CHAPTER 2: The Historical Significance of Fraternalism

In The Australian Legend Russell Ward argued that: ‘a specifically Australian outlook grew up first and most clearly among Australian bush workers and that this outlook then spread outwards to the whole Australian community.’ [ix] He asserted that both ‘the myth of the typical Australian’ and the historical reality on which it was built had one central element: ‘(Above) all, (he) will stick to his mates through thick and thin.’ Readers have taken this to mean that he was arguing that ‘mateship’ began ‘in the bush’ around the 1890’s. But later he said that it had appeared much earlier and not ‘in the outback’: ‘(The) effect of the outback environment was perhaps not so much to ‘reform’ those who went thither, as to accentuate and develop certain characteristics which they brought with them. Take for example, the strongly egalitarian sentiment of group solidarity and loyalty which was, perhaps, the most marked of all convict traits. This was recognised as the prime distinguishing mark of outback workers fifty years before Lawson and others wrote about mateship.’ [x]

Other scholars have since searched feverishly for the origins of mateship, mainly in bush culture and in shearing sheds. All have reported failure. The brief answer to this apparent conundrum is that they couldn’t see the answer staring them in the face because it wasn’t labelled mateship. Ward’s use of folk music and bush tales to support his argument threw them completely ‘off the track’, into side issues such as anti-authoritarianism.[xi]

To approach the same question from a different direction – Bolton & Hudson, writing in 1997, pointed out a major gap in Australia’s historical record: ‘…many Australians had hidden or covert identities hard to guess from their public personas. Many men joined the Freemasons, a body whose influence in Australian society has been grossly neglected by historians.. Lodges, such as the Druids, the Rechabites, the Buffaloes and the Oddfellows, provided support systems of considerable strength and durability. Catholics had their own religious orders and lay sodalities.(Their) diversity and importance for Australian political and cultural life is little studied…’[xii]

Bolton and Hudson are not the first to suggest that, like the fabled Inland Sea, there is something missing at the heart of Australians’ understanding of themselves. In this case, however, the feeling is backed up by the evidence lying just where these two West Australian scholars were pointing. Fraternalism is not exactly the same thing, but our notions of ‘mateship’ have grown in the context created by fraternalism. Keneally was probing the same ‘something missing’ when he wrote in 1986 that there was a ‘certain self-censorship on the part of Irish Australians,..a willingness to forget certain sections of Irish and Australian history.’[xiii]

Spann was looking at another part of the same gap when he pointed out in 1961: ‘No work seems to have been done in Australia on Protestant political behaviour, which is a pity, as any account of religion and voting is one-sided that concentrates on the oddities of a single religious group.’[xiv]

In 1972, Bollen wrote: ‘Beyond the political parties are sections of colonial society of which little is known: groups and institutions which helped determine the climate of public opinion.’[xv] He nominated the Protestant Churches as the most prominent of the neglected ‘groups and institutions’, but accepted that even his attempt at rectification would fail since: ‘The sociology of the Churches is a formidable subject calling for sustained co-operation between historians and sociologists of a kind, regrettably, not yet in sight.’[xvi]

Of course, it’s only 65 years since Manning Clark could refer to ‘such a young subject as the writing of Australian history’ and simultaneously contemplate its revision by way of tasks he set himself: ‘To show why the comforters of the past should be dropped, and to put forward new ideas for this (Australian) generation.’[xvii]

Clearly, his belief at the time he began his famous six volumes was that there was an old history of Australia, which wasn’t Australian history. He particularly wished to discard three ‘comforters’ used by previous authors:

* that our past has irrevocably condemned us to the role of materialistic, cultural barbarians for whom democracy is a weapon against non-conformity;

* that the convicts were, in the main, innocent victims of a brutal system, rescued by middle-class politicians with liberal reforms;

* that the 1880’s and 1890’s were a time of progressive social movements which shaped ‘modern’ Australia for the better.

Harping on the pursuit of material gain had left ‘our history’ with the idea that there had been no important social differences, eg, between socialists and Christians, or between Catholics and Protestants when, in reality, the differences and thus the conflicts have been profound. During the decades from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, advocates of nationalism had replaced ‘home’ values with local versions – Liberals had hailed an Australia supposedly free of ‘superstitions, traditions, class distinctions and sanctified fables and fallacies of the older nations’, while radicals within the labour movement had produced the creed of the bushman: ‘All three trends are anti-English: the last two believe in brotherhood, in being mates, and in equality. Gradually the men holding these opinions built up their own ideas of the past…(including) the Eureka rebellion of 1854; (and the idea that) Australia was the political and social laboratory of the world…Perhaps the most striking example of the way in which this belief in a radical tradition distorts and warps our writing of Australian history is in the interpretation of the labour movement…’

An illusory radical tradition, ‘the ideal of mateship..the great comforter of the bushman’, he argued, had led too easily to xenophobia and racism: ‘There was no attempt to make mateship universal in application – to extend it from the people they knew to all people – nor was there any attempt to find universal reasons for believing in it…’ He did not think the ‘new history’ would issue from the universities which had become ‘the most persistent defenders’ of ‘the bankrupt liberal ideal’, nor from ‘the measurers’, and not from the radicals who ‘are either tethered to an erstwhile great but now excessively rigid code’, or ‘they are frightened by the self-appointed inquisitors of our morals and political opinions: ‘While I believe that Australians should drop the comforters of the days of their youth and innocence, I believe even more strongly that the historians should come back to the great themes they abandoned when they joined in the vain search for a science of society.’ In 1978, after much of his ‘History’ had been completed and published, Clark expressed a sense of failure: ‘By writing it all down instead of just talking about what it would be like…the author wanted to show that Clio, the muse of history could do for Australia what it had done with such splendour for other parts of the world..But as Henry Lawson might have said..”That’s the whole bloody trouble…I couldn’t bring it off.” ‘[xviii]

I can only wonder what he might have accomplished if he had not been dazzled by his insight of Australia as a meeting place for three ideologies, ‘Catholic Christendom, Protestant Christianity and the Enlightenment’, and had sought proof beyond official records, public statements and such obvious things as headstones. He just might have seen the evidence for fraternalism which, in truth, was all around him, and perhaps have realised its essential connection to what he was trying to explain. He might have seen through his own comforter, ‘the Enlightenment’, and appreciated that it was not the origin of his favourite metaphor: ‘(At) any given moment I was like a man looking for a chink of light at the end of a very dark tunnel, or like a man seeking the way in a heavy fog. Occasionally a shaft of light showed the way forward, but it took years to get out of that fog. Sometimes..I wanted that fog back rather desperately. Men, we have been told, prefer the darkness to the light, because madness is in their hearts while they live.’[xix] He may have prevented the radical illusion from continuing to gather moss, as in the 2008 version from Boucher and Sharp which credited John Howard with ‘a total reversal of the progressive principles on which modern Australia was based’, to quote one reviewer.[xx]


Charles Darwin and Alexis De Tocqueville

When Darwin set sail in 1831 on the Beagle as a raw 22 year old he had no idea of where his dual journeys, marine and intellectual, would take him, but he was prepared to allow the evidence, whatever it might be, to lead him to its own, natural conclusions. Perceived wisdom about the creation of life on earth was at the time, comparatively, settled. Science was not yet a respectable pursuit from which professional careers could be wrung. ‘Natural Science’ was a barely recognised term still to be given a shape and a purpose.

Darwin recognised the newness of his endeavour and therefore the need to collect everything he could. He accepted that the first step to understanding was to gather and preserve evidence. That done, the future could be pressed to provide time for examination, analysis and debate. When I consider today the state of fraternal history, I see a number of illuminating parallels with the position Darwin was in in 1831.

* I see that the neglected fraternal memorabilia must be collected and made safe, as a matter of urgency.

* I see that collection policies must be comprehensive and arguments about priorities postponed until future examinations can determine levels of importance.

* I see that entrenched religious views are a major obstacle to both conservation and to analysis, and must be overturned.

Freemasonry, for example, must give up its view of itself as being uniquely close to God, if not literally ‘divine truth.’ It must stop depicting itself as a doctrine of perfection, akin to the ‘Garden of Eden’, and accept that as a man-made creation it is subject to cycles of decay and renewal, and to the weaknesses inherent in being an earth-bound social phenomenon. The notion of God’s immutable laws has led believers in Man’s place at the pinnacle of creation into an unworthy and un-scientific arrogance which has defined ‘learning’ as a process of locating hidden truths, rather than an open-ended search driven by curiosity. Similarly, obviously secular concepts such as ‘mateship’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘community spirit’ are in great danger of being sanctified, and rendered immune to examination or question.

Another ‘natural historian’ making his name in the 1830’s is relevant here, Alexis de Tocqueville. This Frenchman travelling in the USA developed an argument that to achieve and to hold democratic freedoms, citizens needed to be able to think and to act independently of all institutionalised authority, whether elected or not: ‘(If citizens) never (acquire) the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilisation itself would be endangered’ and that to understand ‘modern’ democratic society: ‘Nothing…is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America.’ [xxi]

Many of the combinations to which he was drawing attention would now be called ‘friendly’ or ‘mutual benefit’ societies, and it is relevant here to note that of all the strands of fraternalism, the friendly societies have been the most neglected by historians.[xxii] So great has been the neglect that the only general account of ‘friendlies’ in Australia is not a history as such at all. It is an argument about the importance of people’s self-help and mutual aid to the construction of Australian society. The authors, Green and Cromwell concluded in 1984: ‘Clearly we think it is not good that the history of mutual aid has been ignored. We think that its mistaken absence from any general sense of Australia’s past leads too easily to thinking that there are only two political alternatives: centralised socialism or profit-seeking capitalism.’[xxiii] They linked their central focus, on health services and health insurance, to the broader social context: ‘This neglected part of the Australian story ought to engage not only those who wish to see the record put straight, but also those searching for an Australian identity. The spirit of self-reliance described in these pages has consistently been a prominent part of the Australian make-up.’[xxiv]

Centring the burden of their assertions on the situation at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, what these well-meaning authors did not do was to explore in depth the earlier decades. And they did not ask themselves why ‘the friendlies’ were so little known at the time they were writing. Attempts at renewal notwithstanding, ‘medical history’ has been restricted to accounts of dominant insiders, the doctors, and their cleverness.[xxv]

Three highly regarded volumes on the development of NSW’s local government describe a vacuum at the point of NSW municipal decision-making for a large part of the 19th century. The author, Larcombe, argues that the British Government wished to drastically reduce its expenditures on the colony after 1831, that the Sydney-based commercial elite strongly opposed its wealth being taxed to pay for services, and the majority of the citizenry, being without much in the way of personal assets and without leadership or education in the required directions, were apathetic about social possibilities. Even the fact that laissez-faire attitudes by all concerned had public health implications did not produce a momentum for citizen initiative. Larcombe quoted an 1850 editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Along these undrained, unlevelled, unshaped ways and passages, misnamed ‘streets’, human habitations are springing up by hundreds and thousands, many of them quite inaccessible to wheeled vehicles, and the whole of them exposed to the nuisance and dangers generated by the want of drainage.’ [xxvi] In other words, it seems the colonists had imported their general approach to civil administration from ‘the old country’, where the government and the civil bureaucracy were priding themselves on knowing more about ‘the problems’ than anyone else. ‘Stand back, and let the experts get on’ was the prevailing British view, while taxation was just a way-of-life, however regretted. Larcombe does not notice the logical disconnect, but for him the only way in which the colonial governance vacuum could be filled was by a centralised government, and it is this he documents. In one place he comments: ‘The colonists were becoming more opulent and were eager to increase their land holdings, herds and other forms of personal wealth, but they were most unwilling to contribute towards a police force to protect them, or towards roads to facilitate the marketing of their produce.’ [xxvii]  De Tocqueville wrote about US citizens at about the same time:’The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon the social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he claims its assistance only when he is unable to do without it…..If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare and the circulation of vehicles is hindered, the neighbours immediately form themselves into a deliberative body…’[xxviii]

De Tocqueville prepared his thesis before the bulk of the 10,000 plus fraternal associations which sprang up in the USA had reached their peak, indeed many had not yet seen the light of day. True also, that the golden era of fraternals in the UK came after he had written that he had observed nothing like the USA associations anywhere before. There were ‘intellectual and moral associations’ in France similar to those he was observing but since European history had been part of the problem from which the American colonists had sought to escape, the societies did not occupy the same place socially and they did not announce themselves as those in the USA did.

Recent northern hemisphere scholarship has begun to make comparisons of fraternal histories easier, even that of Australia where so little has been done. – most relevantly at this point, Stephen Bullock and Jessica Harland-Jacobs. Bullock, for example, has made plain how Freemasonry in the United States achieved independence from ‘British’ control before 1788 and thus avoided a major problem which, despite its invisibility to ‘our’ historians, beset ‘Australian’ lodges throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th: ‘The (Freemasonry) that emerged from the (War of Independence) was stronger than ever before. This rather unexpected result came…because the fraternity, despite the uncertainties created by the war, was able to align itself with both the Revolutionary cause and the republican society it attempted to create.’ [xxix]

Bringing Mateship into the Light:

For the convicts to have been ‘mates’ as Ward suggested, they must have brought ‘mateship’ with them from the northern hemisphere, and that’s where this story needs to begin. Western Europeans have known about ‘being mates’ for centuries but they first called it being a ‘gildsman’, who was then also a ‘brother’ (or a ‘sister’): ‘To become a gildsman, was necessary to pay certain initiation fees,..(and to take) an oath of fealty to the fraternity, swearing to observe its laws, to uphold its privileges, not to divulge its counsels, to obey its officers, and not to aid any non-gildsman under cover of the newly-acquired ‘freedom.’ [xxx] In 1388, a Gild of Palmers summarised their fraternity’s rules for assisting poverty-stricken ‘mates’: ‘When it happens that any of the brothers or sisters of the gild shall have been brought to such want..that they have not enough to live on; then once, twice, and much help shall be given to the rector and the stewards shall order; so that whoever bears the name of this gild, shall be upraised again, through the ordinances, goods and help of his fellows.’ [xxxi] Already in this guild charter is the structure of brotherhood, on which Freemasons, friendly societies and trade unions have since rested.[xxxii] It’s not accidental that both socialists and Freemasons have called one another ‘brother’, that coal miners have organised in ‘lodges’ and printers in ‘chapels’, or that recent visitors to Sydney’s World Youth Day were titled ‘pilgrims’.[xxxiii] It’s not unusual for people working together to develop a camaraderie, nor is it hard to find European examples of actual ‘co-operation, mutual aid and a sense of fraternity’ pre-dating 1788.[xxxiv] In the case of British colonies, certain fraternities are of enhanced interest because they are known to have been already strong ‘at home.’ Harland-Jacobs has recently written about Freemasonry: ‘My argument that the modern world’s first and most successful fraternal organisation was, from its very beginnings, intimately bound up in imperialism suggests that to a very great extent the British Empire was a fraternal enterprise.’ [xxxv] (My emphasis) In her[xxxvi] terms: ‘By fulfilling a variety of needs – ranging from homosocial association to easing men’s transition from one colonial society to another – belonging to the fraternity made life easier for Britons who ran, defended and lived in the Empire.’ [xxxvii]

For ‘homosocial association’ read ‘mateship’ which, of course, came ashore with the First Fleeters in the form of Freemasonry, but also in the form of the United Irish Brotherhood, Orange lodges and, it seems certain, in specifically trade-oriented ‘secret societies.’ In Sydney Town in the 1830’s and 40’s it took the form of Odd Fellows, Rechabites, Druids and Foresters, and of the Australian Trade Union Benefit Society. By then it was already established in Van Diemens Land, at the Hunter River, at the Swan River Settlement and Port Phillip. It subsequently spread into the interior of the continent, where it continued to exhibit far more than just a sense of friendly association. The ‘closed shop’ of an allegedly new unionism in the 1890’s was just one example of the very old idea of fraternalism re-asserting itself. The many fraternities were secret societies because they had secrets known only to insiders and maintained a barrier between insiders and outsiders. Those secrets were based on practical requirements and made possible the distribution of society benefits. Big and small, they contributed to the role which Harland-Jacobs has attributed just to Freemasonry. Fraternal societies were vital elements of the mix which brought to Australia, not ‘THE ENLIGHTENMENT’, but an exuberant, eclectic mix of individually-held beliefs in and aspirations for a way, a vision, a path out of various darknesses into ‘the light’ – of wealth, power, position and safety among others. Secular, materialist interpretations of progress are useful to a degree but are not the whole story, even for the 19th and 20th centuries. Frances Yates, Renaissance scholar, made the relevant point clearly enough when speaking to her erstwhile colleagues: ‘(Beware) generalisations, based on modern pre-suppositions as to the meaning of the labels ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ in dealing with the confused cross-currents of the sixteenth-century.’ [xxxviii] Her view of what was required of all historians, known as ‘Warburgian History’, has been defined as: ‘(the) history of culture as a whole – the history of thought, science, religion, art, including the history of imagery and symbolism. If she had been studying more recent eras, Yates would not have disregarded the many ‘Temples of Light’ constructed all across the ‘modern’ world as Clark and his detractors and supporters alike have done. Best known of all fraternities for their ‘seeking the light’ rituals, today’s Masons put two, more practical principles, ‘Brotherly Love’ and ‘Relief’, before ‘Truth’. However, two non-Masonic examples will illustrate the range of fraternities which also expressed practical, ‘homosocial association’ in the 19th century. Firstly, the Laws of the Princess Royal Lodge No 2, of the Ancient and Independent Order of Odd Fellows, printed in Adelaide in 1857: ‘They call each other Brother, from the strong union that subsists among them in everything connected with themselves, individually and collectively; and they are bound by a solemn obligation, not to injure anyone, either in a word or action; the same principle must operate with him out of lodge, as well as within it.’ [xxxix]

In the various Australian colonies at this time the word ‘mate’ was already widely used for male friendship because it was part of the practice of fraternalism, for example, by gold miners at Ballarat. But it was not the only term used. The second example is from the 1827 London-based General Union of Carpenters and Joiners. Its Rules make clear the importance of personal affection within the group to the attainment of socio-political objects. The list of goals, all equally important, ran as follows: ‘..the amelioration of the evils besetting our trade; the advancement of the rights and privileges of labour; the cultivation of brotherly affection and mutual regard for each other’s welfare.’ [xl] (My emphasis)

As we will see later, trade-oriented and benefit societies such as these were only some of the organisations which shared a belief in the effectiveness of symbols, in particular that of gaining ‘the light’ and escaping ‘the darkness’.

In any assessment of fraternalism, there is a need to note, first, the prevalence of the societies which were its vehicles, there is then their variety, and then there is the fact that whether religious, political, secular or social in tone, all involved their members in secrecy, ritual and mutuality as parts of an integrated package. They all, at least originally, intended to deliver their memberships from the darkness of ignorance into the light of enlightenment, a variable state of mind not always equated with ‘rational enquiry and (material) progress.’[xli]

Was Freemasonry the First Secret Society?

That Freemasonry has been the original source of all the rites and what are often called ‘the trappings’ has been assumed by many past authors, partly from ignorance, partly from pride and partly from laziness.

Laziness amongst historians has led, for example, to ridicule of the ‘secret theatre’ of lodge as naïve ‘Boys Own’ heroics and unworthy of close examination. Often used to justify dismissal is this memoir from an English shoemakers’ ‘union club’ of the 1820’s and ‘30’s:[xlii]

After paying entrance fees, our society had about forty pounds to spare, and not knowing what better to do with it we engaged Mr Thomas Jones to paint for us a banner emblematical of our trade..(We) also purchased a full set of secret order regalia, surplices, trimmed aprons, etc, and a crown and robes for King Crispin.

Shoemaker delegates were later arrested on conspiracy charges because they were found to be carrying:

Two wooden axes, two large cutlasses, two death masks, and two white garments or robes, a large figure of Death with dart and hourglass, a Bible and testament.

Pride amongst historians has separated the apparently weird and secret world from the apparently respectable and legitimate fraternal activities, a dis-connect which, in turn, has resulted in neither the private, secret theatre of the lodge nor the practical roles of secrecy, ritual and symbolism being taken seriously.

The ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’, who used much of the same ceremonial material as the shoemakers, have been extracted from their secret, fraternal context in order to be heavily promoted as brave ‘trade union’ pioneers. In similar fashion, the large, marching trade union banners of the 19th and 20th centuries have been celebrated as ‘stained glass windows of labour’s cathedrals’, but fancifully, as decoration without context.

And as part of the dis-connect, mateship has been made part of heroic-romantic mythology without, for example, any reference to the Gothic Revival.

Ignorance has led to Freemasonry being claimed as the original source of all lodges and therefore of all secret societies for there has seemed to be no other alternative, despite the masses of evidence which might provide that alternative if only it was assembled rationally. It is extremely unlikely, for example, that the most fervent admirers of Freemasonry would have it accept responsibility for the groups referred to in a (UK)Parliamentary Report of 1838-39:

There is no subject on which the working classes are less ready to give information than as to whether they belong to benefit societies..(In the West Riding such societies) were almost universally resorted to..less so, however, in the form of societies certified under the Acts of Parliament, than in that of free gifts, secret orders, sick clubs and funeral briefs.[xliii]

Freemasonry as officially established in London in 1717 is only the most publicised of a number of way-stations along the path from the mediaeval guilds to 21st century fraternalism. As trade unions have monopolised use of the fraternal handshake, so Freemasonry has made the ‘seeking of the light’ metaphor its own. These and many other symbolic messages have, in fact, been common across a range of fraternal societies for hundreds of years.

The principles which shaped all of 19th and 20th century fraternalism in all its variety were drawn from the guilds, albeit renewed in vigour and purpose by the industrial/democratic era. The builders of the huge, European Gothic cathedrals, stonemasons and their fellow workmen – carpenters, moulders, plasterers, quarrymen, and so on – were organised into strongly Christ-based combinations, which worked together, lived and drank together and defended the city walls together. They also maintained collective standards of acceptable ‘product’ on the job, they inducted apprentices together and they inspected workplaces to see that all usual customs were being observed. They also maintained a watch over the number of master workmen in an industry, among other means by keeping a look out for ‘strangers’ who might come from outside the city to take the jobs of ‘brothers’.

The other side of this coin is that because history is often turbulent, stable jobs can easily disappear and skilled workers, settled and secure one day, can and did find themselves looking for work the next. Long before 1788 many workers knew the need to tramp from work site to work site, or from town to town just seeking a way to survive.

From mediaeval times, craftspeople have had to prove their competence, and there were only two ways they could do this. Either by doing the work, which wasn’t always practical, or by showing they had been ‘accepted’ into that craft at another place and had received the passwords, signs and secrets which went with being apprenticed and with having learnt ‘the misteries’.

Being ‘on the tramp’ links the old and the newer parts of this story, and it’s not surprising that swaggies and ‘matildas’ are part of the folk-lore of Australian mateship or that remnants of tramping were still visible in 20th century engineering workshops. Those 1857 Odd Fellow Rules quoted above, began:

There are a variety of unforeseen events, to occasion many an honest and deserving man to leave his family and his home in quest of employment, who after travelling one or two hundred miles, has met with no success;..Should any of this description be Oddfellows, they are relieved from the severity of such trials, and are enabled by the benevolent assistance of others to pursue their way, both creditably and comfortably, to another town, where they may apply and be again relieved, should need require.

Fraternal societies continued to supply their members in Australia with ‘travelling cards’ and passwords until well into the 20th century. This included female societies, such as the Daughters of Temperance. In 1988, the Grand United Order of Oddfellows still listed ‘to grant aid to our brethren when travelling in search of employment’ among its major aims.[xliv]

In nineteenth century Europe, tramping ‘networks’ which linked all the major towns and cities of Europe became the basis of national trade union federations, of various ‘unities’ of Friendly Societies and of United Grand Lodges of Freemasons. Enough evidence is already to hand to assert a similar process was underway here before the onset of certain, well-known global imperatives.[xlv] Initiations featuring oaths and secret signs, regalia marking lodge office and achievement, a ‘common purse’ for members’ contributions, and a sense of exclusiveness based on a line drawn between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ were parts of community practice in all parts of Australia from 1788. The material evidence can be explained in no other way.

The slow collapse of fraternalism’s markers and its ideas has hidden the links between the fraternal societies and the often-remarked, society-wide loss of social cohesion. Commentators have pointed to a loss of formal religion as the issue, to a decline in social capital, or to a loss of local autonomy and control. Fraternal societies were the organisational form in which a potent mix of religion, mutual aid and local autonomy came to and spread to every part of this continent. But as the three rose together to prominence with the societies, so did they all fall together. In retrospect, they provide a telling commentary on the nature and strength of ‘the Enlightenment’ in Australia.

Serious examination of the Australian Masonic ‘movement’ is warranted if only because of the recent contention from Harland-Jacobs, the North American scholar already quoted, that the spread and consolidation of the British Empire rested upon the strength, popularity and status of Freemasonry.[xlvi] So much more warranted is research of the whole fraternal phenomenon.

Putting 1788 Into Its Fraternal Context:

Freemasonry may appear to some outsiders as malignant but to most it seems homogeneous, stable and unified. If they think of it at all, Australians assume that ‘our’ Freemasons are aligned with Masonry’s ‘Head Office’ based in London. This vague and perhaps sinister Grand Lodge has been assumed to be unchallenged as ‘THE Grand Lodge.’

Masonic history is actually much less straightforward than that but in the last decades of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries particularly, Freemasonry was a highly conflicted phenomenon, under both internal and external pressures. There was not just one ‘Freemasonry’, and not just one Grand Lodge. There were several of both, and each was impacted on by the major conflicts we now know as the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution, not to mention the sprawling turbulence which was the industrial revolution.

At the precise time that white settlement of Australia was beginning, secret ‘combinations’ throughout Britain and mainland Europe were being proscribed and, where located, raided and members charged. Secret Committees, authorised by the House of Commons, were attempting to track any and all conspiracies and all agitators. While much of late-18th century tumult centred on reform efforts around universal rights and ‘the brotherhood of man’, there were also longer running religious conflicts.[xlvii] Freemasonry, both because of its claimed idealism and its day-to-day practice was directly involved in both arenas.[xlviii]

Also involved were a number of other societies which may be Masonic and may not. These include: the United Irish Brotherhood, the Loyal Orange Association, a number of shadowy, less formally organised ‘fraternities’, such as ‘The Defenders’, and some referred to as Masonic but whose authorisation by a Grand Lodge is in dispute.

English, Irish and French Freemasonry, and perhaps Scottish, were all directly involved in the earliest attempts to provide shape to the southern penal settlement, and numerous alleged Masons were players in its struggle to firstly survive, and then to get beyond being a place of detention. Some were clearly what we would call conspirators.

Speculative Freemasons[xlix] were present on Norfolk Island, a small outpost of the Sydney penal settlement before 1800 but there appear to be no surviving details of any lodge activities. In 1807, the then Commandant of the Island, a certain Captain John Piper, was thanked by residents for protecting their ‘Masonic activities.’ Protecting them from what? And what had they been doing that they left no public records?

Masonic connections are known to have helped finance convict transportation to Australia,[l] and a tavern, ‘The Freemasons’ Arms’, was built at Parramatta between 1797 and 1800. Neither has been adequately followed up, even by Masonic scholars.[li]

What is already at stake here is nothing less than just what was meant by the word ‘Freemasonry’, and what can subsequently be regarded as ‘the Masonic heritage.’


Almost exactly midway between 1770, the year of Cook’s arrival off Eastern Australia, and 1788, when the First Fleet discharged its bemused passengers, ‘the Gordon Riots’ in London resulted in death and destruction on a huge scale. These protests were triggered by a Protestant Association protesting minor legislative relief for Catholics. Numerous volunteer militias worried that with the American War going badly, Catholics were being scouted by a desperate Government prepared to relax the oath of allegiance required for all new recruits.[lii] For a variety of reasons, secessions from the city’s Masonic lodges had been occurring since the 1730’s, including resistance to claims by Grand Lodge that it was the natural, supreme authority, and by mid-century, Irish artisans, initiated in Ireland had established a rival Grand Lodge. The subsequent competition which often reached bitter proportions, was maintained until the early 1800’s on a number of fronts. Most relevantly to the Australian colonies, recent research has shown the wide divergence of ‘Masonic’ agendas being pursued in Ulster[liii] and that these were being spread further afield:

Ireland was a country of young men; its population had nearly doubled since the mid-century. Thousands without employment left for service in the British armed forces, some willingly, some pressed in the ports or sent from gaols.[liv]

Irish records are clear that during the 1780’s and ‘90’s, nominally ‘Masonic’ lodges were being used for nationalist purposes, with numerous Catholics being initiated, indeed one Irish Masonic scholar asserted in 1925 that ‘up to 100 years ago the bulk of the Craft in Ireland were (Catholics)’.[lv] It’s unlikely that even all Protestant Masons would have passed examination as ‘regular’ if tested by officers of the Grand Lodge in London. There must be questions when, for example, an English SF magazine, in 1797 the year before the major, Catholic uprising known as ‘Vinegar Hill’ recorded that:

There is an enthusiasm for Masonry in Ireland which is (greater than) in this Country (England). Every village has its masonic meeting, and, therefore, no wonder can be made at the great number of Masons constantly made in that country.[lvi]

What was called ‘Freemasonry’ was certainly widespread and popular. It is accepted that the first Masonic journal in the British Isles was published at this time in Dublin, and that the Irish Grand Lodge had, at the end of the 18th century, formed many more lodges than any other. But just what the term meant is the question.[lvii] A 20th century ‘Review’ by a well-known Irish Masonic scholar of what became from the 1930’s the de facto official Australian Masonic history, that by Cramp and Mackaness, begins:

With not many years experience in Freemasonry to guide them, (the authors) seem to have assumed that at the end of the 18th century Masonic affairs, especially in Ireland, were carried on exactly as they are today, and this has led them into numerous pitfalls.[lviii]

The likelihood of official complicity in the Irish ‘troubles’ at this time is another matter of great import to ‘New South Wales’. On 13 March, 1797, the province of Ulster was placed under the control of an ill-disciplined army and its ‘ferocious commander’ General Lake. An officer under his command responded to what was perceived to be the greatest threat:

I have arranged…to increase the animosity between Orangemen and the United Irish. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the north. Were the Orangemen disarmed or put down or were they coalesced with the other party, the whole of Ulster would be as bad as Antrim and Down.[lix]

An account published by the Grand Lodge of Ireland admits that both ‘regular’ and ‘clandestine’ SF lodges were directly involved:

(It) was usual for the lodges to declare their loyalty to the King and Constitution, and offer their services in defence of the country, by advertisement in the papers, such as the following, which is only one of many:

Clandestine or Unwarranted Masons

At a meeting of the Free and Accepted Masons of Lodge No 483, held near Aughnacloy, the 1st day of August, 1795..the following resolutions were agreed to:

(Second) Resolution: That having our duty to our heart, we thus publically avow that we will be ready at all times to assist the civil magistrate in the execution of his duty, in order to suppress all insurrections and disturbances that may arise in this part of the country.

(Third) Resolution: That in order to enable us more fully to execute the same, we have this day in friendship joined with that society of men, generally known by the name of ‘Clandestine or Unwarranted Masons’, and that we will aid and assist them in suppressing all unlawful combinations.[lx]

Lake’s activities, including his quashing of the 1798 rebellion resulted in many Irish patriots adding to the numbers being transported to Botany Bay. Seventy years later, in the aftermath of a Fenian scare and the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney, a 1798 message to magistrates by the Governor of Armagh was extensively quoted by descendants and supporters of those patriots:

It is no secret that a persecution, accompanied with all the circumstances of ferocious now raging in this country..The only crime which the wretched objects of this merciless persecution are charged with is a crime of easy proof, it is simply a profession of the Roman Catholic faith..The spirit of impartial justice..has for a time disappeared..and the supineness of the magistracy is a topic of conversation in every corner of the kingdom.[lxi]

This same writer quoted the Irish Protestant MP Grattan speaking to the Irish Parliament in 1796:

That of the outrages committed by these Orangemen in Armagh, he had received the most dreadful accounts. Their object was the extermination of all Catholics..

True or false, these allegations were part of the context in which the secret societies transported to Australia struck their first blows. In their new location they achieved sufficient substance to remain potent well into the 20th century and thus to cause very deep and lasting divisions at all social levels.

Harland-Jacobs concluded that in the four decades on either side of 1800 and despite its ecumenical ideology, Freemasonry ‘contributed to the spread of sectarianism in Ireland’ by becoming more ‘Orange’:

Circumstances outside (Grand Lodge in London’s) control dictated that Irish Freemasonry began to lose its Catholic constituency and take on an increasingly Orange complexion. In Ireland, and then throughout the British Isles and the empire, the fraternity soon became identified not only with loyalism, but with its constant bedfellow, Protestantism.[lxii]

There is still much to be learnt about the Orange-Masonic connections. It is however well known that from 1751, the Irish (Masonic) Grand Lodge (IGL) was influenced by ‘The Antients’, the second, rival Grand Lodge in London. Because of its predominantly Irish membership close relations between the ‘Antients’ and the GL of Ireland were sustained up to 1812 when union between the groupings was achieved.[lxiii] The influential Grand Secretary of the Antients in 1751, Laurence Dermott, was a Catholic and for much of the next 60 years the Grand Master of Irish Freemasonry was a Catholic. Mirala has recently said:

The most influential by far of families with Catholic links involved in the affairs of Irish freemasonry (sic) were the Hely-Hutchinsons, descendants of..John Hely. His son, 1st Earl of Donoughmore was an active spokesman for Catholic relief..(He) became grand master of Irish freemasons in 1789..(and) proceeded to turn the (GLI) into a part of the expanding Hely-Hutchinson empire of land, connections, places and titles..(He) stayed in office for twenty-four years.. The apogee of (the family’s) power was reached in 1807 with the earl as grand master and his two brothers in the next highest ranking positions..[lxiv]

A number of Protestant authors have argued the reverse to the approach taken by Harland-Jacobs, namely that Orangeism which had to be formally revived in the 1790’s took on the characteristics of Freemasonry. The Australian (Eric) Turner, for example, has firstly quoted David Stephenson’s portrayal of the Scottish system of Freemasonry as it, according to Turner, perfectly describes what attracted Irishmen:

The lodge system, combined with secrecy, ideals of loyalty and secret modes of recognition, had created an ideal organisational framework, into which members could put their own values and which they could adopt for their own uses.

He has then asserted that:

One of the first [Orange] decisions was to call the clubs ‘lodges’ in the Masonic fashion.[lxv]

Turner, in fact, appears to believe that whether Catholic or Protestant, all 18th century Irish secret societies were interchangeable in form, even though he has also asserted:

The Eighteenth century saw an unprecedented growth in the formation and membership of Irish secret societies arcane in their ritual, covert and mostly seditious.[lxvi]

Harland-Jacobs’ argument turns out to be similar, that both Orangemen and their Catholic opponents ‘adapted Freemasonry’s pre-existing organisation, its symbols, its ideology, and at times its networks.’[lxvii] While it can be shown that its symbols were drawn from the Bible, Freemasonry is not defined by them nor by its ideology, its networks or even its lodge structure, though numerous authors obviously believe it is.

Dennan, the acknowledged creator of the United Irish Brotherhood, on 21 May 1791, outlined his plan for a ‘quasi-Masonic secret society within the Volunteers’, the Irish militia:

I should much desire that a Society were instituted in this city [ie, Dublin] having much of the secrecy and somewhat of the ceremonial of Freemasonry, so much secrecy…so much impressive and affecting ceremony …as without impeding business might strike the soul through the senses.[lxviii]

Stewart’s The Hidden Roots of the United Irish Brotherhood, from which this quote is taken concluded that real life Freemasons had had a role in the formation of the UIB but not that Freemasonry was the model for the organization in any meaningful sense. The UIB oath was quite different, as was the token regalia, while it would be ludicrous to suggest the building allegories of operative stonemasons or the (Masonic Craft)story of Hiram Abiff were adopted by these conspirators. Thus, by ‘impressive and affecting ceremony’ can only be meant an oath of secrecy and, probably, group expressions of fraternal bonds, such as clasped hands, nationalist rhetoric and the like. None of these, which were already common and widespread, indicate the Freemasonry Harland-Jacobs has in mind.

A second contra-example to the idea that the London-based Freemasonry was the model would be that of ‘The Ring’, a contentious, but, if authentic, very secret society among transported convicts. With any ritual probably conducted orally, the claimed evidence contends that ‘The Ring’ had oaths of secrecy, secret signs and passwords, and an internal hierarchy of concentric ‘circles’ headed by ‘The One.’[lxix] Although the gatherings of this Society were allegedly known as ‘Lodge’, nowhere is there any reference to Freemasonry, nor would I expect any.

Russell Ward[lxx] noted ‘crossed and re-crossed hands’ among Australia’s convicts, but left it to others to argue mateship and its claimed attendant attitudes were common in pre-1788 Britain.[lxxi] How much of convict ‘freemasonry’ was unique, due purely to the harsh conditions is hard to determine, as is how influential it may have been in later times. The Irish Revolutionary (later Republican) Brotherhood, or ‘Fenians’, ostensibly established in Dublin in 1858, are known to have taken the form

of a secret network of regional units called ‘circles’, each headed by a leader known as the ‘centre’, (in which) every recruit took an oath to maintain secrecy..[lxxii]

Australian scholar Roderick later found ‘Warung’s’ claims so convincing that he argued that ‘The Ring’ was the origin of later larrikin pushes ‘that infested Sydney from the sixties until 1918’, ‘the packs of jackals that scavenged the camps of Australian soldiers’ in WW1 France, and Sydney and Melbourne’s razor-gangs of the 1930’s and 1940’s. While all these underground societies remain under-researched organisationally, none, as far as I know, have been claimed by Freemasonry.[lxxiii]

A number of Odd Fellow scholars in the 19th century directly repudiated claims that they belonged to a pseudo- or ‘poor man’s Freemasonry’. Spry, in 1865, told a Masonic magazine that in 21 years involvement with IOOFMU [see below] he had ‘never seen any attempt to mimic Masonry’ and that there were ‘neither Masonic working nor Masonic teachings in this Order.’[lxxiv]

A more likely, non-Masonic and older line of evolution appeared in the insights by a scholar looking at the ‘poor man’s Reform Club’, which became the radical London Corresponding Society and similar ‘clubs’ in Sheffield and elsewhere. Brown believed that though the format of this club can be shown to date from 1791, it had a much earlier origin. To avoid ‘secret cabals and mass meetings trying to conduct business’, the organisational shape – separate and autonomous ‘divisions’ with a maximum of 30 members each, elective delegates, all revenue into a central fund controlled by the delegates – was determined on at the time of establishment.[lxxv] But:

The core of the new model was a weekly penny subscription. This was Hardy’s device drawn, no doubt, from the machinery of the little journeymen’s clubs which flourished, half benefit and half trade societies, in London.

Although they rarely appear in the literature, these ‘secret societies’ are equal in importance with mainstream Freemasonry in ‘modern’ Australia and other British colonies. The first lodge of a benefit society soon to be better known in the antipodes as an Affiliated Friendly Society, the Ancient Order of Druids, was established in London in 1781. The acknowledged chief founder, Henry Hurle, described his intentions this way:

..Let us create a Society to be governed by a President whom we will call, ‘Most Noble Arch-Druid’..Let him be supported by two gentlemen to be called Bards..and we will adopt the endearing name of Brother universally among us. Our great prototypes held this doctrine, that their wish and intentions were to enlighten the mind, promote harmony, encourage temperance, energy and virtue. Let us in a more limited sphere, emulate them in their endeavours.[lxxvi]

There is nothing specifically Masonic about any of this. The author of this ‘insider’s’ account went on:

Rules for the government of the Society were then framed, ancient mystic rites adopted, Druids Vestments and ornaments selected, and a ceremony of initiation compiled.

Irish labour historians now insist that a network of workingmen’s ‘clubs’ developed alongside the mainstream United Irish movement and that for both, the French Revolution and Paine’s The Rights of Man were crucial:

Wolfe Tone, in particular, recognised that ‘the men of no property’ must be an intrinsic element of the society which developed out of the rebellion. The social programme of the United Irish movement could be summed up in the phrase, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’[lxxvii]

Are such ‘men of no property’ likely to draw on a model known to be elitist and run from London, a more locally-based, artisinal model, one shaped by the long-standing disciplines of the Army or one drawn from the traditions of the Catholic Church? These, historically, are all possibilities. All four, however, have their origins in the guilds.

The authorities, Masonic or Governmental, could not have been sure at the end of the 18th century whether individual ‘Freemasons’ were loyal to the Crown, to their commanding officers, their lodge masters, or were following individual, perhaps religious, perhaps nationalist agendas. Home Office files contain both dodgy and well-founded ‘reports’ from Government-financed spies infiltrating lodges and societies in England and Scotland in the 1790’s:

..Being no stranger to the disaffected principles of too many in this place, and especially among the lower class of FreeMasons, I made it a point to visit a lodge of that class..After the lodge was over ..produced a letter from one of the leaders of the United Irishmen dated Dublin the 31st of March..mentioning his being fixed upon to visit Paisley on Whit Monday next to have a Conference with other Deputies from several districts in Alliance with them..[lxxviii]

Other correspondence indicates charges of treason against Bradford Freemasons were taken seriously enough to be investigated.[lxxix] It is also the case, that, as in Ireland, certain ultra-loyal Masons sought to ensure that their Protestantism was clear. The Grand Master of England’s Knights Templar, a Thomas Dunkerly, urged his brethren in 1794 to join local militia units as members of ‘Prince Edwards Royal Volunteers’ and to wear the Cross of the Order on a ribbon on their waistcoats:

Let our prayers be addressed to the Throne of Grace; that as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants we may be enabled to defend the Christian religion, our gracious sovereign, our laws, liberties and property against a rapacious enemy.[lxxx]

In this same decade, if not before, non-Masonic fraternal Orders, such as the United Englishmen, the London Corresponding Society and the Odd Fellows, with their own secret grips and passwords, were also developing networks linking London and numerous northern industrial towns. These were all under severe surveillance as were, in the United States, the first ‘black’ Freemasons petitioning the authorities for their civil and political rights.

In all of this, focus in the particular case of ‘Australia’s’ earliest lodges needs to be at the point where members of the professional military class interacted with rank-and-file troopers. This will not put any one agenda at the forefront, but it will give regimental lodges a higher profile than they have had hitherto. While incorporating certain common Masonic and European features in the record, scholarship needs to reflect upon the very unique circumstances in the colony which were interacting with those elements. The struggle to adapt fraternal seed from the old world to the different conditions was intense.

Whatever the answer to my last question, only common sense is required to imagine the tangle of ideas that came with the thieves, political prisoners, illiterate beggars and innocents convicted of larceny, sedition and worse, who, with their jailers and administrators, were gathered up by the marine transports from 1787 on and borne away south ‘for Botany Bay’.