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London During The Early 1700s

 

By Worshipful Brother Sean Morony

Published in the 2011 GLSA Southern Division Spring Ball Magazine

 

The first Masonic Grand Lodge, being the Grand Lodge of England, was formed in London during 1717. It came about when the members of the Lodges which met regularly at The Goose and Gridiron, The Crown, The Rummer and Grapes and the Apple Tree taverns decided to form a governing body, which they then called the Grand Lodge. It is interesting to review the prevailing circumstances and the social environment at the time and to determine the reasons why the Lodges met in public houses or inns and taverns.

 

London, during the early 1700s, was not a pleasant place for the majority of its population of approximately 630,000 people. It was a city devoid of the basic amenities that we enjoy and take for granted today. It was unhealthy, dirty, congested, crime-ridden and smelly.

 

More than 85% of the city was destroyed in the great fire during 1666. Plans by men such as Christopher Wren were drawn up to rebuild the city in an orderly manner but this did not occur. Much of the city was rebuilt in a hasty and haphazard way with scant attention being paid to planning or building codes as the need to provide shelter for its displaced inhabitants took precedence. The result was that most of the city became a honeycomb of small multi-storeyed houses. Narrow streets and alleyways separated the buildings and there was little thought for sewers or other basic amenities and hovels and shacks were common place with their resultant problems.

 

There was only one bridge over the River Thames which carried all the traffic into and out of the city. This river was a source of water, a sewer and a means of transport. The city had no sanitation and little potable water. As the water was largely undrinkable, much of the population drank ale, small beer and gin. Many houses had their own cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets and it was not unusual for raw sewerage to run down the gutters. Chamber pots were emptied out of windows and refuse and the dung and carcases of dead animals often rotted in the streets. The problem worsened when it rained as puddles filled with all manner of refuse formed on the mostly unpaved streets and alleyways.

 

London was further often blanketed with smog which was caused by the smoke from thousands of chimneys as open fires were used for cooking and heating and a layer of soot blackened almost everything outside.

 

Health problems were rife and diseases included smallpox, typhus, cholera, influenza and respiratory tuberculosis. The mortality rate amongst infants was high and almost half of the children died before reaching the age of two years. The life expectancy for those who survived childhood was low and averaged about 29 years. Despite the fact that the death rate was twice as high as the birth rate, the population of London continued to grow as people migrated to the city.

 

There was a marked differentiation between the aristocracy, the merchant and professional class and the bulk of the peasant population, which had little possibility of social advancement. The poor social and economic conditions lead to a great deal of criminality despite very harsh punishments. There was no structured police force and “thief takers” fulfilled this role. Drunkenness, prostitution and begging were rife.

 

The early eighteenth century was also notable for its lack of religious zeal which probably resulted from the religious strife and Puritanism during the previous century. Notwithstanding this, England and Scotland were united by the Act of Union during 1707 and many Scots moved south to seek employment. The rebuilding of St Paul’s cathedral was eventually completed during 1711. There was further no newspapers in London during this period and communication was verbal and performed mostly by town criers.

 

For all its faults, London was the economic and political centre of England and had the largest port with 80% of the country’s imports and 69% of the exports passing through its riverside docks. It attracted craftsmen and tradesmen from many different trades and business was conducted from shops and workshops, many of which were home industries. The influx of the religiously persecuted Huguenots from France led to the formation of the silk industry in London during this period.

 

The Royal Society, which had been formed by King Charles II during 1662 to promote scientific knowledge, had led to the start of the “Age of Reason”. As a result thereof, experimentation and innovation were encouraged and there was an upsurge in scientific thought. New inventions paved the way for the Industrial Revolution which gained momentum later in that century. Within this stratified society, voices proposing changes and appealing to reason instead of subservience to dogma began to emerge and the philosopher, George Berkley, published an analysis of sense perceptions titled the Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge during 1710.

 

Queen Anne died without a direct heir and George, the Elector of Hanover and a German Protestant, succeeded to the throne of England during 1714. He did not speak English and spent much of his time in Germany and showed little interest in the day to day governing of England. This responsibility was left to the First Minister, Robert Walpole, and to Parliament. Although Parliament was an elected body, there was however no universal franchise and it was only during 1717 that the Golden Lion coffee house admitted women patrons, the first one in London to do so.

 

In the upper strata of society, social gatherings took place in peoples’ residences, most of which were large enough to accommodate such occasions. The ordinary Londoners’ houses were however generally not large enough to hold meetings and so these were held in public houses or inns and taverns.

 

The first London Lodges, which were initially trade guilds, were established to meet the needs of their members who moved from one place of employment to another and thus met, for the sake of convenience, in inns and taverns. After the four Lodges mentioned at the start of this article decided to establish a governing body which they called the Grand Lodge, they resolved that its headquarters would be at the Goose and Gridiron tavern in Covent Garden, which was not too far from its present location in Great Queen Street. It is surely a testimony to the precepts of Freemasonry that from these humble beginnings the “Mother” Grand Lodge developed and influenced the formation of a vast number of Grand Lodges throughout the World during the course of what is now approaching 300 years.