As the lark was still slumbering and dreaming of catching flies during the forthcoming daylight, 27 companions of the Provincial Stewards’ Chapter No 8516 of West Lancashire, Demonstration Team were already on the road and heading for Shrewsbury, in Shropshire.
They had been invited to the Masonic Hall in Crewe Street to perform ‘The Re-building of a Chapter’, by the Shropshire First Principals’ Chapter No 6262 after correspondence between their secretary Eric Booth and the head of the demonstration team Bill Smith.
After a long journey the team was thankful for a hearty breakfast which was served soon after arriving at the hall at 7.30 am, but a fully organized chef and his team were more than able to match even the most voracious of appetites.
The name of the host chapter is self-explanatory and was consecrated in 1987 and since permission was granted by Supreme Grand Chapter, has like many, chosen to dispense with the wearing of gloves. It meets in what is now the Shrewsbury Masonic Hall, which was the former parish church of St Michael and it was pleasing to see the war memorial within the grounds fully renovated and adorned with flowers.
The church was consecrated on 24 August 1830, being designed by John Carlisle in the Grecian style and includes an octagonal tower. The church was built in brick and the chancel was added later in 1873, the church served the local community until it was closed in 1976.
It was within this fine building that the demonstration team spent their early morning in setting out the room and having the necessary practice to assimilate with the unfamiliar surroundings. When all were satisfied that everything was ready there was just enough time to change into regalia before the Shropshire companions arrived and the chapter opened. Present on the day were the Grand Superintendent of Shropshire Peter Taylor, accompanied by Roger Pemberton, (Second Provincial Grand Principal) and John Williamson (Deputy Grand Superintendent).
The past first principals of the chapter were introduced and escorted to their places, this was followed by the First Principals of Shropshire Royal Arch Chapters being individually announced and escorted to their respective place by a Provincial Steward from West Lancashire. The chapter was then placed in a state of darkness and a synopsis of the historical events and of the proclamation of Cyrus King of Persia leading up to the ‘re-building’ was delivered by David Harrison.
The chapter resumed its illumination as Barry Elman described the purpose and cause of the individual pieces of furniture which were brought in by the members of Provincial Stewards’ Chapter. When this was complete the chapter was opened by its three Principals and after two matters of chapter business had been dealt with the demonstration was resumed. The chapter was also at this time re-dedicated by Reverend Graham Halsall.
There then followed a reminder to the companions of what the six lights within the chapter represent. This was delivered by Bill Smith and his conclusion of the form of a triangle which represented the Supreme Being and/or an aide memoire, as the triangle could be reconstructed by using one piece of material or matter that was totally portable. Furthermore as it was a geometrical figure, was geometry itself the powerful superior knowledge that set aside the intelligent being, man? Robin Andrews Morris then presented the acting candidate to the first principal and proceeded to inform him on what the floor furniture represented.
Bill then introduced David Harrison, who had with him an extremely special gavel which may be described as a true Masonic gavel for a number of reasons, which David explained most eloquently. It is made of three differing woods; elm, ash, and oak.
On conclusion of the talk, David and Bill presented the gavel to the chapter on behalf of the Provincial Stewards’ Chapter, suitably inscribed onto an adorning plaque. First Principal, David Joyce assured them both that it would be treasured by all of the members of the Shropshire First Principals’ Chapter and become a respected artifact within the chapter.
On conclusion of the meeting, all descended to the ground floor for a very agreeable festive board at which twocheques were made out from the alms collection at the ceremony, for an equal three figure amount, one for the West Lancashire Freemasons’ Charity, the other was returned to David Joyce to be used for the benefit of the Midland Air Ambulance Service.
In the next available post, Bill Smith received a letter of thanks and appreciation from David Joyce, part of which said: “It has been a lovely experience and it is clear that the companions of our chapter and our Province were deeply impressed with the choreography, the detail and the ethos of your presentation. Would you please pass on to your team our enormous appreciation of the efforts they made, each and everyone? Thank you, again.”
It had obviously been a successful day for all concerned and it must be remembered that the demonstration team carry out their work voluntary and in their spare time, but such dedication brings its own reward at the satisfaction gained spreading knowledge to those that attend a chapter to see the team at work.
An Intriguing Story Unearthed By David Harrison
Charismatic figures of high social rank became essential to Freemasonry, especially after the dark and difficult years of the early nineteenth century that some lodges had experienced. These influential figures attracted aspiring social-climbing men to the lodges that they were associated with, playing a part in making the Craft popular again. One such charismatic figure was Viscount Combermere, who became Provincial Grand Master of Cheshire in 1830.
Combermere was born Stapleton Cotton in 1773, the second son of Sir Robert Cotton, who had also served as Provincial Grand Master of Cheshire from 1785-1810. Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere, was a war hero having fought in the Peninsula Wars and was a close friend of the Duke of Wellington who was also a Freemason.
He had served as commander of Wellington’s cavalry earning a reputation for fearless bravery and received personal thanks from Wellington himself.
Combermere renovated his home at Combermere Abbey in Cheshire extensively and constructed the Wellington Wing especially to commemorate the Duke’s visit to the house in 1820. His popularity as a local war hero was evident when the Provincial Grand Lodge met in Macclesfield in 1852 where the procession route to the meeting place at the Macclesfield Arms Hotel was crammed with flags and banners, and in front of the hotel a lofty triumphal arch of evergreens was erected, from which descended banners bearing Welcome Combermere and Salamanca. When the Provincial Grand Lodge met in Congleton in 1855, Combermere again received a rapturous hero’s welcome; the public celebrations for the arrival of this Cheshire Hero being ecstatic.
Combermere’s standing among the masonic community of Cheshire was so great that he was toasted as ‘The Hero of Cheshire’ at the Provincial Grand Lodge and his son, Wellington Cotton, followed in his footsteps becoming a high-ranking Freemason within the Cheshire Province.
On the death of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, Combermere gave a speech to the Provincial Grand Lodge, in which he said:
‘He had been associated with him [Wellington] since 1793. Perhaps it was not generally known that the Duke was a Mason, he was made in Ireland, and often when in Spain, where Masonry was prohibited, in conversation with his Lordship, he regretted repeatedly how sorry he was that his military duties had prevented him taking the active part his feelings dictated, for it was his opinion that Masonry was a great and royal art, beneficial to the individual and to the community.’
The Duke of Wellington’s masonic career had begun in 1790, when he entered into his family lodge in Ireland, but after 1795 he distanced himself from the Craft even opposing masonic processions and meetings when in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1810, realising it was sensitive to the local population.
Governor Of Barbados
After the Napoleonic wars, in 1817, Combermere was appointed Governor of Barbados, and it was there that an infamous incident occurred that has since made Combermere the focus of many a book on the paranormal.
The macabre ‘moving coffins of Barbados’ have since been much discussed and researched by countless paranormal investigators; in fact, the incidents caused such a stir on the island in 1819 that Combermere himself became directly involved. They centred on the tomb of the Chase family, a vault which lies in the graveyard of Christ Church in Oistins, situated in the south-west of Barbados.
The curious events had actually started a number of years before with the burial of Mrs Thomasina Goddard in 1807. The tomb however had been there for nearly a century before; being the resting place for a certain Honourable James Elliott who was buried there in 1724, but by the time of Mrs Goddard’s burial, Elliot’s coffin had vanished.
A few months after Mrs Goddard’s burial, the tomb was reopened to bury Mary Ann Chase, the infant daughter of the Hon. Thomas Chase, a local plantation owner. On 6 July 1812, the tomb was again reopened for the burial of another daughter, and the following month, Thomas Chase himself passed away and the tomb was reopened once more.
This time, however, when the tomb was opened, the tiny lead coffins of his children were found to have mysteriously and inexplicably moved, especially the coffin of Mary Ann which appeared to have been thrown from one side of the tomb to the other, leaning head down in the corner. Later, when another infant was buried, the coffins were again displaced and strewn around the tomb.
The burial, a few weeks after, of Samuel Brewster, who had been murdered by slaves, revealed further disarray with the coffins again having been mysteriously moved around. By the time yet another burial took place on 7 July 1819 the nervous locals had an idea of what to find and sure enough the tomb was yet again in a mess; the coffins had been moved again and the coffin of Mrs Goddard had been completely smashed.
Rumour and superstition spread through the community and crowds gathered around the tomb to see the unearthly chaos and it was then that Combermere himself became involved personally supervising the investigation into how the disturbances occurred; checking for secret tunnels and placing the coffins neatly in order again and recording the layout with a sketch.
When the slab was replaced to conceal the entrance of the tomb, Combermere made a series of secret marks and symbols within the cement to alert him to further tampering.
Ten months later, Combermere and some friends returned to the tomb to check on the outcome of their investigation, and sure enough after carefully opening the tomb, the coffins were again in chaos, the children’s coffins having been thrown to the back of the vault. Nothing had been disturbed on the outside of the tomb, the appearance being perfect and Combermere’s secret marks still being visible. Another sketch of the coffins in their chaotic state was done to record the event and the vault was closed once more.
To this day the mystery has never been solved.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
The article published in the last issue of Freemasonry Today, ‘The Mystery of the Moving Coffins’ was interesting. However, with reference to the moving coffins themselves, can we not apply the principle of Occam’s Razor to this? The principle which holds that the simplest solution is more often the best?
Consider the parameters: the moving coffins were lead-sealed and of young children and therefore they were watertight and light. The vault was underground and presumably brick-lined with no easy exit for water. Barbados, like many Caribbean islands, is renowned for intense cloudbursts.
Any substantial rainfall occurring over a short period of time would therefore collect in the vault and quickly submerge that which was there – except for the watertight light coffins which would float until the water receded and landed them in random positions with no impressions on what probably would have been an earth floor.
Conjecture, of course.
Commercial Temperance Lodge No. 3144
I read with great interest the article by David Harrison in Freemasonry Today, Issue 13, on ‘The Mystery of the Moving Coffins’ in Barbados.
In the spring of 2010 I attended a funeral for a lady who was a close family friend. She was a spinster and had made arrangements to be buried with her parents. The family plot was in the ‘old’ town cemetery and the lady had previously asked the retired grave-digger if he would do her the honour of opening the plot for her to be interred. It was while he was carrying out this task that we got talking.
He told me a story of how many years ago he was asked by his manager to open up an old burial chamber that belonged to a family who lived away; it was in preparation for an imminent funeral.
On opening the tomb it was noticed that the coffins were strewn all over the place, still intact, but seemingly rearranged and thrown about. The police were called but as the locks showed no sign of being tampered with, after some investigation, no explanation was given for the movement of the casks.
The tomb was tidied and the latest funeral took place after which the chamber was resealed; this task was observed by the local police.
Later that year the tomb was needed again and it was duly opened and again the coffins had been rearranged. Some were even standing upright. This caused great concern and many possibilities were considered but after a while nothing seemed to answer the question as to how these coffins had been so easily strewn about.
It was agreed that the chamber would be opened on a regular basis over the next few months in an attempt to find the cause of the disruption. Nothing was seen for two months but when the tomb was opened on the third month it was found to have been rearranged again but this time there was about two inches of water in the base.
It was concluded that at certain times the chamber would fill with water up to six feet deep and the coffins were therefore being lifted and moved as the water rose and fell.
This explanation eased the nerves of my friend and his colleagues as all sorts of things had been running through their minds as to the cause of the moving coffins.
I wonder if this has any bearing on Mr. Harrison’s story.
Rhyl, North Wales