A few months ago I posted on the ongoing debate regarding the date of the foundation of the Premier Grand Lodge in London. The paper by Susan Sommers and Andrew Prescott has created wide discussion in the academic world of Freemasonry, in lodge discussions and indeed on social media amongst the online Masonic community. I have now read the paper a number of times; it is, as expected by such eminent scholars as Susan Sommers who is professor of History at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, USA, and Andrew Prescott who is professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow, an extremely well researched and well-presented paper. I do however have a number of issues with the proposed 1721 foundation date which Sommers and Prescott put forward, which I would I would like to present here.
One of the issues involves Sommers and Prescott suggesting that there was a conspiracy that included Anderson, Desaguliers, Payne and Sayer, to effectively deceive the public, their contemporary brethren and future Freemasons into believing that the Premier Grand Lodge was founded in 1717 rather than 1721. Prescott asks us to believe that the conspirators not only lied in 1738, but also in 1723, when in the first edition of the Constitutions, Anderson wrote that George Payne was Grand Master in 1720. However, Prescott puts forward that Payne may have merely been recognised as Grand Master in early 1721 during a period of organisational process and not before.
‘It seems that George Payne, with the assistance of Desaguliers and perhaps Stukeley and others, had devised a scheme to develop Freemasonry as a social and cultural activity during the previous few months, and had obtained a number of prestigious recruits, most notably Montagu but perhaps Wharton as well. Payne was evidently the stage manager of this operation, preparing regulations for the new body, and may have been recognised as Grand Master in this process. But the significance of the Antiquity minute is clear: Grand Lodge was founded not at the Goose and Gridiron on 24 June 1717, but four years later, when the London lodges made a formal transfer of their privileges to the new body, on 24 June 1721 at Stationers’ Hall. Anderson’s account of what happened between 1717 and 1721 should be discarded.’
The reason why this happened? According to Sommers and Prescott it was down to good old money and prestige, as the authors of the paper put forward:
‘The legend that Sayer, Lamball and others had been Grand Officers before 1721 was cultivated by them in order to secure money from Grand Lodge charitable funds. Grand Lodge connived in their claims in order to help strengthen its jurisdiction over the older lodges and to demonstrate its own antiquity.’
‘It seems that Sayer and others promoted these stories in order to help obtain charitable relief from Grand Lodge. As they circulated these tales in the 1730s, they provided useful material for William Reid and Anderson as they were instructed to demonstrate how Grand Lodge derived from earlier traditions.’
‘In April 1730, Sayer petitioned Grand Lodge, describing his great misfortunes and poverty, and now for the first time strengthened his claim by declaring that he was a former Grand Master.’
‘Sayer, Lamball and the others concocted their story about being the first Grand Officers for social prestige and to enhance their prospects of charitable aid from Grand Lodge.’
This scheme would have had to have been part of a wider conspiracy of leading members of the Grand Lodge such as Anderson, Desaguliers and Payne, all choosing to cultivate a lie that the Grand Lodge was formed in 1717. But could a lie like this be kept? I tend to think that there were too many people involved, not just Freemasons in London, but by the 1730s, lodges in various parts of the country had firmly become part of the Premier Grand Lodge network, and within a society that displayed certain tensions that reflected the political scene at the time between Hanoverian and Jacobite, set against the backdrop of the rise of Walpole, enemies could have quickly used the 1717 lie to expose the Premier Grand Lodge. Anderson and Desaguliers were staunch Hanoverians. However, he Duke of Wharton (1698-1731) – the Grand Master of 1722 – was a flamboyant Jacobite, and if Wharton knew about this, I believe he would have enjoyed exposing the myth during one of his many drunken rants, destroying reputations as he did so. The 1717 lie would be a useful weapon to have, and exposing this lie would certainly hold professionals like Desaguliers and Payne to ransom. Exposing the truth would not only damage their career and reputations as being liars and myth makers, and indeed the reputations of others that were involved, but also the reputation of the Grand Lodge – something that they had worked so hard to create. And for what? Four years? It seems too much risk for not much reward.
The assumption has been that, as John Hamill recently explained, ‘when Anderson wrote his histories there were still many around who would have attended or have known some of those who were present at the Goose and Gridiron in June 1717’ and that they would have corrected him if necessary. Prescott implies that this is nothing more than ‘a hazardous assumption’. Prescott is correct of course, as it is an assumption as there is no contemporary evidence of 1717, but in a way, Hammill is also correct, as there would indeed have been people around in 1738 who were present in the year 1717, and a lie in regards to the foundation date would leave the Premier Grand Lodge wide open to their enemies, such as the Yorkists, the growing number of ‘anti-Masons’ and of course, by the time Antients came along in 1751, they would have had a great time exposing the myth of 1717. It would only take one disgruntled Freemason or ex-friend to tell the story and the whole house of cards would collapse.
Prescott and Sommers use Sayer and Lamball as obvious examples displaying their motive to gain charitable aid from Grand Lodge, both Sayer and Lamball using their supposed past Grand Lodge credentials to the full extent. However, Prescott and Sommers are more silent on Desaguliers, who had little or no motive to support the fabrication of 1717. Desaguliers had a reputation as a leading exponent of Newtonian experimental natural philosophy, and I believe there would have been far too many people who could have exposed the lie; questioning the supposed made-up mention of Payne as Grand Master during 1720 in the 1723 edition of the Constitutions and the story of 1717 in the 1738 edition. This exposure of the fabrication of 1717 would have led to questions concerning Desaguliers’ integrity and reputation. Indeed, out of the aforementioned conspirators, he would have had most to lose. Apart from doubting his Grand Mastership of 1720, Prescott and Sommers are also quiet on Payne. Payne was an intelligent professional who, along with Desaguliers, would have had risked possible ridicule in London society for fabricating a date of 1717.
The authors suggest that ‘Anderson created an exceptionally durable myth.’ I’m still not sold on it, but I look forward to the further presentation of the revised paper by the authors next year, which may address these issues.
 For a discussion on Sayer see A.F. Calvert, ‘Anthony Sayer’, AQC, 14, (1901), and Beck, ‘Anthony Sayer, Gentleman: The Truth at Last’, AQC, 88, (1975).
 J. Hamill, ‘When History is Written’, Freemasonry Today, 7 June 2016: http://www.freemasonrytoday.com/features/john-hamill-explores-the-evidence-surrounding-the-formation-of-grand-lodge (accessed 30 July 2016). See Williams, ‘The Goose and Gridiron’, AQC, 37, (1924).