Freemasons: Sheffield woman dispels the myths about masons and reveals their true purpose
Forget the stories you may have heard about secrecy and rituals, freemasons see themselves as part of a play where their role depends on experience and their purpose is clear - to be a good person.
So says Jill Boyington, a Sheffield freemason who is keen to dispel the myths of funny handshakes and rolled up trouser legs.
Aged 60, and from Beauchief, she is the polar opposite of what you might expect. She’s funny, practical and talks a lot of sense.
Jill retired after jobs including working at the Australian embassy in the former Yugoslavia and as a PA in the Hope Valley.
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And despite being retired, she’s in her seventh year as a tour manager for Great Rail Journeys doing trips on the Trans Siberian Express and the Isle of Man ferry.
A keen cyclist, she was born in Australia, has a daughter Amy, 27, who went to school in Sheffield and now works here.
Jill is also a proud freemason. Women freemasons have actually been around for more than 70 years in Sheffield, having formed in 1949.
The Order of Women Freemasons started in 1908 in London and the grandmaster was a man. It went to women only by 1935 as the male members decided to align with the men. In 1949, a woman freemason from Manchester came to speak in Sheffield and it was decided to form a lodge.
To exist, a lodge must have a certain number of members to get it going, so women masons from London travelled to Sheffield to meet at Beechfield House, Broomhill Road, Broomhill.
More members joined and the lodge grew, moving meetings to the Brincliffe Oaks Hotel and then the Royal Victoria Hotel on the edge of the city centre.
Another move was made to the Masonic Hall in Dore before the lodge eventually settled in its current home, Tapton Hall.
Jill joined 15 years ago having never heard of the masons but took the plunge after going to a talk at Tapton and thinking it sounded interesting.
“Then I thought I’ve a daughter, dogs and I work, I can’t find time for that. I thought about it for a few years then I met a member and decided to join and I’ve not looked back,” says Jill.
The lodge is a member of the order of women freemasons, which has a grand lodge in London. Male freemasons meet 10 times a year, the women five times, and the ceremonies are the same although there are distinctions as the OWF’s website notes.
“The United Grand Lodge of England in a statement issued in 1999 acknowledged the regularity and sincerity of women’s Freemasonry, although they do not officially recognise it and their members cannot take part,” Jill adds.
“Nevertheless, many of the women’s lodges meet in temples owned by the men’s Order and informal relations are cordial and co-operative.
“Similarly, there is a reciprocal agreement extended to members of UGLE holding their meetings on our premises.”
Members must complete three ceremonies before becoming master masons. The principles are brotherly love, relief and truth. In modern terms, that is integrity, kindness and charity.
“It is about making a good person better,” says Jill. “Be kind to each other, look after each other. Charity isn’t always about raising money; it is about charitable things for people who need help. Integrity is about being an upright person with good standards. Show respect to all people.
“Some say we are a secret society doing secret things but it is actually about being good people.”
Being a freemason has given Jill confidence.
“I came to Sheffield from Australia, my husband was from Crookes but he was working away,” she adds.
“I needed to get to know people. I joined a few groups but never felt settled. When I joined the women freemasons, I felt accepted for who I was.”
She had worked at the Australian embassy in the former Yugoslavia before the civil war, met her first husband and travelled the world.
That marriage didn’t work, but she met a man from Crookes and landed in the city.
“Accepting me for who I was meant not asking about brands of clothing or shoes, but accepting who you are,” she says.
Each lodge has a master and there are ceremonies which Jill describes as like a play.
“Everybody has a role, which one depends on how far up the ladder of the lodge you are. As you learn more eventually you can become a master, it takes about six years.”
As for being secret, Jill puts it this way. “If you saw what happened in the ceremonies it is a bit like knowing what happens before you go to see The Mousetrap. The same feeling is not there.”
So what about the handshake?
“It isn’t really that. It is based on masons like the ones who built York Minster. They didn’t know how to read or write and had to have some form of communication so they did it by handshake,” Jills says.
“It is proof in the lodge of what level you are at. There are three different handshakes. I have not used them outside and I don’t use them in the lodge.”
Then there’s the rituals.
“The lack of knowledge about freemasonry means there are so many conspiracy theories around,” Jill says.
“As soon as someone is known as a freemason some say that’s a bit dodgy. Nothing like that takes place, it is people’s lack of understanding.”
Maybe that is to do with the regalia.
“The stonemasons wore aprons to cover themselves from dirt. When you look at them, it tells you what level they are at and whether they have been a master or just joined,” Jill adds.
Like a police officer and the stripes on their epaulettes. As for the rolled-up trouser leg it means a mason’s skin touches the lodge so there is physical contact between you and the lodge.
It's just a very old and peculiar way of emphasising the fact that you have entered an organisation that you are never going to renege on.
Freemasonry for women came to this country from France in 1902 in the form of mixed lodges. Famous women freemasons include Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and Lady Eva de Clifford, an ex-chorus girl and teenage nude model for the painter Whistler.
No stereotypes there. As for charitable causes supported by the Sheffield lodge, they include WORK at Bents Green which gives opportunities for people with learning disabilities to develop life skills which helps to build confidence and self esteem. The OWF has also helped Amy’s House in Arbourthorne which caters for children aged 5-18 with special needs.
“We raise large amounts of money for charity by holding social events, and these also give members the opportunity to get to know each other on an informal basis,” says the website.
“Each worshipful master selects, during her year of office, a charity particularly dear to her and often local to her lodge. The money raised during her year is shared equally between the charity and the Order's Charities at Grand Lodge.
“At our centenary celebrations in 2008, half a million pounds was presented to two cancer charities and in 2017 almost every lodge held events and took part in a local Race for Life run.
“During 2020 the Trustees of the Order of Women Freemasons' Grand Charitable Trust donated £300,000 to help those in distress during these difficult times. The money was divided between Children in Need, St John Ambulance, Salvation Army food banks and Women’s Aid to help fund the assistance given to those experiencing domestic violence.
“In 2021 the OWF participated in the NHS Social Care and Frontline Workers' Day on July 5. Lodges throughout the country held garden parties at 1pm on the day and £15,000 was raised for the NHS charities.”
Impressive, as is Tapton Hall, on Shore Lane, Broomhill, where they and more than 20 lodges met. It is a multifunctional venue and restaurant, specialising in hosting weddings, celebrations and corporate events of all kinds. Nestled away in the trees it blends the finest Sheffield traditions with modern facilities.
Which is why the Sheffield women love meeting there. They are lodge 33 of more than 250 in the country. They are called Constancy and Faith and have 27 members with a waiting list. There are also lodges in Australia, Spain and South Africa. If you want to join, visit the OWF website and Jill will arrange a member to talk to you.
“It is a gradual process,” she says. “The requirement is to be a good person, you don’t have to earn a certain amount of money, you have to be 21 or over and have a belief in a supreme being.
“It is not religious but you need to have that belief and have to be a good person. We invite those interested to social events and see if they like who we are and whether they get on with us. It usually takes about 18 months before they join.”
For membership details, the website is owf.org.uk