Freemasons have historically stayed behind closed doors, but reporter KAY TAYLOR was invited to Leyland’s Masonic Hall to find out why that is all about to change
Secret handshakes, historic rituals and undercover meetings have always been associated with freemasons - but that’s all about to change.
In a modern world of the internet and social media, members are realising that they need to become more involved in the community if they want their 200-year-old traditions to survive.
They’re finally ready to answer questions about the organisation and give an insight into what it means to be a freemason, promoting the notion that ‘it makes good men better’.
And people are certainly interested.
A website launched for the Leyland group gets around 12,000 new users visiting it each month, and members even took part in this year’s Leyland Festival to meet the public.
Mark Holloway has been assigned as a publicity and communications officer for the Province of West Lancashire, and is helping with the campaign to spark more interest in the organisation.
“We are trying to change people’s views,” he said. “Members have been encouraged for years not to talk about freemasonry, so it’s hard to get the message across to some people.
“But most understand that if we continue to bury our heads in the sand, we’re going to become extinct and freemasons won’t have a future.”
Leyland’s Masonic Hall is based at Wellington Park off Church Road, and Chorley groups meet at Cunliffe Hall in Cunliffe Street.
Most freemasons still meet in their own buildings, but some meet in public halls and schools.
Freemasonry has existed in Chorley since 1788, when meetings took place at the Swan with Two Necks.
Some years later, when a few more lodges had established in the borough, meetings were held at the Town Hall, before Cunliffe Hall opened in 1971.
The Leyland group was first launched in 1890, when members met at the old Fox Lane school.
In 1900, the old public hall was built in Towngate, which the freemasons were involved in, so they incorporated a lodge room and a private members’ club with a bar, where they would meet in isolation.
They moved to Wellington Park in 1989, and for the past few years have been marketing the building for public use, such as weddings and conferences.
Ray said: “I want this building to become a community centre. The more community use it has, the better for everyone.”
The reason members are so keen to open up their halls’ doors is to ensure the organisation has a future.
Mark explained: “We have a duty to history.
“We’ve inherited something which is 200 years old, maybe even older, and we want it to still be here in another 100 years or so.
“To do that though, we need something which is profitable and viable.”
Freemasonry is still a popular past time, with Chorley boasting 650 members on its list, and Leyland having 450.
Membership has declined over the years, but with masons wanting to engage more in the community, they aim to attract new recruits.
Freemasons were once actively involved in society, and membership flourished after the First World War when men returned home and missed the camaraderie.
But when Hitler started treating freemasons in the same way he discriminated against Jews, sending them to concentration camps, members quickly shut themselves behind closed doors, and the attitudes of ‘keeping quiet’ were bedded in.
“People understandably stopped saying they were freemasons,” Mark said.
“But they’ve now made a conscious decision in London to answer people’s questions about freemasonry and be proud.
“To some people, freemasonry is a hobby, but for others, it’s a way of life.”
Stewart said: “We bit the bullet this year by getting involved in the Leyland Festival. A lot of people came to our stall to ask about freemasonry and we talked about how we can help with charity donations.
“We’ve got to adapt and change our attitudes and perceptions. Freemasons are becoming enlightened again.”
- For the complete version of this special feature, see this week’s Guardian.