300 years of heritage on display at Reading Museum

2017 marks the official 300th birthday, or tercentenary, of Freemasonry, celebrating how three hundred years ago, on 24th June 1717, the first Grand Lodge was formed. Freemasons have been a part of the community in Berkshire since at least 1724 and a display of Masonic artefacts spanning 300 years was formally opened by Martin Peters, the Provincial Grand Master for Berkshire on 13th February and will be on display to the general public in Reading Museum, Blagrave Street, Reading, RG1 1QH from 14th February to 27th May 2017.

Robin Kent, Provincial Communications Officer, made a guest appearance on BBC Radio Berkshire to publicise the exhibit. Click to listen to the interview.

Martin Peters, the Provincial Grand Master for Berkshire, addressed those gathered for the formal opening as follows:

Lord Lieutenant, Ladies and Gentlemen. Good evening and welcome to you all.  I am Martin Peters, the Provincial Grand Master for Berkshire and it is my very pleasant duty to welcome you all the opening of this exhibition which forms part of a national programme of events to celebrate the Tercentenary of the founding of the first Grand Lodge in the world in 1717.  I am particularly delighted to welcome The Lord Lieutenant for the Royal County of Berkshire Mr James Puxley, the High Sheriff of Berkshire Mrs Victoria Fishburn, the Mayor of Reading Councillor Ayab, The Mayor of Wokingham Councillor Pitts, the Mayor of Slough Councillor Dhaliwal, and our Pro Grand Master, MW Bro Peter Lowndes. I am so pleased that you and other important guests can be with us this evening.

Freemasonry actually goes back long before 1717. There are frequent references to it in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds and the first documented reference to an Initiation appears 1646 when Elias Ashmole, the famous antiquarian after whom the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is named, recorded in his diary that on the 16th of October 1646 he was made a Freemason in a lodge in Warrington.  But it was on the 24th June 1717 that four of the many lodges in existence at that time met at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard in London and constituted themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected the first Grand Master. By the end of that century, there were two Grand Lodges, each headed by sons of King George III who helped bring those two Grand Lodges together in 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England of which the current Grand Master is His Royal Highness The Duke of Kent will celebrate 50 years as our Most Worshipful Grand Master in June. The executive head of our organisation is the Pro Grand Master Most Worshipful Brother Peter Lowndes, who I have already had the pleasure of welcoming and who is well known to some of you having lived in Berkshire until recently.

Since the first lodge was formed in Reading in 1724 Freemasonry in Berkshire has grown very considerably. When I became Provincial Grand Master in 2011 we had 93 lodges.  Today we have 96 lodges and two more are being formed this year. It is possible that current discussion may result in two more lodges being formed before too long, taking the total to 100. The fact that we are growing enables us to deliver our mission which is to ensure that the Brethren of Berkshire enjoy their Freemasonry so that we grow our organisation and increase our contribution to the Berkshire Community. And we certainly have been increasing our contribution to the community. The most visible aspect of that contribution comes in the form of financial charitable support which we provide at three levels – National, County (or Provincial as we call it) and Lodge level.

At the national level the Masonic Charitable Foundation makes annual grants of several million pounds and Berkshire has frequently benefitted from these grants, the latest of which was a cheque I presented just over a week ago to Autism Berkshire for nearly £5,000 to help fund their family support activities. This summer the Masonic Charitable Foundation will be giving £58,000 to six Berkshire charities as part of their Communities Award Programme to mark our Tercentenary and I have recently been informed that the Masonic Charitable Foundation will soon be announcing a grant of £240,000 to a charity which is based in Berkshire to help disadvantaged children.

At the Provincial level – and incidentally the Province of Berkshire follows the old county boundary of Berkshire so it includes some areas now administered by Oxfordshire and excludes some areas previously administered by Buckinghamshire – we set up the Berkshire Masonic Charity to make grants to a wide variety of good caused in Berkshire. When I became Provincial Grand Master in 2011 I launched a five year appeal to raise half a million pounds to add to the capital base of the fund so that we could increase the level of grants we make to the community. Due to the generosity of my members – and we raise funds only from our members and not from public collections – we raised that £500,000 in four years. The income generated by the invested funds has enabled us to contribute over a million pounds to a very wide range of Berkshire good causes, including the Thames Valley Air Ambulance, schools, hospital, churches, local charities and individuals.

At the lodge level, individual lodges raise funds for charities either because of the special appeal of a particular charity or because members, family or friends have been touched by that charity. Last year Berkshire lodges donated nearly £100,000 including over £8,000 for Christmas gifts for children supported by Reading Family Aid or children spending Christmas on one of the three children’s wards in the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

In addition to our financial contributions, we also give of our time and expertise. To mark our Tercentenary I have challenged each lodge to deliver 300 hours of community support to individuals or organisations in Berkshire. Some exciting and innovative projects are underway and I fully expect our target of nearly 30,000 hours of community support to be achieved.

But Freemasonry is not a charity. It goes much deeper than that. When I am asked “What is Freemasonry?” I reply that Freemasonry is a journey of personal development and self-understanding, during which you will make lifelong friendships and have life changing experiences. And it is this aspect of Freemasonry that really does make good men better by developing awareness in individuals for such values as thoughtfulness for others, tolerance and integrity. That, as much as anything underlines our contribution to society in a world which sometimes appears to have lost sight of these values. This is one of the reasons why I believe Freemasonry is more relevant in the world today than it has ever been during the three hundred years of the history we are celebrating this year.

Before declaring the exhibition open, I should like to thank a number of people who have made this exhibition possible, namely W Bro His Honour Judge Simon Oliver whose brainchild it was, Brendan Carr, the Community Engagement Curator of Reading Museum for managing the project, Diane Clements and Mark Dennis from our Library and Museum in Freemasons’ Hall London (incidentally Mark will be giving a public talk here on Saturday 29th April), Roger Coles Curator of the Berkshire Library and Museum of Freemasonry, the staff at Reading Museum, Catherine Roberts for making the display, and finally our Provincial Communication team and those who have been involved with the production namely Russell Alsop, Jamie Read, Roger Werrett, Philip Wharton and Nigel White. I am indebted to all of them and many others who have been involved for their contributions to this exhibition which I would now like to formally open.

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