'˜We are a force for good ... our doors are always open'
Once again the aged orders of Freemasonry have been thrust into the spotlight, with no less a figure than their chief executive urging an end to 'discrimination' against members.
But away from yet another spat with entrenched opponents in the national press, the essence of being a Freemason means something else to hundreds of Wiganers, who meet every month, and more, as part of 19 lodges within the borough.
I sat down with David Ogden, vice-chairman of the Wigan group, publicity officer Barry Dickinson and Kevin Poynton, an Assistant Provincial Grand Master for West Lancashire, to discuss what it means to belong to the order in 2018.
And while the rites and rituals which many associate with the organisation are still faithfully observed, there are determined efforts to “demystify” Freemasonry, as it goes from strength to strength in Wigan.
An unassuming but solid presence, the headquarters of Freemasonry in Wigan must be passed by hundreds of motorists each day.
Bryn Masonic Hall stands at one of the gateways to the South Lancs Industrial Estate – but the traditions it represents comfortably pre-date the factories revolution which makes the area thrive now.
The former Lindsay Lodge, which has a home there, can trace its history back to the days of the Earl of Balcarres, who bequeathed members a 17th century bible which is still used in ceremonies.
And the borough’s oldest still, the Lodge of Antiquity, now combined with Norley and Langtree lodges, traces it birthright back to June 1786.
Yet it’s the modern appeal of Freemasonry which the likes of David Ogden, Wigan Group vice-chairman, and publicity officer Barry Dickinson are eager to stress.
Wigan-born David, who has run his own coach firm in Haydock for many years, said there was currently more than a dozen men awaiting an interview, after expressing an interest in joining locally.
This was above and beyond those who were introduced to lodges by existing members, added Barry, a retired policeman from Ashton.
Kevin Poynton, an Assistant Provincial Grand Master for West Lancashire, an area for these purposes stretching from South Manchester to Barrow, said the interview process was an important process.
It helped to establish why a member wants to be enrolled, to see whether they have a belief in a higher power, a central tenet of Freemasonry, he explained.
He added: “Freemasonry is not life-changing but it does alter your life, in the morals and the teachings that you live by. You can always say about Freemasonry that it can help to make a good man better.”
Part of the controversy nationally (and a well-worn criticism historically) has revolved around the perceived benefits of being a Freemason, the mysterious loyalties which are said to give members an unfair edge.
For the Freemasons locally, with a proud record of supporting the likes of Wigan and Leigh Hospice and Derian House, the altruism and cameraderie of membership have far more bearing.
Barry said: “People do become a Freemason, at times, and we find out that they have joined for the wrong reasons. But they don’t usually last long.”
An estimated Â£50,000 is raised annually through the various lodges, with the beneficiaries often depending on individual causes which have come to the attention of members.
One charity which has been given a number of donations is More Than Words, a community interest company based at The Pier Centre, which uses drama therapy to help adults and young people with learning difficulties.
Not only has a stage and programmes been provided for the group but with a sportsman’s dinner, to be held at Bryn on June 9, it is hoped extra equipment and lighting can be funded.
Barry added: “The vast majority of the money we raised is by members, and their friends and families, putting in a pound here, a pound there.“We’ll be having a raffle at the dinner and people will contribute small amounts to help out.”
An annual charity fundraising week to Loch Lomond, with coaches laid on by David, saw Wigan Freemasons joined by colleagues from Warrington, Ormskirk and Bootle.
By the time of their return, Â£5,160 had been collected, to be split between the groups.
“It’s not just about collecting money, through these fund-raisers, but there is a strong social aspect to it and everyone enjoyed themselves immensely,” said Barry.
Often the lodges also stage ladies nights, as a token of appreciation for wives and partners who support members with their Masonic duties.
Plans have also been announced for the West Lancashire Freemasons to fund two new machines for the North West Blood Bikes, to join significant recent contributions to the North West Air Ambulance and St John’s Ambulance.
Last year Freemasonry celebrated its Tercentenary nationally and distributed Â£30m on behalf of its charity appeals.David added: “When we raise money the majority will come from members, their families and friends, that for me is something that we don’t emphasise enough.”
For Kevin, the Freemasons’ ability to occasionally cut through red tape, demonstrated in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, can also speak volumes.
An immediate need for fire appliances, which could tackle blazes in 20-storey plus tower blocks, was identified in the aftermath. But question marks were raised over how they would be paid for.
Lodges in the metropolitan area stepped in and placed orders for two turn-table ladder engines, using their own funding, added Kevin.
Recent times have seen the face of Freemasonry changing, according to David, with a number of the city centre lodges, where members would call on their way home from work, giving way to chapters located in the suburbs, to where populations have gradually switched.
Today there are two other Masonic halls in the Wigan grouping, at Hindley and Pemberton, after the Wigan town centre premises in the Tower Buildings were sold off, amid mounting repair costs, several years ago.
Seven lodges are also based at Leigh Masonic Hall, which is home to the Ellesmere Suite, off Spinning Jenny Way. The first lodge was said to have been founded there in 1732 but the oldest surviving branch is the Marquis of Lorne, which dates back to 1871.
Proposals have been discussed for Freemasons, from Wigan to Watford, to stage their own “open evenings”, in the near future, to explain how the organisation works first-hand.
In the days following the Observer’s conversation with David Ogden, it was announced that he too will be installed as an Assistant Provincial Grand Master for West Lancs. His role as Wigan vice-chairman is being taken by John Selley.