Unlawful Societies Act - 1799

By VW Bro Dr Paul Calderwood


I want to talk tonight about The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 and how it affected England Freemasonry in West Wales. But my story does not begin in Wales - nor indeed in - but across the channel in France.


During the French Revolution of 1789 a republic was declared in place of the monarchy. The King and his family were arrested and executed. A great many noble families were stripped off their wealth and sent to their death at the guillotine.


But the bloodshed did not stop there because the leaders of the revolution soon fell out among themselves and launched a series of arrests and executions of each other (and anyone who dared to criticise them).

In Britain these events were followed with horror and deep alarm – especially by those who were in power here – for they feared something similar might be happen in these islands.


And indeed, they had good cause for concern because - here too - an under-current of discontent existed. The events in France made British dissidents bolder and many of them formed themselves into groups that aimed to change the social and political order in Britain - even if that meant using violence. Inevitably they had to hold such discussions very discretely to avoid persecution and so - in order to avoid betrayal - some of them imposed an oath of secrecy upon their members and those who wanted to join.


The rapid growth and spread of these societies combined with the threat of an invasion from France worried the ruling classes so much that they introduced a series of measures during the 1790s and beyond to suppress possible revolutionary movements.


Among the most effective of these new laws were The Unlawful Oaths Act of 1795 and the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799. Together they made it illegal to impose an oath of secrecy upon anyone joining a society and they outlawed the main republican and nationalist groups. As a result, many of these groups closed and others were hunted out of existence. However, these new laws also caused the closure many other innocent organisations of a purely sociable, convivial and welfare nature – some of which went under the title of Friendly Societies. As you can imagine the threat of this legislation was especially bad news for Freemasons because of its various oaths.


However, before the legislation was passed, the leaders of Freemasonry lobbied the Prime Minister of the day, William Pitt the Younger, and they were successful in securing an exemption. Thus, when the Act of 1799 was passed it specifically stated that Freemasons could continue to impose an oath of secrecy upon candidates.


However this concession came at a price – and one that proved in the end to be a great blessing for us today as researchers – because the condition for being exempt from the legislation was that every lodge secretary was obliged by law to send a return (containing full details of members) to the Clerk of the Peace at the Quarter Sessions every year. These annual returns not only provided a list of lodge members but also their addresses and their occupations and it stated where and when each lodge met. While this must have been a great pain in the neck for many a lodge secretary - it has proved to be a great blessing for anyone interested in researching  Masonic and family history - because they now offer us a source of vital and scarce information -  a window into the lives of the brethren of yesterday. As you know, nowadays when someone joins freemasonry, we continue to ask each Initiate for details of his occupation and his address - but any change in that address or occupation after the day of his initiation is not normally or routinely noted in Masonic records. So these annual returns from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fill an important gap in our knowledge and chart a Mason’s everyday life within and outside of the lodge.


After the legislation came into force in 1799 and after the end of the French Revolutionary Wars a number of attempts were made to repeal the Unlawful Societies Act but without success due to other priorities - and so it remained in force until 1967 – a period of almost 170 years. The sad thing is that a great many of these annual returns sent in by lodge secretaries have decayed or been lost, misplaced or destroyed. Some however have survived and are to be found in county archive offices all over England and Wales. At Haverfordwest for example the county archives possess no less than 75 of these annual returns.  They relate to nine lodges from Pembrokeshire. Similarly, for Carmarthenshire, the county archives possess almost 100 annual returns for local lodges. With regard to Cardiganshire lodges let me discuss their interesting story later in this talk. Together, the surviving annual returns provide us with a precious insight into the history of Freemasonry in West Wales. Each return provides the name and number of the lodge. It states who was the Grand Master at the time and it refers to the requirements of the Act. It also states where and when the lodge meets, and it gives names, address and occupations of all the members each year - and what makes these documents especially interesting is that they record changes year by year. Sometimes the documents provide other information too (such as Masonic rank or civic distinctions). They also tell us about the development of the lodge – for example, how it grew or shrank in size and when.


The surviving returns for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire Lodges have been photographed but the Carmarthen returns are still in the early stages of being copied out and analysed and – if you feel so inclined - I would greatly appreciate your help in recording that part of our history. Similarly help is needed with regard to Cardiganshire where there is an especially tantalising story. No returns whatsoever have been found for this county, but I am sure that they have survived, and the big challenge is to find out where they are stored. How about getting involved in that detective story?


Several years ago, I set out to develop a national Database of all the surviving annual returns for Welsh Lodges - both north and south. It has included tracking down all the surviving documents, photographing them and copying them out on to an Excel database - eventually this database will be available online to assist family historians, masonic historians and social historians alike.

 All of this is still work in progress and if anyone would like to get involved and help in recoding the story of Freemasonry in Wales – Volunteers would be most welcome. The work can be done at home on your computer in odd moments.


Certainly, the study of philosophy and esoteric subjects is of importance but so too is our heritage and the masonic history of our area and if we do not record it who on earth will? It is not likely to be historians in Yorkshire or Cornwall.


We will be circulating the individual returns to the lodges concerned and asking for your assistance to enter the information contained in the scans into a searchable electronic format. If you have any information concerning the whereabouts of the returns for Ceredigion, VW Bro Paul would be delighted to hear from you. Contact the Provincial Grand Secretary, W Bro Tony Trumper sec@wwmason.com in the first instance.

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