A colourful feature of town life in Britain from the founding of the Grand Lodge in London in 1717 until the Second World War were the public processions by Freemasons. These processions were undertaken for a variety of reasons: ceremonies associated with the laying of the foundation stones of public buildings; attendance at church services; special theatrical performances for masonic lodges; and attendance at the annual feast of the Grand Lodge. Masonic processions raise many interesting questions in connection with the social function of urban space and the expression of civic and social identity. They also challenge our preconceptions of Freemasonry as a secret society. It is difficult to depict Freemasonry as a mysterious secret body when, for much of their history, Freemasons in Britain have publicly paraded around towns in their regalia.
Masonic processions died out in England and Wales about the time of the Second World War for reasons that are still mysterious, but some masonic processions still take place in Scotland, such as the 'Masons Walk' of the Lodge of Melrose St John No. 1 bis, which is held annually in Melrose on 27 December, the feast of St John the Evangelist. Masonic processions were the subject of the 2009 Prestonian Lecture of Dr John Wade, my former colleague at the University of Sheffield.
Masonic processions formed part of a rich processional culture in British towns which reaches back to the middle ages. Among the other bodies that paraded in this way were friendly societies, trade unions and social reforming groups such as temperance organisations. In order to understand the significance of the masonic processions, it is essential to place them in the context of this wider urban processional activity. I am currently working on a study of these themes with Professor Pamela King of the University of Bristol, but in the meantime here are three papers which present some of my reseearch on this largely forgotten feature of British civic life.
I first discussed this theme in a talk called 'Neglcted Processional Cultures' given at the Medieval English Theatre Conference at Lancaster University in April 2003:
Andrew Prescott, Neglected Processional Cultures
This second talk was also given to the Medieval English Theatre Conference, at Southampton University in March 2005. It discusses how the Godiva Procession in Coventry became 'a social battleground':
Andrew Prescott, The Godiva Procession
Finally, this paper, ‘"We had fine banners": Street Processions in the Mitchell and Kenyon Films’ was published in Vanessa Toulmin, Simon Popple and Patrick Russell (eds.) The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film (London: bfi Publishing, 2004), pp. 125-136. ISBN 1844570479.
Andrew Prescott, 'We Had Fine Banners'