Under the United Grand Lodge of England, freemasonry is the UK’s largest, secular fraternal and charitable organisation. It has over 200,000 members working in nearly 7,000 lodges throughout England and Wales, as well as Districts overseas. Founded in 1786 and with over 1,200 members, the Province of Bristol is a relatively small province. However, with its strong history, unique ceremonies and charitable donations, the Province of Bristol holds a unique place in masonry.
There were seventeen Masonic Lodges formed in Bristol during the 18th century – thirteen belonging to the ‘Moderns’ Grand Lodge and four to the ‘Antients’ – but most of them were short-lived.
The appointment of Thomas Dunckerley as Provincial Grand Master for Gloucestershire in 1784 heralded the beginning of new era for Bristol Masonry. At that time there were only six Lodges in the Province of Gloucestershire, all of which met in Bristol. Dunckerley was instrumental in constituting the Royal Gloucester Lodge, in 1785, to ensure the continuity of Freemasonry in that Province and then, in 1786, the separate Masonic Province of Bristol was created with himself as its first Provincial Grand Master.
Two of those six original Lodges are still in existence. The Beaufort Lodge celebrated 250 years of continuous working in 2008 and the Royal Sussex Lodge of Hospitality celebrated in 2019.
The Master of a Bristol Lodge still enters wearing a cocked hat – a custom dating back to the sea captains who were Masters of their Lodges in the middle of the 18th century.
The Bristol Craft ceremonies are believed to date from a period long before the Union of 1813 – one authority has suggested from about 1724. They are considerably different from those worked in the rest of the English Constitution – more elaborate and dramatic. They have affinities in many respects with Irish and American workings. These differences are what draw so many visitors from all parts of the country, and from abroad, to witness the Bristol working. They are also the reason why Bristol Lodges are so frequently asked to perform demonstrations in other Provinces.
The same is true of the Royal Arch in Bristol. One of the earliest references that we have to English Royal Arch Masonry occurs in the Minutes of a ‘Moderns’ Lodge, No. 220, meeting at the Crown Tavern in Christmas Street, Bristol, in August 1758. Bristol’s Chapter of Charity was consecrated in 1769 and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously working Chapter in existence.
The current Bristol Royal Arch working contains passages very reminiscent of surviving 18th century manuscript rituals and every Exaltation includes a ceremony of ‘Passing the Veils.’ So the Bristol Royal Arch working is also very old and substantially different from other English Chapter workings.
The Province of Bristol is now composed of thirty-eight Craft Lodges. There are also fourteen Royal Arch Chapters, seven Mark Master Mason Lodges, three Royal Ark Mariner Lodges and the Camp of Baldwyn, which embraces five Orders of Masonic Knighthood. All of these meet in the same building, which was rebuilt in 1957 after having been destroyed by enemy action in 1940. We are, therefore, a close “family” of Lodges and Chapters.