Freemasonry is an international fraternal organisation. It emphasises ritual and supports charity and community service.
The origins of the movement were the medieval lodges of British stonemasons, builders of cathedrals and castles. Lodges had been established to protect the secret skills of their trade. By the 18th century the lodges had lost their occupational role, and freemasonry spread among the middle-class men of the UK and Europe. By 1726 grand lodges had been established in England, Scotland and Ireland.
New Zealand beginnings
The first New Zealand Masonic meeting was in 1837 at Port Levy, Banks Peninsula, with a gathering of French masons on board the whaling ship Le Comte de Paris.
The first lodge was the New Zealand Pacific, under the English constitution, which met in Wellington in November 1842. The next year saw the inaugural meeting of the Ara Lodge in Auckland, under the Irish constitution. By 1861 Masonic lodges had opened in all the main ports, and Dunedin hosted the first lodge under the Scottish constitution. Most early members had been Masons in the UK, but membership spread steadily. By 1890 there were 151 lodges, and a movement emerged to create a New Zealand Grand Lodge. It was only partially successful, with 65 lodges joining. In 2016 there were over 230 active lodges and over 8,500 members.
The ancient stonemasons’ tools, the square and the compass, are the most important Masonic symbols. The square is said to remind members to behave properly, so that all conduct is ‘square’; the compass teaches them to keep their passions and prejudices within bounds.
Ceremony, symbolism and regalia were central to Masonic meetings. The members dressed up in formal clothes, with each rank marked by distinct aprons, gauntlets, chain collars and finely decorated ‘jewels’.
The initiation of new members and the installation of officers involved complex ceremonies. Initially meetings were often held in hotels, but most lodges built their own halls where their symbols could be displayed. The ritual and the signs and passwords exchanged between members were secret.
In 1876 the District Grand Master of the North Island, Sir Donald McLean, wore an ‘apron ornamented with the blazing sun embroidered in gold in the centre, on the edging the pomegranate and lotus with the seven-eared wheat at each corner, and also on the fall; all in gold embroidery; the fringe of gold bullion.’1
Following the formal monthly meetings, Masons would share a drink and a meal. Socialising was part of the attraction. There was frequently music and singing. There were also other social gatherings such as balls, ladies’ nights, Christmas parties, picnics, indoor bowls and banquets. In the 19th century Masons also took part in public ceremonies, such as the laying of foundation stones, parading in all their finery.
Freemasonry was never a benefit society, but it provided support to members in distress and assisted members’ widows and children. The movement also provided charity for the wider society. It had particular interests in the aged, youth and medical research.
In this poem a Mason’s wife complains about the complicated regalia she had to help her husband dress in:
Many years have hurried past
since he first joined the Craft,
I used to help with stiff front shirts
and know that I was daft
To crawl about on hands and knees
to find the stud he’d lost,
He could have bought some extra ones
for very little cost.2
Masons believed in one supreme being, but within this they claimed to welcome all Christian denominations. There was, however, a long history of mutual antagonism between Masons and Catholics.
Masons were exclusively a brotherhood. Although they held ladies’ nights and family picnics, and from 1964 some lodges admitted women into their refectories, Masons argued that to admit women would challenge the international principles of the movement.
Freemasonry grew until the 1960s. Then it declined, as the existing membership aged and younger men found alternative forms of entertainment and activities involving their spouses.
There were several other societies closely modelled on the Masons.
- The Loyal Orange Order emerged in Ireland to represent Protestant political interests. Soldiers and settlers from Northern Ireland brought the order to New Zealand in the 1840s, with the first lodge in Auckland in 1842. Along with its fraternal role and its Masonic ritualism, the order was a vigilant defender of British Protestantism. It regularly held celebrations, and occasionally parades, on the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne, and Guy Fawkes Day. There were about 5,000 members by the mid-1880s, but supporters declined after the Second World War, leaving only the many Orange halls.
- The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes was initially started in England by members of the theatre profession, and spread to New Zealand in the 1920s.
- The Savage Club, founded in London by journalists and artists, was established in Invercargill in 1885 and spread around New Zealand. The club provided members with the opportunity to perform on stage, with regular evenings of singing, musical items and recitations. In New Zealand members adopted a quasi-Māori ritual. Their leaders were called ‘rangatira’ and ‘ariki’. Members dressed up in piupiu (flax kilts) and carried plastic mere (clubs).