The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799
Adapted from a paper presented by R.W. Bro Wayne Anderson
In the early years of Freemasonry, when there were many secret groups or societies working against the Crown of England. Parliament enacted the “Unlawful Societies Act” of 1799 banning all Secret Societies that required their members to take oaths. The primary objective of this Act was to suppress all secret activity that could involve the Jacobians and/or the Roman Catholic Church.
After considerable debate In the House of Commons, the Bill was passed with some amendments. One amendment was to specifically exclude Freemasonry from the requirements of the Act. This, it is thought, was because of the loyalty to the Crown expressed by the Members of Parliament, both the Commons and House of Lords, who were active members of Masonic Lodges as well as Grand Lodge.
As a result of this exemption, all Masonic Lodges, on their meeting night, were required to list the names of all members and visitors attending. This list was prepared by the Junior Warden and handed by him to the Junior Deacon for delivery to the Clerk of the Peace. After delivery, the Junior Deacon returned to the Lodge as quickly as possible and reported to the Senior Deacon. The Senior Warden would then turn to the Worshipful Master & report the return of the Junior Deacon. The Worshipful Master could then open his Lodge and conduct its business. Later this requirement was amended to a list of names and addresses of all members of a Lodge to be returned by the Lodge Secretary to the Clerk of the Peace on an Annual Basis. This requirement for an annual return ceased In 1967 when an Act of Parliament repealed the Act of 1799.
Comment I recall reading somewhere that a delegation from the Grand Lodge of England met with the representatives of the Government of the Day to plead their case for exemption from the Unlawful Societies Act. The claim being made was that every Lodge meeting included a “Toast to Crown”. As a result of that plea the Fraternity escaped inclusion. There may been a reader of this paper who has better knowledge of this matter than myself, if so, may I ask that he or they share that information with me .
Have a wonderful Day & God Bless Norm
To the reader.
In my sharing the paper on the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799, I asked for input from anyone who had more to offer in the form of explanation.
The information provided below is as a result of that request and I offer, on behalf of all of us, our thanks to Bro. Hugh O’Neill for sharing,
Norm, you asked for information regarding how the Act was changed in order that Freemasonry would not be outlawed.
Beginning in 1792, a series of laws and proclamations were adopted against private associations, culminating in 1799 with the passing of the Unlawful Societies Act, banning all secret societies which required their members to take an oath. As originally drafted, the Act would have affected Freemasonry, but the Earl of Moira, (the Acting Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge) and the Duke of Atholl (Grand Master of the Antients) met separately with Prime Minister William Pitt to explain the nature of the Craft. These views were supported in Parliament by those friendly towards the Craft and as a result Freemasonry was specifically exempted from the Act, provided that each lodge secretary made an annual return of members to the local Clerk of the Peace. This Act remained on the statute books until its repeal in 1967.
Having myself been initiated in 1959, I recall knowing that those returns were being made.
Hope this helps to clarify what is oft seen as muddy waters!
Warm fraternal good wishes,