"Whence came you?"

By:  John L. Belanger VIº

August 29, 2016’



Daily this question is asked by Masons without the slightest thought as to its real meaning. "Whence came you?" Who can really answer the question?

Equally baffling and profound is the question "What came you here to do?"

Simple as these questions appear, they search every nook and cranny and sound every depth of every philosophy, every mythology, every theology, and every religion that has ever been propounded anywhere by anybody at any time to explain human life.

In my opinion, each person may have his own answer to "Whence came you". However, your ideas may change after you read this paper. We must first start off to understand our roots "Operative Masonry":

In the early part of the 20th century, two Masonic writers caused a minor ripple to disturb the placid waters of English Freemasonry and Masonic research in particular. The men concerned were Clement Edwin Stretton, a consultant engineer who lived in Leicester and wrote hundreds of book, academic papers and newspaper articles concerning railways and Freemasonry; and John Yarker, who lived in Manchester and wrote even more books, academic papers and newspaper articles, but is now best remembered for one book in particular, The Arcane Schools, published in 1909, which is a giant of a book!  It is impossible in a paper as short as this to do justice to the background and commitment of these two men, so it is hoped that it will be sufficient if anyone seeking further information is simply directed to the Internet or their nearest Masonic library.  Both, however, eventually attained high rank, although both were subjected to personal criticism and, in my opinion, died disappointed men.

The cause which united them was their firm belief that modern speculative Freemasonry did not suddenly emerge in 1717, which some would like us to believe, but was the lineal descendant of operative Freemasonry (and ‘Guild’ Masonry in particular) which had been around for hundreds of years.  Their reasons for being so certain were that, as a boy, Stretton had undergone training as a guild operative Mason in a quarry in Derbyshire, and Yarker had known operative Masons personally, some of whom had been operative Masons for generations.  To a large extent, both of these claims have been verified.  Stretton claimed to have been sent for training to a Tor Quarry in Cromford, and it has been confirmed that, at the period quoted, there was a Tor Quarry in Cromford.  He also claimed to have been indentured by someone named Montford or Mountford, and there was a Rev. Mountford living in the area at that time, who had a school for the training of boys in certain crafts.  Yarker claimed that he knew an operative Mason by the name of Eaton, who was a member of St. Ninian’s Lodge, and the Secretary of St. Ninian’s Lodge No. 66 (S.C. has confirmed that there had been Eatons in that lodge for several generations, all of whom had been operative Masons, and the last-named of which had joined that lodge from Ashton under Lyme, near to where Yarker lived.) 

With Stretton as the leader, they then revived two former Guild Lodges (i.e. Leicester Lodge No. 91 and Mount Bardon Lodge No. 110) and used one to work the old operative ceremonies and the other to serve as a sort of Correspondence Circle, with the intention of attracting members. In this they succeeded for, by 1907, Mount Bardon Lodge had eighty-two members, many of whom were distinguished in various walks of life as well as in Freemasonry, and more than a few who lived abroad, e.g. Isaac Henry Vrooman Jnr. and Charles Hope Merz who lived in the USA, John Gavin Purser who lived in Ireland, and S. Clifton Bingham who lived in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

The cause of their enthusiasm for operative Masonry was that they both considered it superior to speculative Freemasonry, which they claimed was a pale imitation of the other, and some of those differences arose from the fact that, in Guild Masonry:

Lodges were presided over by three Grand Master Masons.

Members sat in a lodge which was orientated the opposite way from normal, with the three Grand Master Masons sitting in the West.

Its members operated on a 7-degree system, the two poles of which were indentured apprentices as 1º and the three Grand Master Masons as VIIº.

Apprentices were indentured at the age of 14 and had to prove their ability by ‘test pieces’ as they progressed through a 7-year system of training.

Lodges had existed for hundreds of years and used methods which were universal.

Lodges were known as ‘Assemblages’ throughout England, and some of them had an underground vault, with a plumb-line reaching down ‘from Heaven’ and a letter  ‘G’ in the ceiling, denoting Geometry. There was also a central pedestal in the vault, which stood on seven steps, denoting the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Finally, that it was the operative Masons who built St. Paul’s Cathedral under Sir Christopher Wren, who was himself an operative Mason.

All of these claims have been scrutinized as a result of which it can be confirmed that:

The Operative lodges were presided over by three Grand Master Masons each of whom carried a rod of either 3,4 or 5 units in length so that, by working together and using Pythagoras’s Theorem, they could produce perfect right-angled triangles, which are vital to the stability of any structure.  In fact, the three Grand Master Masons did all their work as a triad, thus giving rise to the “Rule of Three”.  Furthermore, York Lodge No.236 still has one of those rods in its archives, which bears the names John Barron, William Barron and John Drake, the date 1663, and the word ‘Yorke’.  If further proof is needed, one has only to look at the Orders of the Royal and Select Masters, or the Allied Masonic Degrees, both of which acknowledge their operative origins and, in some of their ceremonies, are presided over by three officers in the same way as the three Grand Master Masons.

As far as the orientation of lodges is concerned, it is my belief that all lodges should be orientated west-to-east, because that would be in full accord with Chapter 1 of the Book of Kings and Chapter 2 of the Book of Chronicles which explain that the entrance to the Temple was in the east.  Besides, how else can a Master of any kind see the rising sun, his Senior Warden see the setting sun, and the Junior Warden see the sun at its meridian?

The idea of a seven-fold system of degrees is not as ridiculous as it at first seems, especially if the 1st and 2nd degrees are equated to the Craft; the 3rd, 4th and 5th degrees are equated to the Mark, the 6th degree to the Harodim or Past Master’s degree, and the 7th degree to the Royal Arch.  All those degrees were worked in operative lodges, and later in lodges under the Grand Lodge of All England (i.e. the Antients).

Apprentices were indentured at 14 and that is now more a matter of record than a tale of something which might or might not have happened.  In that connection, Robert Whitfield’s History of the Lodge of Industry No. 48 (which was originally an operative lodge) is relevant, as that particular lodge continued to indenture young apprentices’ right up to and including 1775, by which time it had become a regular lodge administered by the Grand Lodge of England.

There can be no doubt that operative lodges existed for hundreds of years, and that is proved by the existence of so many copies of the Ancient Charges which were used in initiation ceremonies.  And that they used methods which were universal would seem to be proved by the fact that the architects of Ancient Egypt were sometimes referred to as ‘rope stretchers’ because they used ropes knotted into lengths of 3,4 and 5 units in the same way as the three Grand Master Masons used their rods measuring 3, 4, and 5 units, to create right-angled triangles.

In some places the Guild of Operative Masons built a vault underneath their lodge, with a plumb-line reaching down from Heaven, and a letter G in the ceiling, and an underground vault with a central pedestal, would now seem undeniable given the advent of the Royal and Select Masters and the Allied Masonic Degrees, both of which depend on those things for their continued existence. Underground vaults are also common in Royal Arch temples and were illustrated on the Tracing Boards which were at one time used in Royal Arch ceremonies.

It was the operative Masons who built St. Paul's Cathedral and the architect was Sir Christopher Wren, who was an operative Mason. This is proved by two plaques within the Cathedral, one of which commemorates ‘Sir Christopher Wren – founder of this church’, and another which reads ‘Remember the men who made shapely the stones of St. Paul’s Cathedral 1675-1708.  Edward Strong, Thomas Strong, and all who labored with them. This tablet was erected by the Worshipful Company of Masons’. Both Strongs were operative Masons from Gloucestershire who served the Company of Masons with distinction.  The most compelling evidence in support of Sir Christopher Wren as a Mason is provided by Professor Allan Beaver who, in a paper delivered in 2008, wrote that "The facts related form an evidential framework in which 70 originators, writing independently over a period of 130 years, cannot possibly have colluded.  It borders on the ridiculous to cast doubt on evidence, which has survived over 300 years, that Sir Christopher Wren was a Freemason’ and he concludes his paper with the comment that “the stench of unhealthy skepticism has pervaded Masonic research for far too long”.

Having explained the above, Stretton and Yarker’s next step was to intensify their public-speaking engagements on the subject of operative Freemasonry, and to increase the amount of material they contributed to newspapers and Masonic publications.  In fact, they attracted so much interest and attention that it was eventually decided to revive another of the old Guild lodges, and the one decided upon was in Westminster, London where, on 21st May 1913, Channel Row Assemblage was constituted at the Bijou Theatre, near Trafalgar Square.  It was constituted by Dr. Thomas Carr who, by profession, was a doctor and barrister, and it had ten members.

It would be wrong to suggest that progress thereafter was meteoric because it wasn't.  For instance, Yarker died in 1913, Stretton died in 1915 (and Lodges 91 and 110 died with them) and two World Wars and The Depression took care of everything else.   A second Assemblage was formed in the 1930s but that had to close-down in 1943 because it was located in an area to which – ‘for security reason’ -  travel was prohibited (i.e. for the development of radar).  Channel Row Assemblage continued, however, and gradually attracted a membership of the highest quality, including doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, actors, authors, army officers, and politicians.  The only real crisis which occurred, if it can be called a crisis, was in 1916 when there was a move to transform the Assemblage into ‘The Worshipful Society of Free Masons for Operative Research’. But this was not agreed, and it was resolved to continue ‘working’ the operative ceremonies rather than just talking about them.  In due course, however, those members who were drawn to research did set up a society for that purpose which went by the name of the Masonic Study Society and,  not surprisingly,  most of its founder members were drawn from Channel Row Assemblage, such as Sir John Alexander Cockburn, J. S. M. Ward, Henry T. Cart De Lafontaine, Rt. Hon. Sir Frederick Pollock, Bernard H. Springett, Samuel Blaze Wilkinson, Dudley P. Hutchings, and Langford H. MacKelchen.  The close connection between the Operatives and the Masonic Study Society continues to this day.

Eventually, sometime after the Second World War, the operatives did take off again, by then as a national organization under the lengthy title of the ‘Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers and Bricklayers’ (which was the name under which the Guild operatives of Durham were chartered in 1638).  To most people ‘though, they were (and still are) usually referred to as ‘the Operatives’. So, calculating from 1913 when they started; by 1943 there were two Assemblages, by 1963 there were three, by 1973 there were six, by 1983 there were eleven, by 1993 there were thirty-four, by 2003 there were sixty, and by 2013 (the society’s Centenary year) we will have in excess of one hundred Assemblages.  That is certain because we already have Assemblages in England, France, Belgium, Spain, Canada, Brazil, India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and shortly (in August this year) in South Africa and we have already been notified of further interest and enthusiasm in some areas where they have already requested more Assemblages.  One country, of course, seems to be conspicuously absent from that list, but that isn’t because no one this side of the Atlantic is interested in Operative Freemasonry but because, for over ten years, Freemasons from the USA have been regularly making the long journey to and from an Assemblage in Canada in order to progress as operatives and ultimately have their own Assemblage. But I shouldn’t provoke you any further about this because, in reality, that objective has already been achieved and, on November 29, 2008, Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage was constituted in Allentown, Pennsylvania. So, the USA does now have an Assemblage.

The Worshipful Society of Free Masons

Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers, and Bricklayers
The Operatives

United States of America Region

Now we are not really missing from the list of Operatives anymore. We are well on our way to making Operative Masonry a common name in the United States under the direction of our two Deputy Grand Master Masons.

Since 2010, the United States has had two Deputy Grand Master Masons in our “United States of America Region”.

September 2010 to September 2013, Rt. W. Brother Matthew D. Dupee, VIIº

September 2013 to present, Rt. W. Brother George R. Haynes, VIIº 

VIIº Members in the USAM Region as of August 27, 2016:



VII° Date

USAM Assemblage


Matthew D. Dupee

29 September 2010

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


Michael A Lampadarios

12 February 2012

Trinity Church Assemblage


George R. Haynes

05 September 2013

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


Edward H. Fowler, Jr

05 September 2013

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


David L. Hargett, Jr

05 September 2013

Solar White Quarry Assemblage


Reese L. Harrison, Jr.

05 September 2013

Texas State Capitol Assemblage


A. Lindsay Rowland

05 September 2013

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


Alvaro F. Quiroga-Sanchez

05 September 2013

Trinity Church Assemblage


D. Allen Surratt (1.)

16 February 2014

Solar White Quarry Assemblage


William H. Koon

23 September 2014

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


Jackie W. Matthews (2.)

22 September 2015

Texas State Capitol Assemblage & San Jacinto Monument Assemblage


William J. Glassmire (3.)

22 September 2015

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


Aaron R. White

13 February 2016

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage


Jean-Pierre Wyss

13 February 2016

Trinity Church Assemblage


Donald L. McAndrews

13 February 2016

Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage

As of this paper, the following brothers have been appointed D.M.M. over VIº Lodges:

  1. Rt. W. D. Allen Surratt - Southeast of Mississippi River
  2. Rt. W. Jackie W. Matthews - West of the Mississippi River
  3. Rt. W. William J. Glassmire – Northeast of Mississippi River

If, however, you will permit me a moment of irony, you might like to note that, in 1912, i.e. one year before the formation of Channel Row Assemblage in London, Dr. Charles Hope Merz, a distinguished American Freemason who was mentioned at the start of this talk, was authorized by Stretton to open an Operative Assemblage in Sandusky, Ohio and made a start by creating the necessary administrative team to do it, with J. Raymond Shute as the Grand Clerk.  Sadly, the War got in the way, so it never came to anything.   But, if it had, things may have been very different today.  If it had taken off, the chances are that today, the United States could have been the dominating country instead of England!

Either way, I do not think that Brothers Stretton and Yarker have a lot to be disappointed about.  After an uncertain and controversial start, the Society they created has stood the test of time, and that is something they should feel good about. The existence of such a Society constantly causes its members to think about and question their origins, and that can only be good for Freemasonry.

Now, with this information, you may be able to know the answer to the question of "Whence came you", yes, you guessed it "Operative Masonry." Have a God Blessed day and remember when people look at you they are not just looking at a man but a “MASON” 

I would like to thank Worshipful Brother David C. Kibble-Rees, VII° for without his insight and many hours of talking over the phone and e-mailing me information about where to find answers to my many questions, this paper would not have been possible. 

John L. Belanger VIº

August 29, 2016’



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