Inside the secret world of the Freemasons as Hull's Masonic Lodge opens to visitors

It was only when he retired as captain of the P&O ferry Pride of York that Russ Garbutt, membership officer of the De La Pole Lodge, realised some of his crewmates were Freemasons. And there’d been no dodgy handshakes.

“Sadly there has been a lot of misinformation”, he said. “There are all sorts of conspiracy theories.”

Handshakes, explains beekeeper and Deputy Provincial Grand Master, retired Detective Chief Inspector Jonathan Smith, date back to the days when stonemasons, who couldn’t read and write were looking for job, say at Selby Abbey.

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“They would know from a handshake whether you were qualified to make the stones,” he said.

Neil Armstrong, Russ Garbutt and Jim Kerr in Hull Masonic LodgeNeil Armstrong, Russ Garbutt and Jim Kerr in Hull Masonic Lodge
Neil Armstrong, Russ Garbutt and Jim Kerr in Hull Masonic Lodge

However using a handshake outside a ceremony is not allowed: “We don’t discuss anything religious or political. Promoting yourself is frowned upon.”

No doubt as people come through the doors at the Masonic Hall on Beverley Road as part of tomorrow’s (Sept 9) Heritage Open Days somebody will ask about the “rolled up trouser leg”.

Trouser legs do get rolled up – but only during three ceremonies when men are being admitted to membership. They do that to show that he is unshackled – a free man

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One of the oldest international fraternal organisations ever to exist, Freemasons have long attracted suspicion, partly because of their roster of powerful members, and the lingering veil of secrecy.

Jonathan Smith is a retired police chief inspectorJonathan Smith is a retired police chief inspector
Jonathan Smith is a retired police chief inspector

However as they point out these days: “There’s nothing secret – it’s all on the Internet.”

Prince Philip, Churchill and Peter Sellers were Freemasons. So were some American presidents, George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, to name two.

Its origins are unclear, although early Freemasons were influenced by the legends, imagery and customs of medieval stonemasons. Members adopted the radical proposition that men of different faiths can agree on God’s existence.

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“We go back to 1717, originally they would have been members of the Royal Geological Society. If you were in Royalty you would have been very much part. The Duke of Kent is the current Grand Master,” says Capt Garbutt.

When the tercentenary was celebrated six years ago there’d been so much mudslinging that the United Grand Lodge of England took out full page ads in The Times, Daily Telegraph and Guardian calling for an end to discrimination of its 200,000 plus members.

Some of the criticism stems from the secrecy which became a matter of life or death due to the persecution of Freemasons during World War Two, explains secretary of the Kingston Lodge Neil Armstrong who is wearing a forget-me-not badge.

Some 80,000 Freemasons were sent to concentration camps, including some from Jersey. Hitler’s favourite flower was the forget-me-not, and Freemasons wore it as a secret mark of identity.

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“To preserve ourselves we went underground,” he said. “And after the war we never really went back to being open - unfortunately Hitler created this secret. With emotions it’s easier to hate than understand.

“People need to make an effort to understand.

“Nowadays you can go online and get a lot of American conspiracy stories - you can read a load of rubbish.”

Asked whether a policeman, a magistrate or Judge should declare he is a Freemason, Mr Smith says: “I would throw it back at my employer to say why do you need to know? It’s a voluntary member organisation like the Round Table or Rotary Club.”

We are standing in what was once the school house attached to a Methodist chapel built by the great Hull philanthropist, Zachariah Pearson, in 1850. The church was damaged in the War along with many other buildings in the city including the Masonic Hall on Osborne Street. The schoolhouse became home for Lodges, which used to be based at Osborne Street, which had been totally destroyed.

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There are symbols everywhere you look - from the vast chequered carpet (black and white, good and evil, light and dark) to the architectural mural at one end with rays of light emanating from the all-seeing eye.

The electric candles are flickering - a sign Freemasons are present and recalling the early days when men gathered in taverns to discuss the great intellectual topics of the day in the era of enlightenment.

“If there was time travel from that period there would be a lot of elements that person would recognise,” says Mr Armstrong.

“They’d recognise the chequered carpets, the square and the compass - the basic detail we use dates from the 1700s.”

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One of its unique selling points he suggests is that it offers an “oasis” from modern life, where you can make life-long friends.

.”Freemasonry is very traditional and lots of people enjoy that.”

A rather unexpected benefit is that it offers a way of travelling around the country, if not the world - Freemasonry has 5m members.

There’s a handy app called FindMyLodge, which Freemasons can use - which is where the handshake comes in.

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You can turn up unannounced, but you’ll have to prove it. A certificate rather like an old-fashioned indenture but bearing the name of HRH The Duke of Kent can be presented.

What often goes unreported about the Freemasons is that one of the largest charitable givers in the country, contributing £51.1m to deserving causes in 2020 alone.

Indeed Freemasonry is full of surprises - I discover there are lodges for women Freemasons locally in Beverley, Driffield and Hornsea. They even shared a stall at Driffield Show.

Masonic Hall, Beverley Road, Hull (postcode HU3 1XL) which has plenty of parking is open from 10am to 1pm on Saturday September 9.