Monday 14 June 2010

On the Square (Part 1)

Hong Kong 1928 - aged 24
For more than sixty of his eighty-four years of life my father was a practising Freemason. His father, who drowned when his ship went down off Sheerness in 1914, was also a Freemason. In fact, his Masonic regalia was washed ashore and returned to his widow and eventually passed on to the youngest of her three sons, my father, who was then ten years old. He in turn passed it on to his only son, my late brother, in whose care it went up in flames with the rest of his possessions in a log cabin in BC, Canada many years ago. Freemasons who have only just met me know within a very short time of conversing with me that I am a Freemason's daughter, not because I tell them but because there are certain expressions or words I use that are a key to this knowledge. I don't know what they are! I used to observe my father discovering a brother mason through apparently casual conversation but never fathomed how he did it.
My father always maintained that Freemasonry was not a secret society but rather a society with secrets; there is a subtle difference. He often stated that anyone could find out anything about Freemasonry if they carried out some research. Throughout his time in the Royal Navy, which totalled more than thirty years, he knew that, as a Master Mason, wherever he went in the world he would be welcomed as a brother at any Masonic Lodge governed by or affiliated to the United Grand Lodge of England. The language might be different but the ritual was familiar and comforting. Added to this was the fact that he was an accomplished organist and pianist and could be called upon to play at meetings if required. At a time when naval commissions could take three years, recognisable surroundings and ceremonies provided a pleasant change from shipboard life and a reminder of home in often exotic locations.
My father's eldest brother, Will, was also a Freemason and continued his participation after he emigrated to Canada. Whether Harry, their middle brother and their mother's favourite, was ever initiated was never known since he removed himself from the family and cut all contact, leaving their mother heartbroken for the remainder of her life.
It is not clear how and why Freemasonry arose as an organisation. In its ritual it makes reference to the builders of King Solomon's Temple but I have always thought that its origins lay in the formal foundation of guilds of stonemasons. I suspect I was told this indirectly by my father as I'm sure this is what he believed.
The term freemason was believed to have been coined in the fourteenth century and there are several definitions of it. One of these describes a worker in free-stone. Quarry stone used in everyday building was unevenly laid down and had either a coarse crooked grain or a grain like that of a plank of pine wood. This meant that it could not be cut or carved with any degree of accuracy as it might split along any of its grains. Stone used for carving needed to have either no grain or a very fine grain so that it could be worked without cracking or chipping and could be polished if required. This stone was called free-stone. Thus a mason working with this material would be known as a free-stone mason.
Another definition describes how local stonemasons under normal circumstances were constrained by guilds and civil law to work only in their own parishes. However, masons involved in church and cathedral work were not restricted and could move freely from parish to parish. This was at a time when an ordinary workman going into a parish other than his own would be regarded as a foreigner, even if he had travelled from a neighbouring parish. Street riots could be caused by incursions from such outsiders.
Mediaeval stonemasons traditionally served a seven-year apprenticeship. Apprentices were indentured, or under contract, to their masters in payment for their training. At the end of his contract the apprentice would be examined and then set free as a master mason to follow his trade. Accordingly a master mason was considered to be a free mason.
A city or town charter is a legal document establishing a municipality which is a clearly defined area governed by a mayor and his council. This concept was developed in Europe in mediaeval times. When a town was granted a charter it was able to govern itself and its residents became citizens, free from bondage to local landowners. Within the town or city walls there was freedom from serfdom. Outside serfdom persisted legally up to the 17th century in England. So a mason in a chartered town would be a free citizen while a mason outside the walls would not be free. Strangers entering a municipality with the intention of living there might receive their freedom or citizenship after a residential period of one year and one day.
Free stonemasons working on ecclesiastical buildings restricted their contact to other masons, keeping themselves apart from local workmen working with them. It would appear that they did this under the authority of the church. Stonemasons were highly skilled, the élite of the workforce and held in great respect by other less accomplished artisans. The craft attracted the more ambitious candidates among otherwise poorly-educated recruits.
It is uncertain how or when or even why guilds of working or operative masons began to accept speculative, intellectual, non-operative masons. What is known is that some lodges in England were composed entirely of non-operative masons by 1646.
Where does the expression 'on the square' come from? It is understood as meaning an individual behaving honestly and straightforwardly in his dealings with his fellow man. Around 945 BC, at the time of the construction of King Solomon's Temple, the ancient Egyptians referred to truth and justice as being 'on the square.' In 500 BC Confucius spoke of 'the squareness of actions' and Aristotle in 350 BC linked 'square actions' with honest behaviour. So to be 'on the square' is understood, from ancient times, to be resolute and dependable.
(I have used many sources in my research. I have been unable to recover the links but am indebted to those whose work has provided me with a greater insight into Freemasonry. I believe I have not plagiarised anyone's work – that was not my intent – there is a large body of information 'out there' to which I have added my own small knowledge garnered from my late father according to the facts he felt able to share with me.) 


  1. Fascinating. . .and it could be said of you as well that you are 'on the square.' Thank you for sharing a bit of your family's very interesting history. My uncles were Masons and my mother was part of their counterpart, the Eastern Star.
    Your narrative reminded me of a quote I've remembered about how the laborer on a medieval cathedral never lived to see his work finished. . .

  2. Thank you Noni :-) I haven't met many members of the Eastern Star - well, just one, actually, a neighbour of ours.
    Isn't it interesting that a mason could be so involved in his work while knowing that he would probably never see the completion of the building? I suppose it's the same for scientists engaged in research.

  3. I think this is fascinating too! I am intrigued as to how Masons know you are a Mason's daughter-I wonder what it is you say? I once visited a Masonic Lodge in London for the Open house day-it was so ornate and beautiful. Maybe 'fair and square' comes from this source as well. Funny how these sayings are just taken for granted. I don't think I know any Masons, but I wonder if I would know if I did!

  4. Oh Janice, THANK YOU HEAPS for this post. i loved reading about your family's masonic association, apart from the wonderful facts about freemasons.
    That Dan Brown book that i was reading usd the same line,'It is not a scret society, but a society with secrets'
    And I think your Father was very handsome.
    That photograph looks like a still from one of the war movies I keep watching!
    Thanks again,

  5. The freemason building in London is stunning. Really a palace and not well known. I'll do a post in the not too distant future.

  6. Very interesting post. My grandmother was a member of the Eastern Star and as a teenager I was a Rainbow Girl. It's still a bit of a mystery to me though so I enjoyed reading your post.

  7. What an interesting life story, and thank you for sharing. I have friends and classmates whose parents belong to the Masonic Lodge (in the Phils). While in College, the students' organizations were named DeMolay and Jobs Daughter.

    What a handsome man.

  8. Good evening Madam, I saw you in Gemma's Grayscale of Mornington Peninsula's blog and was intrigued to check out your profile. I am certainly drawn to this very insightful, and enlightening blog about masonry as I had no idea what it is all about when I was clouded with negative impression due to the obscured murmurings heard about them.

    What an intelligent piece to read as you eloquently expound with care your topic in such clarity and simplicity imaginable. You certainly hold my interest and attention for I seldom absorb someone's writing that contains substance and nourishing information with due consideration.

    English "'language' (or any for that matter) indeed is the dress of thought" as per Johnson's words that you quoted - I am in awe how beautiful is language. English language (old English) is rich, very very rich. Well, most of the revered ancient writers next to the old philosophers that you mentioned in the like of Aristotle - are English. I said this in the present form because they names are still very much around and always given due respect and preference.

    You have a great mind to be able to explain what your father had left you, his legacy of knowledge that you have finely inherited from him.

    I will keep an eye on you: fair and square!

    Such English phrases! Well Madam, this comment is a blog in itself.

  9. Thank you everyone:-)
    Sarah - I'm quite certain you will know or have known freemasons but youre quite right that you wouldn't know unless they told you - or you were invited to a Ladies Night!
    Aksharaa - you're very welcome! I shall post some photographs in the next part. Sadly, I haven't got my father's regalia - he left it to a Masonic museum.
    Mo - that would be wonderful!
    EG - I've never heard of Rainbow Girls! Fascinating! I seem to remember that my uncle Will's wife joined the Eastern Star in Canada - it seemed more prevalent there.
    Ebie - thank you :-)
    Bonnie Bonsai - welcome - it's good to 'meet' you :-)

  10. Another fascinating post, thank you Janice. I have an old photo of one of my great-grandfather in his free masonry regalia. At least I think it is. I know nothing of him really but I do love his photo. I also enjoyed the one of your Dad. Old photos certainly are priceless treasures.

    An English Girl Rambles


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