The Freemasons Hall, home of The United Grand Lodge of England: Uncovering a few hidden treasures

It stands majestic and imposing amongst the small trading shops of Great Queen Street in Holborn. Many of us have walked past it not realizing what it is, what it stands for or the magnificence that hides beneath its art deco façade. Fans of the TV series ‘Spooks’ will know it as the MI5 building, but for those who are better informed will already know it to be the Freemasons Hall, home of The United Grand Lodge of England. A grandiose title would surely deem it with a worthy interior, such an interior in fact that it is almost too much to behold. It’s a kaleidoscope of intensely-decorated corridors and grand rooms that cover a massive 2 & 1/4 acres. It was built between 1927-1933 as a memorial to the 3225 Freemasons who died in active service during WWI. Originally given the name of the Masonic Peace Memorial, it defaulted to the name ‘Freemasons’ Hall’ at the outbreak of war in 1939. If you considered the hype of secrecy that surrounds the Freemasons you would think it an impenetrable fortress for only certain eyes to see. Not so, for Nigel Brown the Grand Secretary welcomed me with open arms. In fact, the building has always been open to the public and offers daily guided tours.

The first thing I’m told is just how much Freemasonry is misunderstood and over exaggerated. Despite what people say, Freemasonry prides itself on its openness and transparency. Copies of its aims, constitutions and rules are freely available on its web-site.

The motivation for Freemason comes from the 3 principles of ‘Brotherly love, Relief and Truth’. They are also actively encouraged to study the 7 liberal arts and sciences: grammar, rhetoric, dialect, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, in providing the backbone for good and moral decisions. Their Lodge meetings forbid talk on politics and religion and mainly concern themselves with ethical and charitable relations. Many believe Freemasons only help their own kind but that is very far from the truth. Besides regularly donating to countries succumbed to natural disasters, they have also established 4 national charities: The Grand Charity offers relief for Freemasons in adversity and also offers grants for non-Masonic causes; The Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys supports children from both Masonic and non-Masonic families; The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution provides nursing homes for older Freemasons; and The New Masonic Samaritan Fund that allocates Masonic healthcare. Masons are obligated to act in a civilized manner, obey the law of his supreme being, (religion is not prejudiced against and each Freemason is free to choose their own supreme being) obey the law of his sovereign country, attend the lodge if he is able, not to wrong, cheat or embezzle the Lodge or his brethren, and to promise to offer aid to his family, comrade and their families if they are able. It is simply a code of morals for leading a good and helpful life. Anyone can apply for membership and the annual fee within reason. Despite what you may have heard you do not have to wait for your name to be put forward and your entry is assessed predominantly on your moral standing.

The origins of the Freemasons remain somewhat a mystery. In medieval times they were believed to have been an exclusive group of master artisans who passed on their craft and building skills to fellow masons who had been accepted into their group. It was in Scotland that masons first started accepting non-artisans. It was also around this time that rather than just building structures they started creating symbols in the actual stone. Nowadays, rather than building temples, they build ‘men’.

The esoteric symbols are omnipresent in the United Grand Lodge: the square and compass (as a reminder to be honest and ‘square’ in your dealings and to be temperate in your desires); the ‘all-seeing eye’ (for spiritual sight); the blazing star (known amongst Pythagoreans as a symbol for health and knowledge); the snake (token of wisdom); and horses reins (represents guidance) to name but a few. A figure that shows up more than once is King Solomon. The hefty bronze doors (1 & 1/4 tons each) that mark the entrance to the Grand Temple relate the story of the building of King Solomon’s Temple and along the mosaic cornice inside the Temple itself there stands Solomon and Hiram, his master architect. King Solomon’s temple is not only supposed to illustrate the ‘greater temple’ but also your ‘inner temple’. Reference goes even further with the story of Hiram where his 3 apprentices, desperate to learn his skills even though Hiram refused to divulge his secrets, end up killing him with 3 blows to the head. This story is re-enacted in a Freemason’s initiation ceremony. The new Mason as Hiram pretends to die but is revived by the power of the Masonic grip. The lesson teaches fidelity to one’s word. On the mural between Solomon and Hiram there lies the 3 theological virtues of the cross (faith), the anchor (hope) and a burning heart. (charity) The facing wall depicts Euclid and Pythagoras with the diagram of the Pythagorean theorem in the middle, giving proof of this amazing element of geometry.

It is common knowledge that Freemasons take pride in accepting men of stature as members of the fraternity. However, high rank in society does not automatically equate similar ranking in the hierarchy of the Freemasons. Famously, Sir Winston Churchill never made it very high in the ranks even though he was Prime Minister, went on to see his country safely through WWII and was one of the greatest British statesmen of recent history.

Nevertheless, through learning and discussion a Mason progresses through degrees to better his understanding of himself, his relationships with others and with his supreme being. As testament, the last room I visit is the Grand Master’s Lodge, a post that has been filled since 1967 by HRH Prince Edward, The Duke of Kent and first cousin to the Queen. On one table stands a roughly cut stone ashlar and on another a very smooth one. The Grand Secretary claims Masons frequently touch the rough stone upon entering the room and then the smooth one when leaving as a reminder of Masonic principles: you are coarse and unrefined when you come in and leave cultured and polished.

The Freemason’s Hall is open to visitors. For information on tours of the Grand Temple, please visit their web site.

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Next Week’s Insight:

Crossbones – the ancient burial site for the outcasts of London.

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About londoninsight

A compassionate photographer working to better her understanding of her town, her village, London.
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29 Responses to The Freemasons Hall, home of The United Grand Lodge of England: Uncovering a few hidden treasures

  1. Musah Seidu says:

    i want to join the free mason.

  2. dislanger says:

    So, as a woman and an agnostic I am doubly forbidden from developing myself as distinct from my Christian husband. Will visit the building as a piece of inter war architecture, but, a bit miffed that I can’t be a part of this ancient fraternity

    • Rick Whitehead says:

      The traditions of Freemasonry have existed for millenia. As much of the rituals are centered around a belief in a God of some sort, there likely wouldn’t be anything of interest to you dislanger. There are female orders in existence, however your lack of faith would be a barr to you joining. I would like to join the Womens Institute, however I believe my gender prevents me from doing so.

      • Sally says:

        Forgive me if I have misinterpreted, Rick – But dislanger does not speak of a “lack of faith” – She says that she is “agnostic” – That is rather different. In the Order to which I belong we ask members to believe in a Creative Principle. If dislanger can do so, then there is no problem.

      • Richard says:

        Just as well you didn’t mention WRVS as they’ve changed the rules and dropped the ‘W’ 🙂

    • Richard says:

      Actually, there ARE women Freemasons in England; there are actually 2 womens Grand Lodges that you can join – but as an agnostic they would be unlikely to accept you as a member .. any more than UGLE would accept your husband if he were also an agnostic.

      • Janet R Seiler says:

        Rick, the Order of the Eastern Star accepts both men and women. The men must be freemasons in good standing and the women must be related to a freemason. They must believe in a Supreme Being and be of good moral character. I am speaking as a member of this order in the USA. I belong to Coldwater #1, the oldest chapter in the world.

      • Richard says:

        That’s fine, but be aware that the Eastern Star doesn’t exist in England – which is where we are talking about.

    • Sally says:

      You can, dislanger – Just not a UGLE Lodge! You can join one of the two women’s orders – the Order of Women Freemasons (OWF) or the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Freemasons (HFAF). You can also join an Order where men and women work together – The International order of Freemasonry for Men and Women, Le Droit Humain! I was initiated in 2008 and have never looked back.

    • Daniel says:

      There are ladies freemasonry lodges – although not recognized by UGLE but based on the same ritual and standards.

  3. Carl L."Bud: Banks. PGM says:

    Withgreat appreciation for this display on the Internet. This monument and Hall for Freemasonry is a beacon for all to see in London, Thank you for this posting, C. L. Banks, PGM

  4. Chas black says:

    Interesting article and fascinating building

  5. Bráulio Mecchi says:

    Good to see a clear and demystified article about Freemasonry. Spetacular Masonic Palace, deserves a visit.

  6. dislanger says:

    I am grateful for all the replies and never realised that there is a masonic world outside of UGLE. I have now done some research and am particularly attracted to the principles and practices of the Grand Orient de France, where both my husband and me would be accepted, regardless of our beliefs, or not, and which also encourages discussions on politics and religion and takes public positions on current events both in France and throughout the world. If you can believe the websites, they aim to honour the tradition and history of freemasonry in much the same way as UGLE does and all seem to have come down the same route. I will investigate the Droit Humain further as they are organised in my back yard unlike the Grand Orient de France. All this has really been an eye opener. Thanks to all, even the closed of mind.

  7. Rick Whitehead says:

    Speaking as an active Freemason, I have zero comment on The Grand Orient de France or indeed the GLNF, both of which are irregular in terms of recognition.

    • Richard says:

      Likewise as an active FM, I also make no comment on the GOdF or GLNF – precisely for the same reason as Rick (but especially that they allow political and religious discussion and are open to atheists). I DO however, recommend the OWF and HFAF as they follow the same dictates as UGLE; the sole difference being gender (AFAIK).

  8. Stephen McGarvie says:

    Great article enjoyed reading it

  9. Phil says:

    It’s a real pity the UGLE and affiliated Grand Lodges refuse to recognize or work with liberal Freemasons, whether from DH, GOdF, or any of the hundreds of other federations or Grand Orients around the world. I have been in a Grand Orient for just six years, and we work well on a social level with our brothers in the Grand Lodge system in the European country in which I reside. perhaps it’s time to put the rift aside, as it only dates back to 1877 and has everything to do with liberal Grand Orients not wishing to follow the dogma of the conservative Grand Lodges with regards to allowing lodges to decide for themselves whether they will be co-ed or not, or whether they will require candidates to affirm a belief in a Great Architect — Grand Orient lodges generally do not even ask, preferring to decide whether a candidate is of sufficient moral character using more reliable criteria than a simple statement of belief. At the end of the day, we should all work together. Grand Orient lodges are ready…but is UGLE? I heard that London and Paris were near an accord regarding this matter. Until then, tell me, which Freemasons are truly free, and which remain subject to dogma?

  10. Ron says:

    Believing in principles and in God is not a dogma it is our choice. Just as any organization or business has a right to allow or deal with who they wish the Freemasons have rules and principles which they believe in and hold dear. To change their rules and principles to suit outsiders or those who do not wish to agree with these rules, would be a complete repudiation of those rules and principles. Anyone wishing to join the freemasons of their own free will must do so understanding and accepting these rules and principles. If not then find something else that meets your own principles but please do not try to make me change mine.

    • Richard says:

      Hear, hear. Well said.

    • Dislanger says:

      I beg to differ on your definition of whether the theistic requirement is a dogma or not. An acceptable definition of dogma would be “a set of codes, beliefs, and principles which are held in religious as well as non-religious contexts”; by that definition UGLE is dogmatic and excludes. I believe it is also true that those organisations that don’t change and don’t adapt; or are even open to the idea of change and adpatation; are doomed to stagnate and cease to be relevant to the society that they operate in. Voluntary organisations, for that is what freemasonry is, that require its members to declare a belief in a god, become far too exclusive for their own good and its members.

      • Richard says:

        Hey; your choice – and opinion. You’re entitled to yours, and we’re entitled to ours.

      • Rick Whitehead says:

        This thread could use a like button.

        Likes go out to Richard, Ron, Stephen, and Bráulio. The last tour of the Hall I went on, an overtly feminist Lady was a member of the group, who constantly asked the guide “why can’t women join?”, and like I and some others on here have pointed out, and indeed as the guide did, they can under certain circumstances. She actually spoiled the tour for everyone else by her own intransigence. The UGLE Media representative is in fact a female Freemason, so can we put this one to bed now Dislanger….maybe you were the one on the UGLE tour when I was there, because your style of complaining is remarkably similar.
        I hope that Freemasnory NEVER changes what has become a tradition established over Centuries, by bowing to the whims of a few. What else would be changed, Yellow Uniforms on the Guards at Buckingham Palace, Vegetable Eaters instead of Beefeaters at the Tower?

        I am very proud of my being a Christian AND a Freemason.

  11. Ron says:

    Dislanger I accept YOUR opinion and right to disagree, please respect mine and respect Freemasonrys right to follow their principles. If as you say we will die off if we do not change then so be it but we will die off following our principles and not someone else’s. I believe women, agnostics and any other believer in what ever they believe in, as long as it does not harm anyone else, has a right to that belief. Please respect my right to my beliefs.

  12. Dislanger says:

    This actually started out as a whimsical comment, after reading a fine article on a very interesting building and has ended up by my being accused of all sorts of things, that I never said nor even alluded to. It would seem to me, and others I have asked to read this thread, that English freemasons are a highly defensive lot to the point that they defend things that were never attacked in the first place. On behalf of the other 50% of society; I think I have made my point; or rather, others have made it for me; unbeknownst to themselves. Here I think the thread should end and thanks to all who posted a positive comment. Good night Sisters.

  13. Richard says:

    You will find that there are Freemasons across the world who will defend our right to believe in God if we choose, as will will likewise defend your choice not to (at least it appears that you don’t …). What beats me is why you appear to insist that your beliefs are the correct ones and no-one else has a right to believe what they wish and to follow what principles they wish. I do note though, that you appear to have completely ignored the observations we have made about lady masons; it’s worth noting that they similarly don’t admit men into their fraternity (and yes, they refer to it as a fraternity and call each other ‘brother’). They also only admit women professing a religious belief. Neither organisation recognise (for example) Droit Humain as a) they admit both men and women, b) admit atheists (I believe), and c) permit political and religious discussion.
    I am not defensive, but I do believe that it is necessary to ensure the facts are correctly presented.

  14. john says:

    Great post and discussion. The Free and accepted Masons of the United States defend the traditions, rules and teachings of our order and welcome those men of like mind and character.
    John
    PM. Hampton Masonic Lodge #70
    Hampton, Georgia, USA

  15. Roger Ward says:

    Great article and interesting discussions. I always find it interesting when someone who has a differing opinion injects themselves into a discussion and, after some respectful disagreement with that differing opinion, continues the attack. As a Freemason and Christian in the U.S., I will defend others rights to a differing opinion, but respectfully ask them (Dislanger in particular) to also respect my right to my own opinion.
    Thank you UGLE for an excellent article. If I ever visit London (which is one of my goals), I would be honored to see the building and interior for myself.

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