I went to university in Canada. There I joined, or rather was invited to join a fraternity. Fraternities were an American university invention but had seeped over the border to root in the learning fields of its biggest cross border neighbour, Canada.
But always perverse, I joined the only brotherhood which did not have an American affiliate. The brothers Pi, as we affectionately nicknamed it, or Phi Kappa Pi to give it its proper title was supposed to be a secret society. But we kidded ourselves. It was a drinking and partying group with a little bit of ceremony thrown in.
In order to recognise another member, there was a secret handshake. I never understood that. You could shake hands that way with people you knew, but groping around a strangers mit with your little finger to see if he was a Brother Pi was ridiculous.
The only distinctive greeting that I recall, and that one was a joke was in the Agriculture Faculty. One Aggie recognised another, it was said by offering clasped hands with the thumbs pointed down,which the other Aggie would stroke as if milking a cow!
Now that did take some duplicating.
Oddly, these organisations were sneered at by many students just as the Masonic movement is today.
Mention secret handshakes in dozens of countries around the world and the name ‘Mason’ immediately springs to the lips. Those who aren’t Masons giggle a little and start joking about pulling on the trouser leg. ‘And you do the Hokey Kokey.
But Masons are the biggest fraternity the world has ever known, or likely to know.
They perform major charitable undertakings, look after the lame, the sick and the elderly not only among their own membership, but outside as well. My own grandfather was privately educated by Masons because his father died at an early age.
So why, like Brexit does Freemasonry raise so much emotion whenever it enters a conversation?
Let’s come back to that question in a moment after digging into the Masonic Hall on Lewes High Street. It’s a rather severe looking yellow brick building at the bottleneck which was built in 1868.
It stands on the site of a previous Masonic Hall dating back to 1797. But a Masons Lodge existed in Lewes long before that.
The initial Lodge was formed by High Street shopkeepers, hence the tradition that the local Lodge meets on Wednesday. Before they had a permanent headquarters, meetings in the 17th century were held in Lewes Castle and a Jolly Roger flag flew while they were sitting. The flag still exists but when it started to fray around the edges, was retired in 1956.
The post meeting dinner, known as the Festive Feast was held at The Bear Inn and today at the White Hart.
But pass through the doors and there’s the rich reflection of how long the Masons have been going. There are dark wood tables and chairs, fine woven tapestry, objets d’art and special symbolism peculiar to the Pelham Lodge, which is the home lodge in Lewes. There is a pecking order for the seating in the Temple, the room in which meetings are held, a section for visiting Masons and particular places for the organisation’s officers.
Pride of place in the middle of the floor is a model of a medieval crane, showing how a chunk of rock was carved into a beautiful piece of stone. The simple crane like implement demonstrates how it was moved into place as monumental structures such as the grand European cathedrals, were raised, by of course stone masons.
The first mention of a masons organisation is in the Old Testament but legend has it that King Athelstan embraced a form of Masonic brotherhood in 927. It was originally a form of trades union, ensuring that the stone mason foreman handed out work not only to skilled stone workers but to members of the “association”.
These workers were not ungenerous with the money they made and a strong tradition of charitable works was established.
That custom remains to the present day and in the United States it’s estimated 2 million dollars is disbursed every day on Masonic good works.
The movement spread from England across Europe and America like wildfire, with luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin and President George Washington among its members. Tom Paine however was not among them.
In Britain, royalty were the gilded members from The Prince Regent down to George VI who reluctantly had to cease his leading Masonic role when brother Edward abdicated.
Secrecy in its rules, ceremonies and beliefs clashed with organised religion and raised enmities. However the use of signs and handshakes were a means of identification, and were entirely practical.
Early stone masons had to move from job to job, much like present day construction workers. But generally in those far off days, people didn’t move away very far from their villages.
Most people were illiterate, so the need to prove that they were qualified workers in a strange town required signs and symbols, not written documents.
Such behaviour worried the established church and the Pope banned the masons in 1793, yet many historians believe that it was attempts to stop Protestant’s and Catholics knocking the stuffing out of each other during the 17th century which boosted the popularity of the group. The ban has since been revoked.
Religion is in fact one of two topics barred from discussion at meetings, the other being politics.
In the UK, royalty has continued to embraced the Masonic creed and today Prince Michael of Kent is the Grand Master and has been for well over fifty years.
That brings us to Masonic activity in Lewes where the Lodge has always been supported by the great and the good. In the early part of the 19th century, the UK Grand Master was Prince Augustus Frederick, otherwise known as the Duke of Sussex. So the links are strong.
The Pelhams were noted Masons and Lord Pelham officiated at the opening of the present Lewes Hall in 1868 .
Long running Lewes MP Tufton Beamish was the foremost driver in the 20th Century.
Modern Masons make much of the fact that the organisation’s secret nature has changed considerably and the ornate inside of the Lewes Temple is there for all to see.
That doesn’t stop some of the local critics giving vent to savage attacks on the Internet forums. Distaste among the chattering classes for Masonic activities is very evident, but as was the case 300 years ago, the heckling is based on little evidence and much hearsay.
Nor does it reflect the waiting lists that lodge masters say are long and many, or the huge donations the Order makes to charity.
But the Lewes building does have a secret and a very historic one.
The original building, the site on which today’s Hall is built, was constructed on part of the old town wall.
In the basement is a solid section of the medieval barricade which disappears into the building’s foundations, is connected to an extant section of wall across the High Street, continuing on through houses and gardens down Keere Street, which is famous for the daredevil ride of the Prince Regent on a coach and four.
The internal workings of the Lewes Masonic Lodge, called The Pelham Lodge are far from secret. Guests are welcomed. But the set up and ritual that exists in Pelham Lodge, which is a ‘craft’ Lodge, means their are three levels of membership called degrees. The structure of masonry is very complex and not to be detailed in this article.
But the Sussex Masons keep the tradition of raising money for good works for voluntary public services such as healthy donations to the air ambulance, Hospices and cancer support charities.
Instructed to write something by Town and County’s awesome Editor Sean Kane, I turned up at the High Street Lodge with a certain amount of nerves showing. To my relief the Mason who was to show me around turned out to be a good friend, Kevin Griffin.
Even so, after all I’d heard about the Masons, perhaps discretion should be the better part of valour. So I would test my fraternity handshake.
I grabbed Kevin’s hand and started pumping it, my little finger groping his palm.
He grinned and said “Get in there you daft so and so.”
I did and entered an exciting world without a single secret sign being evident.
“Damn silly rumours,” I thought to myself. “Whatever was I thinking of?