Nicholas Owen meets Surrey's freemasons
In this month’s interview, our intrepid journalist, BBC newsreader NICHOLAS OWEN, heads into the secretive world of Surrey’s freemasons
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2010
Photos by Andy Newbold
No matter how hard they try to deny it, one organisation always seems to many people to be the ultimate secret society. Well, if that were really true, there are nearly 8,000 men in Surrey who are in on the secret.
They are freemasons, and the most senior is Eric Stuart-Bamford, Provincial Grand Master of Surrey. When we meet at the masons’ rather curious headquarters building (more of which in a moment), on the south side of Guildford, he wants to make one thing clear straight away.
“We are not secret – we are private,” he says. “Then again, we do lots of things in public as well. For instance, there is our annual service at Guildford Cathedral when all the local authority leaders come along. We wear all our regalia on that occasion. Everyone can see that.”
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Complicated ritual When the masons do go private, there is a great deal of complicated ritual and symbolism, some of it frankly bewildering to an outsider.
However, I am shown everything I wish to see, and every question is answered very frankly – either by the Provincial Grand Master himself or his genial Assistant Provincial Grand Master, retired senior Surrey policeman John Milner.
And if the Guildford base is unusual – it’s a large wood-clad structure with a terrace that has a fine view over the meandering River Wey – so is the life of the Provincial Grand Master.
The Lost Symbol Now aged 70, Eric has been a mason since 1974. Passionately attached to its aims and practices, he and all masons have had a helping hand lately from an unlikely source. Dan Brown, the hugely successful author who stirred up much argument with The Da Vinci Code and its perceived attacks on the Catholic church, turned his attention to freemasonry in his latest novel.
Yet about the only line the movement takes exception to in The Lost Symbol, with its tale of ancient mysteries hidden in Washington DC, is the suggestion that red wine is drunk out of a skull during initiation rituals. That was put about in the 1890s by a French writer bitterly opposed to masonic ways. “I have read Dan’s book,” says Eric. “I enjoyed it.”
Mind you, initiation does involve some pretty peculiar goings-on, and the masons’ demand for privacy to carry out their ceremonies has made them many enemies over the years. The worst time was in the 1930s when the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy declared war on freemasonry, and many members died in concentration camps.
Today, they are open about what they do and what the members achieve. They aim for personal spiritual development, friendly get-togethers and, in the process, manage some extremely impressive fundraising for charities, both masonic and otherwise.
Here in Surrey, Eric Stuart-Bamford is rightly proud of the help for causes such as CHASE, the Guildford-based children’s hospice, often mentioned and supported by this magazine. He also takes pride in the fact that Surrey’s masons make up the third biggest contingent in the UK, after London and Lancashire.
“We offer comradeship and unity of purpose,” explains the Grand Master. “However, there’s a lot that people misinterpret. For instance, yes, there is a special handshake that one mason might offer another. But it’s just to say hello and to know that we share a common sense of purpose. There’s nothing sinister.”
Route to the masons Born and brought up in Northampton, Eric left secondary school at 15 and went on to be a trainee blacksmith.
“I joined a business where a lot of it was shoeing horses,” he says. “For instance, in those days, milk deliveries were horse-drawn and we had the contract to look after the local dairy’s horses. I was paid three guineas a week, and that included Saturdays.”
His great ambition, however, was to become a soldier and, having started out with the Territorial Army, at the age of 17 he joined the Royal Military Police, the Redcaps. It meant an early introduction to Surrey, with training at barracks in Woking. From 1958 to 1961, he saw active service in what was then Malaya, where the British Army fought a successful campaign against Communist rebels. He loved the life – even being shot at...
“I remember we were in the back of a lorry once when we came under fire,” he recalls. “Holes appeared in the canvas just above our heads. It was pointless to try to find the enemy in the thick jungle alongside the road. We just kept going. The whole experience of Malaya was absolutely marvellous. I had a terrific time.”
Seeing no future with the Military Police, though, Eric’s blacksmithing experience made him a natural for the Royal Engineers and a transfer to Germany. He is a softly-spoken man with a good soldier’s recall for all the details of what he did, where he served, and who with. There is a twinkle in his eye when he talks of some of the jobs the Royal Engineers had to do.
“We were building bridges a lot of the time,” he says. “And blowing things up. I remember one time I had to help blow up a masonry arch bridge. We got buckets of TNT, which was all a bit out of date. But did it go! There were bits of bridge scattered all over Germany.”
Eventually, he returned to civilian life, and to Northampton, where for a year he was a police constable. “I knew all the local criminals. I went to school with most of them.” It was a time of great change in the police, and Eric didn’t take to the increasing use of cars, rather than having officers out walking the beat. His final change of career took him to the Ministry of Defence, where he was a civil servant for the next 29 years. He and wife Libby settled in Woking, and had two sons.
So how did freemasonry fit in? Well, while in the Army, an officer suggested he might be interested in becoming a member. That was way back in 1959, and his first impressions were much like mine: “I was perplexed to a certain extent,” he says. “Even so, I was attracted to the idea of joining a club.” There are more than a few strange-sounding ranks in the masons: his father-in-law, who had been a Royal Engineers officer, was a Past Master Mason in London and it was he who eventually persuaded Eric to become involved.
His initiation took place at the Surbiton lodge, as the masons call their branches, in a temple like the one at Weybourne House, the Guildford HQ. It feels rather like a revivalist church, with royal blue cushions on long benches, a striking black and white checkerboard carpet, several throne-like high-backed chairs, some wooden wands, and curious symbols and slogans of freemasonry’s origins all around.
Baring of chests The original freemason was Hiram Abiff, architect of King Solomon’s temple in ancient Jerusalem. He was murdered because he refused to reveal the secrets of the temple’s construction, and his ordeal is mirrored in one of the later stages of the initiation rites. The initiate is blindfolded, his chest bared, a dagger thrust towards him, and he is pushed to the floor. Only a Master can raise him. It’s known appropriately as the third degree.
Everything is done with great solemnity in almost complete darkness. No non-mason is allowed to witness the goings-on. On such occasions, Eric will be kitted out in an ornate blue and gold apron plus a chunky chain of high office around his shoulders.
The baring of the chest, Eric points out delicately, is one reason why women are not admitted. It would also be true to say that many male masons obviously enjoy a few hours away from female company. There are, however, women masons, with completely separate lodges, though the Grand Master professes ignorance of them.
“I don’t know about their lodges,” he says. “I am not particularly interested in them.”
He prefers to focus on the good works done by the men in their lodges, and the strict rules they must respect. He rejects suspicions that the lodges are places to talk business and do cosy deals. There is a steely firmness in his description of the way he oversees his ‘province’ of Surrey, as befits an old military man, who incidentally is also a crack shot who has represented Great Britain at shooting championships.
Getting involved “No one is allowed to discuss religion or politics when we meet,” says Eric. “There are no conspiracies here. If I ever find anyone who’s canvassing for advancement in their business, it’s the end for him.”
Now half-way through his ten-year term as Grand Master, Eric ‘commands’ more than 300 lodges scattered across modern Surrey. He does, however, have one overriding uphill task. There may be 8,000 Surrey masons, but that is down almost a half on the numbers half a century ago. Young men today tend to be too busy for such commitment. Eric hopes that the opportunity to meet not just for the time-honoured rituals but also to help the charitable community at large will encourage more candidates to go through the various degrees of initiation.
“Candidates must be over 21, have good standing in the community, and have no criminal convictions,” he says.
Bond of brotherhood The author Dan Brown made his feelings clear a few months ago in an open letter to the world of freemasonry after his new book came out: ‘I cannot adequately express the deep respect and admiration I feel towards an organisation in which men of differing faiths are able to break bread together in a bond of brotherhood, friendship, and camaraderie.’ The Grand Master of Surrey smiles as we talk about Dan Brown’s views. He agrees with every word of them.
For more information, visit the website at: www.surreymason.org.uk