Funny handshakes? Secret signs? Freemasons open up to the public

What does Freemasonry mean to you? Funny handshakes and secret signs? To many people, what goes on inside a masons' lodge remains steeped in mystery.

Master Russell Price with past Master Shaun Willocks and Chaplain of the Lodge David Foulkes
Master Russell Price with past Master Shaun Willocks and Chaplain of the Lodge David Foulkes

In an effort to dispel some of the myths and rumours, one of Shropshire's oldest lodges opens its doors to the public this month.

Freemasonry is more common than one might think. Stephen Rogers, communications officer for the Freemasons in Shropshire, reckons there are about 1,200 masons in Shropshire, with lodges in Wellington, Shrewsbury and Oswestry. That means roughly one in every 400 people is a Freemason.

The organisation traces its roots back more then 300 years, when local guilds regulated the stonemasons who constructed Britain's great castles and cathedrals.

Master Russell Price, centre, with past Master Shaun Willocks and Chaplain of the Lodge David Foulkes

But Mr Rogers says that while most people have heard of Freemasons, many don’t know what they do or why they do it.

To give people a better understanding of who Freemasons are, and what they do – and to answer questions about 'funny handshakes' and the like – the Salopian Lodge of Charity will be opening the doors of the Freemasons' Hall in Crewe Street, Shrewsbury, on Sunday.

Mr Rogers, 71, joined the Freemasons in the 1980s, after being introduced by a friend who had served with him in Round Table.

"In those days, they threw you out of the Round Table when you turned 40, so I found myself looking for something to do with my time," he says.

Preparing for an open day at Shrewsbury Masonic Hall are Master Russell Price, Chaplain of the Lodge, David Foulkes, and past Master Shaun Willocks

"A friend of mine suggested the Freemasons, saying they did a lot of the charitable things that we did in Round Table, and I was invited along to a meeting."

Mr Rogers says the open day will give people the chance to see at first hand the charitable work the organisation does in the community.

"The Freemasons give grants to hospices all across the country," he says.

The organisation also contributes £1 million a year to medical research, and is a major funder of the Midlands Air Ambulance.

Master Russell Price and past Master Shaun Willocks prepare for an open day at Shrewsbury Masonic Lodge

Mr Rogers says stories about the Freemasons being a secret society are largely mythical, although certain ceremonies do remain secret.

"Generally speaking, Freemasons are happy to talk about what they do, there is nothing secret about it," he says.

"There are some rituals which have to be performed in secret, but most things we are happy to talk about.

"We do have different handshakes which we use in some rituals, but we tell people not to go around using them to identify themselves.

Master Russell Price and Chaplin of the Lodge David Foulkes looking at portrait of James Mansfield, founder and first Master of the Salopian Lodge of Charity

"That might have gone on in the war, but it's not something that happens today, we prohibit that outside lodge meetings.

"The handshakes are only there inside the meeting to identify what level you are at. It's all very traditional."

Much of the organisation's rituals relates to its origins in the historic guilds of stonemasons, and the recognition of their career progression.

Masons begin as an Entered Apprentice, and will later, in separate "degree" ceremonies, be passed to the degree of "journeyman" or Fellowcraft, and then Master Mason. In each of these ceremonies, the candidate must first take the new obligations of the degree, then be entrusted with secret knowledge including passwords, signs and grips – secret handshakes – confined to his new rank.

The Salopian Lodge of Charity began life in 1810 as a travelling lodge in the Shropshire Militia during the Napoleonic Wars, but since 1815 has been based in Shrewsbury. Its founding father, or 'Father of the Lodge' as he was designated in 1811, was James Mansfield, although his background is subject to some debate.

The open day will include a guided tour of the lodge, based in the former St Michael's Church at the rear of the Shropshire Fire Service headquarters, and an explanation of the origins of freemasonry and the roles of the various lodge officers.

"Lodge members will explain what motivated them to become a Freemason and what they enjoy about being a member," says Mr Rogers.

He says one of the things he enjoys about the organisation is its egalitarian nature, where people from all walks of life enter on an equal footing.

"The Duke of Edinburgh was a prominent Freemason, but inside the organisation it makes no difference whether you are royalty or a humble solicitor from Shropshire," he says.

Representatives from some of the charities which have received masonic support will also show how their work has benefited the community.

Mr Rogers says he is particularly proud of the work Shropshire's Freemasons did at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, producing vast amounts of protective clothing for medical staff using 3D printing technology.

Masons in the county also raised more than £1.2 million for charity over a five-year period, he adds.

The open day will take place from 10am to 4pm.

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