Mysterious departures clutching a black briefcase full of regalia were a regular occurrence in my childhood. Most of the senior males in my family are or were Masons. One of my earliest memories is being shown the Temple at my Grandfathers Lodge. The Masons are not a secret organisation; rather “an organisation with secrets” was the mantra. The Masonic Hall might have been a regular meeting place for the men but women were welcomed in just twice a year for Ladies Evening and the New Year Party.
Given the fraternal nature of the Masons, I half expected a raised eyebrow at the arrival of a lone woman at the Freemasons’ Hall. I was, however, greeted with a broad smile and sent up the stairs to the Library to join a tour of the building. We started with a brief history of Freemasonry from the days when Masons really were Masons and building the great Cathedrals of the Middle Ages, through to Gentlemen joining the society in the 17th century. The 18th century saw two rival Grand Lodges (the Ancients and the Moderns) emerge and finally merge in 1813 to give the organisation the form it has today.
Having learnt the basics of the craft, we headed for Grand Officers Robing Room which is dominated by enormous blue baize covered tables. The Grand Officers of the Lodge process into the room to find their regalia laid out for them. As they clamber into their aprons and collars and pin on their chest jewels, they are overlooked by the portraits of current and former Grand Masters; George IV, Edward VII, George VI and the present Duke of Kent. George IV declared that reigning monarchs could not be Grand Masters and so all relinquished their title on becoming King. Once resplendent in their regalia the Grand Officers process to the Grand Temple.
Outside the Robing Room the first hints of the celebrated Art Deco interior become apparent in a long corridor, the floor has a blue star mosaic that echoes in the design of the light above. No Masonic symbols here, just the dark blue, light blue and gold that are the colours of the basic craft order. At the end of the corridor are three enormous interconnecting rooms, all are adorned with Art Deco mosaics and stained glass: they are an incredible memorial to the 3,225 Freemasons who died in the First World War. The first vestibule houses a bronze arc that contains the Roll of Honour, the walls of the room are engraved with names of the Lodges whose members subscribed more than a million pounds to construct the memorial.
The entrance to the Grand Temple itself is guarded by vast cast bronze doors, each weighing one and a quarter tonnes and at the time of their making were the largest in Europe. Monumental the doors maybe but so accurately engineered that you can open them with just one finger. If the previous rooms have been jaw dropping the Temple itself is awe inspiring even empty, it must be an impressive sight when filled with 2,000 men clad in leather aprons. 123 feet long, 90 feet wide and 62 feet high, the room is huge. Masonic symbols abound, seven stars representing the seven liberal arts adorn the ceiling, with one and half million tiny tiles making up the mosaic that covers the coving. At the centre of the temple is a chequer board carpet on which the rituals unfold.
I originally headed to the Freemasons’ Hall to see an exhibition about Gairbaldi’s visit to London in 1864. Garibaldi in addition to being a General and hero of the Italian Unification movement was a mason and during the course of his stay he not only visited many English Lodges but also met a great many of the British political and social elite. He proved incredibly popular with the British public with books, figurines, clothes and even biscuits being produced to mark the visit. Garibaldi biscuits, first made in Peek Frean’s Bermondsey factory, are still sold today. The exhibition sheds light on the extraordinary popularity of Garbaldi in Britain and is presented without the benefit of interactivity – you look at an object, read the tag and move on to the next. Very nice to be treated like a grown up.
Covent Garden is awash with bars, cafes and restaurants on this occasion I headed for the Poetry Café hidden down a side street of Drury Lane. They serve excellent coffee and cakes as well as light lunches and in the evening it plays host to poetry readings.
60 Great Queen Street
Open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm
Entry is free, tours on the hour from 11am when the Grand Temple is not in use.
The area between Kings Cross and the Thames is home to 13 museums of varying sizes, the Museum Mile website gives information about all of them.