Henry Norris as a Freemason: Kent Lodge number 15

Last updated: January 2009


Discussing Henry Norris’ career as a freemason (I think the word ‘career’ is quite appropriate) is difficult for me.  Firstly, I know very little about freemasonry; and after all, the freemasons are a secret society and outsiders are not supposed to know about how they work.  Secondly, I have the rather ambivalent attitude of an outsider towards freemasonry both as a concept and in practice.  During Norris’ time as a freemason (and possibly still) freemasonry was very hierarchical and very deferential, two modes of social interaction that don’t sit well with me.  I’d never have made it into a freemasons’ lodge in Norris’ day, even if I had what was the basic requirement of being male. 


Henry Norris was a freemason for over 40 years.  He was a member of several lodges, served twice as master of one of them and achieved high rank in English freemasonry.  Being a freemason was important to him.  So I will try my best to do justice to Norris’ involvement, while probably succombing to ignorance and prejudice throughout my account.  In my attempts to understand it I have been helped by the Freemasons’ Library and particularly by the volunteer who was manning the front desk during my second visit, who gave me the information I paraphrase below, about how you became a freemason in the first place.




The Freemasons’ Library has files of information on some freemasons’ lodges; but the content of the files does depend on the enthusiasm of the lodge’s members.  Coverage of the period before the 1930s is not so good; which is a pity.  In 1915, the pride Kent Lodge number 15's members had in its longevity caused them to authorise one of their number to write a lodge history, based on the minutes of its meetings; so I have good information on membership of the lodge over the 20 years until that date.  However, it’s like anything based on minutes: the dissensions may show in the voting; but all the rows are edited out.  Alas!  Kent Lodge number 15 turned out to be the exception in the history files: the other lodges Norris was a member of were not covered so well; so my understanding of his role in them is very limited.


The minutes of meetings for the Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter during Norris’ lifetime are in the Freemasons’ Library; and I was able to follow his progress up the national hierarchy through them.  And also to deduce some important points about the hierarchy itself.




You can’t be a freemason in isolation.  The basic unit of organisation in freemasonry is the lodge, essentially a group of men rather like a gentlemen’s club but, unlike a club, bound together by formal ritual.  I’ve come to understand a freemasons’ lodge as equivalent to other groups which are exclusive, like the aristocracy or a trades union, to give them a common voice more powerful than any of the members could have as individuals.  In the case of the freemasons the ritual also bound members to certain standards of behaviour, at least to other freemasons.


Any group of men can get together and apply to set up a freemason’s lodge - apply, that is, to the central hierarchy of freemasonry, which in England was and is the Grand Lodge, situated at the Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, Covent Garden.  If permission is granted, a member of the Grand Lodge will visit the proposed new lodge to carry out a consecration ceremony to set the lodge up.  Thereafter the lodge will be part of the greater network of freemasonry.  Within the rules laid down by the Grand Lodge for the administration of lodges, it will run itself, initiating new members, choosing its own officers by election, and organising its own social and ritual calendar.  Promotion from a lodge is possible into the Grand Lodge, which is a carefully graduated hierarchy with its own meetings and rituals; promotion is by nomination and election.


A lodge can build its own lodge building; or it can hire suitable rooms.  London lodges often hired rooms in the headquarters of English freemasonry, the Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden.  They also used the big central restaurants for their meetings.  In Norris’ time the  Holborn Restaurant was often used; and restaurants such as Hotel Cecil in the Strand, Café Monico in Shaftesbury Avenue, and the Criterion at Piccadilly Circus, were also popular choices, all within walking distance of the Freemasons’ Hall.  Lodges have a secretary and treasurer, to run the financial and administrative side.  They also have a hierarchy of officials who order and assist at the lodge’s rituals.  They are elected and serve on a ladder of promotion, for one year at a time, from the bottom rung as a junior warden to the most senior official, the Worshipful Master who leads the rituals and sets standards of behaviour; rather like a mayor does a local council.  Under normal circumstances the climb up the ladder will take three years to complete and after you have scaled it once, you are not expected to do so again.  The business of the lodge is transacted at meetings on specific days of the year; each lodge picks its own days.  On those days, usually in the early evening, there is a meeting to sort out lodge business; and then a dinner for all members present plus their guests.  




The volunteer at the Freemasons’ Library told me that there are three main routes in: you put yourself forward; your employer recommends you; or you are approached by a freemasons’ lodge with an offer.  In Norris’ time, if you were willing to become a member, officials of the lodge in question would carry out detailed investigations into your family background and your work.  If the lodge members still approved of you after those enquiries, you would then be called for a formal interview with the lodge’s members.  When the interview was over you would be sent out to wait while they decided whether to have you in or not.  The decision was by vote; and one ‘no’ vote was enough to throw you out.  If you were refused at the interview stage you could try again 12 months’ later.


If you got past the vote, you would then have to commit money to the process, because those being initiated were charged a fee, and there was also an annual subscription to cover the costs of administration, ritual and banquets at as much as once a month, all with several courses.  If you were recommended as a member by your employer, he might pay these fees for you, which you might be glad of as they could be pretty steep.  I get the impression from lodge records at the Freemasons’ Library that banqueting was competitive, with lodges in the same town trying to out-do each other in food and fine wines; it didn’t even stop during World War One, causing negative comment in the press.  And since the topic of World War One has come up, I’ll say here that membership of freemasons’ lodges didn’t drop off a great deal because of the fighting, because it was unusual for young men to become members.  Unless you were the son of a freemason, you had to have some years of social standing under your belt, and an unambiguous place in your community, before you were likely to be elected to a lodge.


New members were initiated at a meeting of the lodge.  I’m not allowed, of course, to know anything about the initiation ceremonies.  After your initiation you were then a full member of the lodge, entitled to attend its meetings and dinners and to expect to give and receive help from its other members.  If you wished, you could begin the climb up the ladder of official roles; though I get the impression that you were wise not to do this too quickly so as not to put more long-time members’ noses out of joint.  And you were entitled to the more general benefits of freemasonry: introductions to lodges in other parts of the country and world; insurance schemes; schooling for your children if you died young; and financial support if necessary for your widow.  To which I might add: a place to hide where your wife couldn’t follow you; copper-bottomed reasons for being late home.


Kent Lodge number 15


All freemasons’ lodges have a number; the lower the number, the earlier the lodge was founded.  15 was the lowest number I came across when I was at the Freemasons’ Library and establishes Kent Lodge’s status as one of the earliest English groups of freemasons.  It was founded in the mid-18th century and named in honour of the contemporary Duke of Kent.  It was set up by a group of weavers living in Spitalfields and in the late 19th century was still based in central London, meeting at the Freemasons’ Hall.   The weaving industry of London had declined in the Victorian era, and Kent Lodge number 15 seems to have languished in a moribund state until revitalised by estate agent Edward Stimson, who was elected its treasurer in 1895.  He seems to have undertaken a recruitment drive for the lodge in the 1890s.  He remained the lodge’s treasurer until his death in 1911, when he was succeeded in the post by his son Herbert, all four of the senior Edward’s sons being initiated as members in due course.  W A Stimson, whom I take to be a relation though not a son, rose through the higher ranks of freemasonry at the same time as Henry Norris.


Although the history of Kent Lodge number 15 doesn’t say how Henry Norris came to be initiated as a member; I believe from information elsewhere that Edward Stimson had a lot to do with it.  As a clerk in a solicitor’s office, Henry Norris could have attracted Stimson’s attention through his work, but he may also have come to Stimson’s notice through a mutual acquaintance: Albert Alfred Ellis.  Ellis was born in the same year as Norris and in the same parish; they were probably school-friends though I can’t prove this.  On the day of the 1891 census, Ellis, a clerk, was living with Henry Norris’ family; and in 1892 he married Henry’s sister Anne.  When Henry Norris married Mary Jane Pearson, Ellis signed the marriage register; I should imagine he was Henry’s best-man.  On 10 October 1894, having survived the exacting selection process I’ve outlined above, both Norris and Ellis were initiated as members of Kent Lodge number 15.  I suggest the link was via Ellis because Ellis appears in the Post Office Directory of 1902 as a surveyor, with offices at 35 Eastcheap: the sort of professional Stimson may have used as a sub-contractor, or merely met in the course of his work. 


One of the purposes of becoming a freemason, surely, is the wide network of contacts that it gives you; contacts whose word and deed you can place some reliance on.  I imagine, though, that Norris’ use for these contacts was rather limited while he was still working in a solicitors’ office - the law having its own contact networks.  However, in 1896 Norris changed careers and became a partner in a building firm: that is, he entered a profession notoriously unregulated and thus full of people whose work and word you couldn’t trust at all.  I’ve suggested in my files on the Allen and Norris partnership that Norris might have become a partner on the understanding that he help William Gilbert Allen to diversify slightly and increase his contacts in the property development world.  I’m sure Henry Norris did this by using the men he knew at Kent Lodge number 15 but I only have three definite examples although they are good ones. 


By 1897, Allen and Norris were agents for Edward Stimson’s estate agency, holding information on Stimson’s auctions of property in south London.  And in that year solicitor Arthur Gilbert was initiated into Kent Lodge number 15.  Gilbert became a very important freemason contact for Henry Norris and William Gilbert Allen.  They all worked together at Kinnaird Park Estate Company, which built houses in Bromley, Bickley and Chiswick; Gilbert became the solicitor for Woolwich Arsenal FC when Norris and William Hall got involved there in 1910; Gilbert acted for Norris in his case against the Football Association Limited (1927-29); and prepared Norris’ Will in 1933.  The connection with the Stimsons continued, with Henry Norris buying shares in a firm set up when one of the elder Stimson’s sons invented a new kind of gas stove.  I deal with the gas stove company in more detail in my file on the South London estate agent circuit.


In 1897 Henry Norris name starts to appear on printed invitations for Kent Lodge number 15's events, so he was beginning to play a part in organising and carrying out the lodge’s rituals.  In March 1900 he got his foot on the lowest rung of its ladder of hierarchy, being elected Junior Warden to serve for one year.  In March 1901 he became Senior Warden.  And then in March 1902 he reached the top, as far as a local lodge was concerned, being elected Worshipful Master (WM).  Again he served for 12 months, stepping down in March 1903 and being given a jewel to commemorate his year in office - a traditional gift, but not given to every retiring WM, so he must have done particularly well in the job.  In normal circumstances, that would have been it for Norris’ time on the ladder: after reaching the top you were meant to make way for new men.  However, in February 1908 all past WM’s were asked if they wouldn’t mind serving again.  Membership of the lodge had been falling from a high of 72 in 1899 and 1907 had been a year with a large number of resignations.  (This is what I mean about minutes; wouldn’t you like to know why there was a mass exodus from the lodge during 1907?  Was it due to hard economic times?  Or some kind of schism?)  The minutes recorded that Henry Norris was the only man willing to serve a second year as WM; so he was installed for a second time in March 1909.  With the original Stimson getting on in years, and his sons still young, Norris had become a, if not the, foremost member of Kent Lodge number 15, by dint of inviting his acquaintances to be members so that Kent Lodge number 15's membership took on a footballing slant:


1899    William Gilbert Allen.  Norris valued his business partner so very highly, this initiation was inevitable.

1903    William Hall.  He was already a member of other lodges based in south London.

1909    John Edward Norris, Henry’s brother.

1910    Charles Crisp, Norris’ refereeing acquaintance; he too was already a freemason in other lodges.

1912    Vivian Woodward, architect and footballer (though not at either of Norris’ clubs).


After World War One: William Gilbert Allen’s sons; Francis Plummer; Harry John Peters; and P C Harris, Henry Norris’ nephew.  I’m not sure quite when: G E Davis, William Hall’s brother-in-law, a director of Arsenal FC from 1910.


Several of his close associates also climbed the ladder to office in the lodge:

1904/05/06      Arthur Gilbert; to year 1906/07 as WM

1910/11/12      William Hall; to year 1912/13 as WM.

After World War One: J E Norris; and H J Peters.


The high point of the footballing connection’s domination at Kent Lodge number 15 was perhaps the installation of William Hall as WM in March 1912.  Vivian Woodward, the great English striker, was initiated on the same evening; almost certainly recommended by Norris and his footballing friends Allen and Hall and no other members would have been likely to know him.  And 62 past WM’s of freemasons’ lodges were amongst the guests.


No doubt Albert Alfred Ellis would have done time on the ladder of hierarchy as well; but he died of a heart attack while on a fishing holiday in 1904; at the shockingly early age of 39, leaving his widow Anne with two small children.  I’m sure it was Henry Norris that got the bureaucracy of the freemasons moving on the part of his nephew, Ellis’ son.  Bernard Ellis became a pupil at the freemasons’ boys’ school; in 1913 he was awarded a scholarship to go to Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences.  The schooling of Bernard Ellis is another of the things freemasonry is for: Alfred Ellis’ son might not have had such a good education if his father hadn’t been a freemason.


I’ll show later in this group of files that with the freemasons, as in his political life, Henry Norris moved out from his local base onto the national stage after the first world war.  However, he did remain a member of Kent Lodge number 15 until his death.  At the lodge’s meeting of October 1917 he presented the members with a banner depicting the coat of arms of the 18th century Duke of Kent, as a reminder of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the English Grand Lodge (July 1917) in which Norris had played a small part.  As I have no records of attendances at lodge meetings I don’t know how regularly Norris was there during the 1920s, but he could meet senior members at the Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter, and he seems to have kept up his contacts. Three members of Kent Lodge number 15 went to his funeral: Arthur Gilbert, Herbert Stimson and a Mr Brabner.   The lodge also sent a wreath. 


If you couldn’t get on with Henry Norris and his acquaintances in Kent Lodge number 15, I guess you left.  However, Norris’ dealings with Fulham Lodge number 2512 were rather more turbulent, and it was him that did the leaving, twice.






Copyright Sally Davis January 2009