|1917 was a bleak year in Bristol - Britain had been at war for three years. For the first two years national newspapers had painted an optimistic picture of the campaign in France and enthusiastic volunteers had flocked to the front. However, between July and September 1916, over 420,000 British soldiers had died in the Battle of the Somme. Conscription had been introduced in 1916 and was being gradually extended to include married fathers in their thirties and forties. In July 1917, the British launched the third Battle of Ypres at Paschendale, in an attempt to break out of the trenches. To begin with there were encouraging gains, but by August it was clear that this offensive too was failing in its objectives - the country was sick of war.
Bristol's seamen were facing attacks by U-boats and its civilians were struggling with shortages of essential foodstuffs. By 1917 there were meat-less and potato-less days in public eating places and the government was exhorting people to eat less bread. Like most cities, Bristol was becoming a joyless place; the streets were conspicuously short of young men. There were thousands in War Hospitals in and around Bristol and many wounded soldiers in their distinctive blue uniforms, were to be seen being herded around the City on outings and excursions.
English Freemasonry was celebrating the Bi-Centenary of the formation of the First Grand Lodge. The Pro Grand Master, Lord Ampthill, had wanted 'a feast of reason and a flow of the soul'. He was keen on a demonstration of real hospitality: 'we must receive [our guests] into our homes and show them something of our lives and of English life in general.' The War, however, undermined Ampthill's ambition to create an Imperial and International event, and wartime food controls ruled out any idea of a banquet.
It was against this backdrop that our Bristol Brethren embarked on the formation of a Masonic Society. According to the first President, Dr. (later Sir) Ernest Cook, the form of a Society rather than a Lodge was chosen: 'for various reasons, chiefly financial' - there would be no requirement to pay either Grand Lodge or Provincial Grand Lodge dues.
The Society's first meeting was held on 5th October 1917 and, in his inaugural address, Dr. Cook stated: 'The objects of the Society should be to increase the interest of Brethren in Freemasonry by means of lectures, papers and discussions on its history, antiquities, ritualism and symbolism, and to provide a centre and bond of union for Masonic students in the Province of Bristol.'
The early meetings of the Society each lasted for more than two hours, during which there was no limit to the numbers of papers presented. Time was also allowed for questions and answers, and usually an object of Masonic interest was presented, such as an item of regalia, a certificate, or other artefact. There was an intermission between papers for coffee and biscuits, but for many years the Society did not dine.
Since 1925, every Bristol Craft Lodge has appointed a Masonic Society Lodge Representative. His duties are: to inform his Lodge of forthcoming meetings of the Society; to encourage Master Masons to join; and to collect questions from members of his Lodge, to be answered at the next Society meeting.
Freemasons' Hall in Park Street, where all Bristol Lodge and Chapter meetings are held, was almost completely destroyed by enemy bombing in November 1940. From then on, until the reconstructed Hall was re-opened in 1957, the Society met at a total of eleven different venues, including the Hawthorn's Hotel, the City Museum Lecture Theatre, and the Victoria Rooms.
Summer Outings were very popular from the outset, but had to be suspended during the Second World War. The outings were all made by charabanc until 1930, when the Great Western Railway Co. offered to run a special train for the Society. They offered two dining cars and submitted two alternative menus. The Committee asked the Secretary to get back to G.W.R. as the Society would need three dining cars, rather than two, to allow all the Brethren to dine, since they were hoping 120 Brethren would attend!
The Society continues to hold five meetings a year, with the option to dine afterwards, and also a Summer Outing. Annual Transactions have been published since 2004. In early December, the Society also organises a family Carol Service for the Masonic Province of Bristol.
In order to maintain interest and enthusiasm, from an early stage another
important precedent was established, namely the creation and appointment of
Bristol Masonic Society Lodge Representatives, so that every lodge in the
Province of Bristol could be informed of the Society's meetings, their virtues
extolled and more particularly to collect questions from the lodges to be
answered by the Bristol Masonic Society. Eventually the Lodge Representatives
were to become members of the General Committee itself and this is still the