Visitors to Freemasons’ Hall who have taken a guided tour may be familiar with the stylised casket beneath the bright stained glass window outside the Grand Temple. This casket contains a roll of honour – a scroll that names the freemasons killed during World War I. In the area known as the ‘Shrine’ it is at the heart of the building initially named the Masonic Peace Memorial. The Shrine can be seen as the spiritual epicentre of this fine Art Deco landmark.
The idea of a Masonic Roll of Honour was first considered by Grand Lodge at its meeting on 2nd December 1914, its second meeting after the outbreak of war.
By this time the first battles at the Marne and at Ypres had resulted in the establishment of trenches along the Western Front. The latter battle had seen total casualties of more than 250,000 men, including nearly half of the British Regular Army.
It was proposed that the Roll should give the names of those freemasons of all ranks who had laid down their lives in the service of their country and it was to be compiled on the basis of returns made by lodge secretaries. During the following year the idea was further refined by Sir Alfred Robbins who said it should “form a permanent memorial of active patriotism displayed by freemasonry in the momentous struggle still proceeding”.
Grand Lodge then sent a circular letter and a form to individual secretaries asking for name, military rank and masonic rank. Secretaries were asked to record names of freemasons known to have died or whose deaths, having previously occurred, had subsequently become known. The first deadline was 11th November 1915, a day and month which were to be highly significant in due course at the end of the war but which was determined on this occasion by the requirements of printing the Masonic Year Book.
The first list appeared in the Masonic Year Book for 1916. It ran for 30 pages and included over 500 names each listed under his lodge. At first the annual lists were cumulative until the 1918 Year Book which listed all casualties before November 1917. By this stage the list of names ran to 105 pages representing over 15 per cent of the book. For the next two years, only casualties notified in that year were listed. The Roll of Honour continued to appear in each year book until 1920 when the final list covered the period from November 1918 until November 1919. Over 2,500 names had been recorded in the year books over the course of the war. By June 1921 the Roll was declared complete, listing 3,078 names, and was printed in book form, a copy of which was sent to every lodge secretary for the lodge archives. Copies were also available for purchase and we have original copies at the Museum of Freemasonry including a version with vellum cover and lettering in gold leaf.
On 27th June 1919 an Especial Grand Lodge was held at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate the peace. A message was read from the Grand Master, the Duke of Connaught,
to create a perpetual memorial of its [i.e. freemasonry's] gratitude to Almighty God…[to] render fitting honour to the many brethren who fell during the War. I desire that the question of the memorial be taken into early consideration…The great and continued growth of freemasonry amongst us demands a central home; and I wish it to be considered whether the question of erecting that home in this metropolis of the Empire, dedicated to the Most High, … would not be the most fitting memorial.
A design by H V Ashley and F Winton Newman was chosen and building work began in 1927. The new Peace Memorial Building was dedicated on 19th July 1933. The theme of the memorial window in the vestibule area outside the Grand Temple was the attainment of peace through sacrifice. Its main feature was the figure of peace holding a model of the Tower façade of the building itself. In the lower panels were shown fighting men from ancient and modern times, civilians and pilgrims ascending a winding staircase towards the Angel of Peace.
In June 1938, five years later, the Building Committee in its last report announced that it had given instructions for a Memorial Shrine and Roll of Honour to be placed under the Memorial Window and at the Grand Lodge meeting on 5th June 1940, by which time the country was again at war, it was able to announce that the work had been completed. The Memorial Shrine was designed by Walter Gilbert (1871-1946). In bronze, its design and ornamentation incorporated symbols connected with the theme of peace and the attainment of eternal life. It took the form of a bronze casket resting on an ark amongst reeds; the boat indicative of a journey, which had come to an end. In the centre of the front panel a relief showed the Hand of God set in a circle in which rested the Soul of Man. At the four corners of the Shrine stood pairs of winged Seraphim (angels) carrying golden trumpets and across the front were four gilded figures portraying Moses, Joshua, Solomon and St George.
The Roll of Honour was guarded on top by kneeling figures representing the four fighting services (Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Royal Flying Corps). On either side of the Shrine were bronze Pillars of Light decorated with wheat (for resurrection), lotus (for the waters of life) and irises (for eternal life) with four panels of oak leaves at their base. The Roll of Honour itself is displayed at the Shrine on a parchment roll and listed over 350 names not included in the Roll of Honour book and additional lodge details for about 30 names already known.
The Museum of Freemasonry provides regular guided tours of Freemasons’ Hall, offering visitors the chance to see first-hand the beautiful craftsmanship of the Roll of Honour and Shrine. If you have a family member that served in the war and was a freemason, why not learn more by applying for Family History Search.