THE SHORT TALK BULLETIN OF THE MASONIC SERVICE ASSOCIATION
It has often been remarked how casually, if not accidentally, so many great movements seem to start. They seem to spring up of themselves, at the bidding of impulses of which men are only vaguely aware, and the full measure and meaning of which they do not know. As in the Alps a shout or the report of a gun may start an avalanche of ice, because of the poise of forces, so in history a little act often releases a vast pent-up power.
A perfect example is the "Revival" of Masonry in 1717, which not only gave a new date to our annals, but a new form and force to the Craft, sending it to the ends of the earth on its benign mission. So true is it that we may almost say that modern Masonry, in its origin and organization, is as much a mystery as ancient Masonry with its symbols and rites, and the mystery may never be solved.
Out of a period of dim half-light and much obscurity the new Masonry arose, and knowing what it is, we have a keen curiosity to know how it came to be what it is. How many questions we are eager to ask, answers to which are not bound, or likely to be found, unless unguessed records should leap to light. Anyway, our brethren of those formative days practiced the Masonic virtues of silence and circumspection to an extraordinary degree, telling us very little of what we should like to know so much.
How many Lodges of Masons existed in London at that time is a matter of conjecture, but there must have been a number. What tie, if any, united them for common action and fellowship we do not know. Some were purely Operative Lodges, others seem to have been purely Speculative - there were such lodges, such as the one in which Ashmole was initiated as early as 1646 - while others, as we shall see, were mixed; made up of men part of whom were Accepted Masons and part actual working Masons.
The Craft, as all agree, was in a state of neglect, if not disintegration. It enjoyed a period of prosperity in the re-building of London after the great fire in 1666, but as we read in the only record we have, "the few lodges at London finding themselves neglected by Sir Christopher Wren, thought it fit to cement under a Grand Master as the centre of union and harmony." Wren was the great architect of the day, the builder of St. Paul's Cathedral. Whether he was actually a lodge member or not is uncertain, but such was the reason given for the forming of a Grand Lodge.
Gould, our great historian, in describing "the Assembly of 1717," out of which the first Grand Lodge grew, remarks that "unfortunately, the minutes of Grand Lodge only commence on June 24th, 1723" - six years after the event! For the story of those first six years we are dependent upon an account not written, or at least not published, until the second edition of the Constitutions of 1738 - twenty-one years after, the event to which it refers! Surely, no other movement of equal importance ever left so scanty a record made so long after the fact.
Why no minutes were kept - or if kept at all, were lost - we do not know. Still less do we know why the first Grand Lodge was formed without a Constitution. The General Regulations did not appear until 1721, and the Constitutions in 1723. The impression is unmistakable that it was only an experiment, in response to a growing need of a "center of Union and Harmony," and that those who took part in it did not dream that they were launching a movement destined to cover the earth with a great fraternal fellowship. Four lodges united to form the Mother Grand Lodge, those that met:
1. At the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul's Church Yard; 2. At the Crown Ale-house in Parker's line, near Drury line; 3. At the Apple-Tree Tavern in Charles-street, Covent-Garden; 4. At the Rummer and Grape Tavern in Channel-Row, Westminster.
In those days, as in our own day in London, lodges met in taverns and ale- houses - the hotels of the time. Their meetings were festive, and often convivial, in the manner and custom of the day. A rare old book called Multa Paucis asserts that six lodges, not four, were represented, but there is no record of the fact, though members of other lodges were no doubt present as guests. Indeed, we have a hint to that effect in the meager record, as follows:
"They (the four Lodges) and some other old Brothers met at the said Apple-Tree, and having put into the chair the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of a Lodge) they constituted themselves a Grand Lodge pro Tempore in Due Form, and forthwith revived the Quarterly Communication of the Officers of Lodges (called the Grand Lodge), resolved to hold the Annual Assembly and Feast, and then chuse a Grand Master from among themselves, till they should have the honour of a Noble Brother at their Head."
Such is the record of the preliminary meeting - what would we not give for a full account of its discussion and proceedings! Diligent search has been made among the records, diaries and papers of the time, but few facts have been added to this record. Even the date of the meeting is omitted, but it must have been in the spring or early summer of 1717, as the meeting at which the Grand lodge was actually organized took place shortly afterward, in June of that year, and was held in the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul's Churchyard, near the west end of the Cathedral.
The old Ale-house had a long story, being one of the most famous in the city, whereof we may read in London Inns and Taverns, by Leopold Wagner. Before the Great Fire it had been called the Mitre, the first "Musick House" in London, and the meeting-place of the Company of Musicians, its sign being a Swan and a Lyre. Its master had gathered many trophies of travel, which he displayed, and which are said to have formed the nucleus of the Britain Museum. After the fire it was rebuilt on the same site, but the new sign was so badly made that the wits of the town called it the Goose and Gridiron, and the name clung to it. The record goes on:
"Accordingly, on St John Baptist's Day, in the 3rd year of King George 1, A.D. 1717, the Assembly and Feast of the Free and Accepted Masons was held at the foresaid Goose and Gridiron Alehouse.
"Before dinner, the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of a Lodge), in the Chair, proposed a list of proper candidates; and the Brethren by a majority of Hands elected Mr. Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, Grand Master of Masons (Mr. Jacob Lamball, Carpenter; Capt. Joseph Elliot, Grand Wardens), who being forthwith invested with the Badges, of Office and Power by said oldest Master, and installed, was duly congratulated by the Assembly, who paid him the Homage.
"Sayer, Grand Master, commanded the Masters and Wardens of Lodges to meet the Grand Officers every Quarter in Communication, at the place that he should appoint in the Summons sent by the Tyler."
So reads the only record that has come down to us of the founding of the Mother Grand Lodge. Who were present, besides the three officers named, has so far eluded all research; their faces have faded, their names are lost - but imagine the scene! The big room extended the width of the house, thirty feet one way and nearly twenty the other. In the center was an oak table, around which the delegates from the various lodges sat on chairs, smoking their pipes. The seat of Anthony Sayer was before the fireplace, with its polished brass fire-irons, with chestnut-roasters and bed-warmers hanging on either side of it.
It was an hour of feast and fun and fellowship, as they sat down to dinner together, as English lodges do today. Each man had a rummer of foaming ale before him on the table, and as he drained it betimes it was refilled by a handsome maid, Hannah, whose name has survived long after others were lost. Only a few memories live of that event which divided the story of Masonry into before and after: the famous sign in front of the house, so ugly that a Swan and a Lyre were mistaken for a Goose and a Gridiron; the skittleground on the roof; the small water-course, a rivulet of Fleet Brook, for which a way had to be made through the chimney; the pillar that propped up the chimney, and - Hannah, the maid.
How strange that the Masons of England allowed the old Ale-house to be taken down in 1893 - it ought to have been kept as a shrine of fellowship and fun. But so little interest was taken in its fate that the historic sign was sold to a citizen of Dulwick, who put it in his greenhouse. Later on, however, the old relic was recovered, and it now has a place of honour in the Guildhall Museum, along with other tokens of a London that is no more. Alas, so little do men see, and so lightly do they value, what is passing before their eyes.
What of the men who formed the Mother Grand Lodge? They did not - could not - realize what they had done so casually and in a spirit of frolic, much less foreknow its meaning and future. They merely wanted to make a "centre of union and harmony," as they called it, between the lodges of the city. There was no thought of imposing the authority of Grand Lodge upon the country in general, still less upon the world, as is clear from the Constitutions of 1723, which are said to be "for the use of Lodges in London." Yet, so great was the necessity for a Grand Lodge, that, once started, the impulse spread to Ireland, Scotland, and the ends of the earth. Link was added to link until it put "a girdle around the earth."
As a great man of the Craft has said so picturesquely, it is possible, and it is true, to say that Masonry was born in a Tavern, but it belongs to Almighty God; and so gentle was its spirit, so friendly and tolerant and wise withal, that it began to make the life of the Tavern like a vestibule for the life of the church.