Retired haulage contractor Graham Williams talks proudly about his grandchildren.
‘I have two, they are beautiful and the apple of my eye,’ he says.
He mentions them to make a point. Because Graham is also a senior freemason with the title of Deputy Provincial Grandmaster of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Yet he insists that family alway comes first – and that he and the 11,000 members he oversees are just ordinary people from all walks of life.
‘First and foremost, I’m a family man,’ says the 60-year-old, who lives at Purbrook.
‘Being a freemason comes completely after that.’
Graham used to work for his father’s building firm and it was Roy who first introduced him to the world of freemasonry.
‘I was 29 at the time, and I saw how much fun and enjoyment my father was getting out of being a freemason,’ Graham says.
‘So I asked him if I could join his lodge in Cosham.
‘Anyone can be a freemason – and our members are of all races and creeds.’
Graham went through a three-step initiation before becoming a bona fide freemason.
After passing an initial interview with fellow freemasons, he became an ‘entered apprentice’ – which meant he could attend masonry meetings.
‘The meetings are just run like normal business ones,’ Graham says.
‘There are minutes from the previous meeting and apologies from people who can’t make it.
‘The bulk of what we discuss is our charitable efforts and we also have elected members who handle people’s personal issues.’
Graham’s comments come after an independent report on freemasons was published last week.
The Future of Freemasonry, based on research carried out by The Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, found that the organisation was, contrary to some people’s belief, not secretive but actually demonstrated openness and transparency.
It concluded that it was arguably more relevant today than ever before and that it did a lot of good work for charity.
The report’s introduction says; ‘Freemasonry cannot forever be associated with the secret society syndrome.’
Graham says freemasons are keen to help others.
Each year all the lodges in Portsmouth – 60 in total – pull together and give a donation of £4,000 to The Rowans Hospice at Purbrook.
Plus £14 of a freemason’s £125 yearly membership goes towards The Masonic Society’s Grand Charity – which distributes the cash via The Red Cross to disaster zones across the globe.
‘We never ask for money from people,’ Graham says.
‘All the money that we give to charity comes out of our own pockets.
‘That’s the way we like to do things. We adhere to a strict moral code and we feel it’s essential as a society to give something back to the local and wider community.’
He adds: ‘I take great pride in helping others.
‘If someone is having problems at home, they can come along and get advice, support and guidance.
‘One of the things which we definitely don’t do – and this is something that I’m keen to eliminate from people’s thinking – is help each other out financially and in the business sense.’
During Graham’s first 18 months as a member of the society he became a ‘fellow craft’ before becoming known as a ‘master mason’.
After steadily climbing the ladder over the past 30 years, he is now a senior figure.
He explains: ‘The ranks just reflect your personal development and the rapport you have with other freemasons.
‘Plus it’s about the amount of time you’ve been a member of the society for.
‘My main duties now consist of visiting all the lodges in my patch and seeing how they’re doing.
‘I also present certificates and other awards to people who might have just been appointed a freemason, or award them to those who have been one for 25 years or more.’
He is also responsible for handling the society’s finances and making sure everything runs smoothly.
Nigel Brown, the national Grand Secretary of The Masonic Society, visited Portsmouth last week to speak to local masons.
Freemasonry in the city is steeped in history. The Phoenix Lodge Rooms in High Street, Old Portsmouth date back to 1786.
And the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was initiated as a mason there on July 26, 1887 (see plaque above).
Nigel stresses that he wants to promote a sense of openness.
‘Before the Second World War we were a completely open group of people. But Hitler began persecuting freemasons, so many went into hiding and kept their titles secret. It all stemmed from that.
‘But now we’re keen to get rid of that label. This report finally shows that we’re an organisation which is open, moral and giving.’
Graham adds: ‘I get so much out of being a freemason – it’s about camaraderie and friendship.
‘It’s not a cult – and we certainly don’t discuss religion or politics.’
HISTORY OF FREEMASONRY
Freemasonry was first put on the map on June 24, 1717 when four small freemason groups in London came together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Paul’s churchyard to form the Grand Lodge.
Grand Lodges now oversee every freemasonry lodge in the country.
By 1723 the Grand Lodge published The Book of Constitutions of Masonry - a book of moral guidelines for freemason lodges.
After the two world wars, freemasonry provided a platform for ex-servicemen to continue the camaraderie that had grown during their time at war.
In 1967 the 250th anniversary of the United Grand Lodge was celebrated in style at the Royal Albert Hall.
During the event, HRH The Duke of Kent became Grand Master – a position he still holds to this day.
In June 1992 press and television crews from around the world were invited to the United Grand Lodge for the first time as part of its 275th anniversary celebrations at Earls Court in London.
There are 250,000 freemasons in the UK and across the world.
MASONIC TRADITIONS AND RITUALS
· At each masonic meeting, members wear an apron. The style of apron depends on their rank in the lodge.
· Each freemason rank is known as a ‘degree’. There are 33 degrees in all.
· Freemasons’ regalia is symbolic of early stonemasons, who wore leather aprons to protect themselves whilst working.
· Freemasons have a special type of handshake which allows them to recognise each other. For new members, the special grip consists of pressing the thumb against the top of the joint of the first knuckle.
· As part of freemasonry rituals, new members are required to roll up their trouser leg.
The act is symbolic and shows that the new member is a ‘free man’ with no marks. A new member is only required to roll up his trouser leg on three occasions.