The Origins of the United Grand Lodge of England
Just over two hundred years ago, the two rival Grand Lodges came together to form the United Grand Lodge of England.
The Moderns Grand Lodge had been formed in 1717 by four London lodges, but by 1739 they were listing 175 lodges. However, this growing popularity also encouraged the formation of irregular lodges, and the publication of ‘Exposures’ that claimed to reveal Freemasonry’s secrets. So, to prevent irregular, or even non-masons, gaining admittance to their lodges the Moderns made a number of changes to their workings.
These changes upset many more traditional Masons; the situation not helped by many leading London Masons being aristocrats or intellectuals, who saw their lodges as just exclusive dining clubs. In the 1740s popular interest in Freemasonry waned; and with a Grand Lodge showing little or no leadership, Freemasonry went into a decline.
However, in 1751 the formation of a rival Grand Lodge re-vitalised Freemasonry, and assured its future. The founders came from amongst the many itinerant workers seeking employment in Georgian London. Many were artisans and tradesmen from Ireland; some of whom had been initiated in Irish lodges, but found themselves unable to join or form Moderns lodges in London. Their low social standing was certainly one reason for this; but they also wanted to continue practicing the Irish ritual forms, which were akin to the English workings prior to the Moderns changes.
In July 1751 it was a group predominantly of such unattached Irish Masons, who gathered at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London’s Soho to form the Antients Grand Lodge; with the stated aim of reviving the ‘Ancient Craft’. Shortly afterwards Laurence Dermott became their Grand Secretary; he was a man of many talents and strong convictions, and under his leadership the Antients flourished.
The Antients brought to Freemasonry many good men; predominantly artisans, tradesmen, and minor professionals. These were practical men who not only wanted to be part of a venerable institution, but also to have a say in its governance. The Antients were particularly successful in London and the new manufacturing towns: they also had many military lodges, and these helped to carry English Freemasonry to such distant parts as North America, the West Indies and India.
As to ritual; whilst both Grand Lodges recognised the three Craft Degrees, they did favour different practices and workings; and an Antients warrant, unlike one from the Moderns, also entitled their lodges to work the Royal Arch as a 4th Degree. Many Antients Lodges would also work the new Christian orders, such as Knights Templar.
Despite these differences by the early 19th century fraternisation between the rivals was increasing, and many senior Masons were working for a union. There were still major obstacles to overcome, but ways over or around these were found: and in December 1813 the two rivals finally came together to form as a United Grand Lodge, the Antients having 260 active lodges, the Moderns 386. Looking back now it is easy forget how big a change this was; and the debt we owe to the first Grand Master, the Duke of Sussex, for his firm leadership. This Antient Grand Lodge was also informally called the Atholl Grand Lodge because the Third and Fourth Dukes of Atholl presided over it as Grand Masters for half of its 62-year existence.
One of the earliest of these Antient Lodges was Lodge No39 meeting in Manchester and the Rules and Orders drawn and written by Laurence Dermott can be viewed elsewhere on this website. In the Union of 1813 the Lodge was re-numbered to No59 and the name Lodge of Friendship was adopted. It changed again to 52 in 1835 and with the renumbering of 1863 it received its present number of 44.