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The Masonic Benefit Society



A victim of its own success

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From the earliest days of operative Masonry, there has been a tradition of "looking after one's own". Operative masons who had fallen upon hard times could doubtless call upon their better off colleagues for assistance in a brotherly spirit to help tide them over until their circumstances had improved, and Freemasons were no different.

Although an integral part of a Freemason’s life, the first serious attempt to organise a charitable institution for all masons, on a formal basis, began with the establishment of the Masonic Benefit Society in 1799.Founded with the approbation of the Premier Grand Lodge or Moderns, it was first introduced by Lord Moira in the Grand Lodge Proceedings of April 10th 1799, and for the first time its story can now be told.

The idea was that, for a small quarterly contribution, "a Member would be entitled to a weekly allowance in case of sickness or a disability of labour, of a scale of greater advantage than attends other benefit societies”.

This also included doctors fees and the cost of hospitalisation if necessary. Allowances would also be given to widows and orphaned children of Freemasons. It was also hoped that the Society would take much of the strain off Grand Charity.

There was a further Grand Lodge announcement, on April 9th 1800, when it was recommended that Provincial Grand Masters should give every aid and assistance to promote the object and intentions of the Society.

Its importance as an institution was evident when it received the patronage of the Grand Master, George, Prince of Wales, who was later to become King George 1V.

The Annual subscription was One Guinea (a large sum of money in those days), which could be paid quarterly, and for this a member could also expect to receive financial relief if he fell upon hard times.

Due to the uncertainty of life in those days, with Britain at war with the French, and many Lodges being composed solely of military personnel, it was decided that the money raised for the society by subscription would be supplemented by fund raising events.

Almost certainly the person most active in raising this extra income for the society was a Freemason called John Astley, who was an Antient or Athol Freemason. The Masonic Benefits Society had won the support of members of both Grand Lodges.

John Conway Philip Astley was initiated into the Lodge of Temperance No. 225 (now 169), an Antients Lodge, in 1787, just three years after the lodge was founded.

John Astley's Royal Grove Circus

He was the proprietor of Astleys "Royal Grove Circus", and must have enjoyed his Freemasonry immensely, as in the same year as his initiation, on October 10th, he founded another lodge, which was named after his business.

It was called the Royal Grove Lodge No, 240, and was an Antients lodge. John Astley, its first Senior Warden, was to become Master of the lodge the following year.

Amongst its first guests were the Antient Deputy Grand Master Laurence Dermott, in his final year in that office, and the Antient Grand Senior Warden, Thomas Harper. The lodge operated until 1836, when it was removed from the roll.

Thomas Harper was to be expelled from the Premier Grand Lodge of England on the 9th February 1803 for his connections with Antient or Athol Freemasonry, although events were to turn full circle, as it was mainly due to his efforts that the two Grand Lodges were re-united in 1813 as the United Grand Lodge of England.

Astleys Royal Grove Circus, specialising in equestrian skills but also having a band and comic acts, was an institution both in London and Dublin. It performed at Astleys Amphitheatre in Lambeth, London, and Astleys Theatre in Dublin respectively.

His charitable achievements were evident from his first year as a Freemason, where he held performances on behalf of the Masonic Orphan School of Ireland.

After the formation in 1799 of the Masonic Benefit Society, charitable evenings were held at Astley's Circus in Lambeth, to raise funds for the society, and these events were extremely successful.

The Scientific Pig "strutting its stuff" in front of an audience 

One of his acts was a scientific pig, who could read minds (in the case of ladies with their permission only), spell, read handwriting, and tell the time from any person's watch in the audience. After the pig’s death, its owner was consigned to a lunatic asylum in Edinburgh.

The performers included a horse-rider called Samson, who could play the flute while riding two horses at once without reigns, and Billy the Learned Horse, who could count numbers, ungirth his own saddle, take a kettle of boiling water off the fire, and act as a waiter at tea parties. Billy was eventually brought up on charges of witchcraft, which were thankfully dismissed.

Life did not go smoothly for Billy, however. When a rival circus owner was on the point of going bankrupt, John Astley’s father Phillip, out of generosity, lent Billy to him to help ht to earn money.. However his business failed and Billy was soon removed by the bailiffs, and could not be found, no matter how hard everyone at Astleys looked for him,

Two years later, while passing a tavern in the East End of London, two of Astleys Circus employees saw a familiar looking horse with a cart in an alleyway by an inn, and one said to the other “That’s our Billy”. He started to count numbers, and Billy immediately responded by counting with his hoofs.

They entered and found Billy’s new owner who was having a drink, and professed that he taw totally puzzled by Billy, who would not take normal commands. They bought him on the spot, and he was returned to the Astleys who were delighted to see their old friend again. Billy was then put out to pasture and spoiled for the remainder of his life, receiving tow loaves of bread a day, and as much hay as he could eat, for the remainder of his life.

The Masonic Benefit Society award medal, presented to John Astley

John Astley was honoured by the Masonic Benefits Society by being awarded a magnificent silver medal in recognition of his fundraising achievements. The medal has amazingly survived, and is the only medal known to have been granted by the institution.

Everything went well for the Masonic Benefit Society until the early 1820's, even with the added cost of having its membership drawn from the whole of England .

It became a nightmare of administration, and led to subscriptions being raised, causing the resignations of many members. Things eventually came to a head early in 1827, when it was found that the number of widows claiming on the society was greater than the membership!

Benefits were accordingly reduced, and at a special meeting at Freemasons Tavern, London, on the 29th October 1827, it was resolved to purchase the interests of all the widows according to a scale of charges based on age, etc. The widows accepted the resolution, and everything was settled by January 1828. The situation then started to improve,

8 with an increase in subscribers. The resignation of several disreputable Freemasons due to a tightening up of the rules of Freemasonry by Grand Lodge also helped the situation.

The Patron by this time was none other than the Grand Master himself, HRH The Duke of Sussex. The society had four trustees, a Treasurer and a Secretary, and was funded by £3000 capital, at 3% consolidated interest, to be used solely for the benefit of the society.

On the 26th October 1829, the articles of the society were revised, with membership restricted to applicants under the age of 40 who were in good health and not in hazardous occupations. The annual subscription was increased to two guineas, with an additional one guinea admission fee. Lateness in paying subscriptions would incur a fine of 2/6d. In case of sickness, a member could expect an allowance of One Pound per week, as long as it was not occasioned by immoral conduct.

Most members were by this time drawn from the London area, but members also came from as far afield as Ilfracombe, North Shields, Durham, Somerset and Dorset, On the list of members for this time, there was a note stating that "Those members who are scratched out are dead".

A year or two later, the Society was dissolved. The reason- it was calculated that if everyone claimed at the same time, they could not possibly afford to pay. By this time, the new Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution, founded in 1830, was doing much of the Masonic Benefit Society's charitable work, and accordingly no Freemason was left in need.