Inside The PR Machine Trying To Rebrand The Secretive Freemasons

Steven Hopkins
Dr David Staples, the chief executive of the United Grand Lodge of England (Steven Hopkins)

Having relieved himself of a Times journalist, Dr David Staples, the chief executive of the English Freemasons takes a seat next to a sad-looking sandwich he’s been trying to eat for hours. His ‘Keep Calm’ mug speaks to his other job as a doctor – one people aren’t “horrified” about.

Critics claim the men-only Masons operate secretively in many spheres of political, judicial and policing systems and favour the interests of its members above the public. Hence, accusations of criminals getting off charges in court by making secret signals at the judge and so on.

The organisation (some say sect) has recently taken a further hit. The outgoing chair of the Police Federation, Steve White, told the Guardian that the Freemasons were blocking reform in the police by thwarting the promotion of women and people from black and minority ethnic communities.

Then, at the weekend, the same newspaper published a story claiming the Freemasons were secretly operating two lodges for lobby journalists and politicians from Westminster.

Now the Masons are hitting back in a PR offensive aimed at showing their high morals and charitable work, even taking out a series of adverts in the Guardian, Times and Telegraph announcing, ‘Enough is enough’.

The driving force behind this reputation rebuild is 43-year-old Staples, head of the United Grand Lodge of England, who spoke to HuffPost UK from the Freemasons’ art deco HQ that stands mountain-like, sprawling over several acres and floors, between London’s Holborn and Covent Garden.

He unburdens himself rapidly of 222 words aimed at discrediting the Guardian’s journalistic reputation. After all, that’s what he says the paper did to his beloved Freemasons with its story on the Westminster lodges.

They’re not “secret”, says Staples, who, in the days since, is doing something his movement never does. He is speaking out to expose what he claims is the truth about an organisation that has been cloaked in mystery since the Middle Ages.

“The truth is these lodges have had Wikipedia pages for 12 years,” Staples tells HuffPost UK, seemingly unaware of the irony of his chosen evidence of rebuttal. 

The story, Staples says, “was the straw that broke the camel’s back” and on Thursday, a day bookended for him with 20-odd media interviews.

“So a respected paper that has won awards for its investigative journalism put a story on its front page that made the reader infer that we have MPs and journalists meeting together in a Freemasons lodge, in Westminster, to do nefarious things, and it is just, it was so untrue... that we just thought enough is enough.

“We need to get out there and tell people who we are, what we do, and just stop some this,” Staples fires off as again as he makes a stab at his lunch at a grand table as polished and perfect as the wooden walls that encase it.

Behind him an antique clock, sitting atop a ten-drawer dresser of similar vintage, muffled his munching and counted down HuffPost’s 15-minute slot – reduced from an hour. Interviews ran over because “everyone wants to know more”, Staples’ PA, Jessica, explained on the way to his private quarters, also letting slip that she was using this interview as a way to eject a Times reporter. 

Chelsea, Staples’ secretary, was sent for HuffPost, navigating through a slow-moving crowd of suited silver-haired men, accessorised with briefcases, braces, walking sticks, hats and hunched backs to say Staples would be just a few minutes longer. Later, while sipping from a Little Miss Princess mug in Staples’ office, she conceded,  “it is a lot more fun today”. 

The United Grand Lodge of England in London (Photofusion via Getty Images)

The Freemasons’ newspaper advert claimed its members had been “stigmatised” and the “ongoing misrepresentation of its 200,000-plus members is discrimination. Pure and simple”. A complaint has been lodged with the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Yet, until now, the Freemasons in the UK at least have never sought to clarify what they do, and don’t do. This is not lost on Staples, who took over in September 2017 and has invited the public to Q&A sessions. 

“Well, I think we probably had, you know, the wrong policy... I don’t know what we were doing [before he took over], really,” Staples says, having earlier proclaimed that “we’ve hid our light under a bushel for a long time”.

“What we haven’t done is... we’ve kept far too quiet for far too long about what we do and we’ve allowed people to come up with these ever increasingly ludicrous conspiracy theories and not countered them,” he adds.

“Before the Second World War, we were quite open. You’d see people in full regalia marching up and down the high street with their banners and then Hitler killed 200,000 Jews, sorry, 200,000 Freemasons,” he said.

“He invaded the Channel Islands and demanded the membership of all the Masonic lodges there and it looked very much as if he was going to invade the UK. It wasn’t a very bright idea to be a Freemason out in the open in those circumstances.”

Staples in the opulent surroundings of the private meeting room (Steven Hopkins)

The discrimination continues, according to Staples, who says the only reason members don’t declare their allegiance publicly is because they “genuinely fear for their jobs, were they to disclose that”. 

Staples, a father-of-one, is also the clinical director at the Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals NHS Trust and a final arbiter in NHS complaints, as an advisor to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsmen. He says he has been personally rebuked because of his membership of the Freemasons.

He was the founding chair of trustees for an East End charity (which he did not name) and was asked to leave when he became the Freemasons’ chief executive, he revealed.

“The charity sidled up to me and said, ‘we’re terribly sorry but you can’t be our chairman anymore, we work with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, we work with the Roman Catholics and they don’t like you terribly much, so on ya bike’.”

Staples said his job title also left a sour taste in some people’s mouths.

“One thing that has changed... when I told people, before September, what I did they’d say, ‘oh, that’s really good what bit of medicine do you do dah-de-dah’.

“Now when I say, ‘I’m chief executive of the Freemasons’ there’s a definite subset of people, and it’s not... it’s quite a few people, who will look at you in a completely different light.”

And you see them and they look horrified, and they sort of take a step back. And that is actually due to discriminatory perceptions about us. We are a group of people from all races, all ages, all religions, or faiths. We do a huge amount of work.” Dr David Staples on people's reaction to his job

The Freemasons’ advert noted it raised over £33 million for good causes last year, something Staples explained was a core value of the organisation.

So what do Freemasons actually do? When members get together, Staples said, they perform one of three morality plays, a routine “pretty much unchanged in 300 years or so”.

The first concerns birth. “It reminds us. Well, the point of all of them, really, are to allow us to reflect on ourselves,” he says.

“Our place in society. Those people that are less well off than ourselves, and what we can do to help them. The first one teaches us about equality. Everyone comes into the world the same way. That moment that you’re born everybody is equal. But then life intervenes and some people do well, and some people don’t do so well, and what it teaches us is the ones that do well have a responsibility to help out those who don’t do well.”

The second tale is about self-improvement, something Staples relates to personally: “Something that Freemasonry does is, it makes good people better. It made me better as a person.”

The last concerns death. “You’ve got a finite amount of time on this planet, make it count” is the message, Staples explains.

After this members “all go off and have dinner, usually. And that’s what happens up and down the country in all lodges. Hardly any of the lodge meetings are anything other than the ceremony.

“Is it old-fashioned, or out-of-date, or weird, to talk about morality and integrity? No, I don’t think it is. But what morality and integrity means to us, it doesn’t mean that we’re in some way out-of-touch, out-of-date, all the rest of it. The perception of Freemasons, I think, is very, very different from reality.” 

That does include, however, secret handshakes, passwords, and fancy dress: aprons, in the shape of envelopes, bedazzled in embroidery, and fringed like a vintage lampshade. A mayoral-like chain with square and compass completes the look.

Ceremonies are enacted between two over-sized chairs on a chequered rug, according to a display visible in the museum. Globes sitting atop columns help complete the scene. The Grand Master’s chair is also on display, among 30,000-odd exhibits, seen by thousands of people annually. Its Grand Lodge Room has featured in movies, including ‘Assassin’s Creed’. The building was also in the movie The Death of Stalin. 

Staples is dismissive of questions around the Freemasons’ traditions and how they, along with its members’ silence, may contribute to misconceptions. If you want to know about the Freemasons, you should ask one, he says. He laments: “Everybody else, other than the Freemasons, are free to talk about freemasonry.

“People love a good conspiracy theory,” Staples says. “But we are 300 years old so if you look at some comparative institutions, if you look at the church, if that wasn’t so familiar in people’s minds... going around with a little smoking ball and wearing the vestments people wear, [that] would appear weird... the House of Lords, the same thing.”

“I’ve had an enormous amount of fun in 22 years of doing it,” says Staples, who lists his interest on his website as playing the organ, singing, travelling, entertaining, home improvement, rowing and historical novels. He joined while at university.

“It was a complete whim. I had never heard of the Freemasons. I was living in a student house with a friend of mine who was a member and he said, ‘do you want to come along?’. And I didn’t really know what I was coming along to. I was 19, 20.

“And I went along. And you go through your ceremony of initiation, and you think ‘blimey, that’s a bit odd’.”

Despite there being 55 University Lodges around Britain open to men over the age of 18, HuffPost’s attempts to interview a student Mason were met instead with suggestions we speak with a 42-year-old.

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, left, also the 10th Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England, is shown the Grand Master's chair by Curator Mark Dennis  (Carl Court via Getty Images)

What the initiation ceremony involves exactly, Staples doesn’t say, revealing only that you have to roll your trousers up – nothing more dramatic that what a hipster does voluntarily every day – and that it’s nothing like the occult. “Absolutely not, absolutely not,” he insists.

Staples says: “You roll your trousers up. The origin of that is from the medieval Stonemasons to prove that’s you’re a free man, you don’t have a shackle on. You prove you don’t have a shackle on and you prove that you don’t have scurvy. So you’re a fit and free man. You do all of these things that have symbolic meaning, and at the time you have no idea what the symbolic meaning is, but three or four years later, you start to think of it.”

Every Freemason goes through the initiation, Staples says – having declared “we’ve got people who are City directors, we’ve got people who are window cleaners, taxi drivers, everything in between” – and “there’s nothing embarrassing about it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of”. 

Jessica, a stern women, soon appears and ends the interview. The BBC are here. 

About twenty minutes later, while on a tour taking in the Grand Lodge Room, Staples, dressed in a grey pinstriped suit, red-knit tie and blue pocket square, boasts to the television crew that the room had been used for fashion week as HuffPost is ushered out.

Jessica, now cocooned in a military-style jacket, performs an army salute.  

(Note: Staples’ mug reads ‘Keep calm and don’t kill patients’)

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