Freemasons trying to stop the sale of the Royal Masonic Hospital in west London have served a High Court writ on Commander Michael Higham RN, the Grand Secretary, claiming that he and Freemasonry's ruling Grand Lodge have been "meddling" in the running of the hospital. The action by rank- and-file masons against Grand Lodge is the first of its kind in masonic history. It dashes hopes among ruling masons that years of controversy over the hospital will be finally laid to rest.
Last week, Alan Lomas, a governor of the hospital, issued a High Court writ against Cdr Higham and the masons' central Grand Charity. It alleges that since 1981 their activities and literature "have been deliberately designed and unlawfully promoted in order to subvert the normal course of affairs" of the hospital.
Mr Lomas, 76, a former electrical contractor and a mason since 1957, said yesterday that he was fighting for the principles of the masons' pledge of brotherhood against Grand Lodge's attempts to close the hospital.
He and fellow governors - masons who have donated more than 10 guineas to the institution - believe the case will finally defeat Grand Lodge's attempts to sell the hospital, which was founded in 1933. Its188 beds made it the largest independent acute hospital in Europe, providing high standards of private health care for "paying masons of moderate means" at only the net cost of treatment.
But with low bed occupancy and modern private hospitals opening in London, the Royal Masonic ran into serious financial problems. In 1978 it started to take non-masons as private patients to try to improve its finances. In 1984 an American health company unsuccessfully bid £20m for the hospital.
In 1986, with Grand Lodge tiring of embarrassing adverse publicity, members of the hospital's management, backed by some of the highest-ranking masons, tried to sell it.
Opponents among the governors took their case to the High Court, which ordered a ballot of those who had contributed to the hospital financially. More than 300,000 masons and masonic organisations around the world were balloted. The opponents won and Grand Lodge was forced to concede defeat. By 1988/9 annual losses had climbed to around £2m and the Duke of Kent, president of the hospital and England's most senior Freemason, commissioned a report by management consultants Touche Ross.
Its findings, at a cost of £100,000, were that although the hospital had started to look to private patients it would have to abandon its masonic connections and change completely to private work.
The report, published in 1990, said the hospital needed £9.7m over the next three years. Grand Lodge said that, in return for substantial sums from masonry's Grand Charity, the hospital was expected to accept a new constitution allowing the duke to appoint a chairman and four members of the board.
The hospital's board rejected this. Almost immediately the Duke of Kent resigned as the hospital's president and Prince Michael of Kent, the Provincial Grand-Master for Middlesex, resigned as vice-president.
The hospital was racked by a series of controversies as it was revealed that its finance director was an undisclosed bankrupt, that various members of the senior management had been dismissed amid allegations of misdemeanours, and that the staff pension fund was millions of pounds "adrift".
Throughout this bitter wrangling, a group of governors, led by vice-patron Douglas Brooks, fought to keep the hospital open. Mr Brooks last year produced a costed proposal for running the Royal Masonic profitably.
But by then the Charity Commission had called in accountants Coopers and Lybrand to act as receiver and sort out the hospital's cash problem. Mr Brooks and his fellow governors were furious when they heard the firm's proposal that the Royal Masonic it be sold.
Last December, after much wrangling, a mass meeting of masons voted to close the hospital and wind up the charity that runs it. The hospital, with its nursing home for 166 and 8.5 acres of private gardens, was put on sale for £15m.
Mr Brooks was forced to abandon his legal bid to stop the sale. Mr Lomas said last week that he had taken up the cudgels on behalf of the hospital charity, his fellow governors, and Freemasonry.
His writ claims that Grand Lodge deliberately tried to deprive the hospital of donations and destroy the hospital charity. Mr Lomas is claiming £5m for loss of donations, on behalf of the charity, together with £8m for loss of income to the hospital's Samaritan Fund and £10m in damages.