Lodged in a secret past

Reporter: Janice Barker
Date published: 22 September 2010

AN historic freemasons’ lodge still based in Oldham more than 200 years after it was founded plays a major role in a new book about the organisation.

The Friendship Lodge features in Dr David Harrison’s work “The Transformation of Freemasonry”.

Dr Harrison, a history lecturer at Liverpool Hope University, has spent years studying freemasonry since it was the centre of his studies for his PhD.

His first book described the genesis of the movement, renowned for its secrecy and rituals.

His latest work describes how it was transformed during the 19th century, and Oldham features heavily in two chapters.

At the turn of the century, secret societies were banned out of fear of revolution following the fall of the French monarchy. The Oldham lodge, which was founded in 1798, met in local taverns, he said, and members included James Butterworth, the local historian, who also wrote a book on Masonic symbolism.

But the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 led many to step away from the freemasons.

He said: “A lot of gentlemen basically just distanced themselves a bit, and the lodge filled up with working men, labouring men, and cotton weavers came in.”

Friendship Lodge also has links to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, after a campaign for better political representation ended in bloodshed in Manchester.

He said books show that in September, 1819, the Friendship Lodge meeting had to be adjourned as the “room was engaged by the coroner.” The inquest was into the death of Oldham man John Lees, as a result of the wounds he received at Peterloo.

But Dr Harrison is still trying to determine it was the same John Lees who joined the lodge in 1817.

Dr Harrison said famous figures like Butterworth and Oldham artist Charles Potter rose from humble beginnings as weavers, after joining the lodge.

Butterworth became a teacher and bookshop owner, while Potter was given assistance and the opportunity to study art in Paris and to visit Italy.

Friendship Lodge members also played a great role in the foundation of the Lyceum.

He added: “The Lyceum held the School of Science and Art, the Literary Club, the School of Music, classes for machine construction and mechanical philosophy, and in 1864, in the tradition of masonic architecture, a dome was erected above the chemical laboratory for the purpose of creating an observatory.”

“The Transformation of Freemasonry”, published by Arima, is published on Friday, priced £14.95.

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