Birmingham evolved from a small 7th century Anglo Saxon hamlet on the edge of the Forest of Arden to a major settlement dating back to the early 12th century. (The oldest human artefact found within Birmingham is the Saltley Handaxe: a 500,000-year-old brown quartzite hand axe about 100 millimetres (3.9 in) long)
The first surviving documentary record of Birmingham is in the Domesday Book of 1086, where it is recorded as the small manor of Bermingeham worth only 20 shillings.
From William, Richard holds four hides in Birmingham. There is land for six ploughs, in the demesne, one. There are five villagers and four smallholders with two ploughs. The woodland is half a league long and two furlongs wide. The value was and is twenty shillings. Wulfwin held it freely in the time of King Edward.1
The transformation of Birmingham from the purely rural manor recorded in the Domesday Book started decisively in 1166, with the purchase by the Lord of the Manor Peter de Birmingham of a royal charter from Henry II permitting him to hold a weekly market “at his castle at Birmingham” and to charge tolls on the market’s traffic. This was one of the earliest of the two thousand such charters that would be granted in England in the two centuries up to 1350.2
THE BACKGROUND OF FREEMASONRY stretches back to biblical times when magnificent castles and cathedrals were built by master craftsmen, journeymen and apprentices. As a skilled Stonemason, able to build complex structures you were able to travel and find work at well. With your colleagues and families you were lodged in a temporary structure attached to or near the main building. In this Lodge you ate, slept and received your work assignment from the master of the work. The apprentices were trained and moral values were attached to the tools of the trade. The moral code they learned helped to maintain the reputation and stability of the little community in which they lived and worked. In those days there were many guilds – textile workers, carpenters, carvers, glassworkers etc each of whom kept close their traditionally imparted technology, the arts and mysteries of their crafts. Because they were working on the sites, they were called operative members.
During the 17th Century the Guilds began to admit non-operative (speculative) masons to their ranks. This was a time when, as a membership organisation, the stonemasons were suffering due to the new fabrics being used to make buildings – bricks, wood etc.
Freemasonry’s transition from a craft guild of operative, working stonemasons into a fraternity of what we call speculative or accepted (gentleman) Freemasons began in Scottish lodges during the early 17th century. The first record of the Initiation of a non-operative on English soil, was in 1641, when Elias Ashmole was Initiated into a Lodge in Warrington. The obvious response to this is that speculative Lodges must then have been in existence before this time.
The Province of Warwickshire became 275 years old in 2003 (Now over 300 years old). A banquet was held at the headquarters of the Province in Birmingham on 22 April 2003 to celebrate this most significant event in Freemasonry. The date was chosen quite deliberately since the earliest recorded meeting of a Lodge in Warwickshire was for the ‘constitution’ of a Lodge on 22 April 1728 at The Woolpack in Warwick when James Prescot, Provincial Grand Master, was present. The Reverend Greenwood, the Vicar of St Mary’s Church, Warwick, was the first Master, his Wardens being Mr Stephen Heath and Mr Francis Smith.
The second Warwickshire Lodge to appear was the Lodge at The Swan, Birmingham in 1733. That Lodge survives to this day and is St Paul’s Lodge No 43. Its earliest Minutes commence in 1764. The Lodge celebrated its 275th Anniversary on 2 February 2008 when the RW Bro Michael J Price, Provincial Grand Master, was installed as its Master and RW Bro George Pipon Francis, Senior Grand Warden, was the Presiding Officer.
The first and oldest established “Masonic Meeting Place” in Birmingham in the Masonic Province of Warwickshire was first a Synagogue serving a small Hebrew Community in Birmingham, as early as 1809. It had been part of the former Gooch Estates and was badly damaged in riots directed at non Anglicans in 1813.
It was rebuilt in 1827 by Richard Tutin and continued to be used as a Synagogue until 1857 when the Singers Hill Synagogue was built, it was then sold to the members of “Athol Lodge” and opened as a Masonic Hall in 1858. Severn Street Masonic Hall is of extreme importance to the architectural heritage of the city of Birmingham and has achieved a Grade 2 listing.
The habit of freemasons to travel and to visit other lodges, or even affiliate with them, is one of the oldest and most widely practiced customs of the Craft. It is surmised, not without some evidence, that the modes of recognition were originated in the operative period as a means of identifying the genuinely skilled mason who came to visit a lodge in search of work.
It is therefore reasonable to deduce that the tendency of masons to visit other lodges is very old custom indeed. Many of the oldest extant masonic manuscripts contain charges associated with visiting, and the reception of visitors.
Throughout the Middle Ages and thereafter until well into the eighteenth century, travel in Britain was greatly restricted and very hazardous and Birmingham was no exception. Although the more affluent residents could make journeys on horseback or by horse and coach, ordinary persons were usually confined to travelling on foot. Robbery under arms was commonplace, so that the general population avoided travel whenever possible.
Erdington, a small village north east of Birmingham may only be 4 miles away, but in the early 1800’s this route had an evil repute.
The most notorious highwayman Tom Kin, friend and rival of the immortal Dick Turpin, frequented this road.
On the 1st October 1750, the Birmingham Gazette reported an incident. On the previous Wednesday, two highwaymen stopped a Mr Henry Hunt and stole his watch and money. However, when Mr Hunt asked the ‘knights of the road’ to give him back some silver, one returned him six shillings and then rode off to rob another gentleman they had sighted across the Coldfield.
In 1882 the Birmingham and Aston Tramways Co. Ltd., opened a narrow gauge line from Aston Street northwards to Aston Cross, where the lines diverged, travelling by different routes to Witton. In 1885 a branch line was opened to Salford Bridge linking with a company operated horse bus service to Erdington.
On 23rd February 1885 a branch line to the foot of Gravelly Hill from Lichfield Road was opened.
With a connection to Erdington being provided by the Company’s horse buses, it made it easier and safer to connect lodges.
Wylde Green Shopping Centre used to be known as “The Yenton” or the “Tram Terminus”. The trams from Birmingham terminated there because that was the Sutton Coldfield boundary, and the body responsible for making the original tramline from Salford Bridge, Erdington Urban District Council, had no powers beyond its boundary. The tramline was opened in 1907.
Erdington had secured powers to build the tramway by Act of Parliament in 1902. In August 1902 Sutton Borough Council decided to apply to Parliament for powers to build tramways in the borough. Surveys were made, and a plan produced showing the proposed routes.
With travel made safer more lodges opened and Freemasonry in Birmingham flourished.
Yenton was the very first Masonic Lodge to meet in Erdington, Consecrated on the 24th January 1911.
“Visiting” is undoubtedly a central pillar of Freemasonry. At the simplest level, it is the opportunity to share comradeship, to enjoy each other’s company, and as we move from “labour to refreshment” to enjoy the society of the Festive Board. But of course, visiting another Lodge offers much more than this, it provides opportunities to exchange ideas, to achieve a better understanding of the ceremony, and to make a fuller, more complete sense of the ritual.
Yenton Lodge welcomed visitors from all over Birmingham so the importance to connect to Birmingham’s centre was noted on the summons which was posted out to every member and visitor. It read: Note – Trains leave New Street at 4.15 and 5.5 p.m. (No. 2 Platform). Trams leave Steelhouse Lane every few minutes journey takes 15 minutes.
There are still to this day more than 4,500 Masons practicing in Birmingham.
The last tram from Erdington 4th July 1953
- Birmingham in the Domesday Book, Catalogue reference: E 31/2/2, f. 243r, The National Archives, retrieved25 July2011
- Holt 1986, p. 3