It was in the 1988 Christmas special of Only Fools and Horses when Del Boy asked Boycie to recommend him for his Masonic Lodge.
Boycie came back with the results, Del tentatively ventured to ask if he’d been ‘black-balled’ by any member of the Lodge in their famous selection process. Boycie replied with a smug grin, comparing the bowl to a hollow of rabbit droppings.
But who actually are the Freemasons? And is it really that difficult to get into the club? There are more than 200,000 Freemasons in England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, belonging to over 7,000 local lodges, according to the figures from the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), the group which coordinates all of the Masonic lodges and a university programme.
The notoriously secretive group, with links to business leaders and the forces, is a male-only organisation, with the motto “making good men better”.
But what does this mean? Lodges are arranged around key values like “kindness” and “tolerance”, with their marketing materials focused around self-fulfilment. The idea is that members help other members out in various areas of life outside their lodge’s meetings, but do not shout about their membership of a lodge.
The UGLE says that “Freemasonry does not discriminate on grounds of race, colour, religion, political views or social standing.” They avoid mentioning gender.
However, despite the UGLE’s repeated attempts to use PR to clean up the image of Freemasonry, the popular view of Freemasonry is still that of a secret, nepotistic, elitist organisation determined to maintain a successful class of friends based more on who one knows rather than their skills.
Recently, the Freemasons have received a lot of negative publicity in the media. However, say the Freemasons, far from being a conservative bastion of privilege in the modern world, their organisation is in fact a force for considerable good.
Dr David Staples, Chief Executive of the UGLE, has started the #EnoughIsEnough campaign to challenge the reporting, interestingly also a hashtag associated with a separate women’s rights campaign.
Part of the campaign has included taking out adverts in several national newspapers and sending letters of complaint after critical articles appeared. One which particularly irked the UGLE was a Guardian exposé which claimed that there were two lodges originally formed in Westminster, frequented by former MPs and political journalists, who now meet at the UGLE’s London office.
The UGLE demanded a retraction and apology but the article remains online, edited to note that while no sitting MPs are part of the Westminster lodges, several could be members of lodges local to their constituencies. The newspaper advert claims that last year Freemasons “raised over £33 million for good causes” through their internal-only fundraising programme and complains that the coverage (described as “gross misrepresentation”) amounts to “discrimination” against the group’s members.
Concrete got in touch with the Grand Lodge, in an attempt to dispel the myths surrounding Freemasonry. Despite the #EnoughIsEnough campaign, the Lodge denies that there is a problem.
Mike Baker, The UGLE’s Director of Communications, told us: “In real terms, I’d suggest that [Freemasonry] is not attracting particularly bad media coverage at the moment. “Our Tercentenary celebrations in 2017, marking 300 years since the founding of the first Grand Lodge, and our recent response to the ongoing misrepresentation, prejudice and discrimination of Freemasonry in the press, ‘Enough is Enough’, has created heightened levels of awareness of United Grand Lodge of England. Hence, media reporting levels and ‘interest’ in the organisation have increased considerably.”
Mr Baker continued: “Freemasonry offers different things to each of us, with common elements being friendship, integrity and caring for others. It is absolutely an organisation that focuses on giving rather than receiving.” What is also not known by many is that The UGLE operates a Universities Scheme, with a lodge in Norwich city centre inviting student members from UEA.
According to the scheme, there are over 55 lodges across the country welcoming students and university staff, following a “recent decision by Grand Lodge to halve their dues in order to make Freemasonry as accessible to as wide an audience as possible.” There are no hard-and-fast rules about getting in, with a form for interested applicants to fill out on the UGLE website.
The first rule of Freemasonry is still, it seems, that you don’t talk about Freemasonry. But the Grand Lodge’s hand has been somewhat forced recently, and the debate is out in the open as much now as it has ever been. But the fact is, that public opinion won’t be able to change the nature of Freemasonry. And if the figure of 200,000 members is correct, despite the criticism Freemasonry continues to go from strength to strength in Britain, a fact that the image of an ‘old boys’ club’, better publicised now than ever, has done little to dispel.