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The Country Stewards Lodge No. 540

 

THE COUNTRY STEWARDS

LODGE No. 540

Written by

TREVOR I. HARRIS

It is only when making a serious study of history that you realise that, though centuries may pass, when it comes to human nature nothing changes. The people involved in the Country Stewards story over 200 years ago, or even those living 2000 years ago, are no different in personality to people you are likely to meet in the street today, although they would of course lack our 21st century sophistication.

Never in the long history of Freemasonry has a single lodge caused as much disruption both within the craft and at Grand Lodge as the Country Stewards lodge. Several important documents, lost for 200 years, have recently come to light, and even then the complete story could not be told without the Country Stewards minute book, telling their side of the story.

The minute book had also been lost for nearly 200 years, and despite repeated attempts by the Grand Lodge Museum over the last 150 years by various curators, could not be traced. Letters were sent all over the country without success. Owning a medal myself, I was determined to locate the minute book if it still existed.

Having spent many weeks in research and travelled hundreds of miles trying to piece together all the available information, until finally I miraculously managed to locate it in the back of an extremely old walk-in safe in a medieval coaching inn and hotel in remote Berkeley, Gloucestershire. The minute-book had finally been found!

The events surrounding the rise and fall of the Country Stewards Lodge, so bizarre that they could easily have been taken from a novel, can now be told for the first time in their entirety. Our story starts nearly 300 years ago, when four Freemason’s lodges decided that it made sense to form an organisation to regulate and standardise the various Masonic ceremonies. Previously, Masonic lodges were completely independent of each other, and when it came to Masonic Ceremony, had very different interpretations.

Thus in 1717 Grand Lodge was born, and soon lodges throughout the country joined them. The most senior Freemason was named the Grand Master.

A feast, to be held annually, was organised in London to honour the Grand Master, and was an immediate success. A Grand Stewards lodge was formed, and one of its duties was to assist with the organisation of the feast. Many illustrious personalities of the day were members, including the famous William Hogarth, who is credited in 1735 with having designed the special jewel worn by lodge members.

A first class orchestra was arranged, consisting of four clarinets or two clarinets and two flutes, one great drum, two horns, one cymbal, one trumpet, two bassoons and one serpent, the forerunner of the saxophone, with the pay reported to be one guinea each, a small fortune in those days.

There was no shortage of alcoholic beverages, and the agreed cost of wines per bottle for the Grand Feast was- Port 4/-, Sherry 4/6d, Madeira 7/-, Hock 10/6d, Champagne 10/6d, Burgundy 10/6d and Claret 7/6d. It is interesting to note that the cost of claret was almost double that of Port, and that champagne and hock cost the same. French wines were served only to the upper table.

As often happens, our story begins with the best of intentions. About ten years after the first Grand Feast, a group of Freemasons decided to extend the honour of an annual feast to the Deputy Grand Master.

Exotic country locations such as Canonbury House Islington and Cumberland Gardens Vauxhall, were chosen. Also Bro. Viponts Long Room, which was situated in Well Walk, Hampstead, although there was no handy tube station in those days.

 

A ticket to one of the "Country Feasts"

The Country Feasts were officially sanctioned Grand Lodge outings, with the Grand Master when available, accompanied by his retinue, arriving in state. There was also the Deputy Grand Master, and the Masters and Wardens of lodges in and around London. The attendance usually consisted of around 200 people, consisting of around 50 dignitaries and 150 brethren. The cost of a ticket in 1737 was 3/-, rising to 6/6d in 1787 and 7/6d in 1794.

The feasts were originally held between May and July, but in order not to clash with functions held by private lodges, which at this time often consisted of day outings with a luncheon in the country, in about 1778 the date was eventually fixed at Old Midsummers Day, the 5th of July.

The main feast usually commenced at three o’clock, after which Grand Lodge was opened, although for the Grand Master and other senior dignitaries the day began much earlier with an official breakfast.

The Country Feasts also afforded an additional opportunity to raise quite considerable amounts for charity, at the same time giving the brethren an additional enjoyable day out.

They proved just as successful as the Grand Masters feasts, to the extent that, after sixty years, a group of eight Country Feast stewards decided to form their own lodge, consisting of present and past Country Stewards only, and I quote- “the better to regulate and manage the Deputy Grand Master’s or Country Feast of this society”.

A preliminary meeting was held at the Coal Hole Inn in the Strand, in July 1789. It was decided at that meeting that the lodge would not accept initiates, its membership being drawn entirely from brethren who had served or been selected to serve the office of Steward at the country feasts.

It was also decided to petition the Grand Master for a Warrant of Constitution, to enable themselves to be formed into a lodge of Master Masons, to meet on the second Monday of each month at the Freemasons Tavern, Great Queen Street, Lincoln Inn Fields, and that the said lodge should be called “The Country Stewards Lodge”.

The lodge was officially founded on the 25th July 1789 and numbered 540. Its founders comprised the entire Board of Stewards who had served as Country Stewards at the Country Feast in 1789.

Two days later the lodge had its first meeting, which was held at the Guildhall Tavern and Coffee House, a tavern run by one of its founders, Benjamin Pownall, who was a licensed victualler. Its first Master was Richard Whalley, a button maker, and two of its remaining founders were Attorneys.

At the Grand Lodge meeting of November 1789, Richard Whalley put forward a proposition that the members of the lodge could wear a suitable jewel, pendant to a green collar, in consequence of the trouble of having attended the office of Steward for the Country Feast of this society, which was passed without objection.

Country Stewards were chosen by their predecessors at the Feast itself, one year in advance, which gave them enough to join the lodge and so wear the splendid jewel and green collar at the next feast. In fact, apart from Bro. Henry Smithers in 1791, all prospective Country Stewards automatically joined the lodge.

A Country Stewards Lodge summons

As the jewels were quite expensive, having served as steward, many would feel that there was no longer a need for them to remain as lodge members, and would pass on their jewel to a successor, whose name would be re-engraved on the jewel.

Each medal was inscribed on one side with the words “Granted by Grand Lodge in Quarterly Communications of November 1789 to the members of the Country Stewards Lodge.

The obverse showed a winged female figure in flowing robes, holding a miniature of the medal hanging from a ribbon, possibly representing geometry, with a cornucopia and a pitcher at her feet, and a stand of trees and a waterfall in the background.

According to the bye-laws of the lodge, it was stated under Rule 17 that “each brother should cause his name and the date of the year of his stewardship to be engraved on the medal”, and that the manner of mounting it shall be at the pleasure of such brother, while Rule 19 stipulated that visitors were only permitted to attend lodge meetings on two nights a year.

This was presumably because the other lodge nights were needed to organise the next Country Feast. In 1792, a lower lodge number became available, and the lodge was renumbered No.449.

The famous Country Stewards Lodge jewel

At the Lodge meeting in June 1792, to standardise their jewels, it was agreed that from then on the Jewels should have one row of green brilliants on the figure side, and one row of white brilliants on the reverse or “name” side.

When a brother left the Lodge, he returned his special jewel to the Treasurer. It was also agreed that the cost of a jewel for a new member should be three guineas including the green collar, to which should be added a further 3/6d for re-engraving the name on the jewel

Although both delighted and proud to wear a distinctive jewel with a green collar, members felt that they were worthy of a further privilege. In November 1795, the Country Stewards petitioned Grand Lodge for the distinction of having a green silk border on their aprons to match their green collars.

The Memorial, or proposition, was read out, and after a debate was duly passed, having received much support from the Lodge of Emulation, a Red Apron lodge into which many Country Stewards had been initiated.

There was also a precedent, for in early 1739 the lodge of Antiquity wore similar green aprons, but that privilege had a very short life, being rescinded a month later. Grand Lodge, however, was now becoming extremely conscientious, and strictly required uniformity of dress. The days when a London tavern could have a sign outside saying “Masons made here for 2/6d” were over.

At that time, Grand Officers wore aprons with blue borders, Grand Stewards red,and other masons white. All was going well for the Country Stewards, until the next meeting of Grand Lodge in February 1796, when the Memorial for the green apron was amazingly non-confirmed.

The entire minutes of that date were passed, with the exception of the part referring to the Country Stewards green aprons. The vote was extremely close, with 46 for and 53 against. Having gained their green aprons, the Country Stewards had lost them at the very next Grand Lodge meeting.

Despite this setback, it was still business as usual, with William White, the Grand Secretary, issuing a summons in June for the Country Stewards of that year to attend him at Freemasons Hall, London, to discuss the arrangements for the impending Country Feast, to be held at Canonbury House, Islington.

Two days later, William White received a letter from the Deputy Grand Master, Sir Peter Parker, affirming that the Country Feast should proceed as normal, but that the Country Stewards should not take the event as an opportunity to discuss their green aprons, as Grand Lodge in general was not in favour of them.

He added that if they were prepared to let the matter rest for a while, the attitude of Grand Lodge might change, and they may have their wish granted at some future date. He also extended his regrets for not being able to attend the forthcoming Country Feast.

In spite of the setback at Grand Lodge, the country feast went ahead as usual, at Canonbury House Islington, and was a resounding success, although the absence of the Deputy Grand Master, Sir Peter Parker, did not bode well for the future.

The date was the 23rd November 1796, the date of the Grand Lodge Quarterly Communications, and time for the Country Stewards to try again. They very unwisely presented their Second Memorial, despite warnings from Grand Lodge not to.

The Country Stewards stated that they felt that their First Memorial had been misunderstood by Grand Lodge, or else rejected from “motives incompatible with the pure and genuine Principles of Freemasonry”. Was jealousy implied?

Bro Richard Brettingham and Bro. George Downing Provincial Grand Master for Essex, tried to highjack the proposal by substituting an amendment to the petition, calling for an adjournment, but the country Stewards had much support, and the amendment was defeated by 12 votes. The Memorial was passed by 73 votes to 53, a majority of 20. They had their Green Aprons back!

The Country Stewards thought that they had won the day. What they didn’t realise that the only reason their Memorial succeeded was because someone at Grand Lodge had lost the official papers

These requested a postponement of the vote until a time when either the Grand Master, The Prince of Wales , The Assistant Grand Master, The Earl of Moira, or the Deputy Grand Master, Sir Peter Parker were present.

The Country Stewards Lodge green apron

History, however, was to repeat itself. Many of the Grand Lodge Officers opposed to the Green Aprons felt that they had one last opportunity to rectify the situation, which was at the next meeting of Grand Lodge.

Bro. Millett, assisted by Bro.Robert Brettingham, the Junior Grand Warden, put forward the proposition to Grand Lodge to non-Confirm that part of the minutes which gave the Country Stewards their Green aprons. The Country Stewards had been out-manouvered in Grand Lodge yet again.

The first reaction was total astonishment. Nobody, apart from the few people in the know, had expected this to happen, and when the realisation finally sunk in, the result was that absolute mayhem broke out in Grand Lodge. A vote was attempted, but there was too much turmoil even for a counting of hands.

A division was then proposed, but even this proved impossible. This left Senior Grand Warden George Porter, the acting Grand Master, no choice but to close Grand Lodge as best he could and adjourn the matter to a future date.

Now is a good time to say a little about the Brethren of the Country Stewards Lodge. It is certain that they felt that their lodge was special, to the extent that they felt superior to other lodges. This showed itself at one of its festive boards when they barred Masons wearing white aprons from attending, thus ensuring that only a select company of Grand Officers could attend.

Many individual members are worth mentioning. The celebrated Chevalier Ruspini, Philanthropist and Treasurer of the Girls School, was a member. Others were attorneys, brokers and wine merchants, and William Hannan, a gentleman of the army whose address was the Savoy, who we must thank for the survival of the Country Stewards lodge furniture.

Also Nathaniel Newhan, Lord Mayor of London, several brethren whose occupation was given as gentleman, Henry Woodthorpe gentleman and Town Clerk of London, various manufacturers of luxury goods, Stephen Clarke, the City Marshal, and even a fireworkmaker in Samuel Clanfield, whose medal is one of the five known to have survived.

The Feasts could well have ended with a fireworks display, which surely could have been no worse than that of our Millennium. These were brethren who were used to getting their way.

Grand Lodge had finally had enough. At the next Quarterly Communications meeting Lord Moira himself took the chair. The question of the green aprons was the main topic of conversation amongst Masons across the country.

The interest in the issue was so great that the attendance at Grand Lodge was swollen to an almost unprecedented degree. There must have been many heated discussions behind the scenes at Grand Lodge.

Lord Moira himself put forward the proposition, seconded by Bro. George Porter, that that part of the minutes relating to the Country Stewards Second Memorial be removed from the Grand Lodge minutes.

Only a very few stalwarts and those with strong hearts were prepared to vote against the Acting Grand Master, and the motion was carried by a landslide 149 votes to 54. The count of the votes left no-one in doubt of the feelings of Grand Lodge.

The Country Stewards were less than pleased. Out of absolute frustration or sheer petulance, two members of the Country Stewards Lodge, John Dowling and James Chapman, without consulting their fellow lodge members, put forward a further totally pointless proposition that as they had lost their Green aprons, they no longer wanted their special jewels with green collars either.

This was also passed in the affirmative. Thus a much valued privilege had been lost for no good reason, but as we shall see only temporarily.

The following week, the Country Stewards appeared to have lost everything. A letter was sent from the Deputy Grand Master, Sir Peter Parker, to William White, the Grand Secretary, with the much understated comment that the Country Stewards had been extremely inconsiderate to pursue their proposal when they did. He added that with patience their wishes might even have been granted.

Although they were not to know it, events were now about to take a darker turn for the Country Stewards. The Grand Secretary, William White, now wrote to Sir Peter Parker, the Deputy Grand Master, advising him that he had spoken to both Lord Moira, the Acting Grand Master, and Mr. Heseltine, the much respected Grand Treasurer and Past Grand Secretary.

He stated that it was their opinion that the Country Feast be omitted for one or two years, to give time for “the most turbulent spirits among the Country Stewards to cool a little”.

William White also asked the Deputy Grand Master to put his reply in a letter he could show to the Country Stewards, to leave them in no doubt as to the seriousness of the situation. He also said that it should be pointed out to the Country Stewards that the Country Feast was in honour of the Deputy Grand Master, and that he had no intention of attending in the forseeable future.

The following week, the Country Stewards were summonsed to see the Grand Secretary who duly showed them the letter. The immediate reaction of the Country Stewards was to call an emergency meeting on June 13th 1797.

Amazingly, a summons for this very special meeting has survived. The outcome of the emergency meeting was that they would write to the Grand Secretary to send a delegation to receive a copy of the Deputy Grand Masters letter for themselves.

Not wishing to meet the delegation, the Grand Secretary wrote to the Country Stewards re-affirming that the Deputy Grand Master was extremely unhappy that a feast held in his honour should cause a disturbance in Grand Lodge, and that no Country Feast should be held until a time when he could attend in person.

True to form, and totally contrary to the wishes of the Deputy Grand Master, the 1797 Country Feast went ahead as usual, again at Canonbury House, Islington.

The Country Stewards must have felt very uncomfortable, as not only did they not have their Green Aprons, but they were also no longer allowed to wear their green collars with their precious jewels.

Notwithstanding the recent occurrences, the event was a resounding success, with subscriptions being taken out for the Female Charity School, the day having been conducted “with Order, Harmony and Friendship”. The reaction of Grand Lodge was there had been no Country Feast.

The months went by, and little was heard from the Country Stewards Lodge. But the problem had not gone away, it was merely simmering. At the Grand Lodge Quarterly Communications meeting in February 1798, A third Memorial or Proposition was presented to Grand Lodge.

The Third Memorial

There must have been many anxious moments in Grand Lodge while they waited for it to be read out. To everyones relief they were not requesting their green aprons yet again, but only requested the return of their special jewels and green collars.

The reason they gave for this was that when the two members asked for the privilege of wearing the jewel to be rescinded, it was without the knowledge or permission of the rest of the Country Stewards lodge.

This third memorial was signed by no less than 17 Country Stewards, including James Chapman, one of the two Country Stewards who had asked for the privilege to be withdrawn in the first case. Grand Lodge could see no problem with this request, and the memorial was duly passed. They might not have permission to wear green aprons, but at least they had their jewels back.

In June 1798, the Master of the Country Stewards Lodge, John Jones, wrote to the Grand secretary with a list of eight names nominated as stewards for the next Country Feast, certainly in the hope that things would return to normal. The Grand Secretary replied a week later, saying that he was at a loss to understand how any Country Stewards could have been nominated, as there had not been a Country Feast at which to nominate them.

He added that the list was obviously for a board of Country Stewards, which was something he was no longer able to sanction. True to form, on the very same day, Joseph Sarjent, Secretary to the board of Stewards, unwisely sent a printed circular to the Grand Secretary enclosing twelve tickets for the next Country Feast. The Grand Secretary must have felt that this was nothing short of an insult, and promptly returned them in disgust.

Greatly troubled, the Grand Secretary wrote to both the Deputy Grand Master and the Grand Treasurer, informing them that yet another unofficial Grand Feast was going ahead. He also said that he had a plan whereby the Country Feasts could continue without disrupting Grand Lodge.

By this time, the Deputy Grand Master had had enough. He informed the Grand Secretary that there should be no more Country Feasts whatever the circumstances, so accordingly no mention of the plan was ever made again.

As belligerent as ever, the Country Stewards held yet another “unofficial“ feast in July 1798, again at Canonbury House Islington. Joseph Sarjent, watchmaker and Secretary of the now unofficial board of Country Stewards, being unable to obtain his own Country Stewards jewel from Grand Lodge, simply made his own himself.

Against all odds, the feast was yet again a resounding success. With much singing, toasting and rejoicing, the meeting, presided over by Edward Dowling, again raised a considerable sum for charity, this time for the Freemasons Charity School.

The Country Feast might have been a success, but privately the Country Stewards must have felt despondent.

Despite this, the Lodge still continued to meet. The Country Feast for 1799 should have taken place on July 5th, the usual date, but the minutes for the 12th July stated that the Country Feast had been re-scheduled for Wednesday August 14th, an unprecedentedly late date.

They obviously had serious problems, as additionally four of the eight stewards elected at the previous feast had changed their minds, and had to be replaced by four of the “regulars”.

The minutes of 12 July also stated that the lodge was closed in good order and harmony, and adjourned until the Country Feast at Canonbury House, Islington, on August 14th.

The minutes had closed on an extremely optimistic note, and they appeared to be looking forward to the future, however no feast was ever held, and after this the pages in the minute book are blank.

There is no doubt that under normal circumstances, the feast would have gone ahead, and would have been another success. But something prevented it from happening, and also prevented the lodge from ever meeting again.

The Country Stewards were looking forward to the Country Feast for 1799, and their last lodge meeting also closed on an extremely optimistic note, but they must have been threatened with expulsion from the craft or some other similar fate, and must finally have realised that they were at last beaten.

When that last meeting was held, the lodge had 40 current members on its books, and during its short but colourful life, 115 people had at one time been members of the lodge, and five people had applied for membership and been rejected. All their names are recorded in the minute book.

However the story continues. A lodge of Faith and Friendship was formed in 1799 in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, and to commemorate the occasion commissioned a magnificent oil painting.

What they didn’t realise was that due to the assemblies act, no new lodges were allowed to be formed. They could, however, purchase a dormant warrant from a lodge which had closed.

To comply with the law, the illegal new lodge had to be dissolved and treated as though it had never existed, an embarrassment as they had made several initiates. The Royal Lodge of Faith and Friendship No. 270 was then formed using the Country Stewards warrant.

Berkeley was extremely isolated, and to aid the brethren, it was decided to hold lodge meetings on the Monday nearest the full moon, so that brethren who had come by horseback, or coach and horses, could find their way home by moonlight.

There must have been many occasions prior to that when a brother, perhaps after a glass of wine too many, found himself in dense woodland in the dark, completely lost, and no idea which way home was.

One of its first members was Bro. Edward Jenner, who discovered vaccination, and used to give medical lectures, open to all, prior to every lodge meeting. The lodge still meets to this day in Berkeley, Gloucestershire.

Documents are reproduced by kind permission of The Library and Museum, Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AZ