It is perhaps telling that the Freemasons United Grand Lodge of England offers a small leaflet entitled "Your Questions Answered" to new visitors, providing explanations to queries such as "Why are you a secret society?", "Aren't you a religion?" and "Why do your 'obligations' contain hideous penalties?" This secular fraternity clearly has a reputation to live down. And at over three hundred years old, the close organisation can claim as its members some of the most powerful men in history, including fourteen US presidents, prompting speculation as to the exact extent of its power and, inevitably, numerous conspiracy theories - that they covered up for Jack the Ripper, faked the moon landings and had intimate connections with the KKK. But theories and accusations aside, it is interesting to see how much actual truth can be gained from an open tour of their grade II listed London Lodge, the centre of English Freemasonry for 230 years, along with a small museum of Masonic artefacts, and to observe how much the Freemasons are willing to reveal of their deeply symbolic and ritualistic activities.
The guided tour of the 1930s United Grand Lodge certainly does not disappoint expectations, showing all the signs of an extremely wealthy and well-connected fraternity in spectacular grandeur. Looking initially like a rather regular town hall, the guide leads on into more elaborate and symbolic rooms finished in marble and mosaic, with one corridor panelled in Tasmanian Blackwood, from a now-decimated Australian forest. Given that the tour is conducted by a Freemason, there is a bombardment of information about names and history, with continual mention of standards, 'grand masters' and rituals that can be overwhelming to anyone who has no extensive previous knowledge of the organisation and its workings. But this element of confusion aptly sets the scene for the apparent strangeness of the Lodge's elaborate features, which include a huge ceremonial throne made out of gilded Lime wood, created for the 'unique' physique of the Grand Master Prince of Wales, later King George IV, that would dwarf the average person.
Grand and expensive hallways and meeting rooms build to the tour's impressive conclusion in the form of the Masonic Grand Temple. Surrounded on three sides by a courtyard to deter eavesdropping, and entered through two five-and-a-half metre tall single-cast bronze doors, carved with scenes of the building of the temple of Solomon, the tour climaxes in a spectacular mosaic of over 1.5 million tiles, that took two Italians two years to directly a fix to the ceiling. Images of angels, eyes, the sun and moon all stare down from sixty feet above. It is hard not to be impressed with the sheer scale and splendour of this building which is, if anything, a clear indicator the the fraternity's collective wealth. But the repetitive symbols and signs, names and titles, and the hall that borders on religious place of worship, are strange - and bordering on ceremonious hyperbole to an outsider.
And this is a strangeness that is confirmed by the Lodge's library museum. Displaying only a small part of the Freemason's large collection of artefacts, two rooms of cabinets are crammed full with an impressive array of craftsmanship including handmade Freemason badges (called 'Jewels'), silver, china, clockwork and, of course, many elaborately embroidered aprons. The same symbols that can be seen throughout the Lodge building - the eye, hearts, coffins and angels - are in abundance, sculpted, sewn and painted onto every surface. Again, very little is done to fully explain the meaning behind these ceremonious items, and although the objects on display are often very beautiful, their full symbolism remains rather elusive.
The exhibition is undoubtedly intriguing, however, with the most interesting curiosities being a bread roll converted into a silver inkwell, owned by Henry Sadler and taken from his initiation feast as master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, and a nineteenth century satin birch desk, complete with secret compartments and masonic inscriptions. Inside this desk is a peculiar model of the tabernacle in the desert, as described in various books of the old testament, along with a mathematical table with a series of numbers forming some sort of pattern, that has yet to be made complete sense of by researchers.
A visit to the Freemason Library and Museum is not going to reveal any inner secrets, nor will it provide an exposé of accusations that have been levelled at the close-knit fraternity over the centuries, making it such a fascinating organisation, but it will certainly come through with plenty of vaguely veiled signs, symbols and rituals to entertain the imagination.