Freemasons in an unbrotherly feud over Bronte's old lodge

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The Independent Online
AN ACRIMONIOUS dispute between freemasons over the future of an historic masonic hall has laid bare the brethren's secretive hierarchy.

The feud between five masonic lodges led to some masons being disciplined and stripped of their masonic rank for "misconduct", and their lodge being suspended following behaviour seen to be in breach of masonic standards of brotherly love and fellowship.

The row centred on the management of Duncombe Place Masonic Hall, an 18th-century building opposite York Minster where city masons have held their meetings and ancient rituals for more than 200 years.

The hall, which still exhibits an "apron" belonging to Bramwell Bronte, a founding York mason and brother of Emily and Charlotte, was also used by the four neighbouring lodges.

But York Lodge masons, who own the hall, decided to establish a charitable trust under which the building would be preserved for the "benefit of the people of York and the nation at large." Incensed by the new arrangement, the four lodges refused to hand over pounds 20,000 in shared funds - provoking a battle which has led to the Charity Commission taking control of the pounds 20,000 until a settlement is reached.

At one point inter-masonic relations were so bad that York Lodge trustees threatened to sue the other masons for the money. But senior figures in the masons were adamant that the row should be resolved internally and not in the courts.

Judge Gerald Coles, a senior circuit judge and Provincial Grand Master of Yorkshire North and East Ridings, summoned the parties to a "mediation" meeting and warned that he "would not tolerate" legal action.

Minutes of the meeting, prepared by Judge Coles's assistant, allege: "The bold statement made by the trustees ... that their legal position placed them outside his Masonic jurisdiction he took to be a calculated affront to his authority and he would not tolerate such behaviour. The letter threatening legal proceedings upon other Masons represented for him a total negation of Masonic behaviour."

Later one trustee who attended, solicitor John Thorp, wrote to the chairman of the trustees Geoffrey Procter saying: "It became quite clear that should we issue a writ or summons for the recovery of the charitable funds then all existing trustees would have their Masonic status removed and that would be the end of all our Masonic careers."

Although no legal action was taken, some trustees were later disciplined by the Masonic Province, suspended from masonry for a year and stripped of their masonic rank for "misconduct". York Lodge itself was also suspended for a year.

Details of the extraordinary affair were sent to Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, and the Commons Home Affairs select committee, which has investigated masonic influence in public life and the judiciary, by solicitor and non- mason Ian Creer, whose father was one of the trustees.

Mr Creer complained that charitable trustees should not be placed under masonic duress, and members of the judiciary within the masonic hierarchy should not interfere with their legal independence.

In papers released by the committee, Judge Coles denies "bringing pressure on the charitable trustees to act in a manner contrary to their duties as trustees" and said the dispute was over the manner in which the charitable trust was created - with no consultation with other masonic lodges.

Judge Coles said: "Proceedings... dealt essentially with the failure of those accused to behave in a masonic - which is to say a gentlemanly and honourable - manner with those other lodges who had for many years shared York Lodge's premises and expenses."

Lord Irvine concluded that Judge Coles was "exercising a masonic jurisdiction" in a private, not a judicial capacity.

But Mr Creer said: "Thepoint is the trustees were not acting as masons, they were acting in accordance with the law as charitable trustees. If Judge Coles and the other masonic lodges had a problem with the way they went about that, he should have complained to the Charity Commissioners - not set up some quasi judicial procedure. Judges should know better."