History of Early Bermudian Freemasonry


Bermuda, as is well known, was first settled in 1612 and by 1620 operative masons had constructed the Old State House. However no lodge of speculative masons is recorded as having been chartered in the Islands until the seventh decade of the 18th Century. This is a little surprising bearing in mind the amount of stone construction that was done during the first century and a half of the Islands’ settlement, and its proximity to the 13 mainland colonies where Freemasonry was thriving at that time.

Indeed, it may be inaccurate to assume that there were no lodges, either speculative or operative, during this period. As we shall see later, there are no records of the meetings of Lodge 266 which was chartered in 1761, and it is possible that such records as were kept have been lost. It is certain that in 1744 Governor Alured Popple was appointed by the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, the Earle of Strathmore, to be Provincial Grand Master of Bermuda. Now the chief function of the Provincial Grand Master in those days was to constitute new lodges in his province. It may well be that there was an occasional lodge meeting in the Islands, which it was intended that Governor Popple would regularize. The absence of records is not as decisive as it may seem as proof of the lack of masonic activity. While the keeping of minutes has been one of the hallmarks in Scottish lodges since the late 16th and 17th centuries, record keeping has not been held in such high esteem elsewhere. The Grand Lodge of England did not even have a Secretary until 1723, the year in which it began to keep minutes, and the Grand Lodge of Ireland kept no minutes until 1760. Similarly, the absence of any record of the grant of a warrant to a lodge before 1761 is not decisive. The first warrant was granted by the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1731. The earliest evidence of this type for the institution of a Lodge under the Grand Lodge of England being a Deputation to Constitute issued to Bro. Edward Entwistle to constitute Anchor & Hope Lodge No. 37, at Bolton, the first Warrant being issued in 1754.

Alured Popple
Alured Popple (1699 – 17 November 1744

It may be that Governor Alured Popple was created Provincial Grand Master in 1744 to regularize an occasional lodge then being held in the Islands. However, our researches have produced no fresh evidence of Masonic activity before 1761. The sudden death of Governor Popple in November 1744 may have prevented the establishment of a regular lodge. Proof of masonic working in Bermuda prior to 1761 will not be forthcoming through research into published materials, our researches have uncovered the same materials as those of Bro. Milborne and Bro. Voorhis. If such proof exists it may lie hidden in some family vault in the diaries or journals of a long dead ancestor who was a mason (or even the wife or child of a mason.) It may evn be that a close examination of papers held in the archives of the Grand Lodge of England may give some clues as to the reason for the appointment of governor Popple as Grand Master in 1744, or the background to the grant of a warrant to Union Lodge in 1766. However, if this research has been done, and it could only have been done by Bro. Milbourne, who presented a paper to Quatuor Coronati Lodge in 1961, it has revealed nothing, a fact which while not surprising is not helpful either.

After the death of Governor Alured Popple his younger brother William Popple, a member of London Lodge was appointed Governor and in 1758 Provincial Grand Master. H seems to have been active in the discharge of his Masonic duties for on 17th September 1761 a charter was granted to Union Lodge No 266 b y Grand Lodge of England. This charter was granted by the modrns Grand Lodge but it does not appear to have resulted in there being any controversy. Indeed the Lodge either did not keep any records or they have been lost and there seems to be only one unequivocal reference to its existence in contemporary works. In a letter to her brother Alexander Ewing, Mrs. Helen Evans wrote from Fort George; “There is also a Mason Lodge established here. I cannot help thinking well of that institution, tho’ the ladies are excepted. I have known it to have the best effects on some of my acquaintances. Mr. E. is now a great Mason. They meet once a month, with the greatest moderation – they go at 6 o’clock and return about ten to supper…” This letter was written in 1783 and indicates that the Lodge was very active 22 years after the issue of its warrant, but it seems to have ceased working by 1793 for “One of the Past Masters of the Lodge” writing a Brief Sketch of the History of Atlantic Phoenix Lodge stated in 1906 “… in the year 1703 some Freemasons of Somerset, who had been made in different countries under authority derived from the Grand Lodge of England, petitioned that body for a charter on the ground that no regular lodge had been held in these Islands “for many years…” Clearly Union Lodge ceased working sometime between 1783 and 1793, and the brethren of Somerset wished to establish a regular lodge.

The officers of the new lodge were to be Henry Tucker Esq., Theodore Godet Esq., Robert Bassett Esq., the Rev. Thomas Dalyiell, Samuel Hurst Esq., Capt. James Darrell and Capt. Willis Morgan and the application was made through Capt. Andrew Durnford R.E., who was then a member of Governor’s Council. Captain Durnford appears to have duly delivered the application to the Grand Lodge of England. Unfortunately, there were two Grand Lodges then working in London and the application was delivered to the premier Grand Lodge, the so called “Moderns,” who duly issued a Charter to Bermuda Lodge No 507 on 2nd October 1792. This was to cause considerable trouble in due course and in order to understand what took place in Bermuda at the close of the 18th century it will be useful to have a brief look at events in England.

The Freemasons Hall
The Freemasons Hall

After the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in London in 1714 by four lodges, masonic organization did not immediately settle into a well ordered homogeneous body. Indeed a number of problems arose and the Grand Lodge itself instituted various changes in ritual and procedure but at the same time its administration was very poor. Discontent with the Grand Lodge had begun by 1739 and by 1753 a rival Grand Lodge had commenced working, devoted to preserving the ancient customs of the craft. This body called itself the Grand Lodge of Ancient Freemasons and referred to the other body as “Moderns” a title which was accepted. A feud developed between the two Grand Lodges and the Ancients entered into a strict union with the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland in 1758 and 1771 respectively, this union was to have important consequences in Bermuda. Although one of the major reasons for the creation of the Ancients Lodges were changes introduced after 1714, outside London many lodges although technically “Moderns” used traditional or “Ancients” working. This was so overseas and it seems likely that Union Lodge used traditional forms and the evidence is that Bermuda Lodge also used “Ancient” working. By the end of the 18th Century the feud was at its height, Modern masons could not enter Ancients lodges unless they were armed and neither group would associate with the other.

Bermuda Lodge No 507 held its first meeting on 2nd January 1793, and met regularly throughout the last decade of the century. During this period three more lodges became active in Bermuda, the 47th Regiment of Foot commenced garrison duty in 1793 and there was at least one lodge No 192 G.R.I. attached to the regiment. This lodge seems to have been active while in Bermuda, though no one was registered as having joined after December 1789. The other two lodges to be formed, were started in St George and are still operating. The story of their origin is one of the most often and yet inaccurately related tales in Bermuda Freemasonry.

On the 20th May 1796 a meeting took place at Bro. Browne’s house with Bros. Van Norden, Browne and Godrich in the three principal chairs. At that meeting Petitions which had been prepared as a result of their previous meeting were approved to be sent to the Grand Lodges in Halifax, Nova Scotia and London, England. The brethren present then made arrangements for Bro. Ball who was going to England to obtain material for regalia, glasses, decanters and bowls, and arrangements for holding a regular lodge continued to be made. The Provincial Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia did not forward the petition to the Grand Lodge of England until 2nd March 1797, if as seems likely, this Petition was in the same form as a later one, it was clear that the brethren were ancient masons. That petition began with the observation that “there being only one lodge in these Islands situated at near 20 miles distant from St. George’s your Petitioners find themselves unable to attend Lodge meetings or otherwise fulfill their duties to the craft,” and went on to point out that they wished to receive individuals into the fraternity and socialize with other masons.

Original Warrant 1797
The original charter provided by Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1797

After 10 and ½ months no reply had been received and at their meeting on 6th April 1797 the brethren, who it should be pointed out opened in the first degree, after thanking Bro. Ball for picking up the items he had agreed to collect on his recent visit to England, agree to send another petition, this time to the Grand Lodge of Scotland. This was drafted that evening and handed to Bro. Barr who was to sail for England in a few days. Bro. Barr is also referred to as “Cap’n Barr” in the minutes of the meeting and he may have been the master of the ship in which he was to sail, from which circumstance the tradition seems to have arisen that he was a Scottish sea-captain. Capt. Barr whether a sea-captain or ship’s passenger appears to have been diligent for on the 2nd August 1797 the Grand Lodge of Scotland granted a Charter to St. Georges Lodge No 266, this was sent with a covering letter, dated 4th December 1797, to Bermuda.

Meanwhile the earlier petition had reached London, and the Ancients’ Grand Lodge issued a warrant dated 9th August 1797. It seems that the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia had considered the petition but had determined that it had no jurisdiction to charter a lodge in Bermuda and had the petition copied and forwarded the copy to England. Why this was done is not clear as the bretheren in St. George had sent a Petition for England. However once the warrant was issued, like the Scttish warrant it was not immediately dispatched. Tradition tells us that the English Charter arrived in Bermuda either on the same ship or shortly after the Scottish warrant and that the English document was withheld from the brethren by the duplicity of the Postmaster, who is alleged to have been a Scotsman, or possibly another Scots sea-captain.

We have been unable to find any evidence in support of this tradition although there are three pieces of evidence which may give us a clue as to what really happened. The first is a covering letter which accompanied the English warrant to Bermuda. This bears the date “23rd May 1797.” There is of course no way that Grand Secretary would write and date his covering letter 2 ½ months before Grand Lodge issued the Charter (only 2 ½ months after the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia forwarded the charter to England.) The second is to be found in the circumstances under which a number of brethren withdrew from the English lodge on St. John the Evangelist Day 1800. These brethren offered their support but pointed out that they held property in the Scottish Lodge, an unlikely approach if there had been the alleged duplicity. The third piece of evidence is the consecration of the English Lodge on 20th March 1800. Had the charter been received in mid-1798, why would the brethren wait almost 2 years to constitute the lodge and then within 9 months withdrew from it?

It seems possible that once the English charter was granted there was considerable delay in actually sending it. There was certainly delay in the sending of the Scottish charter, the Ancients’ Grand Lodge were not noted for their administrative promptitude, the date of the covering letter may be erroneously reported “1797” but should be “1798.” If this was what happened the charter may not have arrived in Bermuda until much later. There is much more research to be done on this point before anyone can be sure whether tradition is correct or an amusing fiction.

Be that as it may, between the letters seeking the issue of the warrants and the constitution of the two lodges masonic activity continued. December 1797 saw a fine masonic procession led by the band of the 47th Regiment and culminating in dinner at Mr. Services residence. And the brethren of Bermuda Lodge also met and celebrated the masonic festivals in Somerset.

On 22nd May 1798 the Scottish warrant was received in St. Georges and shortly thereafter St. Georges Lodge No 266 was constituted, and has continued to meet in the old town till the present. The Lodge joined the Irish Lodge No 192 in celebrating St. John the Baptist Day that year and invited all “ancient” masons to join them. Notwithstanding that it is almost certain that the brethren of Bermuda Lodge were practicing ancient freemasonry they now began to be ostracized by the remainder of the fraternity. In December 1799 the brethren at Somerset Bridge wrote to the “Grand Lodge of Ancient York Masons” for advice on their charter. As seems to have been normal at that time a reply took over a year to arrive.

Flatts Village
Flatts Village, Smiths, Bermuda

In the meantime the Charter for the brethren in St. Georges had arrived from England and on 20th March 1800 a Provincial Grand Lodge was convened. Bro. Van Norden had been deputized as Provincial Grand Master and his other officers included the Master and Past Masters of Lodge 192. This was not the first time that the brethren of the 47th Regiment had convened a Provincial Grand Lodge’ for after the fall of Quebec in 1759 Lodge 192 was with 5 other military lodges instrumental in founding the Provincial Grand Lodge of Quebec. St. George’s Lodge No 307 E.R.(A) was thus convened and until 28th December 1800 the brethren in St. Georges held two charters, and attended two lodges. As we have seen on St. Jon the Evangelist Day a number of brethren withdrew from the English Lodge, and it was also decided to remove the lodge to Flatt’s where they held a regular meeting in February 1801.

Somerset Bridge
Somerset Bridge

A month later (4 March 1801) the brethren in Somerset Bridge received a letter which was read in Bermuda Lodge authorizing them to hold meetings as an ancient lodge until they should receive their Warrant. On June 24th they were welcomed in from the cold, for on that day Somerset Lodge E.R(A) U.D. (for Under Dispensation) joined St. Georges Lodge (266 SR & 307 ER(A) and Lodge 192 I.C. at the celebration of St. Jon the Baptist. A Deputation was issued to Bro. Van Norden to convene another Provincial Grand Lodge and Warrant was issued for Somerset Lodge No 324(A) on 28th September 1802. The Grand Lodge convened and Somerset Lodge was constituted on 8th January 1802. After this time Bermuda Lodge No 507 ceased to work, and like Union Lodge No 266 was struck off the roll at the time of the Union of the two English Grand Lodges in 1813.

The 47th Regiment left Bermuda in 1802 and its lodges warrant was cancelled in 1823. By the beginning of 1803 therefore there were three lodges working in Bermuda. They were t. Georges Lodge No 266 G.R.S., (Warranted Dated 2 August 1797) in St. George, St. Georges Lodge No 307 E.C.(A) (Warranted dated 9 August 1797 at Flatts and Somerset Lodge No 324 E.C.(A) at Somerset Bridge. Over the next few years although a major impetus to masonic activity in the form of Lodge 192 I.C. had been removed from the Islands the three lodges continued to work and celebrate the masonic feast days although the two English lodges seem to have been rather casual in sending returns to London.

Masonic Hall
Masonic Hall

In 1810 Lodge No. 307 moved from Flatts to Hamilton and in 1817 changed its name to Atlantic Phoenix Lodge, although this fact does not seem to have been communicated to the United Grand Lodge until 1847. The lodge’s number was changed several times, culminating in the assignment of the present number in 1863 when it became No. 224. While the Lodge was at Flatts its interests were somewhat neglected and the removal to Hamilton was seen as a revival, however dissension arose in the lodge in 1823 and 1824 and it did not meet again until 1844.

Lodge 324 continued to work at Somerset Bridge until 1858 when its own building was constructed in Mangrove Bay. Its number was changed several times, its present number 233 being assigned in 1863. The lodge was known as “Sussex” lodge for some time but in 1861 it was renamed Prince Alfred to celebrate the visit to Bermuda of Queen Victoria’s second son. Although there appears to have been activity in the lodge throughout the nineteenth century there was a period between 1838 and 1844 when it ceased to meet regularly.

Old State House, home of Lodge St. George 200
Old State House, home of Lodge St. George 200

Lodge 266 met in the St. George area in several places, and even laid the foundation stone for its own building in 1816, but the building was never erected and in 1816 the Governor, Sir James Cockburn, granted the use of the Old State house to the Lodge for an annual rental of one peppercorn. The lodge has continued to meet here, regularly ever since. It has, like the other two lodges referred to in this paper, been renumbered and its present numeration, 200, was assigned in 1826. The style of the lodge has changed, we now refer to ourselves as Lodge St. George but both our warrant and the grant of the State House use the style, St Georges Lodge, when this change was made is uncertain.

Which then is the oldest lodge in Bermuda? Based on the dates of the warrants the answer is clear, Lodge 200 St George, by a week over Atlantic Phoenix. Prince Alfred lodge has a claim to additional antiquity as successor to Bermuda Lodge No 507 E.R.(M) but their record of continuous meetings shows that since 1792 they have not met consistently. The members of Lodge St. George and Atlantic Phoenix began to meet during 1796 and in St. Georges the brethren have met during every year since, while in Hamilton there was a gap of 20 years. It seems that the answer to this question is the fine assertion which led off the discussion which gave birth to this paper; the statement by W. Bro. Hollis at the Lodge installation in December 1989: “Lodge St. George is the oldest continuously working lodge in Bermuda.” It also has the oldest warrant in Bermuda, which is also the oldest Scottish warrant outwith Scotland.