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?
As 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.