Surrey Mark Background
The Suspension of Masonic Meetings in 1939
Mark Master Masons of Surrey Mark Master Masons of Surrey
The Suspension of Masonic Meetings in 1939

On the 1st September 1939 at 4:41am the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany began. On the 2nd of September the United Kingdom and France issued a joint ultimatum to Germany, requiring German troops to evacuate Polish territory. On the 3rd September at 11:00am the final deadline for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland expired.

Just 15 minutes later at 11:15am the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain made the following announcement on BBC Radio:

Quotation Mark
I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 am that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
Australia, India, and New Zealand also declared war on Germany at exactly the same time. On the 4th September, the day after war was declared; a letter was issued by the Grand Secretary at Freemasons’ Hall to all Lodges and Chapters as follows:

Quotation Mark
Having regard to the emergency orders of His Majesty’s Government, I am to inform you that until further notice all Masonic meetings are to be suspended. It is hoped that this may only be a temporary measure. Further instructions will be issued at an early date.
Fletcher Lodge Letter Unlike today, that order was lifted a month later on the 2nd of October and, in addition, Grand Lodge empowered lodges to meet as early in the day as possible, if necessary to cancel any regular meetings, to alter dates up to seven days before or after the regular date without needing to obtain a dispensation, and instructed that after-proceedings should be kept as brief as possible.

Home GuardShortly after this all lodges were offered dispensation to transfer the recess period from summer to winter nights while a further communication ordered that dress for lodge meetings should henceforth be morning dress or uniform. However, because of the subsequent shortages, it quickly and of necessity became a matter of dark suits or uniforms. Many members, by reason of advanced age, were initially unable to wear the uniform of the armed forces. However, when the Local Defence Volunteers, which was later to become the Home Guard, came into being, they quickly adopted the practice.

White gloves too were dispensed with as they soon became unobtainable. In 1940 brethren were asked to surrender their jewels as a contribution to the war effort for which, in return, they would receive a certificate marking the donation and the owner's right to the jewel. In May 1940 Grand Lodge advised the “non-admission of brethren who are enemy aliens”. So it was that, within this structure, Freemasonry set out on the long journey through the war. At that time and during the six long years that followed, there existed among the brethren an almost perverse obsession that meetings should be held at all costs. This was not a matter of blind adherence to practice or a cussedness born of pique. Its significance lay in the fact that Freemasonry itself was threatened, both as a way of life and as a set of values proved and rooted in the past.

To explain this, we have to deviate for a moment from looking at English Freemasonry and briefly consider what had been occurring in European Freemasonry. In their own countries Hitler and Mussolini had begun their respective reigns as early as 1933 with outrages against Masons and Masonic institutions, and during the years that followed, they never relaxed that systematic persecution.

Hitler and Mussolini Nazi PropagandaNazi and Fascist publications left no doubt of their belief that all evil in the world had been the work of Freemasons, either alone or with the help of the Jews. One of the first official statements made by Hermann Goering in his capacity as Prime Minister of Prussia, when the Nazis took over power in 1933, was that "in National Socialist Germany there is no place for Freemasonry.” That view was not news. It had run through all the Nazi propaganda and had been an intrinsic part of the Fascist attitude in Mussolini's realm.

Immediately upon Hitler's rise to power, the ten Grand Lodges of Germany were dissolved and many members were sent to concentration camps. The Gestapo seized their membership lists and looted their libraries and collections of Masonic objects. Subsequent Nazi conquests of other European nations were followed automatically by hostile measures against Freemasons. The persecution was carried over into Austria. When that country was captured the Masters of the various Vienna lodges were immediately confined in the most notorious concentration camps, including Dachau. The same procedure was repeated when Hitler took over Czechoslovakia and then Poland. Immediately after conquering Holland and Belgium, the Nazis ordered the dissolution of the lodges in those nations. It was also Point One on the agenda of Major Quisling in Norway. From Norway to the Balkans, the progress of the Swastika brought persecution, vandalism and death in its wake for all Freemasons.

So this then was the European backdrop to English Freemasonry in those days. At first, lodges continued to meet as usual; though slowly but surely it became apparent that the number of younger members in attendance was dwindling as they left to 'join up'. In most lodges the matter of progression was taken very seriously and some went so far as to appoint 'stand-ins', so that lodge officers who had joined the forces would not lose their places. Brethren were appointed to act for them so that on their return they would be able to step back into the office they originally held.

Unfortunately many never did return. Emergency meetings proliferated. Should a Master discover that a brother waiting to be passed or raised was due home on leave; every effort was made to hold an emergency meeting. Permission was not then required.

It was the onset of the first winter however that really began to alter things. Firstly the blackout, which was total, made travel exceedingly difficult; private cars were few and far between and in any case petrol was only available to those using their cars in the emergency services. It quickly became apparent that evening meetings were untenable and most lodges rearranged their meetings for the summer months or met on a Saturday afternoon.

Hitler It was in the second winter of the war that the 'blitzes' started. At first on London and, very soon thereafter, on the other major cities of the land. Yet despite the exacting impositions of the time, damage to homes, lack of sleep, the priority of war work and the demands of civil defence duties, very rarely did a lodge fail to meet regularly or to conduct its ceremonies.

Hitler and Mussolini When the people of London ran for shelter underground during night bombings many of them choose to seek shelter in the basement of the Freemason’s Hall. Workers from the Covent Garden Market and the people living in the local Peabody Buildings would choose to go to the Freemasons’ Hall rather than the Holborn Underground Station. In the morning when it was safe to emerge, Grand Secretary Sydney White and his Secretary Miss Haigh would serve tea and sandwiches to those who had sought shelter. There was even a greenhouse built upon the Grand Temple in order to grow much needed fruit and vegetables.

There are many examples of ceremonies being conducted at the height of an air-raid. At a meeting of the Cutlers' Lodge at Cutlers' Hall in London, the Grand Treasurer, having been welcomed in due form, rose to acknowledge the salutation. As he stood up, the building was shaken by a large explosion nearby. He paused for a second and then said: “I'm glad you didn't salute me with five of those”.

Blitz Blitz
Formal after-proceedings were virtually abandoned early in the war but this did not prevent the partaking of refreshments however meagre. Usually it was simply a matter of standing with a cup of tea and a spam sandwich. Although formal toasts were not encouraged, most lodges still continued with the loyal toast, that of the Grand Master and, if appropriate, the candidate. It was usually all over in about half an hour.

Regalia quickly came into very short supply and an enthusiastic second hand market rapidly established itself. Such regalia as was manufactured during the war were of very inferior quality and the charity jewels were at first made of cardboard and later produced in Bakelite.

Masonic Charity Jewels
Above: a cardboard charity badge from 1942 for the Masonic Institute for Girls, a Bakelite jewel for the Masonic Institute for Boys, and a cloth badge from 1948 for the Masonic Institute for Boys.

Benevolence maintained its very important place throughout the war. Charity collections were always made at lodge meetings and remained high, while the work on behalf of orphans, widows and those in need continued unabated. Many children whose fathers had been killed in action were fully provided for and many attended the Masonic Boys' and Girls' schools. Even in prisoner-of war camps collections of cigarettes were made at meetings of freemasons for those in the camp hospital. During the seven years which ended in September 1946 the Royal Masonic Hospital attended to 8,600 cases and the cost of that work was wholly maintained by British freemasons.

One of the features of Masonic meetings during the war was the number of visitors attending. These were mostly servicemen stationed nearby and many reports comment on the vast variety of uniforms to be seen. It says much for the levelling nature of Freemasonry, that it was not unusual to see a Private in the Home Guard initiating a Captain in a fashionable regiment. As the war went on, more and more visitors from overseas appeared. At first it was representatives from European countries which had been overrun. But later, after 1942, there was a great influx of visitors from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many foreign servicemen were initiated into lodges in this country during the war and many lasting friendships were made.

Blitz Blitz Churchill and RooseveltLike everywhere else, Masonic premises suffered heavily from bomb damage and destruction. Much lodge furniture and regalia and many records were destroyed. Freemasons' Hall in Park Street, Bristol, was completely destroyed along with warrants, furniture and tools. Many halls were rendered unusable because of damage by blast and fire and this meant lodges having to share premises with neighbours or to find somewhere else relatively suitable such as a nearby school, pub or restaurant.

Many lodges particularly in London which had hitherto met in hotels and restaurants found themselves homeless during the “blitz”. As a result Freemasons' Hall in Great Queen Street, London, was much overcrowded, but managed somehow to accommodate the homeless. Amid much overloading of the organization and despite the constant bombing it managed to maintain the continuity which was vital to the well being of the Craft.

POW Masonic JewelsMany freemasons distinguished themselves greatly during their war service. Brethren served in every theatre of war and from every part of what was then the British Empire, and at every level of command and operation. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was himself a member of the Craft, as was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the USA.

At home, Freemasons fought fires, rescued the injured, manned anti-aircraft guns and, by their undying efforts in all walks of life, added greatly to the morale of the nation. The awards for gallantry are too numerous to mention. As prisoners-of war, Brethren continued to practice their Craft even in the less civilized atmosphere of camps and prisons under the control of the Japanese. Meetings were held where secrecy could best be preserved, in a schoolroom, a workshop or a church. Tools were fashioned from bone or scrap metal, tracing boards designed and wands made.

Lighting was provided by rags in cigarette tins containing oil 'borrowed' from Japanese lorries. Rings of Tylers were established in extended perimeters to prevent surprise (sometimes as many as twenty-four; although none of them were armed with a drawn sword) and a drill was devised and assiduously practiced to convert the meeting into something of an entirely different nature at a moment's notice.

A meeting of 45 Freemasons was held in the Changi prison camp in Singapore as early as April 1942. The clandestine Masonic meetings were among the few exciting highlights of an otherwise monotonous and grim existence.

Singapore on day of Japanese Surrender It was on the 25 August 1942 that the then Grand Master, Air Commodore His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, was killed while on active service with the Royal Air Force. Following his death, all Lodges were in a period of Masonic Mourning for six months before his successor, the Earl of Harewood, was elected at the Quarterly Communications meeting held on 2nd December 1942. He was subsequently installed on 1st June 1943 by a Past Grand Master, the MW Bro His Royal Highness King George VI.

Our Grand Master was just one of many thousands of Freemasons who died in the war. We can only contemplate the nature of the sacrifice that these brethren made and perhaps see it as a gift, for, without any doubt whatsoever, without that gift it is certain that we would not be at liberty to practice our Craft today.

Freemasons Hall War Memorial The war ended on VJ Day, Victory in Japan Day, in August 1945, when Lodges throughout the world thanked the Great Architect of the Universe for their victory and for their deliverance. Today, although Masons cannot meet together, technology ensures we can stay in touch. Many Masons are using WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom and other ways to stay in touch, hold committee meetings, or even hold Lodges of Instruction. Over eighty years later we are perhaps once again in a critical period for Freemasonry, but what is certain is that the values implicit in Freemasonry, not only held firm against the storms of war, but are today rooted deeper than ever in the heart of our Order.

Taken from ‘English Freemasonry during the Second World War’ by W,Bro. Chris Eley, Provincial Grand Orator, Craft Province of Surrey