Why did so many Freemasons win the Victoria Cross?
New research reveals that a large number of Freemasons were awarded Britain’s highest honour. Joe Shute reports. (The Sunday Telegraph 23 April 2017)
Brigadier Willie Shackell, Grand Secretary of United Grand Lodge of England
It was 1717 when a group of men got together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard and agreed to establish the first Grand Lodge. It was to be non-sectarian and socially egalitarian. They took as their guiding metaphor the trade of stonemasonry, hence the symbols of Freemasonry – the square, compass and apron.
The popularity of Freemasonry waxed and waned, peaking in the aftermath of the world wars. In the three years following the First World War, 350 lodges were established in England alone. Nowadays, the United Grand Lodge of England has 200,000 members, while those in Scotland and Ireland have some 150,000 – with millions more across the world.
As I sit with Brigadier Willie Shackell, 75, the Grand Secretary, in Freemasons’ Hall, he assures me there is nothing untoward. Yes, there are handshakes (different depending on seniority), rolled-up trousers and blindfolded initiation ceremonies, but he insists what they get up to is as normal as you would find down the local Conservative Club. Men – and it is mostly men, despite two Grand Lodges for women – join for camaraderie, he says.
According to Shackell, who spent 34 years in the Army and has been a Freemason since he was 21, the new VC research displays the best elements of masonry: self-sacrifice and honour. “But there are still people who won’t publicly say they are Freemasons because they are worried about their employment. And if someone is against us, then it’s difficult to convince them otherwise.”
Shackell became involved in the VC project last June. The story that left the greatest mark on him, is that of stretcher bearer Thomas Edward Rendle, who rescued fallen comrades from a trench blasted by enemy howitzers in 1915. “He brought people back over a 24-hour period by lying on his back, putting his feet under their arms and pulling them to safety,” he says.
It is only fitting that such bravery will now never be forgotten.