By BROTHER John Agnew,
lately Secretary of Lodge No. 170 & No 321.
Will celebrate its 150th anniversary on 6th February 1976. This Lodge owes its existence to a topographical feature. Though barely a mile distant, the nearest Lodge to Bonhill in 1826 was separated from it by a swift, dangerous, unbridged river, the Leven, which flows from Loch Lomond into the Clyde at Dumbarton. It is the second swiftest river in Scotland, having an average width of 150 feet, and though its average depth in summer is some three feet, it can rise some six feet in winter. It has been known to rise eight feet.
So it was that eleven masons residing in Bonhill met in the house of one, Brother William Cumin, a Vintner, on 22nd January 1826 to pray Grand Lodge to grant them a charter. The main reason they gave was, “We can’t attend except by crossing a rapid, deep and dangerous ferry which at night is almost impossible with any degree of personal safety.” The Lodge they couldn’t attend was Leven St John’s Lodge at Renton, founded 1788. The names of these Brethren are worth recording: John Hastie, Joseph McEwan, Alex Leckie, David Bryce, John McEwan, Nicol Bell, Wm. McKean, Wm Cumin, Hew Ferguson, John Gardner and Duncan McEwan. The first nine had been initiated into Leven St John’s between 1801 and 1825. Little is known about these Brethren except that the moving spirit was Alex Leckie. He was a surgeon, born in Campsie, and besides having been Junior Warden in Leven St John’s Lodge he became, in 1829, chairman of The Vale of Leven Temperance Society, the second of its kind in Scotland. He had matriculated in Glasgow University, and did notable service during the cholera epidemic of the 1840’s. He retired to Dunoon, and died in Glasgow in 1877.
The charter was granted on 6th February 1826 under the title of” Bonhill St Andrew’s Royal Arch Lodge”, and the following April they received the number 321 which they have held ever since. Their first office-bearers were:
Right Worshipful Master John Hastie, Depute Master John Gardner, Senior Warden Joseph McEwan, Junior Warden Duncan McEwan, Secretary Nicol Bell, Treasurer Wm. McKean, Steward Wm. Cumin. Of these seven, five were initiates of Leven St John’s Lodge. At their second meeting on 21st February 1826 Brother Leckie was requested to make out a code of by-laws which he submitted on the 28th. Brother Leckie knew the social habits of Bonhill, and framed the bye-laws accordingly.
The office bearers were to be thirteen in number. Bye-law III stated that any member refusing an office after election shall be fined 5/- if the office be that of Master, and 2/6 for any other office, the fines going to Lodge funds. The Initiation Fee for E.A. was œ1 1/-, 5/6 for Grand Lodge and 15/6 for Lodge. But to be passed and raised the payment was another 10/-, and members wishing to affiliate from other Lodges were to pay 5/-. So there was a distinct line of demarcation between E.A. on one hand and F.C. and M.M. on the other. Moreover, the bye-laws also stipulated that any E.A. wishing to be passed and raised had to re-apply to Master, who was to call a meeting according to By-law VIII and again decide by ballot. By-law VIII decreed that applicants for admission should write to Master who was to order the Tyler to call a meeting, the members of which were to ballot. There had to be a two-thirds majority. Thus, to become a master mason there had to be two distinct applications and two separate ballots.
Members residing within one mile of Bonhill had to attend quarterly meetings or be fined sixpence, office-bearers ninepence, with liability to suspension. In addition, if they were half an hour late the fine was two pence, and one penny more for each hour after, unless there was a reasonable excuse! Every Brother had to appear in decent apparel and properly clothed, with white aprons. The “white apron” was expunged on 27th February 1827. It is not known what was substituted, but in 1828 Brother Leckie presented a “mounted apron to be worn by Master only”. But before that, in August 1827, an ad hoc committee had been formed “to choose clothing, purchase cloth and whatever else, including a flag, the design of which was to be decided”. There was no reference to colour.
Bye-law XV discloses Brother Leckie’s interest in the Temperance movement, not to be confused with Total Abstinence. This bye-law insists that all members, after the Lodge is closed, shall repair to their respective homes; doing otherwise shall subject the offenders to a severe reprimand and fine. Furthermore, any person behaving disgracefully when out of Lodge shall not only be censured, but shall also be liable to exclusion from membership.
These were some of the basic laws of the Lodge in 1826. They were altered from time to time to coincide with Grand Lodge Laws and social and economic changes, but fundamentally they were simple, understandable, and few in number.
Their scale of penalties soon came into operation. One Brother was fined 3/- for three times forgetting to address his fellow-members as “Brother”. The Secretary was fined 1/- on one occasion and 5/- on another for neglecting his books, and three others were “fined in one shilling for cursing and swearing”, and yet another was ejected for ” disorderly conduct”. Even Brother Leckie did not escape when he refused the chair after re-election in 1829. He was fined 5/-. The two Lodges who sponsored 321’s petition to Grand Lodge in 1826 were present at this meeting; Dumbarton Kilwinning and Leven St John. In this way was discipline maintained-and it worked.
Their first Entrants were John Grant and G. Howie, initiated on 21st February 1826. Their meeting place was fixed according to circumstances. Within a distance of some 300 yards in Main Street, Bonhill, were six “Vintners”, “Distillers” or “Whisky Shops”. The Lodge made use of them all in spite of Bye-law XV, and the drink problem gave them some concern. Many were the motions and decisions made to control it, “to exclude all manner of debauchery and drunkenness”, as the minute books inform us.
The Brethren struggled along, building up their Lodge and clearing all debts to both Grand Lodge and to the members who had paid o1 each for their charter. But the economic depression overtook them between 1830 and 1832, when they started paying out “supply” or “benevolence”, as we would now call it. They reduced their entrance fee to 2/6, but of no avail, and by December 1833 they, like many other Lodges at that time, succumbed, and were declared dormant.
The Lodge lay dormant for thirty-one years till a Brother John Findlay, a spirit merchant, appeared in the Vale of Leven. Brother Findlay had been initiated in Lodge Nethertonholm Kilmarnock, No. 270, about 1856. Unhappily, in the same year, this Lodge became dormant, but its books were never returned to Grand Lodge. This omission placed Brother Findlay in an awkward position. He was neither registered in Grand Lodge books nor provided with his diploma.
Nevertheless, he was accepted by Leven St John’s Lodge at Renton, as a true and worthy Brother, and between 1862 and 1864 his name frequently appears in their minute books.
The old village of Bonhill had grown considerably by 1864, and the town of Alexandria across the river now exceeded Bonhill in both size and population due to the expansion of the dyeing industry. Moreover, the Leven had been bridged at both Bonhill and Balloch.
Bonhill bridge had been erected in 1836 and Balloch bridge in 1841. Hence, intercourse between the two communities was now safe and quick.
This being so, on 10th August 1864, Brother Findlay invited seven masons to his house to consider an application to Grand Lodge with the object of reviving the old charter of 1826. Five of the seven were members of Leven St John’s. The result of their deliberations was an application to Grand Lodge dated 24th August 1864, praying for the renewal of the old charter under the title of” St Andrew’s Royal Arch Lodge, Bonhill and Alexandria”. Lodges Dumbarton Kilwinning and Leven St John’s were, as in 1826, the sponsoring Lodges.
In answer, Grand Lodge pointed out that there was no dormant charter for Alexandria, but there was for Bonhill. Eventually, on 8th November 1864, Grand Lodge provided them with a letter of dispensation enabling them to practice as masons under the title of” Bonhill and Alexandria St Andrew’s Royal Arch Lodge, No. 321 “. This is the first appearance of” Alexandria” as part of their title. Even so, they were still located in Bonhill, and were to be so for some twenty years more.
This letter of dispensation of 8th November 1864 seems to have been their only authority for many years, as evidence from the minute books shows that none of the members at that time had ever seen the original charter. Many references are made between 1877 and 1900 to” our working letter “, but none to “charter”, and even as late as 1921 they had to request Grand Lodge to supply them with the Lodge’s exact title so that it could be carved above the doorway of their newly acquired temple. Grand Lodge’s answer to this request was that the title was “St Andrew’s Royal Arch Lodge, Bonhill, No. 321 “, but if they wished to change, they should petition Grand Lodge. Consequently, in June 1921 it was moved in Lodge that title should be “Lodge Bonhill and Alexandria Royal Arch, No. 321 “. But there is no record of a petition having been sent to Grand Lodge to that effect. All this seems odd, because in their book of bye-laws dated 1899 appears a copy of their charter dated 6th February 1826, showing title to be “Bonhill St Andrew’s Royal Arch Lodge”. Probably this was overlooked at the time.
The matter was cleared up about fifty years ago by the discovery of the old original charter on the wall of an old lady’s house in Bonhill. It had probably been in her family’s possession for some ninety years! It was returned to the Lodge where it is now closely guarded.
At their first meeting after re-opening, held on 3rd October 1864, they fixed their fees at o1 11/- for Initiation and [o1-1/ ]for Passing and Raising, [5A ] being that for Affiliation. In the same year they selected crimson collarettes for suspending the jewels, and Royal Stewart tartan for the apron border. These remained their colours till 1905, when, on purchasing gauntlets for the Master, they selected Royal Blue in place of crimson. So their colours have been Royal Stewart tartan and Royal Blue for the past seventy years.
The old bye-laws of 1826 laid it down that candidates could only be accepted by a two- thirds majority, but in 1873 they received a ballot box with two compartments and a number of white balls. It is anyone’s guess whether the ballot was secret or not. In 1897 however, they obtained black balls too, and a box with one compartment only, which was to be passed round. Then in 1901 it was moved that the box be left on the altar and that members go forward and pick whichever hall they deemed appropriate. This remains the practice today.
Other measures were taken to conform to Grand Lodge Laws. The Mark degree was acknowledged in 1872; the new Installation ceremony in 1873, and Grand Lodge knocks were adopted in 1879. Justice too, was administered on several occasions, when members at different times were reprimanded for being guilty of unworthy conduct. And the “drink problem” was still in evidence as late as 1906. Brother Peter Ferguson, R.W.M. at the time, stated, at a discussion on the by-laws, that he was convinced that masonry and alcohol did not go together. He withdrew this remark later on “due to circumstances which had taken place since”. What the circumstances were is not recorded.
As has been noted, from 1826 they made use of the many public houses in Bonhill, and continued to do so after their reponing in 1864, eventually settling in the newest, Bonhill Inn, built in 1864. Then about 1880 they moved tentatively across the river to Alexandria to hold most of their meetings in the Public Hall there, though, for sentimental reasons, they continued to hold four meetings a year in Bonhill. It was about 1880, in accordance with Grand Lodge’s recommendation that Lodges should vacate licensed premises and procure halls of their own, that they began to think of complying. One consequence was that they came to a better understanding with the Public Hall Company, and leased the side room for a period of thirteen years with an option of a renewal at the end of that term. Moreover, they inaugurated a building fund the object of which was to purchase or build a hall of their own.
In May 1920, after many disappointments and frustrations, an unexpected circumstance arose. A hall in Gilmour Street, built by one of their Past Masters, Brother Wm. Ewing Gilmour of Woodbank, for The Scots’ Girls Friendly Society, and presented to the people of the Vale of Leven, was not being made use of, and was on the market for sale. They immediately got in touch with Brother Gilmour, and by his good graces, obtained the hall for a fifth of its original cost.
It has been the Lodge’s property ever since, being consecrated in 1921. It is known as The Masonic Temple, and is an edifice of outstanding architectural beauty, both inside and outside, and is one of the finest buildings in the Vale of Leven. The Lodge celebrates its 150th anniversary on 6th February 1976, and its story, starting on the east side of the valley of the Leven to reach the west side, where it has been established for 55 years, reveals during its long existence, like other human institutions, a chequer-board of nights and days; an experience of both the sunshine of prosperity and the shadow of adversity.