Masonic Journals in mid-Victorian Britain

The middle of the nineteenth century was of great importance in the growth of the various media, and sees the appearance of many new newspapers and specialist periodicals of various sorts. In Britain this growth was stimulated by the abolition of stamp and other duties, as well as such technical developments as the introduction of cheap paper and the growth of the railways which facilitated wide and rapid distribution. One aspect of this growth was the establishment of a number of specialist masonic publications. Their appearance came at a time of great internal turmoil within English freemasonry, and there was a considerable degree of contemporary controversy as to whether it was the periodicals which promoted the turmoil or whether it was the turmoil which gave opportunities for these magazines to flourish. Whichever it was the existence e of a number of such publications at this time throws a great deal of light upon the ways in which the United Grand Lodge of England reacted to a number of very significant issues.

Although a ‘Freemasons Magazine’ was published from 1793 to 1798, the continuous history of masonic periodicals in Britain does not begin until with the establishment of the Freemasons’ Quarterly Review by Robert Crucefix in 1834. His avowed intention included the hope that it might constitute ‘an archive where the events most interesting to Brethren may be recorded and regular biographies given of such worthy Masons who, by their zeal and industry’ have advanced the interests of their art’. In practice however he had an additional agenda, to promote his scheme for an Asylum for Aged and Decayed Freemasons and give himself an opportunity for attacks upon those, including the Grand Master, opposed to the scheme. This magazine included articles about Freemasonry, a section of ‘Masonic Intelligence’ which included reports on the proceedings of Grand Lodge’ and reports of lodge meetings held in London, the Provinces, and abroad. Crucifex died in 1850, but his magazine continued albeit going through a number of changes of title until its transformation in 1853 into ‘The Freemasons quarterly magazine’. In 1855 it changed from a quarterly publication to a monthly, now becoming ‘The freemasons’ monthly magazine’.

The great controversies both in politics and society in the middle of the nineteenth century, fuelled by the disastrous mismanagement of the Crimean War led to a drive for reform and an attack on aristocratic privilege. The search for reform reflected deep-seated changes in British society and a strong desire among the comparatively newly-enfranchised middle classes for a fuller voice in the conduct of public affairs, a mood in favour of a stronger provincialism.

These dissensions were echoed within the ranks of Freemasonry. The long rule of the Duke of Sussex as Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England might well have been disturbed by differences between him and such individuals as Dr Crucefix, intent on bringing new attitudes towards Freemasonry, but these had merely created in effect bitter polemics in the columns of The Freemasons Quarterly Review, without creating any crises in the proceedings and structures of Grand Lodge. Some of these attacks were continued against the rule of Sussex’s successor, the Earl of Zetland, but it was the decision by a number of Lodges in Canada to form their own Grand Lodge which precipitated a fresh mass of criticism of the management of the affairs of Grand Lodge. These new attacks represented personal criticisms of the officers of Grand Lodge – the so-called Dais-; of the way in which the affairs of the Craft were being mismanaged; and of the way in which the opinions of the vast body of members were apparently being ignored in the interests of a narrow clique of individuals who were allegedly monopolising and misusing control of the affairs of Freemasonry at large. This group had for some time kept control over the general administration of the affairs of Freemasonry, and in addition there was little link between the proceedings of and in Grand Lodge and the general body of freemasons outside London in the Provinces. The grandees surrounding the Earl of Zetland had provided not only the bulk of the officers of Grand Lodge but also of the Provincial Grand Masters supposedly in charge of the Craft at a local level, and they were drawn from a particularly narrow social and political set. Within the various provinces into which English Freemasonry was divided, there was still little interaction amongst freemasons. In theory there might have been a formal structure of Provincial Grand Masters and Provincial Grand Lodges, and a degree of linkage between them and United Grand Lodge in London; but in practical terms there was little that provincial freemasons could do to influence the flow of events at a national or even at a Provincial level. There were even Provincial Grand Lodges which had not met for a considerable period of time or in which the Provincial Grand Master had so far neglected his duties that he had never even formally appointed his various provincial officers.

These attacks on the Dais were largely led by a small group of young men, similar in many ways to the young Tories beginning to dominate the Conservative Party, seeking to bring about reforms through the influence of the aristocracy. Lord Carnarvon became the leader of this group though much of the driving force seems to have come from the Reverend George Portal and a Hampshire M P, William Beech. In part they may well have been aggrieved by their own exclusion from the higher ranges of Grand Lodge appointments, but there were also other, well-founded complaints about the dilatoriness of the Grand Secretary; about the relations between Grand Lodge and various overseas Lodges; and about the general way in which Grand Lodge was ignoring opinions elsewhere. Certainly it was Carnarvon who made himself the mouthpiece of the discontent felt by many in the provinces who maintained that Grand Lodge was dominated by London freemasons. But in order to channel these streams of discontent it was necessary to mobilise those various opinions, and it is in this context that the growth of the Masonic press becomes especially significant. As in national politics enormous influence had come to be exerted by a newly expanded newspaper press, so in the field of masonry as well there were important developments in masonic journalism. It was now that the Masonic press began to be part of the controversy, reflecting and at times also stimulating a great deal of the general discontent.

In a previous generation The Freemasons Quarterly Review, but by 1853 its format had appeared stale and tired, and there now appeared two new journals, The Masonic Mirror and the Masonic Observer. Originally both appeared monthly, but as Henry George Warren, one of the founders of the Masonic Mirror, was to write;

At the time when we first came before the brethren the Freemasons Quarterly had considerably declined in reputation; its reports of Grand Lodge were meagre in the extreme – all attempts at reporting the exact proceedings being systematically ignored; and there were but few notices … of the doings in the country. It was to reform this that the prospectus of the Masonic Mirror was first issued. … No sooner was our little venture launched than the Freemasons Quarterly was altered to a monthly Magazine; through competition greater energy was imported into its management and a race for the favour of the Brethren commenced. Ere twelve months had passed it had become evident to both that one must give way…the result was an amalgamation of interests on equal terms, it being agreed that the then editor of the Freemasons Magazine should undertake the political management – if we may be allowed to use the term – of the united publication and the editor of the Masonic Mirror confine himself to the news department.

This newly re-founded Freemasons Magazine, incorporating the Mirror, began publication in 1856. At first it was a monthly, but after two years the editors decided to take the bold step of producing it on a weekly basis, and it continued as such until November 1871. For a time it had a rival, The Masonic Observer, a short-lived specialist Masonic publication that ran to just sixteen issues between late 1856 and the end of 1859, and which was published not in London but in Bath. It was largely financed by a group of rich young Tories and was closely tied to the politics and opinions of Carnarvon, Portal, and Beech.

It is within the columns of these two journals, and within the framework of what very speedily became their bitter rivalry, that there can be seen the unfolding of a sustained attack upon the masonic ‘establishment’, partly through the creation of a continuing and formed opposition within Grand Lodge itself and partly through the creation of a parallel organisation for Freemasons.

The key for the ‘opposition’ to the actions of the Dais was publicity and the line constantly taken by the Freemasons Magazine was a demand for the freedom of the press, in particular for the full reporting of business conducted at the regular Communications of Grand Lodge. In giving publicity to the affairs of Freemasonry and to the activities of Grand Lodge it was drawing attention to contemporary controversies and allowing an audience wider than the restricted circle of London Freemasons to play a fuller part in the politics of the Craft. The basic arguments were whether the affairs of Grand Lodge should be reported at all, and the Freemasons’ Magazine was faced with the argument that by publishing accounts of the debates and votes they were ‘divulging the secrets or mysteries of the Order’ and were thus laying themselves open to punishment. Over and over again the magazine had to assert that the mere publication of the proceedings of Grand Lodge did not constitute such an offence. ‘Freemasons, like other men, must march with the times, and remember that it is only a few years since that the publication of their debates by the Houses of Parliament was interdicted, whilst now every facility is given for their accurate reporting.’ Or again: ‘To check the publication of Masonic affairs is as futile as the endeavour of any one to do so must be suicidal.’

It must be said however that whenever the discussions in Grand Lodge got really heated the brethren involved had no problem in fighting their respective corners by producing contributions, generally anonymous, for the correspondence columns of the Freemasons’ Magazine

The Freemasons Magazine was often accused of inaccurate reporting of the debates. On this there was a rebuttal by the editor:

no less than six brethren connected with the literary department of the Freemasons Magazine are professional newspaper and magazine writers, the majority of them having graduated in the professions as first-class parliamentary reporters. .. No sooner did the present managers of the Magazine take the reins of power in their hands, than they determined to make it more fully than it had hitherto been the exponent of the opinions of the Craft; and they knew that the only way properly to do so was to give accurate accounts of the proceedings of Grand Lodge as the governing body of the Craft. To this end they introduced short-hand writers into Grand Lodge through the legal channel of getting them elected into office in a private lodge.

The issue of reporting blew up at the Quarterly Communication of January 1857. The Freemasons Magazine reported the proceedings as follows:

The Most Worshipful Grand Master then said that there was a point to which he wished to call the attention of the Brethren before they separated. He had seen a brother taking a note of the proceedings throughout the whole of the evening. He had sent a message to that brother, asking for what purpose he was so taking notes, and the reply was that they were for the Freemasons’ Magazine. Now he wished to remind that Brother and Grand Lodge that the Freemasons’ Magazine was not a publication officially recognised by Grand Lodge and that moreover they had some years since laid down a rule that there should be one authorised reporter present, and that no other brother should be allowed to take notes of the proceedings, and only so much should be published as was authorised by the Grand Master.

The Editor responded at length:

The Grand Master has reminded us that only one brother is allowed to take notes in Grand Lodge; that nothing is to be published which has not been approved by the Grand Secretary or Grand Master; and expressed a hope that the practice of taking notes may b discontinued for the future, the Freemasons Magazine not being officially acknowledged as an organ of the Craft. Whether officially acknowledged or not it cannot be doubted that it is generally recognised as the organ of the Order whose increasing patronage proves their conviction of its value… The Houses of Parliament once stood out against the right of publishing their debates but public opinion has long since forced them to succumb and now reporting is not only acknowledged but every accommodation is afforded to the representatives of the press. …Even allowing that the Quarterly Communications were the very acme of reporting and impartiality are they issued with such regularity as to render them of real value to the craft? Rare indeed is it that they are seen until a few days before the next Quarterly meeting and it is not two years since five Quarterly Communications were issued to the Brethren by the same post. How truly useful it must have been to tell the Craft in the early part of 1855 what had been taken place in Sept 1853 and confirmed in December of the same year. But we fear that it is not the reporting of the discussions which has given offence but the spirit of inquiry and determination to remove abuses which has been by our means raised in the craft, and rendered the seats of some brethren not quite so soft and pleasant as they formerly were.

As to taking short-hand notes, the Editor pointed out that the options were either of allowing such notes to be taken at the time of the debate or having to rely on brethren trying to recall later their memories of what was said, a process which was very often both inaccurate and very unsystematic.

Later that year one of the leading participants in Grand Lodge had circulated an anonymous paper attacking the general attitude of the Freemasons’ Magazine and threatening all sorts of dire punishments

Freemasonry has witnessed within the past eighteenth months the development of an antagonistic spirit which is calculated not only to do the most serious mischief to the Fraternity and to sear those ties of mutual dependence and brotherly confidence to which it owes all its prosperity and its means of doing good but which also if unchecked may lead to its ultimate downfall. The spirit seems to have originated with a particular party and to be fomented by the publication of papers which profess to give an account of the proceedings of Grand Lodge. It can be shown that this spirit exists – that these publications contain not only not the truth but the very reverse of truth – not only not fair reports of the proceedings in Grand Lodge and of the speeches made therein but garbled and imperfect accounts of both

The writer of the attack had however made a distinction between the current conduct of the Freemasons Magazine as compared with some of its predecessors, and presumably had in mind the actions of its principal competitor, the Observer:

It is only fair to say of the Review that its late numbers have exhibited in every instance a much greater approach to accuracy and much more temperate criticism than had characterised most of its former numbers and it is reasonable to suppose that it might become not only an organ of great use and purpose but also a lucrative possession to its proprietors.

The Editor made a substantial riposte, pointing out that though there was no signature on the paper it had been printed in the same style as official papers circulated by the Grand Secretary’s office and in its appearance was almost indistinguishable from such papers. He went on:

If they attempt any interference with the Masonic Press they will raise a hornets’ nest about their ears, which can only lead to their own discomfiture and the establishing more firmly in the affections of the Craft those publications which endeavour to protect their interests. For ourselves we can positively assert that every endeavour is made to obtain the most accurate account of the proceedings in Grand Lodge. Our representatives in that assembly are gentlemen engaged on the morning papers as parliamentary reporters … and the only Brother connected with the magazine who has taken an active part in the proceedings of Grand Lodge ceased to take a single note within its walls from the day that he gave notice of his first motion in order that there should be no pretence for accusing him of a want of impartiality. …

By the end of that year the Magazine reported: ‘the publication of Masonic proceedings under certain regulations is now sanctioned by the Grand Master. … We have only been actuated by a desire to give the Brethren the utmost information…. In our comments on passing events we shall continue as independent and fearless as hitherto.’ In theory all the text had to be submitted to the Grand Master and Grand Secretary for a preliminary inspection before being published, but in practice such supervision was quickly dropped. And the issue of 10th February 1858 boldly asserted on its front wrapper that ‘The reports are now published with the consent of the Most Worshipful Grand Master the earl of Zetland.’

If the demand for freedom of the press had been one of the issues for which The Freemasons Magazine had gone into battle, another was that of the part to be played by ordinary freemasons outside London. These were the years in which there was created an effective structure of Provincial Grand Lodges, and that this was as much the result of the activities of The Freemasons Magazine as of anything else. Its constant publicity for the failings of Provincial Grand Masters and for the need to reward provincial masons for their local activities certainly resulted by the 1870s in a growth in the numbers of freemasons and of new lodges outside London which can only be characterised as an explosion. Its campaign to improve the respectability of freemasonry by urging the building of dedicated Masonic Halls rather than continuing the outworn practice of meeting in whatever public house might be convenient certainly bore fruit, as can be seen in the proliferation of such buildings during the second half of the century.

There was one further role for the Freemasons Magazine. It paid a great deal of attention to the problems facing the so-called ordinary freemason. Its regular columns answering queries which had arisen, giving advice on matters of ceremony or trying to resolve difficulties facing individuals, were an important part of its contribution to the education of its readers.

The finances of the Magazine and of its circulation were however always a matter of concern. With its change from being a quarterly to a monthly publication it was more than ever heavily dependent upon a subscription income. As early as 1856 an editorial declared:

A circulation of less than 3,000 to 4,000 cannot pay for a publication of the extent and character of the Freemasons Magazine and that – though our circulation during the last few months has been regularly and steadily increasing – we freely acknowledge we do not possess. … We think that the Brethren, for whose benefit and information the Magazine is published, should support us in a manner which would prevent the necessity of our monthly dipping our hands into our pockets to meet an excess of outlay over receipts’. … We can assure our friends, even with a monthly loss staring us in the face, there is no danger the Freemasons Magazine being discontinued. We have set ourselves a task which we are pledged to carry out, and there is no exertion, no determination, no sacrifice of our pecuniary means – which we are not prepared to make to secure to the Craft of a first class organ of communication.

The paper reported from one country lodge:

The Brethren of the … Lodge regret to learn that the Freemasons’ Magazine is not supported in a manner worthy of the Craft, and that it is in great danger of being discontinued. Being impressed with a profound conviction that the publication of a respectable magazine is of the greatest importance as a record of Masonic events, and as a medium by which the Brethren in every part of the British dominions may have the means of communicating their opinions, sentiments, and feelings upon Masonic subjects’.

Needless to say that the Magazine reported at length the motion in this Lodge that the individual members pledged themselves to buy their own copies regularly. The monthly issues usually consisted of 64 pages but on occasion extra material extended it to 96. The Masonic Mirror section included very many full reports of Lodge meetings, both in London and in the Provinces – clearly submitted to the Magazine and published in its pages in order to try and increase its circulation. As the editorial constantly reiterated in its six-monthly review of the past year:

We trust as by our continual enlargements as occasion requires we show our determination to make the magazine worthy of support the Brethren will respond to our efforts by endeavouring to increase the number of subscribers.

In the words of the Proprietors, ‘we found that with increasing support came more extended demands on our pages; our Magazine nominally of four sheets was more often extended to six, and even then the pruning knife had to be applied to many communications to a degree which was not altogether desirable.’ They then, in December 1857, took a bold step:

Two years ago we voluntarily gave a pledge that we should no longer confine our limits to the sixty-four pages of print formerly given to the brethren – but that from the junction of the two publications then existing, The Freemasons Magazine and the Masonic Mirror having secured increased strength and connections, we should publish what might be demanded in order to do justice to those Masonic proceedings in which the Craft took an interest. … We have therefore resolved to close our monthly issue and appeal to the brethren for their support and countenance weekly. In doing this we are aware that we call upon the brethren to incur a slight additional expenditure…The Magazine in its new form will consist of forty eight pages the same size as at present … Our price will be 6d a number … Amongst other articles which we propose to publish in the course of the year will be a series on the principles and illustrations of our Order

This new version carried a wide variety of articles which were only marginally Masonic – trying to widen its readership.

While devoting our pages as we have hitherto done, mainly to the elucidation and discussion of Masonic subjects we shall not lose sight of the fact that being as masons pledged to the study of the liberal arts and science it is our duty to assist our brethren as far as it lies in our power in their researches in what ever department they may be directed. Another feature will also be developed in obedience to the request of many of our readers, enabling us occasionally to … publish a series of articles in which the ladies of their families may be supposed to take a greater interest than in the usual contents of our pages.

Part of the problem associated with determining the breadth of circulation of the Magazine is that it is rare to find its weekly parts; most libraries carry the bound volumes and have discarded the wrappers. But where some of these wrappers have been preserved it can be seen how wide a range these advertisements covered, and certainly they throw a great deal of light upon much masonic (and unmasonic) behaviour and animosities. There was for instance one page which two such notices concerning Masonic jewellers who were brothers in every sense, and whose rival notices appear one above the other

But by January 1859 the proprietors of the Freemasons Magazine were facing the reality of continuing losses, and at that stage were contemplating giving up. It was now that a meeting was held ‘for the purpose of considering the present situation of the Craft with regard to Masonic publications.

The senior Grand Officer present, Bro T H Hall PGM for Cambridgeshire having been requested to take the chair addressed the meeting and stated that the object for which it had been called was to consider the best means of supporting a periodical publication connected with Freemasonry, which should be conducted in an independent and impartial spirit, and could give a truthful report of such proceedings as might be proper to b published

Resolved that ‘in the opinion of this meeting it is indispensable that the Craft should possess an independent, truthful and temperately conducted journal.’ Bro Warren at the request of the meeting entered into an explanation of the financial position of the Freemasons’ Magazine, of his own connexion with it and as to the manner in which it has been conducted whilst under his management and stated the general principles which he desired to carry out to render the Freemasons’ Magazine the organ of the craft.

That this meeting approves of the manner in which the Freemasons Magazine has been conducted of late and considers it worthy of the support of the Craft

Having reference to the explanation now given by the Editor as to the losses which he has incurred in carrying on the Magazine, this meeting – with the view of securing its continuance but without in any way fettering the independence of its management and under the conviction that the journal will continue to be conducted in a fair and impartial manner resolves to enter into a subscription with the view, as far as possible, of enabling the Editor to meet such losses, and the Brethren present pledge themselves to use their influence in increasing the number of annual subscribers, both amongst Lodges and the brethren generally.

The Freemasons Magazine, a desideratum that had been long wanted and conducted as it is was a medium for universal communication; information was needed at the present time more than ever, as there were many subjects of great interest before the craft and the brethren could now readily obtain the Magazine through the post.

The Magazine deserved increased support as the editor not only devoted his time to conducting it but did so at a pecuniary loss…. With all his love for Masonry the editor could not be expected to devote his time and money also to the cause much longer….Without such a medium of communication the Brethren in the provinces would be necessarily ignorant of what was passing in London and their affairs would fall into the same state of neglect from which they had recently emerged,

Analysis of those present at the meeting would apparently suggest that Warren and his friends had sold out to the Dais, that the Establishment had decided to buy out the Freemasons Magazine as the least objectionable of the two leading Masonic publications. However detailed analysis of the Freemasons Magazine for the years following this meeting would suggest that the degree of Executive control should not be exaggerated or taken for granted. There were still a large number of issues for which the Freemasons Magazine campaigned, even against the line taken by the Dais. There were deep arguments over the properties held by Grand Lodge, over the future of the Charities, even, on occasion, over the right of the Freemasons Magazine to publish papers and reports which had been brought before Grand Lodge but which various individuals considered still ought to be treated as private. The Editor, in his annual review printed at the introduction to the bound volume of the year, could still maintain his aims of checking abuses in the Craft:

For ourselves, either as regards the past or the future, we have but little to say. We have endeavoured to act with the strictest independence and impartiality, and to expose abuses, wherever we have found them, without fear or favour. If, in doing so, we have sometimes given pain to any brother we regret it; but public duty is paramount, and we have the proud consolation of knowing that we have been the means, in more than one instance, of directing attention to irregularities and abuses, which have met with prompt attention from the Grand Master and his officers, and which, but for The Freemasons’ Magazine, might have escaped notice, and been drawn into precedents in the future.

It is certainly true that the controversial issues of the 1850s no longer find a place in the later years of the magazine, but that that is not necessarily due to a ‘take-over’ of the Magazine by the Dais. The leading protagonists of opposition within Grand Lodge were themselves no longer active, while it could be argued that the executive of Grand Lodge had come to accept that due attention had to be paid to a wider range of opinions than in the past. It is hardly a docile press which complains, in 1862, ‘Has no one a grievance? Is no one prepared to lead an opposition in Grand Lodge? Or are we doomed forever to the inaction which now prevails?’ And again, in 1870 the Freemasons Magazine wrote:

Again, we call attention to the meagre accounts of business done, and the paucity of information which is doled out to the brethren concerning the doings at head-quarters. While possessing a Grand Secretary who is indefatigable in the performance of his duties, with a reputation not confined to this country for business qualifications, it is perfectly clear that somewhere great obstructionism prevails.

What had been the achievements of The Freemasons Magazine and Masonic Mirror in these years? It had certainly played its part in stirring up feelings against an outmoded group controlling the activities of freemasonry. But unlike The Masonic Observer which, was the mouthpiece of a particular group interested in asserting its own claims to office and influence, it was perhaps more interested in promoting a general interest in freemasonry amongst the rank and file of the Order. For example. In its reporting on the Masonic press and Masonic activities from outside Great Britain – such as its comments on the growth of Prince Hall Lodges or on the attitudes of freemasons in New York and in Germany to the admission of Jews into the Order – it demonstrated attitudes which would have been taken for granted a century and a half later but which were a little unusual in the 1850s. The student of freemasonry in the middle of the nineteenth century will find much of great drama in the columns of the Masonic Observer but for some insight into the attitudes of, as it were, the mason on the Manchester omnibus he is more likely to secure enlightenment with The Freemasons Magazine and Masonic Mirror.