Assistant Provincial Grand Master Harry Cox is never happier than when spreading a bit of joy and warmth amongst his fellow Masons and few better opportunities present themselves than when helping a long-time friend celebrate 50 years in Freemasonry. 2017 has provided Harry with a number of such chances. But a particularly special day came when Harry was required to officiate at a diamond jubilee. Robert Young McGown, affectionately known as Bob to his countless friends, was celebrating 60 years as a Freemason – and a full house was present to help him celebrate at the Masonic Hall, Blackpool when Blackpool Lodge No 1476 opened its doors.
The lodge was opened in cheery yet efficient manner by its master Lee Martin and, with the arrival of Harry and a plethora of distinguished grand, Provincial and acting Provincial officers, the gavel of the lodge was soon placed firmly in Harry’s hands. It was instantly obvious that Harry was going to enjoy the evening and that he was going to ensure that Bob enjoyed it equally.
With Bob placed prominently in the lodge room, Harry began setting the scene for the gathered throng by revisiting the year of Bob’s birth. It was 1937, the year in which King George VI ascended to the throne following the death of his father King George V and abdication of his brother King Edward VIII in 1936. King George’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in May 1937 was the first outside broadcast by the BBC.
It was also the year in which nearly 4,000 Basque (and other) child refugees of the Spanish Civil War arrived at Southampton; the year in which the 999 emergency telephone number was introduced, and in which Jimmy McGrory played his last match for Celtic FC on 16 October, achieving a United Kingdom record of 550 goals scored during his senior career.
Robert Young McGown was born on 10 October of the same year to Hugh and Gertie McGown in Rutherglen, Scotland. Bob has two brothers, Archie his elder by six years and Stuart his younger brother. Both were due to be present at the celebration of Bob’s 60 years in Freemasonry but both were, unfortunately, unable to attend due to ill-health.
Bob’s father was a plumber and also fire chief at the Clyde Paper Mill and, being in a protected occupation as a fire officer, was not called up for active service during WWII. He was also an ardent trade unionist being secretary/treasurer of the Engineering Trade Union (ETU) and was also a very keen Freemason. His mum, in Bob’s words, was ‘the boss’ and heavily involved in the Towns Women’s Guild and local bowling club.
Bob was encouraged by his father to leave school at 16 in favour of acquiring an apprenticeship, which Bob duly did by securing a position with Glasgow-based electrical contractors, James Scott and Co. As part of his apprentice training, Bob was expected to gain experience in various sections of the company and, at one time, he was made to fit aerials on the top of high-rise tenements in Glasgow – not a job for the faint-hearted! Later he was moved into the quantity surveying department and it was while working there at the tender age of 19 years that he was required to work at the Salwick Works, Preston; a move that he made permanent.
It was at about this time, and strongly influenced by his father, that Bob joined Lodge Burnside No 1476 (as did his brothers) and, following his initiation on 5 March 1957, he travelled back to Scotland to receive his other degrees, along with the Mark degree (on 3 September for his passing and two weeks later for his raising). At the time, Lodge Burnside was a temperance lodge but since Bob’s joining, the lodge has been persuaded to revise its by-laws. It begs the question, ‘how much influence did Bob have on the decision?’
In Blackpool, Bob was residing at a boarding house belonging to Charlie Shaw, charity steward for Blackpool Lodge No 1476 and it was Charlie who introduced Bob to the lodge, first as a visitor and then, eventually in March 1970, as a joining member.
The day after his first visit to Blackpool Lodge, Bob was conscripted into the army – yet his belief was that his response on behalf of the visiting brethren hadn’t been that bad! His army training secured him a position as telegraph operator aboard troopship SS Oxfordshire and he sailed to Singapore, visiting Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Aden and Colombo on the way. As Harry noted, “What would a cruise like that cost today? And all paid for by government.”
In Singapore, Bob was attached to the 230 Signals squadron in Seremban, Malaysia with the distinction of having represented Scotland in a football match against England, with the Scottish team competing fiercely to secure second place!
On completion of his National Service, Bob returned to his former employer in Glasgow and was detailed to a variety of positions in the company, taking him to the Ford Motor Company in Halewood, Liverpool, working as an engineer/surveyor. He had been courting Carol, who was a junior clerk in the same company, since before he was conscripted into the forces and, after popping the question, they were married on 12 October 1963 in Hillington and held their reception at the Masonic Hall, Glasgow.
The couple settled into a caravan in Runcorn, purchased for the princely sum of £200. Nature took its course and Bob and Carol had two sons, Colin and Alan, necessitating moving to a large mobile home before deciding to move to Blackpool in 1968 where they bought a house. Both had friends in Blackpool and, therefore, it seemed a natural place to establish a home. It meant however that Bob had to travel daily to Liverpool to project manage a large contract for the Inland Revenue. It turned out to be a nightmare for Bob. The McAlpine site was strongly unionised and when a demand for a one pound per hour pay increase was rejected by the company, a strike was called which turned into one of the longest electrical strikes in history. It lasted almost three years and led to Bob having to be bussed into work each day by police, many times with blackleg labour alongside him.
So after two years into the strike and after 21 years with James Scott & Co., Bob moved to N G Bailey in Manchester as a project manager. While employed with the company, Bob spotted an advert for work in Bahrain. It was 1976 and Bob’s adventurous spirit could not resist the opportunity. Within weeks of an interview Bob was in Bahrain and approximately three weeks later Carol and the boys had joined him.
Prior to moving to Bahrain, Bob had been a regular visitor to Blackpool Lodge and had become a joining member, reaching the dizzy heights of 16th on the stewards’ list by 1973. In moving to Bahrain, once again Bob’s Masonic career ground to a halt. Although he tried to locate a lodge in Bahrain, to his horror he discovered that all Masonic lodges had been closed by the reigning government in early 1976, despite the fact that some of the royal family were active Masons. Apparently, the government in Bahrain had concerns about possible infiltration of agents from Iran and Iraq. And so, Masonry took a back seat in Bob’s and Carol’s lives until 1984 when, after travelling and working in many countries, Bob returned to the UK and became managing director of Drake and Skull based in London. The company was the first to take residence at Canary Wharf.
One of the many joys of working in London with Drake and Skull for Bob was that it enabled him to become a livery man of the Lightmongers’ Company, one of the Livery Companies of the City of London. Bob joined in 1992 and enabled him and Carol to attend Ladies evenings and other events, opening many doors in business and offering chances to meet a wide range of contacts.
Outside of work, Bob had always been a keen sportsman, participating in football, cross-country running and, in particular, the Royal and Ancient game of golf. Having played for over 50 years, he had nurtured an ambition to attend the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, an experience that was realised in 2015 when he went with his son Alan.
Tragically, Carol passed away in 2014 following an aneurism during a holiday at the family’s time-share in Portugal. It was a terrible time for Bob and the boys, and made the more difficult considering that Bob and Carol had celebrated their golden wedding anniversary the year before.
Bob’s Masonic career, on returning to the UK and with his regular attendance at Blackpool Lodge, saw him rise rapidly through the ranks and into the chair of the lodge in 1994 – and again in 1997. He has been a director of the Blackpool Masonic Halls Ltd for 18 years and was Chairman of the Board of Directors from 2005 to 2015.
He was recognised by Provincial Grand Lodge in 2001 when he was appointed acting Provincial Grand Standard Bearer, before being promoted to Past Provincial Senior Grand Deacon in 2005 and then to Past Provincial Junior Grand Warden in 2012. He was exalted into Bispham with Norbreck Chapter No 4731 in 1997 and served as first principal in 2006, receiving Provincial rank of Past Provincial Deputy Grand Sword Bearer in 2012.
Bob is also a member of numerous side degrees, in all of which he holds high ranks. In 1957 he was advanced into the Mark degree in Burnside Lodge No 1361 and joined Fylde Lodge of Mark Master Masons in 1993, becoming the master in 1999 and serving as its secretary from 2003 to 2007. He gained Provincial honours and then Grand Mark Lodge honours in 2007, being promoted to Past Grand Senior Deacon in 2013. He is also a member of the Royal Ark Mariners and was appointed to Royal Ark Mariner Grand Rank in 2011.
In his closing remarks of the celebratory presentation, Harry described Bob as “a man of consummate integrity and commitment” before inviting chairman of the Blackpool group John Turpin to read the certificate of recognition from the Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison.
The formal element of the evening having come to a close, the gathering retired to the dining suite to continue the celebrations in truly Scottish style. Thanks to Bob, wine and whisky flowed in abundance and the populace were soon in very merry mood. Perpetuating the Scottish theme, a haggis was paraded around the room to the dulcet tones of bagpipes and placed before Bob to present the traditional Robert Burns’ address to the haggis. At the point of stabbing the treasured fare, things took a turn for the worse. After a number of failed attempts to stab the haggis with a round-ended knife, Bob had to resort to a fork to inflict torturous massacre on the wee beastie – it was not going to recover from such a zealous attack!
Tribute after tribute to Bob floated around the room during the course of the meal but the main ones were reserved for the more formal session of speeches. There was, of course, that from Harry Cox and the primary one from Keith Beardmore, the Provincial Grand Master of the Mark degree.
In response, Bob entertained his audience with humorous anecdotes and tributes of his own. It was a gem of a moment from a pure diamond in Freemasonry. The occasion had been a wonderful diamond jubilee for Bob and a memorable occasion for all who had been privileged to be in attendance.
Photographs courtesy of Rory Maskell.