The history of the Freemasons is not always clear cut, with several origin myths and theories about the emergence of the order. The first definite date we have in 1717, when the first Grand Lodge was opened in London. No minutes were taken until 1723 so we don’t know very much at all about the Masons before that point but their activities have always been shrouded in mystery and intrigue. What most people have heard sounds slightly frightening to outsiders – with talk of knives and nooses, funny costumes and deathly secrecy. Here in Ireland the Grand Lodge was opened in Dublin in 1725 and today it is both the second most senior lodge in the world and the oldest lodge in continuous existence in the world. Today there are about 27,000 Irish Freemasons around the world.
The first woman to be initiated into regular Freemasonry was an Irish woman – Elizabeth Aldworth, known as ‘The Lady Freemason’. Woman are not usually allowed in the ‘regular’ Freemasons, with the only official exemption applying to trans women who had been members before their transition. It has always been something of a boys club, and according to their ‘ancient’ rules they admit only “good and true men, free-born, and of mature and discreet age and sound judgement, no bondmen, no women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good report”. Elizabeth was initiated between 1710 and 1712 before the Grand Lodge was even established in Dublin, so she was probably in attendance at a private lodge maintained by her father – Arthur St. Leger.
So why then was Elizabeth allowed in? Quite simply the protection of their secrets has always been more important to the Freemasons than the rigid men-only rule.Like the other women who became Freemasons throughout history, she was initiated after witnessing the proceedings of a meeting. The story goes that Elizabeth was reading in the library when she accidentally fell asleep. On hearing voices in the other room she got up and removed some loose bricks to see what was happening and proceeded to watch the meeting taking place between her Father and the other local Freemasons. When she realised what she was seeing she attempted the leave but was caught by the family Butler who was himself a Mason. The stress caused her to faint while the Masons attempted to figure out what to do with her now that she had seen behind the solemn curtain of secrecy and in the end, took the only course of action that was available to them to protect their mysteries and initiated her. Today her portrait in in the lodge room of almost every lodge in Ireland.
Here in Waterford the lodge was certainly established at some point in the eighteenth century and the Hugh and James Ramsey Waterford Chronicle in March 1771 contains a reference to the Waterford lodge, lodge 265 meeting in the house of Thomas Kiely on the Quay. In 1792 Lodge 230 were meeting at various public houses around the city while Lodge five met at various hotels around Waterford throughout the nineteenth century. The fact that there were so many lodges here and that they are so frequently reported in the paper suggests that it was a popular organisation here among the great and the good as a way to make important connections, build key friendships and do some business networking.
As a first-hand source we can once again we can revisit out good friend Captain Thomas Roberts who we have previously heard muse in his usual cantankerous style about funerals and the families of British soldiers in India. Roberts was himself a mason here in Waterford for many years and as a local gentleman and naval captain and no doubt made use of the connections the organisation would have afforded him. His son William left Ireland to secure a future and a fortune in India at just seventeen years of age and would go on to start a successful tea company in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). William struggled in India at first. He had gone out holding on to the hope that his uncle, Abraham Roberts, would be able to secure him a good stable job but Abraham by this time was supporting so many young members of the family that favours were becoming a bit thin on the ground. In 1845, three years after he left for India William joins the Freemasons, presumably to further secure his footing in the area and perhaps elevate himself in local society.
‘I suppose by this you are a Master Mason, able to work well after being a ‘Fellow Craft’ I am a very old Mason, and tolerably high in the ‘Order’ being a Knight of Malta & St. John, and a Knight Templar – however, I would advise you to be contented with a “Royal Arch” quite high & dignified enough for all purposes of Masonry in this Country it is too apt to lead to expense & dissipation, so far as late hours & drinking too freely goes – with you, I am sure, neither will be exercised to your injury – don’t let it interfere with your business or health – ‘
Captain Thomas Roberts RN, February – 17th – 1846.
In fact he had ascended to the rank of master, and would become an Ark and Mark Master just under two months later as we can see from his certificate. Three years later he receives another certificate from the Grand Lodge in London as a sort of fancy membership card, guaranteeing him access to any lodge in the world. This parchment is much more decorative than the previous one and features the arms of the organisation as well and the three pillars of freemasonry; wisdom, strength and beauty. His father does make reference though to the sometimes excessive ceremony of meetings where the revelry went on into the wee hours and the wine flowed a tad freely for respectability. The connection between male fellowship in clubs like the Freemasons and alcohol consumption is well established and artefacts here in the museum point to it.
There are two pieces on display in the Bishop’s Palace with direct links to the Freemasons in Ireland. One piece is a cider jug and the other a punch bowl – both items associated with convivial drinking and both are piece of armorial porcelain that make up the Synnott Collection. Armorial porcelain refers to a type of porcelain which became fashionable in the early eighteenth century as a way to show off your wealth and connections. All of our porcelain comes from China, and would have been ordered through the British East India Company from the ‘porcelain city’ of Jingdezhen, for enormous prices. The items were so valuable and sought after that usually it would take up to three years to return to the buyer in Ireland/ Britain at huge cost.
The punch bowl is particularly interesting and would probably have been part of a set of three possibly made with matching mugs. Toasting was a very important aspect of male society in the eighteenth century and especially among societies like the Masons. Toasts were used for a variety of reasons, with glasses raised to guests present, to political ideas, key characters in contemporary politics, and resolutions reached by the group. It was so important that it would not be unusual for there to be up to 50 toasts in a single night, and it was considered extremely bad manners to leave the table during the toasting period, meaning that it became common practice for attendees to relieve themselves while sitting in their chairs into glasses or bottles with the assistance of attendants there for that very reason.
The bowl features a coat of arms in the centre on the inside. This is because the bowl was ordered and paid for by Richard Hely-Hutchinson, 1st Baron Donoughmore, who was at that time, Grand-Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland (From 1789 to 1813). Hely Hutchinson seems to have ordered the bowl sometime around 1790 and presumably gave them to the Grand Lodge. He was a politician and member of the peerage, going from Baron, to Earl and finally Viscount Donoughmore. He was the first Baron Donoughmore though his mother Christiana had been the first Baronness (though as a woman she was not allowed to sit in the House of Lords) in her own right, a title not extended to her husband. His father had been a wealthy Lawyer, Provost of Trinity college and Secretary of State under Henry Grattan – but had no title, perhaps leaving his son with something to prove.
It features quite a lot of Masonic imagery, from the square and compasses, to the natural elements, and even two beehives. Funnily enough, as these porcelain pieces all came from China, where neither coats of arms or the Freemasons yet existed, a lot of the time they got small details wrong. The beehives here are a good example. The beehive used to be a very common symbol of freemasonry but was abandoned after 1813, however when used it stood for the fact that we are born intelligent and rational, but must also be industrious and work together for the good of mankind. Generally Masonic beehives will feature seven bees, but here the bees are scattered unevenly, with four on one and five on the other, so really they are just normal beehives which happen to be on a Freemason’s bowl
While nowadays the Freemasons are noted for their philanthropy openness, historically the Freemasons have been regarded as a secretive organisation with frightening initiation ceremonies and long drunken parties, but from the objects they leave behind we can peer behind the curtain and get an idea of their activities. Mostly these activities have been business-based rather than the illuminati-like activites we imagine with young men like William Roberts, who was just 20 when he joined, using the Masons as a way to integrate himself in a new society in which he was not having much luck. For men like Hely-Hutchinson he may have joined as a newly established member of the peerage to show those around him that while his father had been a rich banker and not a lord, he could be just as influential as they were – a ploy which much have worked given his ascension to the rank of Grand Master in 1789. Still though, much remains secret that we will never know until we join. Well, not me personally, this particular club is boys only…