The Freemasons have a history going back more than 300 years and have survived two world wars, yet Joe Public knows little about them and its governing body, the United Grand Lodge of England. Dr David Staples sheds a little light on the UK's oldest social organisation that is one of the largest donors of money and time in the country.

Firstly, can you give us a potted history of the origins and traditions of the Freemasons?

One of the oldest social and charitable organisations in the world, Freemasonry's roots lie in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles. In our early history people met to learn fundamental lessons on how to live a good life. Our ceremonies are based around three principles which are still taught in our ceremonies today: look after those less fortunate, improve yourself and live life well so as to be remembered for the right reasons. The first Grand Lodge in the world was founded at the Goose and Gridiron Pub in London in 1717 from four individual lodges. Today we are known as the United Grand Lodge of England and have grown to encompass over 7,000 lodges worldwide.

Why does it have a reputation for being secretive and is the mist of secrecy clearing a little in 2020? 

In WW2 Freemasonry went quiet due to the threat of an invasion, and Freemasons being persecuted during the war. We have been too slow to re-establish the reputation we had before the war as a force for good in society.  We are now being proactive with our PR and communications to the public to counterbalance the narratives that grew up in the absence of any real comment from us. Recently we commissioned a 10 minute film - entitled Discovery Freemasonry - explaining who we are and what we do, which can be found at: It is shown to the 45,000 members of the public undertaking the tour of Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden each year. During Open House London 2019 we were the second most popular venue - after the Foreign Office - with nearly 9,000 visitors in a weekend. The public were able to speak to Freemasons in regalia, tour the building - including usually unseen Lodge rooms - and take part in child-friendly activities. We have extremely active social media channels including Twitter, which has more than 30k followers; Instagram, which has nearly 30k followers; and Facebook, which has 55k followers and a public facing website. So, we think we are pretty open! 

What are the aims and values of the Freemasons in 2020?

Freemasons use four important guiding principles to help define their path through life: integrity, friendship, respect and charity. In today's world filled with uncertainty, these principles ring as true as they have at any point in the organisation's history.

Can anyone join, what are you looking for in a member and why would they want to join in the first place?

Membership is open to people from all backgrounds, from the age of 21, and the organisation's aim is to empower members to be the best they can be - it's about building character, supporting members as individuals, and helping them make a positive contribution to society. UGLE has 48 Provinces across the country and more than 7,000 Lodges, with students over 18 able to join one of the 85 University Scheme Lodges. It has 200,000 members in total, including its Districts overseas. There are two female-only Grand Lodges, Freemasonry for Women and the Order of Women Freemasons. They both follow exactly the same ritual and wear the same regalia as male Freemasons - and they often work closely with us on community and charity projects.

Does it tend to be individual Lodge led charitable support for individual cases, do the Lodges unite for major cause?

Lodge activities include community fundraising and volunteering activities as well as a varied programme of events where spouses, partners and families are welcome. Lodges raise money locally, regionally and also provide donations to the MCF at a national level.

What's the overall membership charitable contribution in a typical year?

Freemasonry in England and Wales contributed more than £48m to charity in 2019 and Freemasons annually give 18.5 million hours of their time towards unpaid voluntary work in their communities.  This equates to over £150 million worth of donated time at the National Minimum Wage.

Pre Covid, what type of projects were the members involved with?

Freemasons make substantial donations across the country to local air ambulances, blood bikes and also provide a number of emergency response vehicles, most recently two super aerial platforms for the London Fire Brigade. They also own and operate the RMBI (Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution) which has 18 nursing homes for both Freemasons and non-Freemasons. Freemasonry does a huge amount for medical research into treatments for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a whole range of other conditions, including Alzheimer's, by funding UK medical scientists to make ground breaking discoveries. Freemasonry also makes donations to support those affected by overseas disasters as well as those at home, such as the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Covid-19 arrives, how has the membership dealt with the crisis?

UGLE implemented an emergency structure - in response to Covid-19 - consisting of a lead Province for each of our Regional Groups. In addition both I and the Chief Executive of the Masonic Charitable Foundation formed the UGLE Covid-19 response group. UGLE is working alongside the MCF, the Freemasons' charity, and provided an initial sum of £1m to support strategically important, high impact, grass root projects. This initial funding provided: 1,000 PC tablets to hospitals, donations of 300,000 meals and 38 tonnes of food during the pandemic, as well as tens of thousands of pieces of PPE equipment. More than £165,000 was also donated by Freemasons to help protect women and children from domestic abuse. We have also launched a national UGLE Covid-19 relief chest, which the MCF will match fund donations made to it, up to £1m. We are asking members to support this with charity collections through virtual pub nights, quizzes etc, which they may be attending. Finally, this includes the continuing support of national charities such as Age UK - with an additional donation of £250k through the MCF.