It is not very often that you are shoulder to shoulder with royalty in Australia. Let alone in the small regional city of Burnie on Tasmania’s North-West coast.
But on a rainy Friday morning with the temperature hovering around five degrees that was the situation members of the Freemasons found themselves in – although you wouldn’t have guessed it.
In the nondescript building which, from the outside, could be mistaken for a town hall, bricklayers and royalty mingled without concern for status or protocol.
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The walls of the building were adorned with various artefacts and documents.
Symbolism and ceremony draped every inch of the space, but there was no bowing or kneeling.
The ceremony instead held the structure and the promise of equality across all men. To enter one must be a male aged 18 or above and of good report.
Social status and standing were no reason for exclusion. Such are the laws of the Freemasons.
A society with many rules, but none more sacred than the idea of equality.
“Our aim is to take good men and make them better,” Worshipful Master Stewart Freeman tells me as the men prepare for rehearsal.
Every Friday members of the lodge gather to hone their craft and to make sure they are ready to conduct meetings.
This rehearsal would be followed by one later that night so members who were unable to attend could still get their practice in.
Around the room stood about 15 masons from across different lodges in the North-West. Devonport, Burnie, Emu Point and Penguin lodges were all represented.
As more members filed in Freeman continued to explain how meetings work.
He said they usually followed a similar pattern to what you would see at a local council.
First the minutes of the previous meeting are read to make sure they are accurate. Then the conversation shifts to the matters which need to be discussed.
Freeman said the items discussed at meetings could range from inductions to charity matters.
Next he walks me through the layout of the room, where every single thing is based on King Solomon’s temples, Freeman said.
“It is an allegory,” he said, explaining the significance of different objects around the room.
All of the Freemasons ceremonies and rituals have been handed down and adapted from the times of Solomon.
Each is aimed at refining and improving the men within the lodge, Freeman said.
Looking around, the lodges warrant issued by the Grand Lodge of Tasmania become apparent.
This warrant gives the lodge the right to operate and is one of four things needed for the lodge to be considered open.
The other three things a lodge must have is a volume of sacred law, usually a Bible, but it could be a Quran or text from any other religion; a quorum of seven masons; and a tracing board.
Freeman continues by explaining the three principals of Freemasonary: brotherly love, relief and truth.
He said brotherly love was all about supporting each other, relief referred to the charity work they do and truth was about living life as an honest person.
Earlier this year the North-West Freemasons helped raise about $40,000 for a Burnie resident in need of brain surgery.
They also provide scholarships so people can attend university and donate to a variety of charities throughout the year.
Last year Freemasons in Launceston donated more than 1000 blankets to the Salvation Army.
Freeman continued to explain the objects found around the lodge.
He said the tools display around the hall symbolise the different stages of masonry.
The 24 inch gauge, common gavel and chisel are emblematic of the first stage and represent the tools of preparation.
The square, level and plumb rule are associated with the second stage and symbolise guidelines for living a moral life.
The skirret, pencil and compass are representative of the third stage of masonry and are associated with planning.
While Freeman is explaining this, before more masons arrive and they start rehearsal, he asserts another important rule for all masons.
Religion and politics are not to be discussed in the lodge he said.
“You have to believe in a supreme being,” Freeman said, but it doesn’t matter which one.
Slowly more masons begin to arrive and as the group swells Freeman decides it is time to start rehearsal. The masons present take their positions for the coming practice, some in unfamiliar roles others where they always would be.
One goes to the main chair, which is referred to as the east – even if it doesn’t align geographically – one to the north and one to the west.
The meeting starts with the bang of three gavels. First from the Worshipful Master, the man sitting in the east, then the senior warden, sitting in the west, and finally the junior warden.
Each position carries with it a certain significance.
From the outside looking in it may seem a little strange. A group of men gathered carrying out old-timey traditions.
Their hands placed across their hearts saluting as they recite carefully manicured phrases which seem to be pulled straight out of the texts of Shakespeare.
But, to those involved the ceremony of it all provides a consistent structure which they can base their lives around.
Each role as import as the next and each manned by someone at a different point along their journey.
After rehearsals Geoff Herbert, who manned the Northern chair, told me that nothing within the Freemasons was secret.
He said that the masons themselves had taken an oath not to reveal their secrets, but everything is available if people do their own searching.
“We are classed as a secret society because we have secrets. So does every other society,” Herbert said.
“We take an obligation not to tell anyone just to see how strong our lives are, but if you want to find out it’s all on the internet, it’s all in the library.
“If you want to go spend your time with it but we take an obligation not to tell.”
Herbert grew up around masonry. His father and grandfather were both masons and so he followed suit.
He said he enjoyed the sense of brotherhood which came from being a mason.
“[I like] the comradeship, the compassion for the members and just generally good fun,” Herbert said.
Herbert points to another mason in the crowd. “It’s nice to be in the presence of royalty” he said.
The mason he was pointing at is the 12th Earl of Dunmore Malcolm Murray. Lord Murray was the second Tasmanian to address the House of Lords in England. His father was the first.
Lord Murray recounted the tale of how he was received when he arrived in England to speak at the house.
He said the reception was wonderful with the exception of a few tabloid newspapers.
“It was sort of a big thing a Tasmanian coming over to take his seat in the House of Lords,” he said.
“My father was treated marvellously and so was I.”
For Lord Murray, like Herbert, masonry is a family affair. His father was a mason and so now is his son.
“He is a fifth generation, nearly all the Earls before me have been masons,” Lord Murray said.
“I just used to see, when I was a kid, men in their dress suits and bow ties all come to our place leave their wives … and they’d all drive off.
“I used to think every father is a mason and every mason is a father it was just natural to me.”
He said he loved the structure masonry provided.
“I just love masonry, I just love the system … it is making good men better one by one,” Lord Murray said.
“[The ceremony] is a uniformity thing … the ritual of the Grand Lodge of Tasmania, that means it doesn’t matter what lodge you go to in Tassie … it’s all the same you walk in and you’re treated the same.
“It doesn’t matter that I might be Earl of Dunmore and someone else might be a truckie in the lodge we are all equal.”
Possibly the youngest mason at the lodge on this day was Bruce Chamley. He got involved with the Freemasons at 33 because he was looking for a change from his day job.
“My family has [been involved] for years and years and I just got to an age where I wanted something different,” he said.
“I just wanted something different than farming because everything I was doing was revolved around the farm.
“My neighbour had just recently joined so I knew quite a few people in it … that was sort of the footstep to get in.”
Chamley said if there was one thing he could tell people about the masons it would be that it was not a secret society.
But he said it was hard to explain what the masons do.
“We do a lot of ceremonial stuff which is hard to explain if you haven’t seen it done,” he said.
“My son joined a year or two ago and he said ‘oh it’s just like drama at school’. And it is, it’s only acting, but we take it more seriously than that.”
Chamley was the last mason I spoke to. Because, despite all the stressing that the Freemasons were not a secret society, my visit ended and I was asked to leave so they could rehearse something I was “not allowed” to see.
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