A Short History

Royal Arch Masonry in Victoria

By December of 1839, a number of Melbourne residents had met and decided that the colony of Port Phillip should be graced with a Masonic lodge.

On March 25th, 1840, the Lodge of Australia Felix was consecrated. The Master was John Stephen, a Grand Steward of the United Grand Lodge of England.
In 1826 he arrived in Sydney where he became a Past Master and a Past First Principal. He journeyed to Melbourne, and while not necessarily being the driving force behind the first lodge, he was the consecrating and dedicating officer.

He installed the Master and invested the officers. He was, in 1840, the only Past Master in Melbourne. On the 5th November 1844 Stephen chaired a meeting which he had called at the Royal Exchange Hotel, and the seven Masons present voted to apply to London for a Chapter to be attached to the Lodge of Australia Felix. The petitioners now acted quite irregularly in that they commenced work and Exalted a number of applicants.

The Craft lodges had acted in the same way and it was certainly ignorance that led to the brethren working the degrees before the arrival of the warrant rather than a deliberate breach of the law.

The Chapter warrant duly arrived in August 1847 and seems to have prompted the end of a Call Off which occurred between July 1846 and October 1847. In October 1850, the Chapter borrowed £30 from the parent lodge to meet its debts.

In June the following year the era of the gold rushes began, which severely depleted the Craft lodges, and the Chapter was all but destroyed. For a few years Royal Arch Masonry existed only as a Chapter of Instruction until the first wild enthusiasm of the gold rushes died and stability returned to Melbourne.

Late in 1855 the Australasian Chapter was restored to life. The effects of the gold rushes on popular history have been extensively examined over the years. In Masonry the effects, while dramatic in extent, are readily determinable. The middle of 1851 saw Masonry all but defunct in the colony.

The next few years were to see an enormous increase in the rate of immigration as, for example, 1853 saw over 900 ships sail through the Heads.

The vast majority of these new arrivals headed immediately for the gold fields. But there was never sufficient gold for all to make their fortunes. Each gold field town experienced a vast initial increase in population followed, within a year, by an almost equal decrease as the gold seekers moved on.

The new towns then settled down to be small but stable communities and on average formed a Masonic lodge about four years later. Amongst the fortune hunters a small but significant number of the immigrants were professional or businessmen and of these a few were very experienced Masons.

Quickly they made their mark in their new home, imported the correct workings from London and for the first time placed Masonry in the colony on a correct footing. Further, because they were experienced they introduced the degrees beyond the Craft.

By mid-1863 besides the Australasian Chapter, the town of Melbourne had added the Collingwood, Victorian, Meridian St. John, and South Yarra Chapters, all under the English constitution. The Duke of Leinster and the Washington Chapters were under the Irish Constitution and the St. Clair Chapter under the Scottish.

Two Chapters had been formed in Ballarat, while Bendigo and Geelong each formed one. Over the next 30 or so years there was considerable heat in the relationships between Lodges and Chapters affiliated with, respectively, the English, Scottish, Irish and Canadian Grand Lodges.

The eventual resolution was the formation of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria in 1889.
This period of discord is covered extensively in VEm Comp Shade’s History.

In Victoria on the 20th March 1889 the inauguration of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria occurred with but one English lodge standing out.
On 21st March the Supreme Grand Chapter of Victoria was formed but not, as in the Craft, by the inclusion of all private bodies which wished to join.

The formation of the Grand Chapter was a decidedly low key affair, particularly in comparison with the Craft.
Their meetings had been held from early in 1888 and an executive body worked quite hard.

But in the Royal Arch the first meeting of any sort, apart from unofficial discussions, was not held until the 30th January 1889 by which time the Grand Lodge was an all but accomplished fact. In one sense this can be viewed as quite a logical approach as it would have been pointless to worry about a Grand Chapter if a Grand Lodge was not to eventuate, but in a truer sense it can be seen as a continuation of the apathy with which Royal Arch Masonry was being treated.

In June 1888 the District Grand Chapter was to meet and it was decided to send circulars to all Companions rather than just the first Principals in the hope that the Order could experience a revival of interest.

The Canadians were not invited to the January 30th meeting but they became aware of it and forwarded a letter. The contents were not revealed but it is apparent from comments made that it had expressed displeasure with the treatment the Canadians were receiving and threatened the formation immediately of a separate Grand Chapter.

There is little doubt that this could be achieved because plans of this sort had been put in motion earlier and the three Canadian Chapters had voted in favour of such a move in October 1888. The Canadians had postponed these plans because they could see peace in the air.

The Victorians almost made the mistake of refusing to talk to the Canadians at all, or at least until the offending letter was withdrawn, a motion to that effect being defeated by 8 votes to 6. Instead, the two factions met on 4th February and the word quickly spread that all had been settled.

Three possibilities were discussed:-

  1. The Canadian Chapters to be received by the Supreme Grand Chapter after its formation.
  2. The Canadian Companions to be received by one or other of the existing Chapters and carry their Principal and Past Principal ranks, take part in the formation of the Supreme Grand Chapter, and the Chapter with which they affiliated not to charge any fees.
  3. The Canadians form a separate Grand Chapter and the two amalgamate.

Each of these had faults. The first and third were similar in that the Grand Chapter was to be formed before the Canadians were admitted and, to the wary, there was the strong possibility that they would never be admitted. The third is also an extremely interesting example of the way in which some of the leading Masons of that era thought.

The advocation of two separate Grand Bodies in the one jurisdiction at the one time with the consent of both must surely be unique in the history of Masonry and it does show that the Victorians had drifted away from English practice.

The Canadians were not overly happy about the second alternative either as they did not want to lose their identity. But as evidence that they wished to see peace on the whole Masonic scene, they agreed to meet with representatives of the Irish Washington Chapter.

The executive for the formation of the Grand Chapter was now quietly convinced that the argument in Royal Arch Masonry was finished. But the Washington Chapter had other ideas and was insisting upon affiliation fees and refraining from making any promises regarding future warrants.

England had no intention of assisting, as had been done in the Craft, as once the Grand Lodge was formed the Chapters would have constitutionally ceased to exist anyway. On the other hand, England may well have expected the local Companions to take the hint and not place obstacles in the path of peace in the Royal Arch as well.

The Canadians suggested an approach be made to Chief Justice Way in South Australia in his capacity as First Grand Principal, but the executive refused.

The Canadians approached him anyway, but he was too great a diplomat to be involved in a problem which was none of his concern. Consequently, the Supreme Grand Chapter was formed with the Canadians excluded.

As it was obvious to one and all that by weight of numbers, if for no other reason, the regulations of England would be adopted by the Victorian body it could be suggested that constitutional differences caused the problem, but the two major differences – the working by the Canadians of the preliminary degrees and the lack of a Canadian rule making it mandatory for an aspirant for the office of third Principal to be an installed Master, could easily have been overcome and quite likely the majority of the Canadians would have accepted the English regulations.

We are thus left with the conclusion that the exclusion of the Canadians was a deliberate act inspired by those few brethren who still entertained bitterness regarding the 1883 Grand Lodge of Victoria and used the Royal Arch Order to vent their feelings.

A number of the Grand Chapters throughout the world were not impressed by the founding of the Grand Chapter of Victoria and one referred to it as being simply a convention of some Companions.

Indeed, to a number of American jurisdictions the Grand Chapter was irregular as all Companions had not been invited to join on terms of perfect equality.

Grand Chapter began its life with thirteen private Chapters. Eleven were English, one Irish and one Scottish while standing out were the three Canadian Chapters, (although one may have been in abeyance) a Scottish Chapter in Colac, and two English Chapters which were almost certainly in abeyance.

With this weight of numbers it was purely a matter of form to adopt, in almost their entirety, the English regulations.

Then Grand Chapter promptly slumbered. Each Chapter was attached to a lodge, the Grand Master and his Deputy became the First and Second Grand Principals and the Craft Grand Secretary and Treasurer occupied the same offices in Grand Chapter.

It was a pity that the Grand Chapter had to be formed as the Order was by no means ready for it. Indeed, in hindsight, one feels that the Order would have been far better served if six months or more had been allowed to lapse after the formation of the Grand Lodge before the Grand Chapter was formed as divided energies saw the Royal Arch neglected.

Legally the Chapters were in existence until erased by the Grand Chapter of England and even if such had occurred the ‘wandering Companions’ could still have formed a Grand Chapter at a later date. As it was the Grand Chapter was formed and promptly forgotten.

The first Grand Officers served for two years and between March 1889, and January 1891, only one convocation was held, and that purely to approve the granting of a warrant. The Committee of General Purposes first met in October 1890, this lack of activity undoubtedly held back the progress of Royal Arch Masonry. Late in 1893 Grand Chapter was faced with two problems and did not handle either of them very satisfactorily.

The first problem was that in October it was rumoured that the Canadians were to open new Chapters. This should not have been surprising. Early in 1892 there was an exchange of letters between the Canadians and Victorian Grand Scribes which had led to the Canadian Companion including in his final letter the statement that the Canadian First Grand Principal had ‘distinctly stated that it is not his intention to issue any (dispensations) should such application be made’.

Unfortunately for Masonic peace there was an escape from this ruling, as although the next First Grand Principal did refuse to issue dispensations, Grand Chapter voted to grant the warrants.

As the Grand Chapter of Canada met only yearly the issue of a dispensation to be later confirmed by Grand Chapter was the usual method of starting all new Chapters. Once it was found that three new Chapters had been formed tempers tended to reach boiling point amongst a few of the older members and there was talk of asking Grand Lodge to expel the Canadian Companions from the Craft.

However, looking back on the matter from a safe distance of over a century, it is apparent that it was the issuing of these warrants which forced peace on to the Royal Arch scene. Newer Companions were now on the scene, particularly many who had not been involved in the 1883 bitterness, and concerted efforts were made to find a peaceful solution.

The local Provincial Grand Master of the Mark degree under the Scottish constitution intervened and discovered an honourable way by which the Canadians could open a Mark Lodge under the Grand Chapter of Scotland.

The remaining difficulty revolved around the Victorian requirement of Installed Master rank for all candidates for the office of Third Principal.

Concessions were made on both sides. All present Canadian Principals would be confirmed as such and all Companions elected as Principals at the next installation would be supplied with dispensations to allow them to proceed.

For the future the Victorian regulations would be strictly applied. Grand Lodge was originally asked to confer the rank of Past Master on these Companions, but the motion was rightly ruled out of order and the Royal Arch was left to solve its own problems.

The second problem involved the Excellent Master degree. The St. Andrew in the South Chapter at Geelong, being Scottish, was working the Mark and Excellent Master degrees in 1889 and simply continued to do so.

One of its leading Past Principals was the President of the Committee of General Purposes for the first three years and while he held this office no problem was raised, but 1893 saw the Chapter being informed that it must work only the Exaltation ceremony.

The Chapter brought a motion to the January 1894 convocation to the effect that Grand Chapter recognised the additional degrees and permitted all private Chapters to work them. This was handled by Grand Chapter passing the procedural motion that it move on to the next business.

The Geelong Chapter promptly went into abeyance and stayed there for ten years. It was still in abeyance when Grand Chapter removed the necessity for Chapters to be attached to Lodges and renumbered all Chapters according to the dates on the warrants.

This was suggested in 1900 and concluded in 1903 and the Geelong Chapter missed out on its rightful place.