ISSUE 10, July 2004
John Pine: A sociable craftsman
Jumping for Joy: Skydiving for charity
Quarterly Communication: Speeches of: the Grand Master, the Pro Grand Master and, Report of the Board of General Purposes
Supreme Grand Chapter: Address of the First Grand Principal and Report of the Committee of General Purposes
Royal Arch: Cheshire gives a lead
  Walking with the greats: Bath Masonic Hall
Motoring in style: Classic Vehicle Club
Masonic education: A daily advancement and Events for your diary
Travel: Portugal
Library & Museum of Freemasonry
International: A warm welcome in Malta
Masonic ritual: Spoilt for choice
Public relations: Sheffield; Dorset; Chelsea Flower Show; Freemasons' Hall
Letters, Book reviews, Gardening

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   Reginald Simmonds amid the splendour of Bath Masonic Hall

In 1781 a new coach road had been linked with Orchard Street, and accommodation provided for 50 or 60 carriages. Because of this, and other expenses, Palmer had raised the price of box seats to five shillings; and as similar seats in the Bristol theatre only cost four shillings, there were rumblings of discontent among regular playgoers.
     Keasberry and Dimond restored the old price immediately on taking over, and they were rewarded with capacity houses throughout most of the season. They also continued to encourage the introduction of new acting talent, and Bath not only maintained, but enhanced its reputation as a nursery for the London stage.
     Actors like Edwin, Murray, Middleton and Elliston graduated to Covent Garden or Drury Lane from Orchard Street, and celebrated performers like Sarah Siddons, G.F. Cooke and John Philip Kemble – Sarah’s brother – made highly successful visits to the city. Mrs Siddons and Henderson remain the greatest players to have graduated from the Bath theatrical academy.
     At the turn of the century the Orchard Street theatre was thriving under capable management, and was supported enthusiastically by both townspeople and visitors. The only criticism leveled against it during this period related to the inadequacy of the building. A decision to build a new and enlarged playhouse was taken in 1804.
     By the early 19th century, following the development of Queen Square and the Royal Crescent, the focus of the city had shifted. The site chosen for the new Theatre Royal was in Beaufort Square, which opened on 12 October 1805, nine days before the Battle of Trafalgar.
     The Orchard Street building remained empty for four years, but in 1809 the Roman Catholic authorities of Prior Park and Downside Abbey acquired it for conversion to a chapel.
     Part of the theatre stage, the gallery and most of the boxes were removed, and the floor was raised to its present level. Pews were installed for the congregation and windows were opened up to give light to the auditorium.
     Whilst the building was being used as a chapel, interments were made in the vaults, as the Roman Catholic Church was not allowed consecrated ground for that purpose. The spacious vaults had previously been used to store the stage scenery and props.
     Tombs were constructed of ashlars of Bath stone, some six inches thick, in each of which several bodies were interred. The tombs were finally covered with a layer of lime concrete. Over the years the head height was considerably reduced to less than the average height of a man – less than six feet. In total, some 286 bodies were interred in the vaults.
     After the Emancipation Relief Act of 1829, the Roman Catholic church was allowed consecrated ground and eventually an RC church – St John’s Church in South Parade – was opened in 1863.
     Most of the mortal remains were removed and re-interred in the newly consecrated ground in the cemetery at Perrymead. The old theatre building became redundant and remained empty until it was acquired by the Royal Cumberland Lodge No. 53 in 1866, for conversion to a Masonic meeting house.
     The building, together with the two adjacent properties, was purchased for £636, the leasehold for a further £150, with an annual ground rent of £47.3s.0d.
     When they sold the building the Catholic authorities retained the right to enter the vaults of the building once a year, to say Mass for those interred there. This remained in force for as long as there were any living relatives of those interred there, but has since been rescinded.
     During excavation work during the summer of 2003, the remains of two caskets and several bodies were discovered and reinterred in parts of the vaults not being developed.
     The pews were removed and used to make the present side-screens, and a wall was built beneath the gallery to form the ante-room. The new Masonic hall was consecrated on 3 December 1866. There are now eight Craft Lodges and 15 other Degrees meeting at the hall.
     Recent redevelopment has reopened the vaults after 150 years, and the hall now possibly possessed the only vaulted chamber beneath a temple in the UK.
     Anyone wishing to visit this historic Masonic Hall, Bath, should visit the Somerset Provincial website

Reginald Simmonds is chairman of the Bath Masonic Hall Trust

   Part of the vaults reopened after 150 years