Secret Men’s Business

A fortnight ago, as part of Brisbane’s Open House weekend, I visited the Masonic Memorial Temple in central Brisbane, which was open to the public that day.  When I visited early on Saturday, the place was packed with visitors, and the freemasons had gone to a lot of trouble, with dozens of men available to answer questions, direct traffic, hand out sample bags, do a bit of discreet recruiting, and generally be accessible to the public gaze. They did a good job, and I thank them for it.


Yet despite their obvious respectability, all of them smartly dressed in suits on a very hot day, they probably know in their heart of hearts that most of the people were there because they’ve read Dan Brown.  Which is rather a shame.  (The greatest mystery I have encountered so far is how to get the Freemasons Queensland website to work properly, at least in Safari.)

The Masonic Temple isn’t all that old.  It was designed in the early 1920s,.  I was told by one of the suited men that it is one of only 2 ‘memorial temples’ in the world.  From its inception, it was closely linked to the memory of World War I: it is just next door to Anzac Square and the Flame of Remembrance, and the foundation stone was laid on ANZAC Day, 1929. The imperial theme is strong.  The Governor of Queensland, ‘His Excellency Bro Sir John Goodwin’, opened the building in December 1930.

Both the building’s prominent position, across from Central Station and near Anzac Square, and the role of the Governor, represent freemasonry at its most prosperous, very much part of the establishment. The freemasons are generous philanthropists, with an emphasis that seems appropriate on aged care and geriatric medicine.

I tend to think of freemasonry as having passed its peak many years ago, so I was surprised to see a number of men in their twenties among the guides, one with a diamond stud in his ear.  Do they join these days through family connections? Does freemasonry still offer networking opportunities for businessmen?

freemason apronsAs I wandered the rooms with their arcane decorations, looked at old photos of bearded men dressed in their regalia, listened to the enthusiastic talk of brotherhood and male bonding, and tried to make sense of the different symbols associated with the different Masonic rights – greens, tartans, and so on – I had a Eureka moment.  Despite their self-evident respectability, there is something about the Masons that is not a million miles away from another form of secret men’s business – the bikies!

The Queensland Government is currently whipping up a full-blown moral panic regarding bikies, passing (at 3am) the weirdly named Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill (2013) [VLAD] – which will undoubtedly be challenged in the High Court. Now it’s true, many bikies are thoroughly unpleasant people, as well as having too many tattoos and not enough teeth, but when you start to look more closely at the parallels with freemasonry, the comparisons are intriguing – even to their ageing demographic.

Freemasonry may now be a respectable and slightly daft organization, but Masons were once seen as a threat to governments, and according to some conspiracy groups, they still are.  Here we have another hierarchical, international society based on male bonding, with secret ceremonies, special badges and regalia, with an emphasis on brotherhood and the exclusion of women.  As far as I know though, the Masons don’t deal drugs, and are more often seen on golf carts than motorbikes.

My visit to the Masonic Temple whetted my appetite for more information. Because of its secret nature, the history of freemasonry is hard to disentangle.  I went first to Jasper Ridley, The Freemasons: A History of the World’s Most Powerful Secret Society (2002) for an overview, but I got lost in the tangle of Rites.  The take-away message seems to be: if the Rite has ‘Ancient’ in its title, it is almost certainly not as old as one that doesn’t.

By the time New South Wales was founded in 1788, freemasonry was well established in Britain.  It was popular in the army and in the East India Company, both of which influenced early New South Wales.  On the one hand, freemasonry was a respectable, even aristocratic pursuit; on the other, it was linked to revolutions – amongst the Jacobites in Scotland, in revolutionary America and France, and in Ireland in the abortive 1798 uprising. (One of the Irish leaders was Lord Edward FitzGerald, son of the Duke of Leinster, who died from his wounds in prison after the rebellion. I was interested to see, in the Queensland Freemasons newsletter I was given, news about a Duke of Leinster Golf Day last month.)

The subtlest work on freemasonry in early Australia is the chapter ‘Varieties of Brotherhood’ in Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia (vol.1, 1998), a dense but absorbing book that replays the effort of reading it.

Some of the officers and men in the NSW Corps were freemasons, though formal requests to set up a lodge in the colony went unanswered from their English brothers, but Phillip Gidley King, a naval man, was very wary of freemasonry.  As Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island in the 1790s, he tried to restrain an attempt to set up a ‘Settlers Society’ based on Masonic principles.

When King became Governor in 1800, with Britain at war with revolutionary France he became understandably jittery. Several hundred Irish rebels were transported after the 1798 rebellion, including some of the leaders who escaped execution, and they brought Masonic ideas with them.

Then in 1802, 2 French ships, the Naturaliste and Géographe, arrived in Sydney Harbour, as part of a scientific voyage of exploration of the Australian coastline. The Peace of Amiens had recently been signed, so Britain and France were no longer at war, but King was still wary of the Frenchmen – it didn’t help that they named large chunks of the southern coastline ‘Terre Napoléon’. Just before they left, they invited a number of officers on board to take part in a Masonic ceremony.  King intervened, ‘but not before Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp  had been admitted to the order’ of the Rose Croix.

‘If it were allowed to continue its sitting’, so …a lieutenant on the Naturalist is alleged to have said afterwards, ‘the candidates would be after their third step in Masonry initiated into the principles of the illuminati’, making them committed republicans. [Atkinson, 254]

King also shut down a planned Masonic meeting in May 1803 with crew members from HMS Glatton. His jitters seemed to be confirmed in March 1804, when some hundreds of the Irish convicts rose in rebellion at Castle Hill, near Parramatta. Most of them were ordinary homesick Irish men who came to believe that a ship would be waiting at Sydney to take them home to Ireland, but amongst the ringleaders were certainly some United Irishmen from the 1798 rebellion.

King retired in 1805, and his replacement, William ‘Bounty’ Bligh, had other issues to deal with. In January 1808 the NSW Corps, including Anthony Fenn Kemp, mutinied against him.

Who knows? It all sounds rather odd to me. Perhaps a new Cambridge project to look at conspiracy theories will throw more light on the psychology behind such activities, and the mixed anxiety and fascination they provoke.

The thing about secret societies is that they are very hard to ban because they are – y’know, like – secret.  The Queensland Government is likely to discover this.  And gradually, the hot spark of rebellion grows cold.

Governor Macquarie came from the Indian army, where freemasonry was popular. In 1821, when he laid the foundation stone of the first Roman Catholic Church in Sydney, he was given a ceremonial silver trowel, and remarked that while he had never used a trowel before, he had always been a mason.

Soon freemasonry was entirely respectable.  Many men in the late 19th and early 20th century were photographed in their Masonic regalia. At a time when photography was expensive, sometimes such portraits are the only ones we have.

It could also be pernicious.  In his autobiography, Before I Sleep (2001), the 1970s Queensland Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod claimed that one reason he was rejected by the Queensland Police Union was that, until his appointment, there was an unwritten understanding that commissioners should alternate between a Mason and a Catholic, and Whitrod was neither.

Meanwhile, the moral panic against bikies continues.  Tony FitzGerald, the man who more than anyone else vindicated Whitrod’s attempt to clean up the Queensland police force has come out this morning to add his voice to the growing criticism against the Queensland government’s law and order crackdown.

I suspect that, like Governor King, Premier Newman may have retired long before these semi-secret societies are eliminated.  I hold no torch for the bikies, a thuggish and nasty lot who do more damage to each other than to society at large, but I wonder whether, in 50 years, the rebuilt Rebels clubhouse might join Open House Brisbane.  That is, if it doesn’t mysteriously burn down yet again.

15 responses to “Secret Men’s Business

  1. An interesting post! The impression I get from older members of my family is that the masons played an important role in social security before the government stepped in.

    • Yes, I think there was a lot of mutual support. Partly networking, often helping to pay for funerals, etc. I think that’s one reason why it was popular in colonial outposts, where there wasn’t an established system of government or religious support.

  2. Sarah Correia

    My ex husband was a member. A lot of male bonding in a good way. Monthly dinners that sounded very good. The Masons and their rituals are mentioned in War and Peace. Perhaps Tolstoy was a member. After the Texan War for independence here in the US the Mexican general Santa Ana was well treated because both he and the Texan commander were masons.

  3. Hi Marion, I am starting a contract with the Knights of the Southern Cross (with Beryl Roberts), a Catholic Men’s Group, with parallel ritual traditions and social support functions as the Freemasons, although the Knights take it to pains to point out that they are not a Catholic freemasonry organisation. While the point can be accepted, the Knights share the social history of that era from the 1920s to the late 1950s when many branches of semi-secret men’s organisations around religious and pseudo-religious beliefs were formed to address discrimination in employment against their “class.” In both the cases of Catholics and Freemasons, the suspicion against them was obvious in that era; I have come across plenty of conspiratorial theories in my research of Queensland Protestant history.

    It brings up some reminiscence in seeing your post on this subject. I recall being in your Australian social history class in the mid-1980s and first really looking at the history of Australian religious sectarianism. There is a connection in some parts of the Knights’ history and the Irish Catholic attack on the “Protestant Ascendancy.” Jeff Baxter in his journalistic history of the NSW Knights plays up this connection. Jack Woodward, the author of the Qld Knight’s folk history, published in 1984, while picks up the attack of the Orange lodges on Qld Catholics doesn’t appear to play the Irish card to any significant extent.

    The first month of my research is looking at secondary sources and the wider context to the Knights’ history. I would be pleased to have any suggestions for sources or for observations about the era and this wider phenomenon.

    • Hi Neville – I’m no expert, especially on 20C societies, but I know that sectarianism could be a problem – the Whitrod Story is mentioned in Michael Hogan, The Sectarian Strand (1987), which might be a useful book, though it must be dated by now. You need to distinguish between Masonic Lodges and Orange lodges too. The former emphasize that they are non-denominational: you need to believe in a Supreme Being, that’s all. Whereas the Orange Lodges were overtly Protestant – and derive their rationale from William of Orange and the Battle of the Boyne.

      • Yes, I used Hogan’s book extensively in the late 1980s. I don’t know if anything substantial has been done since then. I must get a copy of the Hogan book. If anyone has a copy I can borrow I would much appreciate it. I am a poor historian who spent his money on philosophy books when he had the money from a university position;when such paying positions were to be had.

        No problem about understanding the distinction between the types of lodges. Remember, you were my wonderful teacher from long ago. I have not forgotten the important details you taught in Australian social history.

        I believe Premier Denham (1911-1915) was a leading member of the Orange Lodge In Queensland.

      • And the next Premier, TJ Ryan, was a member of e Irish Club – there’s a photo of him there.

  4. Thanks for this post Marion and your insightful observations I,e, bikies. It brings to mind some of the wonderful conversations we had about the relationships of the churches to the Freemasons in the 19th century. Lutherans were never in favour and this caused problems for its city members… Social networks in the city is a big topic. A friend has one to do with beer…and that is another topic…

  5. Thanks Stephen. They were very good conversations!

  6. grumpyoldman22

    I was trying to find the membership list for Knights of The Southern Cross. This site. came up among others. In particular I was trying to find if Tony Abbott, the Governor General and Cardinal Pell are or were members.

    • Dr Neville Buch

      I am the historian commissioned on a book for the Queensland Order of the KSC history.

      Let me first indicate that there are important privacy considerations for membership and right channels would need to be taken. However, the Knights have never been coy, after 1962, of recognizing public high officials who were members. The year 1962 was the time the organisation ceased to be officially secret, and in practice it was semi-secret; many astute politicians, journalists, and Church officials knew of the organisation unofficially and knew of a few important Knights. Among them was Vince Gair, the Premier of Queensland (1952–1957).

      Hence, if there has not been a reference in the public record on the individuals mentioned, it would doubtful. I doubt any connection with Peter Cosgrove, at least I have not seen any recognition of the fact, and if it were so, the Knights would have no reason to be backward on the association. It is a probability that George Pell as a Bishop was connected to the Order. It is no secret (after 1962) that the Knights were the “Bishop’s men”. The prime accountability in pastoral and doctrinal matters was to the Bishop, but the Knights held their own organisational chain of command under the apostolate of the laity, that is, the organisational Catholic authority of the Order itself. In the 1990s the Order became a federation between the states, which was a different arrangement to what they had before. These may appear as subtle differences but they are in practice very significant. The obvious issue with Pell — as one must assume this is being looked at with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in mind — should not be confused with the work and mission of the KSC. One thing I noticed in Pell’s testimony in the last four days, is how much his position was at odds with the laity and the deep concerns they were raising.

      As for Tony Abbott, other historians I have talked to connect him with Bob Santamaria, and not the Knights. The history of Knights in the period of the 1950s was of a number of members who were affiliated with both the Order and Santamaria’s anti-ALP, anti-communist, and a militant version of Catholic Action. Both the Order and ‘the Movement’, and allied organisations, arose from Catholic Action. It has had a very long, complex, and somewhat diverse history as a socio-religio-political movement.

      The Order generally and Santamaria’s collection of organisations shared the same worldview, but Knights as Knights were conservative in their Catholic Action, whereas Santamaria was pushing radical interventions. The Knights were probably held back by more politically astute bishops. Santamaria had a greater sense of his power and was willing to be more independent on those who would have wanted to reign him in. Like any large organisations, there were conflicts on policies and actions while sharing common outlooks. Even a number of Santamaria’s officials ended in walking out on him. This was what it was like for the Order.

      From a public point of view, on some issues, the Order’s pronouncements appeared as ultra-conservative, however, looking closely into the organisation one finds moderating views among Knights. The push to overturn the secretive nature of the organisation largely came from Knights themselves. Many knights were pissed off as anyone with certain Knights in command who were abusive in control and militant action (internally and from the knight’s own perspective), all the time being polite and faithful to the mission of the Order. The repercussions for the Queensland Order from the 1957 Queensland ALP Split was the resignation of Felix Dittmer from the Order, and the Order’s refusal to admit him back into the Order. Dittmer was State Deputy Labor leader in 1957, and was Gair’s nemesis. Rather than the Order being some kind of conspiratorial force in the ALP split, it was the other way around — the Order fell victim to political shenanigans of operators in the ALP-QLP fight.

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