Unravelling Seaford’s Masonic secrets

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In March 2012, the Grand Secretary of the Freemasons launched the first report in an effort to make freemasonry an open and transparent organisation. With this in mind, I thought I would find out more about local freemasonry and headed off to their national headquarters – Freemason’s Hall in London. The massive art-deco style building is certainly impressive and well worth a visit and I must say that I had a very friendly and warm welcome. I was directed to a wood panelled library where I found out more about masons, and in particular, freemasonry in Seaford.

The origin of freemasonry is shrouded in mystery and there were once claims that it could be traced back to biblical times, even Noah! However, the first known meeting of the modern organisation can be traced to a meeting at a pub near St Paul’s Cathedral in 1717. Prior to this, there had been small Masonic groups which probably started as social groups for stone-masons.

There was an early Masonic organisation in Sussex based at Chichester known as the “Lodge of Harmony”. The “Howard Lodge”, based in Arundel, was also an early lodge. The “Royal Clarence Lodge” was set up in Brighton in 1789 and in 1796 the Lewes Lodge was opened as the “South Saxons” A lodge was established in Seaford the following year.

The first meeting of the Seaford Freemasons was held in a pub – The Old Tree Inn in Broad Street on Tuesday, November 7, 1797. James Cook Junior was appointed as Worshipful Master, William Hamilton was appointed Senior Warden and Nathaniel Beard (a local brewer) the Junior Warden.

The other founding members were John Kinningburgh, Morgan Davies, John McDoll, Henry Reed, William Wood (A freeman of the town) Ephraim Insket and John Perry. The Lodge was known as the “Royal Cinque Port Lodge”.

The men were sworn in using a “Breeches Bible” of 1589. This bible has Genesis 3:7 printed as “and they sowed figge-tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches” (the King James version of the bible uses the word “aprons”). Although there is a Breeches Bible on display under the tower at St Leonard’s Church, the actual bible used is now under the care of the Curator of the Sussex Masons at their archives in Brighton.

It is likely that some of the Seaford Lodge founders were part of the military garrison at that time and others were already members of other Sussex lodges. In 1917 Louis Meadow, a Brighton Freemason, traced the roots of his lodge back to the Old Tree Inn in Seaford and visited the room where the first meetings were held. He described the building as being ancient but with a modern front and that the Lodge Room was long and narrow. (The Old Tree Inn was demolished in 1965).

In 1801 the venue for lodge meetings was moved to the Pelham Arms off the High Street. (Now called the “V-Bar”) On June 24, 1802, some of the Seaford masons would have attended a meeting of all Sussex Lodges at the Norfolk Arms Inn at Arundel. That same year a new Worshipful Master was appointed for Seaford, The Reverend Thomas Evans. Thomas Evans was an interesting character who I wrote about a few months ago. You may remember that he was involved in several “punch-ups” and the press called him “The Pugilistic Parson”

In 1813, the Lodge number for Seaford was changed from 566 to 587 and in 1817 The Reverend Evans was replaced as Worshipful Master by John Ashby. Unfortunately early records for the Seaford Masonic Lodge are missing but it is clear that there was regular contact with the masons in Brighton and Lewes.

In the 1820s membership of the Seaford masons declined and on 1st December 1822 just three people attended the lodge. During this meeting a resolution was passed and agreed that the lodge be moved to Brighton. The next meeting was held on 31st December 1822. Eleven people were present but of these, five were visitors, one of them being Charles Bew from Brighton. Bew was a surgeon-dentist who practiced from a building in East Street, Brighton. His aim was the transfer of the lodge westwards to Brighton and indeed at this meeting John Ashby passed over the reins to him and he was appointed Worshipful Master of the lodge. Another visitor to attend this meeting at Seaford was Sake Deen Mahomed, an Indian gentleman who was known for his “shampooing baths” in Brighton. He was the ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ to George IV and is also credited with opening the first Indian restaurant in the country!

The first meeting of the Seaford Lodge in Brighton was on 28th January 1823 at the Royal York Hotel and the lodge applied for their name to be changed to the ‘Royal York Lodge’ To celebrate their change of venue and name, a festival was held on May 15.

There was a ‘sumptious dinner’ and according to reports ‘the evening was spent in brotherly affection and conviviality during which many loyal, patriotic and Masonic toasts were drunk.’ After the meal Brothers, Gutterindge, Palmet and Sheppard entertained the company with ‘songs and glees in superior style’

But not everyone was happy. One of the members, the Reverend S J Tufnell, was obviously concerned about the move of the lodge from Seaford.

He made a formal complaint and on July 25 the lodge was suspended for an enquiry to be held. Eventually it was decided that the complaint was ‘frivolous, vexatious and unfounded ‘and the lodge was restarted again in November. The lodge continues to meet to this day.

Presumably, with no lodge, Seaford freemasons had to attend meetings in Lewes, Brighton or Eastbourne but at the turn of the last century there was sufficient interest to rekindle the flame of freemasonry in Seaford. More about the Seaford Freemasons next week.