- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. — Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”, English novelist (1812 – 1870)
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’s masterpiece about the French Revolution are appropriate in describing David Harrison’s “The Liverpool Masonic Rebellion and the Wigan Grand Lodge” (Arima Publishing, Bury St. Edmunds, England, 144 pages, notes, index, illustrations, $16.00, available from amazon.com).
It’s a scholarly examination of a rebellion in the English world of Freemasonry that will appeal to masons and non-masons alike because the rebellion encompassed virtually all the elements of the clash of ideas in the first part of the 19th Century England — and it has characters — especially revolt leader Michael Alexander Gage — worthy of Dickens.
And, like “A Tale of Two Cities” it deals with two cities: the proud masons of the great port city of Liverpool in what the Brits call the North West, clashing with the London-based establishment of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), since 1717 the governing body of English Freemasonry.
Harrison traces the story of the last great Masonic rebellion in England, which occurred in 1823. The rebellion, which began in Liverpool, sent shock waves through the fragile world of organized Freemasonry in England, which had only unified ten years before. The rebellion was set against the backdrop of revolt and radicalism in England during the early nineteenth century, and the book reveals a story full of Dickensian intrigue and skulduggery as the rebel Freemasons tried to resurrect the ‘Antient’ Grand Lodge.
While Harrison’s latest book can of course be read as a standalone account, understanding the reasons for this rebellion in the ranks of men who call each other “brethren” can be more quickly absorbed by those who’ve read and enjoyed Harrison’s previous two works: “The Genesis of Freemasonry” and “The Transformation of Freemasonry.” (my review:http://www.huntingtonnews.net/2167) I’m including the full text of my review of the former book at the end of this review. I’ve read and reviewed all three of Harrison’s books on Freemasonry!
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the rebellion, begun in Liverpool and continued in Wigan (pronounced “wiggan”) was doomed to failure, but don’t skip ahead to find its fate in a town immortalized by George Orwell of “Animal Farm” and “1984” fame, Wigan (“The Road to Wigan Pier”). Like “Down and Out in London and Paris” “The Road to Wigan Pier” dealt with the poverty of the Depression years. Read about the grievances — real and imagined — of the masons of Liverpool and Wigan and other Lancashire town.
In order to clarify some points I encountered in my reading of Harrison’s latest book, including the role of the inland town of Wigan, I emailed him. This is his response:
“The ‘Moderns’ wanted to work just the three Craft degrees; entered apprentice, fellow-craft, and Master Mason, the ‘Antients’ also practised a fourth degree – the Royal Arch degree, and on the union of 1813, it was decided that there should only be the three Craft degrees, with the Royal Arch being the completion of the third. It was a fudge, but one that left a bitter taste in the mouth of the ‘Antients’. Many Masonic symbols also became disused after the union, more mystical and ancient symbols, such as the scythe, Noah’s Ark, and hourglass, fell by the wayside. The north-west was also undergoing an intense industrial change, and for people to be told what to do by the London aristocracy was also difficult to take, seeing that London was, still at this time, a week away by road.
“Wigan has a canal going from Liverpool — called the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and at Wigan, there was a dock, at the dock they had a pier, affectionately called Wigan pier, most of the mill workers and miners in Wigan were in poverty, and Orwell paints a picture of this extreme poverty – almost using the Wigan pier as a symbol, as piers were constructed in Victorian times as places of pleasure for the rich who could afford a vacation to the coast.
I think because of Orwelll’s work, people around the world still believe Wigan is this dark industrial town, but it is a place now which celebrates its history, and there is very little industry there today.
Harrison wasn’t exaggerating; I looked up Wigan, Liverpool and the canal and found gorgeous photos that should attract any tourist. In my 1979 visit to England and Scotland, I discovered that few countries preserve their industrial heritage better than the U.K., the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
About the author
Dr. David Harrison is a UK based Masonic historian who has so far written three books on the history of English Freemasonry and has contributed articles on the subject to various magazines which deal with the topic of Freemasonry around the world, such as the UK based Freemasonry Today, MQ Magazine, the Square, the US based Knight Templar Magazine, Philalethes and the Australian based New Dawn Magazine. Harrison has also appeared on TV and radio discussing his work.
Having gained his PhD from the University of Liverpool in 2008 which focused on the development of English Freemasonry, the thesis was subsequently published in March 2009 entitled “The Genesis of Freemasonry” by Lewis Masonic, and his second work entitled “The Transformation of Freemasonry” was published by Arima Publishing the following year. Both works received critical acclaim. His latest work on “The Liverpool Masonic Rebellion and the Wigan Grand Lodge” was published by Arima in October 2012.
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My amazon.com review of the Genesis of Freemasonry
Development of Freemasonry Explored, February 19, 2011
By David Kinchen
This review is from: Genesis of Freemasonry (Hardcover)
English historian David Harrison, PhD, explores the origins of Freemasonry in a scholarly but very readable book The Genesis of Freemasonry (Lewis Masonic, an imprint of Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., Hersham, Surrey, England, 244 pages, $31.95, available on Amazon.com and other online booksellers).
Harrison sent me a review copy of his book after reading my reviews of books on Freemasonry. He suggested that it would be useful to understand the intellectual underpinnings of Freemasonry via a scholarly book like his.
Masonry has been described as a “society of secrets” as well as a “secret society.” Historian Harrison is a lecturer in history at the University of Liverpool, where he earned his doctorate. He reconstructs the hidden history of the movement, tracing its roots through a mixture of medieval guild societies, alchemy and necromancy.
He examines the earliest known Freemasons and their obsessions with Solomon’s Temple, alchemy, and prophecy, to the formation of the Grand Lodge in London in 1717, which in turn led to rebellions within the Craft throughout England.
Harrison also analyzes the role of French immigrant, Dr Jean Theophilus Desaguliers, a Protestant refugee from Roman Catholic persecution, in the development of English Freemasonry, focusing on his involvement with the formation of the mysterious modern Masonic ritual. All Freemasons and more general readers will find much of interest in this fascinating exploration of the very beginnings of Freemasonry, still one of the most mysterious brotherhoods in the world, he says.
Freemasonry had its origins in the guilds of “operative” masons — actual stoneworkers — who attracted the attention of “speculative” masons, mostly gentlemen and members of mercantile and aristocratic classes in the United Kingdom. It soon became fashionable for intellectuals and scientists and architects to become masons, where, Harrison says they could leave their religious and political differences at the door to the lodge, often a tavern or pub. It afforded like-minded men of all classes in the heavily class conscious UK to get together and eat and drink — lots of drink — Harrison says, and discuss intellectual and philosophic and scientific ideas.
Harrison discusses the differences between the “Antients” and the “Moderns” in Freemasonry — differences which led to rebellions and schisms in the “craft,” as Masons call their system of belief. Originally, speculative Freemasonry had only three degrees, as compared to the 33 of today’s “supersized” Freemasonry. Initiates of the First Degree were called “Entered Apprentices,” while Second Degree masons were called “Fellow Craft.” Those attaining the highest degree, the Third Degree, were called “Master Masons.” Before the 1720s, there were only two degrees, Harrison says: “These were extended into three degrees by the leaders of the ‘Moderns.'”
I was startled, to say the least, to find in Harrison’s books descriptions of licentious clubs called Hell Fire Clubs, organized by prominent Freemasons, where the men dressed like monks and the invited women, including local talent, dressed like nuns, engaging in orgiastic ceremonies.
I queried the good doctor by e-mail and he confirmed my interpretation: “Yes, you are absolutely right, the Duke of Wharton and later, Sir Francis Dashwood (both Freemasons) used the Hell Fire Clubs as a pseudo Masonic orgy on their country estates; the mix of secrecy, ritual and sex being an attractive way to spend the time with their close circle of influential friends, very much like [Stanley] Kubrick’s  film ‘Eyes Wide Shut.'”
Read Harrison’s fascinating book to expand your knowledge of Freemasonry, including its attraction to men of letters like Alexander Pope, Byron, Ben Jonson and James Boswell, along with scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and architects like Sir Christopher Wren, Inigo Jones and Nicholas Stone.