The first Grand Lodge of England – the ‘Moderns’ – entered into more than a decade of decline in the late 1730s. The Masonic historian, Robert Gould, characterised this period as one of ‘Masonic misrule’. During the 1740s, more than forty lodges, around a fifth of those on the grand register, were expelled by Grand Lodge. Others left of their own accord or chose to operate independently.

Cessation where lodge membership had declined to an unsustainably low level was a relative commonplace. But exclusion for not attending Grand Lodge’s Quarterly Communications or a failure to contribute to the Grand Charity (thus demonstrating insufficient respect for Grand Lodge) was novel. The policy marked a new, uncompromising approach, and was a significant shift from the more emollient stance of the preceding two decades.

The minutes of the lodge at the Shakespeare’s Head in Little Marlborough Street give an insight into the deteriorating relationship between English Grand Lodge and at least some of London’s lodges. On 12 January 1740, a letter from the Grand Secretary was read to the lodge. Referring to the absence of the lodge’s representatives from the most recent Quarterly Communication, the Grand Secretary informed the Master that ‘unless the officers of the lodge … attend Quarterly Communication … or send in their charity, the [lodge’s] constitution would be lost’. The reprimand was intended to be taken at face value and the Master advised the members that he had responded on behalf of the lodge and had sent half a guinea to the Grand Secretary with a request that it be paid to the Grand Charity ‘on behalf of this society’ at the next Quarterly Communication.

But at the meeting on 23 February 1740, only six weeks later, the minutes record receipt of a second letter from the Grand Secretary. Read to the members, the letter commanded the senior officers of the lodge to attend the Grand Master at the Quarterly Communication the following night. The minutes record that the lodge was reluctant to comply, the Master commenting that ‘as the interests of the lodge had been secured [at] the last QC, it was not thought fit at this time to put the society to the charge of this attendance’.

Only a small number of individual lodge minute books from the early and mid-eighteenth century survive and most are anodyne, listing the names of those members present, the officers, and the fees paid or outstanding. Few provide detailed reports of individual meetings. Nonetheless, despite the absence of such evidence, it is reasonable to assume that the letter received by the Shakespeare’s Head was not unusual and that other lodges would have received analogous correspondence. It is also clear that the Shakespeare’s Head’s unease was not new. The minutes of 11 December 1738 and 9 April 1739 both record the lodge’s disapproval of Grand Lodge’s insistence on the central collection of Masonic charity and the members’ discomfort over their lack of influence over its disbursement.

The Shakespeare’s Head was not a naturally rebellious lodge. The opposite was the case. Fourteen members, half the total, were members of the influential King’s Arms lodge in the Strand, later the ‘Old King’s Arm’s’, No. 28. A driving force at both was Martin Clare (1688-1751), an epitome of Masonic loyalty. He had been selected as a Grand Steward in 1734, appointed Junior Grand Warden in 1735 and made Deputy Grand Master in 1741. Clare was also connected to many of freemasonry’s elder statesmen, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1735, proposed by a slate of influential freemasons including the pivotal Desaguliers. Clare was also a prolific Masonic lecturer who had been one of freemasonry’s flag carriers in promoting educational self-improvement:

The chief pleasure of society – viz., good conversation and the consequent improvements – are rightly presumed … to be the principal motive of our first entering into then propagating the Craft … We are intimately related to those great and worthy spirits who have ever made it their business and aim to improve themselves and inform mankind.

If a lodge such as the Shakespeare’s Head was demonstrably unhappy with the strictures of Grand Lodge, it is reasonable to believe that Masonic discontent may have been not uncommon.

Successive Grand Masters compounded Masonic discontent, particularly the absentee William Byron, 5th lord Byron, (1722-1798). During his time as Grand Master disaffection percolated into even the most loyal of lodges, including the Grand Stewards’ lodge, which expressed its dissent in 1749 by declining to contribute to the Grand Charity collection and neither attending Grand Lodge nor contributing to charity in succeeding years. Indeed, withholding charity and declining to participate in the formal Masonic processions that accompanied meetings of Grand Lodge became a standard means by which the Grand Stewards registered their opposition.

The disciplinary procedures adopted by Grand Lodge to enforce its rules were harsh, with tens of lodges erased from the official list for ‘not attending the Grand Master in Quarterly Communication’.  Among them was the Horn Tavern, the Duke of Richmond’s lodge, de facto the most senior of all London’s Masonic lodges and historically one of the most influential. The lodge pre-dated Grand Lodge, had been the principal instrument in its creation, and had served as a spawning ground for Grand Officers.

The Horn had sufficient stature to allow it to function without recourse to Grand Lodge and remained unaffiliated for six years until George Payne, also a member of the OKA, interceded. Following a compromise, the Horn agreed to pay a contribution of two guineas to the Grand Charity and in 1751 was reinstated to the grand register.