Dermott makes his first appearance in the Antients’ General Register on 1 February 1752. He was one of two men proposed for the position of Grand Secretary, replacing John Morgan, ‘lately appointed to an office on board one of His Majesty’s ships’. Selected, Dermott immediately became the driving force behind the organisation and his administrative and marketing skills set the foundations on which its later success was built.
Dermott’s early life is subject to some conjecture. Some biographies have suggested that he was born on 24 June 1720 in Co. Roscommon and thereafter moved to Dublin. However, that would imply that his initiation into lodge No. 26 in Dublin on 14 January 1741 had occurred before he had reached 21, and although aristocrats occasionally became freemasons before reaching the legal age of maturity, it was otherwise uncommon.
Dermott was elected Master of Lodge No. 26 in June 1746. He left for England the following year, arriving in London in 1747 or 1748 and working as a journeyman painter. In the Antients Grand Lodge Minutes of 13 July 1753, Dermott notes the difficulties he has in delivering Grand Lodge Summonses since ‘he was obliged to work twelve hours in the day for the Master Painter who employed him’. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this was James Hagarty, variously spelt Hagerty or Hagarthy, a past Master of Antients Lodge No. 4. Hagarty chaired the Grand Committee that appointed Dermott the new Grand Secretary and although he was described as a ‘painter in Leather Lane’, Hagarty was more probably an employer not an employee.
Dermott’s marriages, his son’s baptism, and his place of burial, indicate that he was a Protestant. He married Protestants, his son was baptised into the Church of England, and Dermott was buried at St Olave’s, Southwark, a Church of England graveyard. Some members of his family in Dublin were also Protestants but others were Catholic, including his uncle, Anthony Dermott. The Dermotts were Dublin-based merchants who traded principally with the Baltic and continental Europe.
Dermott’s grandfather and head of the family in the early eighteenth century was Christopher Dermott, who traded from Usher’s Quay on the south bank of the Liffey. He had one son, Thomas, by his first marriage, and five children, three boys and two girls, by his second. It is not known whether his first wife died in childbirth but this was common at the time. Christopher Dermott’s Will bequeathed his estate to his ‘dearly beloved wife Mary Dermott and to my five children by her viz., Anthony, Michael, Stephen, Ann and Mary’, suggesting a possible falling out with Thomas.
Thomas, Laurence Dermott’s father, also traded with the Baltic, mainly in timber. His premises were in New Row, a northern extension of Francis Street and a hundred yards south of Ushers Quay. Dermott’s move to London may indicate a journey triggered by relative poverty or a falling out with his family, or more probably a desire for greater independence. London was the largest city in Europe and the centre of Britain’s Empire. It attracted those seeking opportunity and Dermott upgraded his occupation and status from jobbing painter to the more secure position of wine merchant via three judicious marriages. His second wife, Mary Dwindle, was tenant-manager of The Five Bells Tavern, a role that Dermott later assumed. The tavern was substantial, with premises sufficiently large to accommodate concerts and public meetings. Indeed, the Antients’ met at the Five Bells on a regular basis from December 1752 until 1771.
A year or so after Mary’s death, Dermott moved from The Five Bells to King Street in St Botolph Aldgate in the City of London. The relocation was triggered by a third marriage to Elizabeth Merryman, the widow of a successful wine merchant. They subsequently bought another property at Mile End, then a semi-rural hamlet. Laurence and Elizabeth had a son within a year. Named for his father, he was christened at St Botolph Without, close to their King Street premises. Elizabeth also had a daughter from her previous marriage, Sarah, who inherited the principal part of her estate.
Dermott had become relatively affluent by the time of his third marriage, something indicated by his donations to Masonic charities and financial contributions to the Antients Grand Lodge. In 1766, before his wedding in November that year but after his marriage to Mary Dwindle, Dermott subscribed five guineas to help to pay the debts of a brother freemason held in Newgate and an additional ten pounds to the Antients Grand Charity. The following year he donated a Grand Master’s throne at a cost of £34, the equivalent of perhaps £3,500 today. But aside from the wealth derived through his marriages and his tenancy at The Five Bells he had another source of income: his royalties from Ahiman Rezon.
Published in 1756 and dedicated to the Earl of Blessington, described as ‘a father to the fraternity’, the text was based on Spratt’s Irish Constitutions (1751), itself copied from Anderson’s rewritten Constitutions. Ahiman Rezon ran to at least six editions in England during Dermott’s lifetime and at least another six in the two decades to 1813, when the Antients entered merged with the Moderns. The book was also sold elsewhere, including Ireland, where over twenty editions were printed, and in the American colonies, where it was adopted as the basis for the constitutions of most State Grand Lodges. Other editions of Ahiman Rezon were published by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1783 and the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia in 1786; Virginia and Maryland produced their own versions in 1791 and 1797, respectively, as did South Carolina and Georgia a few years later.
Notwithstanding his achievements (and perhaps because of them), some four decades after the union of the Antients ands Moderns and six decades after his death, it became commonplace for Masonic historians to vilify Dermott. William Laurie in his History of Freemasonry wrote that ‘much injury has been done to the cause of the Antients… by Laurence Dermott… the unfairness with which he has stated the proceedings of the Moderns, the bitterness with which he treats them and the quackery and vainglory with which he displays his superior knowledge, deserve to be reprobated by every class of Masons who are anxious for the purity of their Order and the preservation of the clarity and mildness which ought to characterise all their proceedings’. Albert Mackey wrote of Dermott in a similar vein: ‘as a polemic, he was sarcastic bitter, uncompromising and not altogether sincere or veracious’. Mackey nonetheless acknowledged that Dermott was ‘in intellectual attainments… inferior to none… and in a philosophical appreciation of the character of the Masonic institution he was in advance of the spirit of his age’. Robert Gould’s view of Dermott was of an ‘unscrupulous writer [but] a matchless administrator’. William Hughan called his works ‘absurd and ridiculous’. And Henry Sadler commented on Dermott’s writings as ‘comical’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘scarcely worth a moment’s thought’. Antipathy towards Dermott dated back a century and Gould’s observation that ‘in Masonic circles, Dermott was probably the best abused man of his time’ was accurate.