The questions of when, how, why and where Freemasonry originated are still the subject of intense speculation. The general consensus amongst Masonic scholars is that it is believed to have originated in England in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, descending directly or indirectly from the organisation of operative stone masons who built the great cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages.
Directly, by operative lodges accepting non-operative members, who gradually took over and transformed the lodges into purely speculative ones. Indirectly, in that a group of men interested in promoting tolerance in an intolerant age came together and adopted the stonemason’s tools and customs as allegorical aids to teach their precepts.
The early evidence of Freemasonry is very scarce. There are some one hundred and thirty versions of what are now known as the Old Charges, dating from circa 1390. These are parchment rolls up to nine feet in length or paper sheets formed into notebooks containing a legendary history of the mason trade and Charges reciting the duties of a mason to his God, his master, his craft and his fellows. The illustration left, from a late version, the King George IV MS, shows the Arms of the London Company of Masons later adopted by the premier Grand Lodge.
The earliest evidence of the ‘making’ of an English non-operative Mason is that of Elias Ashmole, the Antiquary, made in a Lodge called for that purpose at Warrington, Cheshire, on 16th October 1646. He recorded the event, and a later visit to a London Lodge in 1682, in his diary.
Randle Holme III was a member of a lodge in Chester in the 1670s and by 1686 Freemasonry was well enough known to warrant a mention in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire. There are claims that at least seven Lodges were meeting in London and one in York in the 1690s. Certainly we know that in 1705 there were four Lodges meeting in London and one each in York and Scarborough.
The Grand Lodge of England was formed, as the first Grand Lodge in the world, by the coming together of four London Lodges at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern, St. Paul’s Churchyard, on 24th June 1717. They elected Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, as the first Grand Master and resolved to meet annually at a Grand Feast.
The lodges began to attract men of intellect, notably Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers (Grand Master 1719) and other members of the Royal Society and the aristocracy, (John 2nd Duke of Montagu, the first noble Grand Master 1721) who changed the Grand Lodge from a simple Feast to a regulatory body.
By 1730 the Grand Lodge had published its Constitutions (1723); begun to keep official Minutes (1723); issued an annual engraved List of Regular Lodges(1723); set up a Charity Committee and Central Charity Fund (1727); held authority over seventy four Lodges in England and Wales, and had begun to export the Craft abroad by issuing deputations to form lodges in Gibraltar and India.
Development at home was aided by the appointment by patent of Provincial Grand Masters to represent the Grand Master in the Counties. The success of the premier Grand Lodge was crowned in 1782 by the installation of HRH Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland as Grand Master.
In 1768 the premier Grand Lodge took the momentous decision to build a Hall as its headquarters in London. A site was purchased in Great Queen Street, an architectural competition held, the Foundation Stone laid, and on 23 May 1776 the Hall was formally dedicated to the purposes of Freemasonry.
In addition to providing offices and meeting rooms the Hall, fronted by the Freemasons’ Tavern, was to prove a popular venue for concerts, musical and literary recitals, dinners and balls during the London ‘season’.
Designed by Thomas Sandby (1721-1798), the Grand Hall survived until 1931 when it was found to be structurally unsound and was demolished.
The present, and third, Freemasons’ Hall was built 1927-1933, by voluntary subscriptions, as a memorial to those who gave their lives in the First World War.
In addition to being the headquarters of English Freemasonry the Hall provides a central meeting place for London Lodges and Chapters. There are nineteen Lodge rooms in addition to the Grand Temple, together with Conference and Committee Rooms for more informal meetings,. Offices are provided for the Grand Secretary and his staff to administer the Craft, Royal Arch and Grand Charity, and workshops for the necessary maintenance of the fabric.
The Library and Museum act both as a repository for the records and treasures of Freemasonry and as an information centre for researchers and visitors from all over the world.