Although Freemasonry had well established origins in the dominant position held by the stone masons in the middle ages there are no authenticated references to the Craft before the middle of the 17C. The masons would have formed themselves into lodges well before that date but there was no central authority until 1717 when the first Grand Lodge was founded. It was based on London and quickly established an authority over the independent regional lodges taking upon itself responsibility for the appointment of permanent representatives in each region. These were the Provincial Grand Masters (PGM) who looked after groups of lodges based roughly on the shires. Portsmouth lodges therefore fell within the Hampshire Province.
The first Provincial Grand Master of the new Province of Hampshire was Thomas Dunckerly who was generally believed to be a natural son of King George II. He had been serving in the Royal Navy since 1734 when in 1753 he was initiated into the Three Tuns Lodge, held at the Three Tuns Tavern in High Street, Portsmouth. He left the navy in 1763 and such were his connections and character that he became the popular choice for the post of Provincial Grand Master for Hampshire. He was installed on the 28th February 1767.
The province of which he was now PGM comprised of just eight lodges, with two more operating under 'ancient' disposition. Of these only three had been founded in Portsmouth, Three Tuns No. 35, Royal Oak No. 242 on Portsmouth Common and King's Arms No. 291. (The numbering system used for the lodges is generally an indicator of their longevity, but due to various changes to the system that is not necessarily true of the earliest numbers.). By all accounts Dunckerley worked enthusiastically for the benefit of the province, one lasting legacy being the association between the Hampshire and the Isle of Wight provinces which were eventually joined as the Hampshire and Isle of Wight province in 1869.
Both provinces seem to have shared Dunckerly as PGM, but this ended when in 1776 he installed Lord Charles Montagu as Provincial Grand Master for Hampshire. Montagu's reign lasted until 1784 but he left little to remember him by. He was succeeded by Captain Michael H Pascal, a serving naval officer, who held the post, rather uneventfully from 1784 to 1786 when Dunckerly took charge once again. Almost immediately he received a request from Samuel Palmer, vintner of the George Inn, High Street, for a warrant to form the Phoenix Lodge No. 484 in Portsmouth. Another founder of the Phoenix Lodge was the celebrated engineer Thomas Telford, who was at the time Superintendent of Buildings at Portsmouth Dockyard. The lodge was officially warranted on May 20th 1786 and met at the George Inn. At the time only the Three Tuns Lodge No. 18 and the Theatre Tavern Lodge No. 79 were operating in Portsmouth. They were erased in 1838 and 1831 respectively.
Over the following few years Dunckerley accepted requests to become PGM to eight other provinces. He continued to flourish until his 70th year when he died and was buried at St. Mary's Church, Portsea on 27th November 1795.
Dunckerley was succeeded by Colonel Sherborne Stewart who performed the role of Provincial Grand Master from 1796 to 1819, a period of great political interest, though it seems to have largely passed Stewart by. It is worth noting however that Stewart continued the practice established by Dunckerley of allowing ladies a degree of access to the social side of the province's calendar. During his period in office it seems that just one new lodge was constituted in Portsmouth, that of the Royal Sussex No. 663 in 1814. Stewart was followed in 1819 by Sir William Campion de Crespigny who constituted only two new lodges, neither in Portsmouth, during his time in office. Although Crespigny remained as PGM until 1830 his ill health meant that no Provincial meetings were held between 1824 and 1830.
Two years of internal dispute followed before John Storey Penleaze was appointed Provincial Grand Master for Hampshire in 1832. He served until 1840 overseeing a dramatic development of the Craft's activities, particularly in it's charitable sphere. This led to a desire to regulate their finances in a more formal manner and accordingly from 1833 the Province appointed a Provincial Grand Secretary and a Provincial Grand Treasurer. In 1837 the Royal Sussex Lodge commenced building of a Masonic Hall in St. George's Square, Portsea.
In 1840 John Penleaze retired to make way for perhaps the most renowned of all Provincial Grand Masters of Hampshire, Admiral Sir Lucius Curtis Bt. KCB., the son of Admiral Roger Curtis GCB who was the last owner of Gatcombe Manor in Hilsea.
Sir Lucius was initiated in Phoenix Lodge which in 1841 acquired the tenancy of the former Royal Marine Artillery Officers' Mess behind 109/110 High Street Portsmouth for an annual rent of £25. Access from the High Street was then via a tunnel through No. 110 whereas latterly it became a passageway between between 109 and 110. The rooms comprised of what was, and still is, the dining room on the ground floor, a kitchen on the North Eastern side, and an entrance hall with a winding staircase in the Georgian style, which led to two small anterooms, thence to the Lodge Rooms. Though originally rather sparsely furnished it later benefitted from the generosity of Major Ferris Charge Robb, late of the East India Company who furnished it with several items including a magnificent chandelier which formerly hung in Government House, next door at No. 111.
It was during the tenure of Sir Lucius Curtis that Portsmouth Lodge No. 717 was consecrated (in 1843, the first Master being George Stebbing). Portsmouth Lodge moved to the Masonic Hall, Highbury Street in 1860 after the building had been purchased from the Portsmouth Literary and Philosophical Society.
In 1863 it was decided nationally that the numbering system for the lodges was becoming outdated as so many lodges had gone out of existence. A new register was therefore introduced which numbered the lodges as they are still known in the 21C. Phoenix became No. 257, Royal Sussex No. 342 and Portsmouth No. 487. Two years later in 1865 the number of Portsmouth lodges was increased by the addition of United Brothers Lodge No. 1069, the first iniate being Abraham Emanuel who was Mayor of Portsmouth in 1893 and 1900. The United Brothers Lodge eventually joined the Portsmouth Lodge at it's Highbury Street Hall.
The death of Sir Lucius, at his home at the foot of Portsdown Hill, came in 1869. By his death he had built up the province from 10 lodges with 4 barely functioning to a total of 17 flourishing lodges with over 700 members and a financially sound infrastructure. The Hampshire Telegraph reported that "from the date of his death until the funeral almost all masons in Portsmouth have closed their shutters or drawn their blinds". A singular mark of respect.
He died at a time when there was no serving PGM for the Isle of Wight which allowed the Grand Master to finally seal the union between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight by the appointment of a single Provincial Grand Master, the Rt. Hon. William Wither Bramston Beach MP, DL, JP. This did not prevent the Island Brethren continuing to press for separate status, a cause that was destined for failure. Reports suggest that Beach continued the work of Sir Lucius Curtis in tightening the fiscal arrangements and is known to have laid the foundation stone to the Chancel of All Saint's Church in Landport. He saw the numbers of lodges increase significantly, the new lodges in Portsmouth being United Service No. 1428 on 5th August 1873, Landport No. 1776 and Duke of Connaught No. 1834. St. George's Lodge No. 1958 had been formed in Havant in 1881 but moved to St. George's Hall, Portsea in 1890. By 1891 the total membership of the Province stood at 3176 in 47 lodges.
Meanwhile, a young solicitor, Thomas Bramsden, had become, in 1883, a joining member of Phoenix Lodge. He subsequently became Master in December 1891 and went on to become Coroner of the borough and City of Portsmouth, a J.P. and an M.P. In May 1888, he along with other Trustees arranged the purchase of the Lodge Rooms and also 110 High Street. Later that same year, he negotiated the purchase of 46 St. Thomas Street, at the back of No. 110 High Street, for a sum of £250. Alterations to the building, including a new kitchen and toilets between the Lodge Rooms and 46 St. Thomas Street were completed in 1900. The house in St. Thomas Street then became a cottage for the caretaker of the Lodge buildings.
William Beach died in 1901 and was succeeded by Sir Augustus Frederick Walpole Edward Webster, Bt who served from 1901 to 1923. His tenure was marked by further expansion in numbers, including Victory Lodge No 3509 in 1911. A new lodge building arrived in Portsmouth when the United Service Lodge completed the construction of a Masonic Lodge in Lake Road in 1904, but perhaps the most notable event as far as Portsmouth was concerned was the purchase, in 1910, of 109 High Street which became a permanent Provincial Office. This building was originally constructed in the back gardens of Nos. 109 and 110 High Street, adjacent to the Governor's House, in 1827, when it served as the headquarters of the Royal Marine Artillery. When the RMA moved to their new barracks at Eastney the building became the property of Mr. Francis Sharpe who leased it to the Phoenix Lodge from 1841.
The outbreak of war in 1914 caused surprisingly little disruption to the province apart from the absence of several senior members on military duty. Even the roll of members continued to increase such that by 1915 the total stood at over 6000. During the last two years of the war over 10 meetings were held in Portsmouth, often with Bro. Hubert Giles, as Deputy standing in for Sir Augustus.
The years following the end of the war saw a flurry of activity including the consecration of Southsea Lodge No. 4071 and Portsdown Lodge No. 4356. The war however had a lasting impact on Sir Augustus who had lost both his wife and son and he died of a seizure on 15th August 1923. The Installation of his successor, The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Malmesbury as Provincial Grand Master took place at Winchester Guildhall. Provincial strength soon reached 70 lodges which entitled the PGM to create a new office Assistant PGM the first incumbent being Sir Thomas Bramsdon who took office at the meeting in 1925.
1927 was to be a pivotal year for Portsmouth when the Diocese of Winchester was split into three, one of which was Portsmouth and this went together with it's new status as a city. The first Bishop of Portsmouth was W. Bro. Rev. Neville Lovett and to commemorate the occasion brethren from all over the province donated the costs of creating a Chapter Room in the new Cathedral Church of St. Thomas. A special service to hand over the room was held on 11th October 1927. The Chapter Room was in an upper chamber of the tower reached by a winding stair. After accepting the gift W.Bro. Lovett delivered it to the Wardens of the Cathedral, both of whom were also brethren. The masons also literally left their mark on the Cathedral as can still be seen on the steps leading up to the organ loft.
The following few years were quiet ones for the province but new lodges were consecrated in Portsmouth, in 1928, Neptune 5150 in Cosham, in 1930 Domus Dei 5151 and St. Vincent 5295 in 1931. Little further happened of note in Portsmouth until the outbreak of WW2 which saw the complete destruction of two masonic buildings along with all regalia and records. Both Phoenix Lodge at 109 High Street and the United Service Lodge in Lake Road were hit on the night of 10/11 January 1941. The former was re-established at 21 Hampshire Terrace and the latter at the Masonic Hall in Commercial Road. By the end of the war 127 Freemasons of the Province had lost their lives and 411 had been decorated or mentioned in despatches. Only one lodge in Portsmouth was warranted actually during the war, that of the Portsmouth & District Past Masters Lodge.
On 12th June 1950 the Earl of Malmesbury died and on 7th December the same year Dr Wilfrid Godwin Attenborough MB, BS was installed as the Provincial Grand Master. He served for 14 years and the next 50 years saw a succession of accomplished PGMs installed; Maj. Gen. Richard Lawrence Bond (1964-73), Rt. Rev. John Henry Lawrence Phillips (1974-78), Thomas Bennet Langton (1978-1986), James Edward Bullen ((1986-91), Alan D. Chun (1991-1998), Ernest F.R. Moss (1998-2003), Brian C. Bellinger (2003-2010) and Michael J. Wilks (2010-). All continued and developed the charitable work of the masons whilst adding further lodges, the total of which now stands at over 250.
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Masons Website
"Freemasonry in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight" by F.D. Laugharne P.P.G.Reg.
"A Brief History of the Domus Dei Lodge No. 5151"