In the mid-eighteenth century, the town of Colne in North East Lancashire had more than its share of poverty and distress, largely due to a transition from woollen hand-loom weaving to the production of cotton piece goods. Apart from the meagre provision of Parish Relief, there were no welfare services to succour the needy. Yet, like most Northern communities, Colne had its Sick and Burial Societies to provide some kind of assistance for a man and his family, should he fall on hard times.
Such a society was the “Freemasons or Friendly Society” held at the Hole-in-the-Wall, Colne, Lancashire. The Articles of this Society, dated 1757, suggest that, in addition to its work of benevolence, Freemasonry was being practised by its members and other documentary evidence supports the view that this irregular Lodge or Friendly Society had been working in Colne so long ago as 1732.
In 1758 the members decided to regularise the position, for in September of that year, five of their number were initiated in the Lodge of Relief (now No. 42) in Bury, and to three of these a Warrant was issued on the 4th of February 1762, delayed probably because of a change in the Provincial Grand Mastership of Lancashire. The earliest minute book, in fact, provides evidence that modern Freemasonry was being practised by the Brethren initiated in Bury from at least March,1760.
This first Minute book (1760-1775),called the “Forfitt’s Book” contains the first By-Laws, with a list of 35 names, which are of course those of the founder members and the initiates down the latter years. ln addition, it records the fines imposed on members for various offences, the Lodge accounts and the first brief minutes. Following the pattern of most Masonic records at that time, these minutes give merely the dates and names of the officers; the latter comprised the Master, Deputy Master, two Wardens, Boxmaster (Treasurer) and two Stewards. These accounts reveal that, after paying the combined entrance and proposal free of 10/6d (ten shillings and six pence), the candidate had to pay a further 4/6d (four shillings and six pence) for “the second step”. (The modern equivalent of these is fifty two and a half pence and twenty two and a half pence respectively.)
In 1769 mention is made of a contribution, “Paid to the Grand Charity 10/6d”. The accounts show that charity was regularly disbursed both to members and to travelling Brethren.
The Old Charges
Although the “Forfitt’s Book” is the oldest dated evidence in the possession of the Lodge, there are other manuscripts of even greater Masonic interest. These are what are generally known as “THE COLNE OLD CHARGES OF MASONS”, which have in the past engaged the attention of many Masonic historians. The penmanship alone offers evidence of their great age, and it is reasonably certain that Manuscript No. 1 was written between 1670 and 1700, and Manuscript No. 2. Between 1720 and 1740. Nobody knows how they came into the possession of the Lodge, but it has always been assumed that they were used in the ceremonial of early days. Masonic historians agree that the “Old Charges of Masons” have been handed down from the days of operative masonry, and it is possible that the two “Colne Old Charges” came into the possession of the members of the Freemasons Friendly Society in some way, and were used in their ceremonies in the 18th century. These “Colne Old Charges” are now in the safe keeping of Grand Lodge in Great Queen Street, London.
Although the early minutes give little indication of the real work in the Lodge, it is obvious that the members must have been most enthusiastic,for,in May, 1769, a warrant was issued to the Cana Chapter of the First Miracle, No. 5 (now No.116), one of the oldest warranted Chapters in existence.
Then, too, there were records of other degrees, for a warrant was issued in 1805 to the Plains of Tabor Preceptory, No.13 (now No.110) for the Knight Templar degree, which had been working unofficially for some time. The minutes also provide evidence that Mark Masonry was being practised. It is of interest to remark here, that prior to the Union of 1813, none of these extraneous degrees was recognised by the Grand Lodge of England, to which Royal Lancashire Lodge was attached, and that only the Royal Arch was recognised by United Grand Lodge.
The Old Minute Books
From December, 1775, the date of the last entry in the “Forfitt’s Book” until the first entry in the second Minute Book, dated 27th February, 1782, there are no Lodge minutes as such, but, from the account books and the records of Grand Lodge, it is obvious that the Lodge continued to work, for, during that period, many Brethren were registered.
Following a sudden influx of new members in 1788, a warrant was issued to Royal Yorkshire Lodge (now No. 265) at Keighley. All the Founders were members of Royal Lancashire Lodge. This, the first Daughter Lodge, has had a tremendous influence in the Craft, being the fount from which have sprung almost 100 Lodges in West Yorkshire.
Great social and political changes were taking place at this time, which is reflected in a list of names and occupations of members of the Lodge, submitted to the Clerk of Peace in 1799 in accordance with the Secret Societies Act of that year. This list indicates the widely differing types of men that masonry was attracting into its ranks at that time. There was serious industrial unrest. Also, in this part of Lancashire, and with Napoleon threatening an invasion of England, the international situation was extremely grave. All these factors are reflected in the records of the Lodge, causing low attendance at meetings, the near bankruptcy of the charity fund, irregularity of meetings and a scarcity of candidates; but somehow the Lodge continued to function in spite of these drawbacks.
The Chartist Riots
By 1818, the ousting of hand labour by machinery, together with the Corn Laws, caused severe unemployment and distress and led to the Chartist movement. Yet the Lodge continued to carry out the ancient customs of the order and disburse its charity to the needy members as well as to many Masons travelling in search of work. Conditions in the town were getting progressively worse. By 1840, hundreds of people being out of work, with many dying of malnutrition and fever. Agitators moved silently into the town, secret meetings were organised by the Chartists, improvised weapons were made and hidden and the scene was set for one of the saddest episodes in the annals of Colne.
On the night of the 10th August 1840 (the regular Lodge night for Royal Lancashire Lodge), the Chartist and machine breakers clashed with the police, severe fighting and much bloodshed ensuing. The military were brought in to restore order and many people were seriously injured. The Master of Royal Lancashire Lodge, Joseph Halstead, serving as a Special Constable, was found lifeless in a side street. He was buried a few days later in the presence of his Brother Masons.
Attendances during this period of unrest were often as low as four or five and for several years there were no new candidates. Then, too, many of the Brethren were in arrears with their subscriptions and the affairs of the Sick Club were wound up. For some years it looked as though only a miracle could save the Lodge from extinction, when suddenly, in 1852, there came a change of fortune. During that year three prominent men, two of them members of an old and respected Colne family, the Parkers, joined the Lodge and a new secretary was appointed. The miracle had happened. From then onwards meetings were regularly held, the ceremonies carried out thoroughly and correctly, the minute and account books being properly written up. As a result, applications to join the Lodge came from a succession of well known personalities in and around Colne, landowners, professional men and representatives of a new class, the industrialists. The last-named were the men responsible for the founding and expansion of the new power-driven weaving and spinning concerns, which were, in succeeding decades, to change the face of Lancashire and turn what had largely been an agricultural community into an industrial one. History was being made and was reflected even in the annals of this obscure Masonic Lodge in the windswept town upon the hill.
In 1853, Colonel Thomas Goulburn Parker, J.P., D.L., of Browsholme Hall, head of the Parker family, joined the Lodge. In the years to come he was to take a most active part in its affairs and in those of the Province, of which he eventually became Senior Warden. Through his influence and that of his wide circle of friends, the Lodge prospered. The introduction of the railway too, led to an interchange of visits with other Lodges, which helped the members of the Lodge to be kept better informed on Masonic matters and to build up a high standard of working.
The amount of money expended on relief gradually diminished, an indication that conditions were improving and that poverty and distress which had overshadowed the district for so many years, were giving way to happier times.
The Centenary of the issue of the Warrant was celebrated when Provincial Grand Lodge held its Quarterly meeting at Colne on the 4th September, 1862, and in 1863 its number was changed to 116. Here it may be remarked that it had 8 numbers during its existence. The Centenary Warrant, however, was presented only in 1883, by Major Nicholas Le Gendre Starkie, R.W. Provincial Grand Master, an event 21 years overdue.
Other Events Of Interest
A second Daughter Lodge, Queens Jubilee, No.2193, Nelson, was founded in 1887 and, in the same year, Royal Lancashire Lodge raised a substantial sum of money for the East Lancashire Systematic Masonic and Educational Fund, the forerunner of the East Lancashire Masonic Benevolent Institution, now East Lancashire Masonic Charity.
New Lodge furniture was bought and dedicated in 1890 to replace that which had been in use since 1760.
A Lodge of emergency was called for on the 19th of October, 1912, when the Sesqui-Centenary was celebrated, and the Lodge received the congratulations of the Provincial Grand Master, the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Derby.
In 1922 a third Daughter Lodge, Colne, No. 4402, was founded and, in 1929, a warrant was issued to a fourth Daughter Lodge, Roses Lodge, No. 5140.
On the 21st of October 1960, a Bi-Centenary Warrant was issued and dated 27th March 1960, the Centenary Warrant being engrossed with an amendment to this effect, even though the original Warrant is dated 1762.
The Last 50 Years
In the last fifty years we have made steady progress, initiating, passing and raising nearly ninety candidates and we have had seven personal 50th celebrations and one personal 60th. We can continue to look towards the future with optimism.