A Brief History of the Society

Early Days

If any one man can be said to have been the founder of today’s Operatives that man was Clement Edwin Stretton, who was born in 1850 and lived in Leicester. His family were clearly affluent because in 1866 he was articled to a Civil Engineering firm for £300, no small sum in those days, and from 1878-9 he was Lord Mayor of Leicester at the tender age of 28. In any event, in 1866, as part of his training, he was sent for a month to a quarry at Cromford, Derbyshire, in order to learn something of the masons’ trade. Although nothing to do with him personally, he appears to have made an indifferent start, for the workmen at the site — who were Guild Masons — simply refused to work with him. Within days, however, he applied to become a Guild Mason himself, whereupon their attitude changed completely and, with their total support and assistance, he began a course of study which lasted for the rest of his life. Thereafter, he returned to the quarry at regular intervals, becoming a Fellow of the Craft (II°) in 1874, a Super Fellow Fitter and Marker (III°) in 1875, Erector (IV°) in 1876, Intendent and Super-Intendent of the Work (V°) in 1877, and passed an examination as Master (VI°) in 1878. In fact, so enthusiastic did he remain for the old-style Guild Masonry, with its mysteries and traditions, that he also joined a local lodge in Leicester, and eventually became Senior Passed Master in 1901 and third Grand Master Mason of the York Division in 1908.

Unsurprisingly, Stretton’s activities were not confined to Guild Masonry alone and, in 1871; he joined speculative freemasonry, being initiated — as was his father — into St. John Lodge No. 279 in Leicester. He twice went through the chair as Master and ultimately became Provincial Senior Grand Warden, as well as a member of Mark, Royal Arch and the Red Cross of Constantine. Even so, his over-riding enthusiasm always remained Guild Masonry which he considered superior and more complete than that which we nowadays refer to as Craft masonry.

Superior though he might have considered it, it has to be admitted that over the next quarter of a century Guild masonry experienced a prolonged period of decline and by 1908, when he visited the Derby lodge where he had been first apprenticed in 1866, Stretton found only seven in attendance, as distinct from the hundreds who had been there when he had been indentured. The reasons for this, of course, are easy to find. Firstly, the Trade Union Act of 1871, which had given the unions legal status and thereby allowed them to take over the training and social functions which the Guild had previously enjoyed and, secondly, the new technologies, methods and materials which had rendered the skilled mason, with his mallet and chisel, not merely redundant, but obsolete. In short, their time was over!

This disturbed Stretton considerably who, thereafter, set about doing two things: Firstly, resuscitating Guild masonry before all the secret methods, traditions and practices were lost for ever, for he genuinely believed that there were strong links between medieval operative masonry and today’s Craft masonry which should be preserved, and it is worth noting that in the process of doing this — one way or another — he revived three Guild lodges, namely Lodge No. 70 in Derbyshire, Lodge No. 91 in Leicester, and Lodge No. 110 at Bardon Hill. Secondly, and with equal determination, Stretton set about drawing attention to certain inconsistencies and inaccuracies in some of the Craft rituals for which he vehemently laid the blame on the Rev Dr James Anderson who in 1717, he claimed, had virtually hijacked the four mainly Operative lodges linked to the re-building of St. Paul’s Cathedral, namely the Goose and Gridiron in St. Paul’s Churchyard, the Crown in Parkers Lane, The Appletree in Charles Street, and the Rummer and Grapes in Channel Row, the members of which, as has been well documented, then combined to create the first Grand Lodge and Craft masonry as we know it today.

A ceremony he particularly disliked was the third (Master Mason’s) degree, which he claimed had been invented and simply added on by Dr Anderson and his friends but which, in reality, was based upon Anderson’s inadequate knowledge of the Operatives’ Annual Festival commemorating the slaying of Hiram Abif. Stretton did this by writing articles which were published in Masonic publications such as the Transactions of the Leicester Lodge of Research, and in newspapers such as The Melton Mowbray Times, by giving lectures to professional bodies, and by a voluminous correspondence (through ‘Correspondence Circles’ in London, Ireland and the United States) with notable luminaries of his time, such as John Yarker (author of The Arcane Schools), M Ill Bro J A Bothwell-Gosse of Paris, and Dr Thomas Carr of Blackpool (author of The Ritual of the Operative Free Masons), all of whom ultimately became members of Stretton’s revived Guild lodges. Interestingly, Stretton corresponded for years with Bro Bothwell-Gosse, who published some of his papers, but it was not until 1910 that he discovered that this knowledgeable and erudite mason was in fact a lady by the name of J Aimée Bothwell-Gosse who was Founder of the Order of Ancient Free and Accepted Masonry for Men and Women, a member of the 33°, and founder and editor of The Speculative Mason magazine. Notwithstanding this discovery she, too, was welcomed into Guild masonry and from 1910 until the time of her death on 29th December 1954, she proudly declared herself to be a Grand Master VII° of the Guild of Operative Freemasons. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that as a consequence of his attacks on Craft masonry, Stretton should eventually attract a number of critics, and it has been suggested that this is just one of the reasons why, despite all he did to popularise and preserve the historical origins of freemasonry, he never attained Grand rank.

As far as today’s Operatives are concerned, the single most important thing that Stretton ever did was to authorise, in his capacity as Secretary, the re-opening of the London Section of the York Division of the Guild Operatives, for which purpose he deputed another important figure in the history of this Society, Dr Thomas Carr, to open in London a Master Masons’ Lodge in the VII°, to enthrone three Master Masons, and “to carry out all other work in accordance with the ancient usages and established customs as Enthroned Master Masons have done in all ages.” This Carr did at the Bijou Theatre, Bedford House, 3 Bedford Street, Strand, London on Wednesday 21st May 1913, and the Lodge continued to meet thereafter.

On 14th April 1915, Stretton having died two months earlier, the three Master Masons (as they then were) and members unanimously passed a resolution that “Having learned with great sorrow of the death of our Worshipful Brother Clement E. Stretton, Secretary of the York Division No. 8, and knowing that it was his wish that we should revive the Westminster Division No. 2 and being well satisfied that the Westminster Division has ceased to exist and being anxious to continue our research work as to Free Masonry prior to 1717 and having the approval of all the brethren of the London Section and the consent of Lodges Leicester and Mount Bardon, hereby constitute our London Section “The Channel Row Assemblage” of the Worshipful Society of Free Masons etc. (title in full) Westminster Division, so called after the Operative Lodge which held its meeting prior to 1717 at the ‘Rummer of Grapes’ Inn which was one of the four Operatives Lodges which formed the Grand Lodge of England in 1717.” Thus was formalised and finalised the birth of today’s Worshipful Society of Free Masons — the Operatives — which had been gestating for two years.

Growth of the Society

It would be wrong to claim that, following the renaming of Channel Row Assemblage, the Society as a whole was an overnight success. Two world wars, combined with resentment and opposition from various Masonic theorists and their supporters, mainly resulting from the vehemence of Stretton’s criticism of Dr.Anderson, his unsupported theories, and his biased view of the relative importance of Guild masonry vis-à-vis Craft masonry, made sure of that. Given that, and the decimating effect of the first World War, it was not until 1932 that a second Assemblage (Friars Walk) was Constituted, this time in Essex. Even so, local opposition and other difficulties proved too strong, and in due course Friars Walk Assemblage was forced into suspension until 1973, when it was re-Constituted, and has thrived ever since.

Before that second Assemblage was Constituted, however, and despite the fact that there was — as yet — only one Assemblage, support for the Society was undoubtedly strong in certain quarters and its membership both enthusiastic and influential. So much so, in fact, that on 19th October 1931, Channel Row Assemblage felt sufficiently confident to pass the following resolution:

“That we, the Channel Row Assemblage of the Westminster Division of the Worshipful Society of Free Masons etc. (name in full) do by these presents constitute and form into a Grand Assemblage of Operative Free Masons our brothers as follows (and here followed 21 names, the first eight all being VII°).”

The Society thus became a sovereign body with one active Assemblage.

The third Assemblage (Abbey), strangely, was Constituted in 1943 during the second World War . ‘Strangely’ because according to its Grand Clerk at the time, the Rev R R à-Ababrelton, “The present war has made it extremely difficult for meetings to be held. Meetings already arranged have had to be cancelled owing to enemy action and the black-out has been a serious handicap. Consequently our Lodges are only able to meet in the summer months.” Nevertheless meetings did continue, although it was not for another twenty years that a fourth Assemblage (Kirkstall Abbey) was Constituted.

In so short an article as this it is not proposed to go into any further detail concerning the actual Constitutions or locations of the various Assemblages which were Constituted during the ensuing sixty years, and it is hoped that it will be sufficient if they are simply listed in chronological order. From this list it will be seen that it took nearly fifty years to get the first three Assemblages firmly established, but only forty to get the next sixty Assemblages; and during that period, 1989 in particular stands out, when six Assemblages were Constituted within a matter of days. Somewhat uniquely, the relative ‘seniority’ of those six, now depends only on whether they were Constituted in the morning or afternoon!

The Future of the Society

The future of the Operatives today is brighter than it has ever been. We have a world-wide membership of some two thousand members in several different countries, with new Assemblages planned for the U.K., India, Hong Kong and South East Asia, America and South Africa, all within the next twelve months. to August 2010.   With our building fund (the Footing Corner Stone Fund) which was set up in 1990, iwe have recently acquired a headquarters building of our own. We have even started planning for our centenary, which we intend to celebrate in 2013. We have our own website (http://www.operatives.org.uk) which attracts international interest, and correspondence is regularly received from masons throughout the world, sometimes out of curiosity but occasionally wishing to have Assemblages in their own areas and countries. Ceremonies closely resembling those worked by the old Guild masons are worked by today’s Operatives, without the use of ritual books, and at Grand Assemblage each year we perform what is now the ‘Antient Drama’ commemorating the slaying of Hiram Abif. We even have an ‘unattached’ Assemblage (King Solomon’s Quarries) the primary aim of which is to provide exemplar workings of ceremonies and, without disclosing any of the ‘secrets’ of our Society, we have recently taken to providing demonstrations of our workings for other Orders, just to illustrate how much that which is practiced daily throughout freemasonry owes to our Guild predecessors. Clement Edwin Stretton, enthusiast, champion and preserver of the “Tectonic Art”, could well be excused for feeling that his legacy has been fulfilled!

David C Kibble-Rees, VII°