A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.
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The grouping of the Masonic Lodges of England into Provinces began about the year 1727; (fn. 1) but although there were no doubt Lodges in Wiltshire at that time, if not before, the earliest records that have survived are the minutes of one formed at Salisbury in 1732. There exists no evidence of any Provincial Grand Lodge for the county before 1777.
A few scanty records show that Lodges were in existence at Warminster (1735), Chippenham (1763), Melksham (1765), Marlborough (1768), a second Lodge at Warminster (1770), and Devizes (1770). Two of these—the earlier Warminster Lodge and that at Marlborough—had been erased from the Grand Lodge Register by the time of the Provincial Grand Lodge of 1777, and most of the others seem to have ceased working, for only the Salisbury and Devizes Lodges are mentioned in the minutes of the 1777 Provincial Grand Lodge, and of these Devizes failed to send any representatives. At this Lodge Bro. Thomas Dunkerley, who was already Provincial Grand Master for Dorset, was appointed to the same office for Wiltshire.
The minutes of the 1777 meeting give a full account of a serious dispute between Salisbury and Grand Lodge. It had been decreed by Grand Lodge that Provincial Lodges should contribute to the cost of building a new Masonic Hall in London. Salisbury refused to do this on the grounds that they had already spent a large sum on equipping their own hall, and that they regarded the demand as 'totally repugnant to the principles of Freemasonry, reflecting no honour on those who impose it'. Grand Lodge thereupon suspended the Salisbury Lodge, which retaliated by threatening to sever their connexion with London and to establish a Grand Lodge of their own. Fortunately this threat was not carried out; after lengthy correspondence a compromise was agreed upon, and Salisbury's suspension was withdrawn. But a few years later differences again arose over a somewhat similar matter, and as these could not be composed, the Salisbury Lodge was erased from the Grand Lodge Register in 1801.
At this time there were two systems of Freemasonry existing in the country—the Lodges which acknowledged the constitutions and authority of the Grand Lodge of England, and the 'Atholl' Lodges, so called because they gave their allegiance to a Grand Lodge formed in 1751 under the Duke of Atholl. This state of affairs was not satisfactory, and in 1813 negotiations to bring about a union of the two conflicting bodies were successfully accomplished. Of the twelve Lodges then existing in Wiltshire, three had followed the Atholl constitution. One (at Salisbury) applied for and received a warrant from the Grand Lodge of England; the other two—one at Devizes and one 'travelling' Lodge connected with the Wiltshire Militia—ceased to exist.
No further events of importance in regard to Wiltshire Freemasonry are recorded until 1823, when it became clear that matters were not running smoothly. A letter in that year from a Salisbury brother to the Master of the Devizes Lodge complains of the unsatisfactory state of the Craft in the Province. It states that 'for many years there has been no Provincial Grand Master, and consequently the art [of Freemasonry] is sinking into nothing for want of a helping hand to cheer and support it'. This complaint led to a petition to Grand Lodge, the result of which was that two years later Bro. J. R. Grossett, M.P. for Chippenham, was appointed Provincial Grand Master.
This appointment, however, was not a success. Grossett showed little interest in the work, and indeed, seems to have spent most of his time abroad, owing partly to ill health. After ten years of his ineffective rule the deplorable position of the Province was made the subject of an article in the Freemasons' Quarterly Review. This article stated that for six years no Provincial Grand Lodge had been held, and consequently 'apathy had taken the place of zeal in what had once been one of the most active Provinces in the country'. Still nothing was done; and it was not until 1853, nearly thirty years later, that the Grand Master installed Frederick, 2nd Lord Methuen of Corsham as Provincial Grand Master. This proved to be an admirable appointment, and under his wise and vigorous rule Freemasonry began to flourish in the county as it had never done before. Lodges whose activities had lapsed were revived; new Lodges were formed, and the number of brethren steadily increased. For thirty-eight years Lord Methuen held office, and when he died in 1891 the number of active Lodges, of which there were only four when he was appointed, had increased to eleven, with a total membership of over 500.
From this time onwards the story of Freemasonry in the county has been one of continued progress. Lord Methuen was succeeded as Provincial Grand Master by William, 5th Earl of Radnor. He held the office for nine years, and when he died in 1900 his son Jacob, the 6th Earl, was appointed in his place. Both were able and wise administrators, and under their rule the number of Lodges rose to eighteen, and the membership to over 1,600. An interesting event during this period was a great Masonic Service held in 1920 at Salisbury to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the building of the Cathedral, which was attended by 800 Masons from the Provinces of Wiltshire and Dorset.
Lord Radnor resigned in 1928, and was succeeded by Major-General T. C. P. Calley, who worthily held the office until 1934, in which year the Province was signally honoured by the appointment of H.R.H. the Duke of Kent. This is the only occasion on which a member of the Royal Family has held the office of Provincial Grand Master of Wiltshire, and the ceremony of his installation at Trowbridge was marked by the largest gathering of Freemasons in the history of the Province. In 1939 the Duke resigned and was succeeded by Lord Methuen. There were 24 Craft Lodges under his jurisdiction in 1951, having a total membership of nearly 2,400.
In Royal Arch Masonry there has also been a considerable advance. In 1789 there were only two Chapters of this degree in the Province, and both ceased to exist a few years later. It was not until 1856 that a revival began with the formation of a new Chapter at Swindon. Others followed at intervals of a few years, and there were nine in 1951.