When Freemasonry was first introduced to Newry we cannot be sure, but a warrant was issued by the Grand Lodge of Ireland dated 27th December 1737 and numbered 77, to William Ponder, James Hollyman and John Ard, to hold a Lodge in the town of Newry. Under that Warrant the Lodge has continued to meet to the present day and it is now the oldest Lodge in Ulster and the seventh oldest in Ireland.
In Ireland, as in England and Scotland, prior to the erection of Grand Lodges, there were a number of independent Lodges throughout the country and one of the problems facing the central authority was the best means of inducing these old independent lodges to accept its rule. The Grand Lodge of Ireland solved the problem in a different way from the Grand Lodge of England, and by the issue of Warrants, initiated a practice which has subsequently been adopted by every other Grand Lodge in the world.
There are indications that there was a Lodge in Newry prior to the issue of this Warrant. The preamble thereto reads. “Whereas …… Wm. Ponder, Master, James Hollyman and John Ard, Wardens, have besought Us…….. to erect a Lodge…..”
The description of the applicants as “Master” and “Wardens” in the preamble is distinctly unusual and clearly implies that they sought a regular Warrant when holding those offices in an already existing Lodge. The only similar case is the Warrant of Lodge 2, Dublin, dated 1732, although that Lodge is known definitely to have been at work in 1727 and was almost certainly one of the “six Lodges of Gentlemen Freemasons” present at the earliest known meeting of the Grand Lodge of Ireland on 24th June 1725.
In the year 1730, John Pennell, afterwards Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, published “The Constitutions of the Free Masons…. For the Use of the Lodges and Brethren in the Kingdom of Ireland.” Among the subscribers to this work is “Mr. William Ponder,” and it is at least plausible that he bought it for the use of his Lodge. Thus it is quite possible that 77 was in existence seven years at least before the issue of the Warrant and perhaps may claim to rank with those aristocrats of the Craft, the “Time Immemorial” Lodges.
Historic details of Lodge 77 during its first 70 years are scant in the extreme as the earliest extant minute book commences on 24th June 1806. The earliest records of the Grand Lodge of Ireland are the Registers, the first series of which was written up about 1760, and the Minutes commencing in 1783.
Edward Spratt, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, in 1751 published “The New Book of Constitutions…for the Use of Lodges in Ireland” Among the subscribers the following are described as “of Newry” – James Anderson, Andrew Campbell (two books), Westenra Cross, Samuel McGowan, Sam Pettycrew and John White. None of the names appears in the Grand Lodge Register of 77, yet in all probability they were members of that Lodge for so far no evidence has been discovered of any other Lodge at that period.
The roll of 77 in Grand Lodge Register shows a large number of members registered during the years 1763 – 1765, and on 6th February 1766 a Warrant, No.16, was issued to three members of 77 to hold a Lodge in Newry. Thirteen other names were registered for 16 on the same date, five of which also appear on the roll of 77.
The years 1775 to 1806 is the most puzzling period in the history of Lodge 77. The Grand Lodge Register shows a steady increase of membership until we come to the name of Cornelius Burns, registered 26th March 1775, followed by John Clarke, Daniel Turley, Matthew Griffith, Thomas Goodin and John Hanigan, all registered on 23rd October 1806. Dr Francis Crossle in his “Sketch of the History of St. Patrick’s Masonic Lodge No.77, Newry” published in 1895 could only state that during this period of 31 years the Lodge had suspended its labours.
On these grounds it was assumed that the Lodge must have become extinct during this rather lengthy period. However, other evidence has been brought to light tending to prove that the Lodge if dormant at all can only have been so for a comparatively short period.
The Lodge still sits under the original Warrant of 1737. The face bears no record of cancellation but on the back is the following endorsement:-
“A memorial for the revival of this Warrant was presented in the G. Lodge on Thursday the 5 of June, but from press of business could not be disposed of. I have this day recd. the fees Usual on a Revival and as the Warrant never was cancelled I think the Brn. will be justified in acting under it. A. Seton, D.G. Sty”
The records of Union Lodge of St Patrick No.367, Downpatrick show that in September 1785, John Cochran of 77, Newry, a distressed brother, received a small sum of money in relief. Also, an entry in the old ledger of the Grand Lodge of Ireland shows that on 5 July 1799 the Committee of Charity ordered that relief be paid to John Wright of Lodge 77, probably the brother of that name registered in 1763 and made Warden on 24th June 1771. Brother John Clarke of Lodge 77 was also relieved by the Committee of Charity on 8th February 1805, probably the brother John Clarke registered in 1755 and Junior Warden in 1759. Thus we have at least two Brethren of the Lodge surviving to within measureable time of the earliest surviving minute of 24th June 1806.
It is also worth noting that in November 1801 several Lodges that had not corresponded with Grand Lodge for several years had their Warrants erased. Lodge 77 is not mentioned in the official list of these erased members and therefore Grand Lodge recognised it as still working.
Furthermore, in 1804 Brother Charles Downes, printer to the Grand Lodge of Ireland published, with official approval, his “Ahiman Rezon” containing the laws of the fraternity brought up to that date and a list of regular Lodges in Ireland, together with the numbers of such warrants as had been erased from the Grand Lodge books. While Downes’ list is not entirely reliable, the inclusion of 77 among the active Lodges is a further presumption that Grand Lodge considered it still at work.
The endorsement on the Warrant previously mentioned shows that a petition for its revival was before Grand Lodge on “Thursday 5 June”; this must have been in the year 1806. In view of all other evidence, it must be accepted as correct that the warrant never was cancelled.
The earliest entry in Lodge 77 minutes is as follows:-
“24th June 1806 Being our regular meeting night, the Worshipful Master John Clarke filled the Chair when the following Brethren received the first and second step of Masonry. John Mortamoore Admission money to the Master £1 2s. 9d.”
There do not appear to be any pages missing at the beginning of this book and this entry is evidently one of a series indicating no sudden revival at, or shortly before this date.
On page three of this earliest surviving book is a nominal roll of members for the half-year ending December 1806 containing seventy-seven names. Three of these have been struck out, twelve appear elsewhere as having received degrees in the Lodge during these six months, four were registered for 77 in Grand Lodge subsequently, while thirty-one appear in the Grand Lodge Register under Lodge 521 (warranted 1775 in Ballybought) at dates between 1801 and 1814.
The large number on this roll, even after deducting the large influx from 521 would indicate that the Lodge had been working for a considerable time prior to June 1806.
Turning to the Minutes of Grand Lodge, we find:-
“5th March 1807……Read a Memorial from John Clarke, Daniel Turley and Matt Griffith of 521 Newry, praying the revival of Warrant No.77, to be held in Newry.-Deferred to next Grand Lodge night.”
“2nd April 1807…….Read a memorial from Br. John Clarke, Dan Turley and M. Griffith, praying the revival of Lodge No.77 in Newry. Granted.”
From the wording of these two entries it clearly follows that Grand Lodge deferred dealing with the memorial for consideration of certain matters for which they required further information.
At the latter meeting it transpires that it was not the revival of the Warrant but the revival of the Lodge.
About 1817, the Deputy Grand Secretary, William F. Graham wrote up the Second Series of the Grand Lodge Register, carrying forward all the names from the first series. At the head of the roll of 77, without any comment is “Warranted, 27 December 1737”, and the names are entered without a break. It is in the highest degree unlikely therefore that had there been any shadow of a doubt as to 77’s legality, that he would have set down the Lodge as having existed from 1737 without any comment.
So far as Grand Lodge is concerned, 77 was always regarded as active and that at a time when Warrants were being cancelled wholesale, its Warrant was never called in question. The opinion of Grand Lodge may be considered as final.
There was a close connection between 77 and 521. There was a tradition held at one time that the Warrant of 77 had been carried off to France during the troubled times culminating in the insurrection of 1798, and that eventually it was brought back to Newry. This might account for a possible period of dormancy and on the return of the Warrant to its original home an amalgamation with 521 was first considered. But a number of members of the latter Lodge, with fine fraternal spirit, resolved to set the old Lodge on its feet again, thus preserving the proud title to Lodge 77, Newry of “The Premier Lodge of Ulster”.