The history of the Kent Museum of Freemasonry can be traced to the latter end of the 19th Century.
Speculative masonry has been present in Canterbury since 1730 when the city’s first lodge began meeting at the Red Lion Tavern which adjoined the old Guildhall in the High Street. According to Lanes Masonic record 1717-1894, no fewer than 3 private and 6 military lodges were consecrated in the city. In 1878 the Canterbury lodges, that until then had met in different public houses in the city such as the Kings Head and Brewers Arms, joined together to purchase their own premises near to the Westgate Towers at 38 St Peter’s Street. It was in the garden of this building that the Canterbury masonic temple was subsequently constructed in 1880.
Over the years the separate lodges acquired and inherited many contemporary and historic masonic artefacts and ephemera. Once the temple was established these were all brought together in the lodge of instruction room at the rear of the building. As the collection continued to grow, space was an ongoing problem.
In 1919 the East Kent Masters Lodge No.3931 was consecrated in Canterbury and its first Master was Colonel Fiennes Stanley Wykeham Cornwallis, (later the first Lord Cornwallis), the Provincial Grand Master of the time. After seeing the growing collection of masonic artefacts and books, he conceived the idea of the Kent Provincial Library & Museum. Both Maidstone – the County town and location of the Provincial office and Bromley – the home of a large number of lodges, were considered as suitable places. However the Provincial Grand Master decided that Canterbury was the proper location.
It was not long before the Provincial minutes show that an appeal was set up to raise funds “to house”, as the Provincial Grand Master put it, “the many treasures that lodges, the Province and its private members had collected over the years for all to see.” He also wanted them to remain in masonic care.
1920 saw the Province of Kent form a fundraising committee under the chairmanship of W.H. East of Dover, supported by secretary H.C. Page and treasurer H. Biggleston, both of Canterbury. Over the next 5 years the Provincial minutes acknowledge the receipt of many gifts from lodges and the appeal fund, “doing well”, but without the mention of specific totals. However, in 1925 the accounts of the Province showed the sum of £1,036 4s 11d being paid to Bro Edward Dean of St Augustine’s Lodge No. 972 for the purchase of the garden of 34 St Peters Street, Canterbury for the Library & Museum at Canterbury.
In 1930 an architect, Bro F.G. Haywood of Market Square, Dover, was appointed to plan and oversee the construction of the building. The main contractors were W.W. Martin of Ramsgate and G.H. Denne & Son of Walmer. The Provincial Grand Master, The Lord Cornwallis, was by this time also the Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England and when the old Grand Library and Museum in Great Queen Street, London was demolished to make room for the new Grand Temple and Connaught Rooms, he acquired the stained glass windows, internal doors and most of the showcases for Canterbury.
The solid oak entrance doors were donated by a Worshipful Bro Jimmy Edwards and came from St Mary’s College, part of the Jesuit Monastery in Hales Place, Canterbury, which was also being demolished at the time.
June 1932 saw the building completed and £2,900 was paid to the contractors from the Province’s general fund. The total cost including the land is recorded as £3,936 4s 11d.
The Kent Library & Museum of Freemasonry was officially opened by the Provincial Grand Master on April 19th 1933.
The collection has continued to grow and now boasts more than 3,000 pieces of masonic paintings, literature, regalia, glassware and ceramics.
Using existing funds and a magnificent donation from an anonymous benefactor the doors were closed on June 3rd 2011 and the work of clearing the contents to safe storage commenced immediately.
An experienced team was assembled to carry out the redevelopment. Professional building consultant, Tony Taylor, oversaw the planning and construction. Curator and Librarian, Tony Periton, managed the safe removal storage and return of the vast collection of masonic artefacts, books and documents and is attending to its redisplay. Both Tonys worked closely with Vice President Charles Boxer to oversee the design and construction of the exhibition display area.
During the closure period two new appointments were made to spread the growing workload, namely Jeff Davis as Assistant Librarian and Sarah Blatter as Assistant Curator.
David Anning, the Treasurer of the Kent Masonic Library and Museum Trust kept a tight hold of the purse strings, as Financial Controller for the entire project. The electronic recording of all artefacts, books and documents continued under the guiding hand of John Andrews, the Secretary to the Trust, whilst Eddie baker, the Operations Manager, kept the back office running.
The first change that is evident to previous visitors is the striking new entrance from St Peter’s Place, which catches the eye of the thousands of passers-by who walk, cycle and drive past every week.
As well as a bigger library space and the new audio-visual displays designed to provide visitors with an overview of Freemasonry and its presence and history in Kent, the refurbishment included a timber-framed balcony creating a separate workspace for the curator and his team resulting in an enlarged exhibition display area and a small shop where souvenirs and masonic regalia can be purchased.