A COUPLE of things Roger Farris wants to make clear from the start: there’s no naked chest beating, there’s no drinking wine from skulls and there’s no shadowy pacts of illegal loyalty.
The 78-year-old Master of Sheffield’s oldest freemason lodge thinks for a second.
“There are secrets I won’t discuss,” he says. “Secrets about ceremonies, rituals, passwords. Nothing to cause concern but part of one’s obligation is to keep them secret. I’m an honourable man and I won’t break that obligation.”
Welcome, reader, to Tapton Masonic Hall.
Here in this grand building off Fulwood Road a very special, but perhaps little known, anniversary is being celebrated. Sheffield’s oldest freemason group, the Britannia Lodge No 139 is 250 years old.
For two and a half centuries, this brethren of men have donned their aprons, rolled up their trousers (“that one is true,” says Roger), and swore obligations on pains of having their throat cut...
In fact, that last one isn’t quite right any more. The threat of throat slashing was only ever symbolic and feeling it overly gruesome the penalty was removed from the lodge’s oath in 1986.
Less headline-grabing, the fraternity also does a huge amount of charity work - the Freemasons are the largest givers to charity in the UK apart from the National Lottery - seek self-improvement and enjoy the society of like-minded men.
That’s something else Roger wants to make clear.
“There are a lot of myths about freemasonry, perhaps because of those secrets,” says the retired company secretary. “But, above all else, this is a fraternal and charitable organisation.
“Britannia Lodge has just given £10,000 to St Luke’s Hospice and we have a lovely social side where we have dinner after meetings which themselves sometimes include educational lectures.
“There are rituals too and I personally enjoy the theatrical element of that. There are three degrees of being a freemason and each time one progresses, there is a ceremony. I won’t go into what takes place because it would ruin it but it is all a performance.”
It has ever been thus.
Indeed, one inventory dating back to 1764 hints at the nature of said performance, revealing the lodge owned “four truncheon” and a “large sandbag”.
If that reveals a little about the history, however, much of the origins remain shrouded in mystery.
We know the lodge was founded by a chap called J D Preston, who became first Master, but who he was or why he set it up remains unclear.
Roger, who joined the lodge in 1969 after being proposed by his father, reckons it could have been because soldiers stationed in Sheffield in the mid-18th century brought the idea from the south.
Early members included inn keepers, solicitors and gentlemen, while the group was nomadic for its first 100 years based in various different locations including a room in Paradise Square.
It eventually settled in 1879 in a specially built building in Surrey Street, today The Graduate pub, before moving to Tapton Hall in the 1960s.
Now in 2011 there are about 900 masons in Sheffield in 26 different lodges at Tapton Hall, and another 12 in Dore.
“It makes you proud to be part of something with such history,” says Roger, whose son Timothy is also a member. “There are people who say it has no place in the modern age but I disagree. Freemasons do a tremendous amount of good work and offers its brethren real camaraderie. I just hope Britannia Lodge will celebrate its 500th anniversary.”