John Hamill on the curious origins of the numberless Grand Stewards' Lodge

Tuesday, 07 March 2017

The red aprons

Director of Special Projects John Hamill explores the history behind the Grand Stewards, the lodge without a number

Like many membership organisations, Freemasonry relies on volunteers to run smoothly. One of the longest-serving groups of volunteers is the Grand Stewards, whose members, because of their privilege of wearing crimson collars and edging to their aprons, can cause confusion when they visit outside London.

The Grand Stewards’ prime function is to organise the Grand Festival, which immediately follows the annual investiture of Grand Officers on the last Wednesday in April each year. That has its origins in the famous meeting that took place on 24 June 1717 when the first Grand Lodge was formed. Indeed, for the first few years the annual feast and election of the new Grand Master appears to have been all that Grand Lodge did.

As the 1720s advanced and the number of lodges and members increased, organising the Grand Feast became more complex, so a number of individuals volunteered as stewards for the event.

Glittering success

In 1728, to formalise the arrangement, Grand Lodge invited 12 individuals to form a team to take on the preparations. This proved successful and the stewards became Grand Stewards, with their own jewel of office to be suspended from a crimson ribbon and the privilege of having their aprons lined and edged in the same colour. The original jewel was said to have been designed by William Hogarth, himself a Grand Steward in 1735.

The Grand Stewards received a further privilege in the same year when they were given a warrant as the Stewards Lodge. Originally they also carried a number but, in 1792, the Grand Stewards Lodge was formed, which was permitted to meet ‘without number, but first on the list of regular lodges’. Like the three time immemorial lodges, which formed the original 1717 Grand Lodge, the Grand Stewards Lodge meets without a warrant.

The Grand Stewards grew into a powerful body, with 12 representatives of the lodge entitled to attend and vote in Grand Lodge (usually only the Master and Wardens represented a lodge). The Grand Officers, for much of the 18th century, were chosen from among their number. Both these practices were lost after the Union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, although the Grand Stewards retained the right to occupy the front rows on the north and south areas of the Grand Temple.

Up until the Union, the outgoing Grand Stewards had the right of nominating their successors, which naturally led to the office becoming associated with a small group of London lodges. Although the Antients Grand Lodge used stewards occasionally and had a Stewards Lodge (in effect, their Committee of Charity), they did not have a similar system of Grand Stewards.

After the Union in 1813, the Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Sussex, began to formalise many of the pre-Union practices. In 1815, 18 London lodges were given the privilege of each year nominating one of their members for appointment by the Grand Master as a Grand Steward. Many of these lodges had previously provided Grand Stewards for the premier Grand Lodge.

The Grand Stewards were to assist at great ceremonials and the Quarterly Communication. In addition to organising the Grand Festival, they were to bear its cost. This later proved to be problematic and the present system was evolved, whereby Grand Lodge sets the ticket price for the Grand Festival and the Board of Grand Stewards makes its plans in the full knowledge that any costs exceeding those funds will fall on the board itself.

In making the new arrangements in 1815, the Duke of Sussex set up a curious anomaly. During their year of office, the Grand Stewards are Grand Officers. At the end of their year they become Past Grand Stewards and retain the right to wear their distinctive regalia but cease being Grand Officers – unless they are promoted or already hold Grand Rank.

On a number of occasions, I have seen consternation cross the brow of a lodge Director of Ceremonies when a Past Grand Steward visits his lodge. He does not fit into any of the conventional groups, so where does he go in the procession?

Is he saluted? And where does he fit in on the toast list…?

‘A Past Grand Steward does not fit into any of the conventional groups, so where does he go in the procession?’

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