Discover the mysterious world of the masons

EARLY SCENE: The first Wearmouth Bridge.
EARLY SCENE: The first Wearmouth Bridge.
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A TALK on the history of a Wearside ‘society with secrets’ will be held next week. Sarah Stoner takes a look.

In other ways, however, it was very different from today’s masonic movement, as Dr Gill Cookson will reveal in a talk on freemasons in Georgian Sunderland next week.

“Freemasons were very active in local cultural and intellectual life during the 18th century, even before there were lodges,” said Gill, director of Sunderland Heritage Quarter.

“Records show that scientific lectures were delivered by mason Stephen Demainbray, a natural philosopher and astronomer of Huguenot background, in Sunderland in 1749.

“Swiss civil engineer Charles Labelye, contracted by the River Wear Commissioners in the 1740s, was a freemason too, as were later engineers including Jonathan Pickernell.

“So were local theatrical figures including comedian Thomas Bates, James Cawdell, who wrote music for the opening of the Queen Street temple, and comedian James Field Stanfield.”

The first Sunderland lodge, King George’s, was constituted in 1755. It was followed soon after by Sea Captains’ lodge in 1757, which was renamed the Palatine in 1830.

“These and a number of other local lodges drew in a wide range of members. Besides professionals and gentry, a good number of tradesmen could afford to join,” said Gill.

“One of the main attractions was that the lodge acted as a friendly society. In a port like Sunderland, this was reassuring to men in risky occupations, especially seafarers.

“The masonic brethren would aid widows and educate orphaned children. Sunderland masons could also expect hospitality and help from lodges in continental ports.

“Indeed, in 1811 St John’s Lodge borrowed money to buy a fellow mason’s freedom from the press gang – one of whose officers was actually a lodge member.” Membership of Phoenix Lodge between 1763 and 1812 was dominated by seafarers, with coalfitters, innkeepers, clerics, the army and medicine also well-represented.

Unsurprisingly, large numbers of mariners were in Sea Captains’ Lodge too, while the presence of a garrison during the Napoleonic Wars brought in many army officers.

“Freemasons were present from at least 1682, when Ambrose Crowley’s ironworks in Low Street brought in skilled workers from the Low Countries who were masons,” said Gill.

“But they were driven out of town by anti-Catholic bigotry and the works moved to Swalwell, where the first freemasons lodge in County Durham was established in around 1690.”

Sunderland’s own first lodge, King George’s, met in pubs until an ‘elegant hall’ was built in 1778 in Vine Street. Sadly, the premises was destroyed by fire in 1783.

Two year later, work started on a replacement in Queen Street, on or near the lodge’s former bowling green. Today it is the world’s oldest masonic hall still in use.

“It is not an exaggeration to say freemasons have played a significant civic role here. They were especially important as promoters of buildings and cultural ventures,” said Gill.

The first large masonic initiative was St John’s Church, Prospect Row, in 1764. Masons largely paid for it, and it was seen as a masonic church when first opened. “St John’s was the project of local businessman John Thornhill, first worshipful master of the King George’s Lodge, who was buried beneath its altar in 1802,” said Gill.

“The dispensary, forerunner of the infirmary, was a charitable work by Dr Tipping Brown of Phoenix Lodge, who with Stanfield launched a subscription library in 1795 too.

“The Exchange, promoted by the improvement commissioners, was funded by private subscription with substantial support from masons.

“And the masons were also responsible for organising three bodies of volunteers to combat the Napoleonic threat in 1803 – the artillery, infantry and sea fencibles.”

Most famously, however, it was freemasons who revived the stalled scheme to bridge the River Wear – with the project driven through parliament by MP Rowland Burdon.

“Lest there were any doubt about the origins of the project, the laying of the foundation stone in 1793 was emphatically a masonic occasion,” said Gill.

“The formal opening by the Duke of Gloucester in 1796 was also organised by the provincial lodge, with Burdon appointed Provincial Grand Master for the day.”

* Gill’s talk – Freemasons in Georgian Sunderland – will be held next Thursday from 2pm at Queen Street Masonic Hall. All are welcome. A local history surgery will be held afterwards.