Wending their way in uplifted mood along Blackpool’s promenade after having opened the Museum of Freemasonry at the Masonic Hall in Adelaide Street, Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison and his delightful wife Maureen were bound for the plushness of the Hilton Hotel to be entertained in splendid fashion by the brethren of four local lodges.
Progress Lodge No 4120, Wayfarers Lodge No 7544, Biscopham Lodge No 7646 and Wyre Lodge No 7704 had mustered their troops and pooled their talents to the full in creating a unique celebration of the tercentenary of the founding of the first Grand Lodge on 24 June 1717. Replicating the co-operation between the four London lodges that met at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern, St Paul’s Churchyard, London on that midsummer’s day in 1717, the four local lodges had joined forces to write, orchestrate and perform a special ceremony to mark the occasion. It was not however, an historical re-enactment of those events.
Instead, the lodges presented their interpretation of a time-honoured tradition at lodge meetings whenever a brother of the lodge had passed to the grand lodge above. It was entitled ‘The empty chair’.
Opening the proceedings, lodge members paraded in and adopted their allocated posts. Master of the assembled lodge was Martin Clements of Biscopham Lodge whilst his two wardens Andy Walch (senior warden) and Marin Sirbu (junior warden), both of Progress Lodge, occupied their designated seats. The senior and junior deacons were Jonathan Slee of Wayfarers Lodge and Dan Whalley of Wyre Lodge respectively. Completing the team of lodge officers were Joe Ayrton of Wayfarers Lodge as inner guard, Tony Blundell of Wyre Lodge as tyler and Bob Hopwood, also of Wyre Lodge, as director of ceremonies.
Although there was an abundance of non-Masons in the audience, dispensation had been granted by United Grand Lodge for the wearing of full dress regalia and consequently, the mock lodge room with its countless showy Masons accorded a most impressive spectacle to the many non-Masons present.
When all the officers were duly in place, Martin Clements welcomed the audience and director of ceremonies Bob Hopwood provided a brief narrative to explain the format of the ‘The empty chair’ and, by way of an introduction, Jack Baxter of Biscopham Lodge recited Psalm 23 and a pictorial presentation designed by Matthew Hopwood of Wyre Lodge was projected onto a screen to the accompaniment of a rousing overture of patriotic tunes from the award-winning Thornton Cleveleys Brass Band. Sobering and stirring images prepared the audience for a superbly arranged and coordinated programme.
Bob Hopwood explained that when a brother had passed to the grand lodge above, his memory was commemorated in lodge by placing an empty chair in a prominent spot in the lodge room in recognition of his absence. It was, of course, most poignant during periods of conflict when the brother had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country– to whichever country he may belong!
Instructing the deacons to set and dress a table as a single setting, Jon Slee and Dan Whalley duly did so. It then came time for entry of ‘the empty chair’. Paraded in on the shoulders of four brethren with appropriate dignity and reverence, the procession was particularly meaningful as the four chair bearers were Mike Thistlethwaite of Wayfarers Lodge, Mervyn Robinson of Redhill Lodge in the Province of Antrim, Northern Ireland, Ralf Werdelmann of Drei Rosen Knopsen Lodge (Three Rose Buds Lodge) in Bochum, Germany and Peter Hilton from the USA. Positioning the chair in the centre of the lodge room, it was draped with a Masonic apron and laurel sprig.
Past Provincial Grand Master of the Province of Middlesex HRH King George VI (who was awarded the title of Past Grand Master after resigning all offices in Freemasonry on his ascension to the throne in 1936 after the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII) was adopted as the subject of a moving eulogy to illustrate the tradition of the ‘empty chair’. The brethren enacted the ceremony in a reverent and moving manner. It was theatrical. It was dramatic. It was spine-tingling.
Throughout the performance, the Thornton Cleveleys Brass Band performed an extensive repertoire of rousing patriotic marches and melodies, much to the pleasure and pride of the throng. Shoulders went back; heads were held high and chests were thrust forward. Indeed, shoulders could not have been further back; heads could not have been held higher nor chests more prominently thrust forward. By the end of the performance, the audience could not hold themselves back from a spontaneous chorus of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Elgar would have loved every moment of it.
The ceremony had been a triumph for the four lodges involved. The pageantry had been inspiring. The production had been immaculate. And the Thornton Cleveleys Brass Band had been sensational. All in all, one may say, everything had been tickety-boo.
And so it was that, at the closure of the ceremony, the energised throng headed for the bar for a few celebratory refreshers before re-assembling once more for the festive banquet. It too fulfilled all expectations – a superb meal in a superb setting with superb entertainment. These four lodges know how to do things!
Having savoured the excellent fare of the evening, imbibed a few more restorers, revelled in the company of fellow diners and delighted in the jazzy refrains of singer Melanie Smith, the atmosphere of the night suddenly become frenzied as the throng rushed to one end of the room. Gaming tables were opened for business and the party-goers were eager to spend their money. Wagering was swift and 1,000s of ‘dollars’ were won and lost within moments of the cards being dealt at the blackjack tables and the balls coming to rest on the roulette wheels. There was rejoicing. There were massive disappointments. But there was plenty of fun too.
Bringing the night to a close and allowing the most energetic of the throng to dance till the wee hours was the sounds of the Blue Pig Orchestra, a versatile group that thundered out a range of music from heavy rock, to pop, to country music – a selection to suit all tastes. They reflected the mood of the whole evening, that of enjoyment and passion.
Putting the events of the evening in a nutshell, members of Progress Lodge, Wayfarers Lodge, Biscopham Lodge and Wyre Lodge produced a tercentenary celebration of the founding of the first grand lodge which deserves to be remembered for the next three hundred years.