Secret Societies and the Strange Slow Death of Mateship in Australia 1788-2010

grand unitelodge of odd fellows
An English newspaper advertisement issued at a time when ‘secret societies’ were regarded with suspicion by authorities. NB the two different thumb positions. (Thanks to Andy Durr.)

An Introduction

I began the initial draft of this story, 2010, with an account of convicted convict, Jane New and her respectable, Masonic paramor in 1829 and the significance the story had played in the work of Jessica Harland-Jacobs’ Builders of Empire. I wrote:

In Sydney, in 1829, John Stephen, Worshipful Master of the Masonic ‘Lodge of Australia’ welcomed seven of the colony’s business and professional men to join with him in celebrating the brotherhood and to indusct more candidates into its mysteries. The same John Stephen, bigamous paramour of convicted shop-lifter Jane New, in that same year lied, forged court documents and engaged petty criminals to smuggle her out of the colony to enable her to escape a death sentence.

In 2006, an Australian researcher, Carol Baxter, concluded that Stephen, the precipitator of the scandal of Jane New, had been an inveterate liar and opportunist well before he met the woman who became his ‘irrestible temptation.’ Baxter showed also that the Stephen family were deeply involved in undermining Governor Darling, in total contravention of the pledge demanded of all Freemasons that they support legal authority.

In 2008, North American scholar Jessica Harland-Jacobs introduced her book Builders of Empire, with the letter John Stephen wrote to England’s Grand Lodge in 1827 requesting a Charter to establish what was to be the first English Masonic lodge in the colony. Harland-Jacobs used this letter to exemplify Freemasonry’s place at the heart of British imperial achievement and the brotherhood’s impulse to be ultra-respectable and free from political controversy.

A mix of public respectability and human corruptibility is not un-common and neither is the central place of social networks. But as the different views of Stephen illustrate, there is much more to this story.

In the early 20th century, Lord Amphill, ex-Viceroy of India, Governor of Madras and DGM for Madras declared that he had found ‘Freemasonry to be the only effective means of promoting social intercourse among the various creeds, colours and classes of India.’ The shift, from accusations against Freemasonry of sedition in the 1790’s, through the 1850’s when Disraeli wrote privately and publically of malevolent ‘secret societies’, to the governmental and vice-regal connections which English Freemasonry enjoyed in the late-19th century is, on its face, extraordinary. [SEE my ‘The Rise and Fall of English Freemasonry – Geo-Politics, Espionage & the Heroics of Empire’]

The state of Masonic scholarship is a segment only of a much larger problem. In 1827 ‘the Masons’ were for the non-initiated a secret society. Today, they remain so, but for different reasons. Professional historians do not appear to have even registered our many other fraternal societies – the Fraternity of Mutual Imps, Daughters of Temperance, the Loyal Orange Institute, the Hibernians and the Holy Catholic Guild, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Odd Fellows, Knights of Labor, the (Jewish) Righteous Path and the United Society of Boilermakers of NSW, to name a few. How fraternalism as a concept has shaped each and every Australian is, it seems, a thought too large, too vague for most to comprehend. And yet, ‘mateship’ is bandied about as though it was part of an Australian mantra.

Academics and professional historians appear totally ignorant of Masonic history and thus their various readerships can know no better. As to the large numbers of the general public who don’t read history, their thinking spaces are open to whatever the merchants of myth and legend wish to push at them.

Despite a massive, colourful and often outspoken public presence and, in the case of the trade unions and ‘Freemasons’, despite a lot of published material which argues otherwise, all of the actual fraternals have been significantly invisible. It’s not that their ‘tracks’are hard to find. It seems rather that they were so important that they were, right from the outset of European settlement, weapons in a war of disinformation.

Secrecy, of course, implies an unwillingness to be seen but the change by fraternal societies from a culture of oral transmission, passwords and secret handshakes,  and oaths against disclosure, to one of vivid colours and a great desire to be seen and recorded, is just one curious but pivotal element of this story.