Photograph courtesy of the Library & Museum of Freemasonry
The design exterior by architect
Frederick Cockerell. The Foundation
Stone was laid in April 1864
One of the more unusual collections within the Grand Lodge
archives relates to the Freemasons’ Tontine which was one
of the ways in which funds were raised to build the first
Freemasons’ Hall in the 1770s. Although tontines are now
illegal in most countries including Britain (possibly because
they encouraged the murder of beneficiaries!), in the 1700s
they were widely used.
So what is a tontine? The Oxford English Dictionary
defines the word tontine as meaning:
A financial scheme by which the subscribers to a loan or common fund
receive each an annuity during his life, which increases as their number
is diminished by death, till the last survivor enjoys the whole income.
The word itself derives from the name of the man credited
with inventing the idea, Lorenzo de Tonti. In 1653 Tonti,
an Italian who established a political career for himself in
France, presented to the French king, Louis XIV, a scheme
to raise money by inviting contributions from citizens who
would receive a share of the fund’s income whilst they were
Once all contributors were dead the capital would revert to
the state. He described the idea as “a gold mine for the king …
a treasure hidden away in the realm”. The scheme was not
taken forward by the French parliament until 1689, a few
years after Tonti’s death in 1684, the resulting tontine raising
3.5 million livres.
England’s first tontine was organised by the Government
in 1693. It had limited success as only 10% of the target
amount was raised. However, tontines continued to be
used throughout the 1700s, less so by the Government but
increasingly by organisations, often to raise capital to fund
building projects. The evidence of this is demonstrated
through the number of Tontine Streets and Tontine Hotels
that are still in existence today.
The suggestion of raising money to fund the building of the
first Freemasons’ Hall through a tontine was considered at a
meeting at the Thatched House Tavern on 16 February 1775.
At a meeting of Grand Lodge on 22 February the scheme
“which would immediately raise a sum of £5,000 to carry
into execution the design of the Society in building a Hall
by granting annuities for lives” was formally approved.
John Allen, Provincial Grand Master for Lancashire,
prepared “Proposals” for the regulation of the tontine,
which were later printed “for the use of the subscribers”.
In the Freemasons’ Tontine there were 100 shares of £50
each. (The modern equivalent in terms of spending power
would be £3,000).
There were no problems finding subscribers, indeed the
minutes of the meeting of 16 February (before the scheme had
been officially approved by Grand Lodge) record that after the
resolution was passed “25 lives [were] subscribed for”.