The trouble started when Stuart Hampson (below), the chairman-elect and an enthusiastic apron-wearer, decided to confess as much to his 34,000 colleagues in the pages of the staff magazine.
Mr Hampson, who succeeds Peter Lewis as chairman next February, divulged he has been a mason for more than 25 years, joining when he was an undergraduate at Oxford, after an education at the Royal Masonic School.
He referred to 'the widespread popular belief that the organisation (freemasonry, not John Lewis) is embroiled with improper favours, preferential advancement of its members and unethical business practices' and went on to say he had never encountered such behaviour.
A former civil servant, Mr Hampson served as principal private secretary to Roy Hattersley, then secretary of state for prices and consumer protection, in 1978. He later worked for three Tory ministers: Sally Oppenheim, John Nott and John Biffen.
His distinguished career path has not satisfied some employees, however, who insist his membership of 'a secret society' must cast some doubt on his true loyalty to John Lewis.
Another member of staff demanded to know if anyone else on the board is a freemason. This prompted Peter Lewis, the nephew of John Spedan Lewis, the partnership's founder, to go on the record to assure staff - in the best traditions of the McCarthyite hearings - that he was not, nor ever had been, a freemason.
Meanwhile, the staff disgruntlement rumbles on in the letters column of their magazine. 'I used to think you had to have been in the armed forces, civil service or Christian fellowship to get on,' goes one letter. 'But now we know you have to be involved in undercover charitable activities and go through strange ceremonies. Can anyone tell me where I can get hold of an apron and silly sword?'
Wisely, perhaps, the writer uses a nom de plume, signing off as 'Chief Wizard of the Order of the Electric Lettuce'.
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