpool became dominant in the trade and as Freemasonry was also popular during the closing decades of the eighteenth century, with around ten lodges at this time - both Antient and Modern - emerging in the port area able to provide international networking opportunities for local merchants and businessmen.
Although complete lodge membership lists are rare from this period, there is a surviving list containing the names of members and their occupations from one particular 'Modern' lodge in Liverpool, the Merchants Lodge, from 1789. This list is fascinating, not only because it is a rare example of the make-up of a lodge from this period, but because it reveals a number of local Freemasons who were deeply involved in local politics, the slave trade, and in privateering.
One of the Lodge's founders was Thomas Golightly, who was listed in the Company of Merchants as trading to Africa from the port of Liverpool. Golightly was mainly a wine merchant and had powerful political connections in Liverpool, being an associate of the erstwhile Mayor of Liverpool and fellow slave trader, Peter Baker. Golightly, who served as Mayor himself in 1772-3, continued to trade in slaves up until its abolition in 1807. Roger Leigh, another member of the Lodge, was a local Liverpool businessman and politician who owned a number of slave ships, including the Tuton, Sundet and the Pilgrim.
Freemason Thomas Barton, whose brother, William, served as Mayor of Liverpool, was listed as a ‘gentleman’ in the lodge list, yet he also ventured into the slave trade, owning the slave ships Elizabeth and Will. The Will was captained by the infamous eccentric, Hugh Crow, and though the ship is listed in 1799 as being owned by Barton, Crow mentions, in his memoirs, that it was owned by William Aspinall, the brother of Freemason, John Aspinall.
Hugh Crow gives an insight as to how he felt about the slave trade at the time. Witnessing the slaves in the West Indian ports as well dressed and domesticated servants; he commented how lucky they were in comparison to the primitive and dangerous life experienced by the Negroes in Africa. Support for the slave trade also came from Freemason James Boswell, who in his book, Life of Johnson, wrote that the slave trade was ‘God’s will’ and that the merchants and plantation owners would lose their livelihood if abolition was to take place. Another Freemason on the list, William Dennison, was engaged in privateering, having a share in the Enterprise, a ship actively marauding French vessels.
Thomas Barton too had ventured into privateering, owning the Harriet, which took the French brig L’Agreable, the ship and its cargo being sold through the office of local broker and Freemason, William Ewart, another member of the Merchants Lodge. Ewart was an associate of John Gladstone (the father of the future Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone), who kept slaves on his plantations in the West Indies, and supported the rights of fellow West Indian slave owners during his brief but turbulent political career. One of John Gladstone's sons, Robertson, became a Freemason in Liverpool in 1833, the year of emancipation, when John was recorded as having around one thousand slaves on his plantations.
The conflict of interests within the slavery debate, even between friends, presented a moral issue against one of business. A similar contrast can be seen in the Merchants Lodge, with Freemason Richard Downward, a Liverpool merchant, supporting the abolitionist William Roscoe. Freemasons were equally divided on the issue, with perhaps the most famous Freemason in the fledgling United States, Benjamin Franklin, supporting abolition, being president of the Pennsylvanian Society for the Abolition of Slavery.
Indeed, English Freemasonry played a role in the establishment of the first Negro Masonic lodge in Boston, USA, which was actually granted a charter by the Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1784, as American lodges did not permit black membership. Its leader was an Afro-American named Prince Hall, and Prince Hall Masonry has since spread to Canada, the Caribbean and Liberia. English Freemasonry could also boast another connection to the anti-slavery movement, with Freemasons' Hall in London being famously used as the location for the world's first Anti-Slavery Convention on 12 June 1840.
Also included amongst the Liverpool merchants on the lodge list is merchant Melling Wolley, whose residence is given as New Orleans, and John Samuel Thompson, a merchant from Santa Cruz. Other Liverpool lodges also list a number of merchants and mariners visiting from New York, Boston and Bermuda during this period, testifying to the intricate Masonic links between Trans-Atlantic ports and the networking that could be offered. Indeed, there are parallels between the Liverpool based Merchants Lodge and the St. Andrews Lodge in Boston, both having a high percentage of young, well connected and powerful merchants as members, intent on gaining a hold on local politics.
Despite the large number of merchants in the Merchants Lodge, there were only a small number of members directly involved in the slave trade, most being involved in a variety of other trades. Evidence from other lodges in Liverpool reveals a similarly small number of merchants who also had direct involvement in slavery. The short lived, Liverpool based, Caledonian Lodge had among its incomplete membership list the conspicuous name of John Aspinall, who seems to have joined in 1786. John was related to James and William Aspinall (both appear to be non-masons), all of whom were involved in local shipping and co-owning a number of slave ships. Two lodges in Liverpool during this period do hint at an involvement in local shipping - the Mariners Lodge and the Sea Captains Lodge - though the records are incomplete and at times patchy. Local Freemason and Liverpool merchant, James Chalmers, listed as the co-owner of the slave ship Union in 1799, was both a founder member of the Union Lodge in 1792 and the Harmonic Lodge in 1796, and had also been a member of St. George's Lodge of Harmony. These were all Antient lodges in Liverpool and Chalmers became dominant in all of them.
One prominent member of the Union Lodge who enthusiastically supported the Liverpool slave trade was General Isaac Gascoyne, MP. Gascoyne, a dedicated Tory, joined the lodge on 16th June, 1796, and fought hard against abolitionists such as Roscoe, causing Lord Howick to comment that “He [Gascoyne] considered the slave trade so great a blessing that if it were not in existence at present he should propose to establish it.”
Gascoyne and Howick had confronted each other on 23rd February. 1807 in the crucial debate on the slave trade, discussing the economic effects of the abolition of the slave trade to Liverpool. The networking aspect of Freemasonry within the busy port of Liverpool would have been important during this period, with many of the members being young businessmen in their twenties and thirties. Freemasonry offered the social nexus for the young merchants within Liverpool, and slavery was mercilessly seen as merely another business enterprise. During the later eighteenth century, slavery thus became a moral dilemma for Freemasons such as the abolitionist Richard Downward, yet at the same time, the trade was defended as a profitable business by other Freemasons such as Isaac Gascoyne, both ideals inevitable clashing with Abolition in 1807.
WBro Dunne acknowledges the article A Most Miserable Trade by David Harrison, as published in Freemasonry Today, Issue 39, Winter 2006