Henry Norris as a Freemason: The Grand Lodge and the Grand Chapter

Last updated: January 2009


I have already had cause to mention the United Grand Lodge of England, the highest power in English freemasonry.  As with many of the English local lodges, it also had an associated Chapter, the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England.  Henry Norris achieved high rank in both.




The local lodges were self-governing on a daily basis; and chose their own members.  I’ve already illustrated, though, that to exist at all they had to apply to the Grand Lodge for permission.  If it was granted, a senior member of the Grand Lodge would come and carry out the consecration ceremony.  In being consecrated, the lodge bound itself to observe the rules of the Grand Lodge.  Appeal in disputes between members was also to the Grand Lodge.  Below the Grand Lodge, local lodges were grouped together under a provincial grand lodge, each provincial grand lodge having its own grand master and hierarchy.  But if you were ambitious to rise above your local lodge in freemasonry, the Grand Lodge was your ultimate destination.


The most senior men in freemasonry were, during Norris’ lifetime, members of the ruling classes.  When Henry Norris first became a freemason, the most senior freemason in England, the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge, was the Prince of Wales.  He resigned on becoming King Edward VII and on 20 July 1901 his brother Arthur Duke of Connaught was installed as his successor.  The Duke remained Grand Master beyond the time of Henry Norris’ death; although by the 1920s he was in poor health and spent most of his time at his villa at Cap Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur.  In the Duke’s almost permanent absence his immediate deputy, the Pro Grand Master, carried out his job. For all Norris’ time as a member of the Grand Lodge hierarchy, the Pro Grand Master was Lord Ampthill.   Below the Pro Grand Master there was a quite astonishingly long descent of ranks, I think one article I read mentioned 28, down to the lowest eligible members. 


I shall make a point here, which I’ve had cause to make about local government in Norris’ time, about the ease with which democracy can go through the motions in a hierarchical institution.  In theory, the Duke of Connaught, Lord Ampthill and the other senior unpaid ranks were elected to their posts and held them for one year only.  (There were some paid workers including the man who did the consecration ceremonies.)  However, at its main meeting in April, each year during the time Norris was eligible to attend, the Duke, the Lord and their immediate subordinates were nominated unopposed and returned to the positions they’d already held for many years by unanimous vote.  Unless they’d died, of course.  Membership of the committees that, for example, supervised the Grand Lodge’s finances, was half by appointment by the Grand Master and his advisors, and half by election.  I looked at many years’ elections and found that usually the number of nominees equalled the number of vacancies, so if you were nominated, you got in; there was no competition for places.  Lower down in those 28 ranks, you were elected to a post at a particular rank for one year, at the end of which you kept that rank as a ‘past’ holder until you were elected to one of higher rank.  I couldn’t find any evidence about the election process for these posts; I suppose it was on the basis of nomination like the more senior ones.


London Rank              


As so often in this life, London was a special case in the freemasonry, with very many lodges and lots of members, but not constituted as one of the English provinces.  This lack of any intermediate level between the local and the national was being addressed around 1909 but the hierarchy of the freemasons chose not to make London its own province.  Perhaps the grand master of London province would have been difficult to fit into the hierarchy that existed above.  Instead, a special rank was created and although I couldn’t find written evidence of exactly how you became a member, it seems to have been by recommendation, each London lodge putting forward one man each year; and as elsewhere in freemasonry, once you were in you remained in.  By September 1910 the London Rank had been established, with quarterly meetings for members at the Holborn Restaurant.  Henry Norris got London Rank in January 1912, nominated by Kent Lodge number 15, not by Fulham Lodge number 2512.  It’s not very likely that he was an active participant in the rank’s rituals and social life before the mid-1920s, however.   Its meetings were held on Wednesday evenings at the same time as the full council meeting of the London Borough of Fulham; and during debating time in the House of Commons.


Grand Lodge              


The Grand Lodge met four times a year at the Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden.  The April meeting was the most important, when the elections took place for all the rankings.  A freemason became eligible to attend meetings of the Grand Lodge once he had spent a year as an officer in a local lodge at the rank of warden and above.  So Norris was free to attend after 1900.  I daresay he did go when he could, but the minutes of Grand Lodge meetings only named the highest-ranking members present, so it was many years before I found Norris’ name in the minutes.  The first time I spotted him was when he was elected to the rank of Assistant Grand Sword Bearer on 25 April 1917; the 9th from the bottom of those 28 ranks I mentioned above, and the lowest listed in the minutes of the Grand Lodge.  Norris’ acquaintance from Kent Lodge number 15, W A Stimson, got the same rank that day. 


As with being mayor during the coronation year of 1911, it was Norris’ good fortune to get AGSB rank in 1917 because during his 12 months in office, the 200th anniversary of the Grand Lodge was due.  Despite it falling in the middle of grimmest year of World War One - during Passchendaele in fact - the anniversary was celebrated with two days of festivities at the Royal Albert Hall, on Saturday and Sunday 23 and 24 June 1917.  The Saturday began at 2.45pm with Norris and Stimson amongst 10 AGSBs who led the procession of the Grand Master into the hall.   On the Sunday morning there was a freemasons’ service at the RAH; I couldn’t find Norris’ name on the list of those who attended but only the highest ranks were named.  What is a freemasons’ service?  Is it Christian?


Norris’ and Stimson’s 12 months as AGSB were up in April 1918 and they took the rank of Past Assistant Grand Sword Bearer which in the infinitely graded world of the Grand Lodge set them higher than the current practitioners.  During his time as an MP (1919-23) Norris spent nearly all his evenings at the House of Commons and didn’t attend many of the Grand Lodge’s quarterly meetings.  However on 25 October 1922 he was at the RAH again for the investiture of the Prince of Wales (briefly Edward VIII) as Senior Grand Warden.  Norris only attended the April meetings in 1923 and 1924 but in April 1925 he was made a Junior Grand Deacon - a big step up the endless ladder as it was only seven or eight ranks below the Grand Master.  In April 1926 he attended the meeting at which he became Past Junior Grand Deacon but then didn’t attend any more meetings until 14 July 1927 when he was at the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the new freemasons’ hall, officially known as the Masonic Peace Memorial Building. (On the site of the old one, it’s the one you see at that address today.)  Fund-raising for the new building had been a prominent feature of the Grand Lodge and of the local lodges in the years since the war but Norris hadn’t played much of a part in that. 


14 July 1927 was just before fellow freemason William Hall asked the Football Association to investigate Arsenal FC’s finances.  The laying of the foundation stone was the last Grand Lodge occasion Norris attended.  He was not present in July 1933 when the Masonic Peace Memorial Building was finally opened.  He didn’t go to any more quarterly meetings.  I’ve given some evidence above that his expulsion from football in 1927-1929 was considered an embarrassment by some of the lodges of which he was a member.  If that embarrassment was a manifestation of the feelings of freemasonry as a whole, it wouldn’t have done Norris any good to continue to go to Grand Lodge meetings in search of further advancement.  Past Junior Grand Deacon was the highest rank he achieved.  Pretty good for a man who’d come out of the working-classes.


Two other acquaintances of his also did well; however they had a head-start, having begun life in the middle-classes.  Stanley Rodgers and Arthur Gilbert, the two main partners in Rodgers Gilbert and Rodgers the solicitors who did so much work for Henry Norris, both achieved Past Assistant Grand Registrar rank in the 1930s.  Gilbert also spent 12 months as one of the 19 Grand Stewards of the Grand Lodge, 1933/34.  They were both members of Kent Lodge number 15. 


Grand Chapter


Before I start I must say that I don’t know about chapters in freemasonry even as much as I’ve found out about lodges.  I can only say that you don’t seem to be able to have a chapter in isolation, you have to have a lodge first; and that to be a member of a lodge is not necessarily to be a member of its chapter. 


The minutes of the Grand Chapter are in the Freemasons’ Library just as the minutes of the Grand Lodge are.  I found they were not so detailed as the Grand Lodge’s, so I was not able to glean much information about Norris’ role there.  I was told by the volunteer at the Freemasons’ Library that  Despite being separate from the Grand Lodge the Grand Chapter had the same two men at its head as the Grand Lodge did during the time Norris’ was eligible to attend its meetings: the Duke of Connaught and Lord Ampthill.  I suppose that reflects the relationship between a local lodge and its chapter.  The Grand Chapter seems to have an equivalent eligibility requirement to the Grand Lodge: once you had served as an officer in a chapter, you could attend Grand Chapter meetings.

The Grand Chapter has a long list of ranks just like the Grand Lodge does but they are not all called by exactly the same names.  Again, I’m reliant on the Freemasons’ Library’s volunteer (where would I be without him) for my understanding of how the ranks worked.  He told me that

you had to have done some important work for the Grand Chapter to achieve one of its ranks; but not necessarily the work implied by the rank’s title: that is to say that past assistant grand sword bearers may never have borne a sword.  The Grand Chapter has ‘past’ ranks that have no ‘current’ equivalent.


Henry Norris served as MEZ of the Anglo-American Chapter number 2191 in 1911 so he would have been eligible for the Grand Chapter from that year at the latest.  However, I couldn’t find his name on the lists of attendees at Grand Chapter meetings until several years later, I guess for the same reason that only the top ranks were mentioned by name in the minutes.   Norris’ first mention was as having been at the Grand Chapter’s meeting of May 1917, which was held not at the Freemasons’ Hall but in Hotel Cecil on the Strand.  He and his fellow member of Kent Lodge number 15, W A Stimson, both became Past Deputy Grand Sword Bearer.  In May 1919 they were joined at that rank by H Busby Bird, Norris’ acquaintance from the London Mayors’ Lodge number 3560.  The last meeting of the Grand Chapter that Norris seems to have attended was that of 5 May 1926, in the minutes of which he was listed as Past Assistant Grand Sojourner.  I asked the volunteer at the Freemasons’ Library what the name ‘sojourner’ implied.  From what he told me it seems that Norris had been working as a kind of policeman of freemason hospitality, making visits to lodges and chapters (some announced, some not) to check their tidiness and readiness to receive visitors.  He would have been good at that.  Past Assistant Grand Sojourner was his highest rank in the Grand Chapter.  He didn’t attend any meetings after the one in May 1926.



How seriously did Henry Norris take being a freemason? 


You were supposed to take being a freemason very seriously.  And being an official within a lodge even more seriously.  While working through The Freemason, one of freemasonry’s two newspapers, I came across (January 1906) an article on the duties of a lodge’s worshipful master; and at this point I ask you to note the actual words of the title, which imply that respect if not reverence is due to the man in charge.   The writer, Henry J Armstrong, describes the worshipful master, once installed, as “an autocrat within his own jurisdiction” but also as having “many and onerous” duties.  According to Armstrong, the Worshipful Master would be regarded by members of the lodge as setting an example for them to follow.  He needed to be impartial in disputes between lodge members.  He must know his ceremonial work well.   He must be punctual at meetings and check that all necessary tools are ready for the ceremonial; he must ensure that subordinates know their roles.  He must receive and welcome the lodge’s guests.  He can’t really relax until the ceremonial part of the lodge meeting is finished.  He must visit other lodges to check and measure the way they work against his own.


Very admirable.  Though the fact that Armstrong thought the article was necessary suggests that some worshipful masters fell well short of the ideal.  As Armstrong described it, it was a hard job.  Many men might be found wanting in it.  However, it was one to which Norris was well suited. 


As to whether he imbued the rituals of freemasonry with deep spiritual meaning, I would suppose not.  When I was working in the Freemasons’ Library I was very impressed by the number of books in which freemasons investigated the history and significance of their rituals and symbols, some of which had been adopted by freemasonry from occult practices of great antiquity.  However, I couldn’t see Henry Norris setting out to do that kind of research.  The search for meaning and understanding was not something he set great store by.


It’s not denigrating freemasonry to suggest that Norris was glad to be initiated as a freemason to make use of the social and business contacts freemasonry offered to an ambitious man lacking the correct social background.  I’ve tried to point out where he used those contacts in his business and political life; though it’s in the nature of freemasonry that definite evidence of his using them is in short supply.


You’re not obliged to agree to be initiated, you can refuse if you choose; my father refused, for specific reasons that have stayed with me in my attitude towards freemasonry.  In choosing to accept the offer of initiation, Norris was indicating his acceptance of the tenets of freemasonry.  I think he understood the importance of ritual in binding people together.  He was initiated without the commitment that some have to freemasonry as a system of belief, but he was not a cynic.  He may not have thought as deeply as others about the spiritual meaning of freemasonry, but  I’m sure he was never present at a freemasons’ ritual to go through the motions in a spirit of outward conformity masking inner doubt or indifference.






Copyright Sally Davis January 2009