Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 31 - The Freemasons' Tavern (Great Queen Street)

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THE Victory Chapter of the Knights of the Pelican and the Eagle, perfect and puissant princes of Rose Croix, has been closed, and gentlemen in evening clothes are being helped into their great-coats in the entrance corridor of Mark Masons’ Hall by the rotund sergeant who keeps guard there in a glazed box. Most of these gentlemen have mysterious flat tin cases, which they hand over to the sergeant or another official to be taken care of for them until spring brings round again another meeting of the Chapter.
There is no unnecessary waiting in the Mark Masons’ Hall, for it is now a quarter-past seven, and dinner has been ordered next door, at the Freemasons’ Tavern, at seven. A few yards of pavement only lie between the lamps of Mark Masons’ Hall and the glass shelter before the doors of the Tavern, and in twos and threes the gentlemen in evening dress hurry from one door to the other.
[-225-] Great Queen Street is quite a Masonic quarter, for opposite to the Tavern are two shops in which there is a brave show of Masonic jewellery, great candelabra, pillars, swords, highly-coloured pictures, and other adjuncts of Masonry. A humble house of refreshment, which also appeals to Freemasons for custom, faces the Tavern. The Tavern is not what the name implies. It is a restaurant, with a public dining-room, with a fine ballroom, and with many private dining- rooms. Its outside is imposing. Two houses stand side by side. One is of red brick, with windows set in white stone, and is Elizabethan in appearance. The other, of grey stone, is of a style of architecture which might be called “Masonic.” From the pillars of the second story there rises an arch on which are carved the figures of the zodiac. In front of this are stone statues representing four of the Masonic virtues, of which Silence, with her finger on her lip, is the most easily identified. In all the details of the building there is some reference to Freemasonry and its attributes.
At the entrance to the Tavern stand two great janitors. Facing the doorway, at the end of a wide hall, is a long flight of stairs broken by a broad landing and decorated with statues. Up and down this ladies and gentlemen are passing, and I ask one of the janitors what is going on in the ballroom. "German Liederkranz. Private entertainment. What dinner, sir? Victory Chapter. Drawing-room,” is the condensed information given by the big man, and he points a white-gloved hand to a passage branching off [-226-] to the right. On one side of the passage is a door leading into a bar where three ladies in black are kept very busy in attending to the wants of thirsty Freemasons. On the other side is a wide shallow alcove in the wall fitted with shelves and glazed over, and in this is a curious collection of plate, great salvers, candelabra, and centrepieces. Beside the alcove is a glass door, and outside it is hung a placard with “Gavel Club. Private” upon it. At the end of the passage a little Staircase leads up to higher regions, and on the wall is an old-fashioned clock with a round face and very plain figures, and some oil paintings dark with age.
On the first landing there is a placard outside a door with “Victory Chapter” on it, and higher up outside another door another placard with “Perfection Chapter” on it. From the stream of guests and waiters which is setting up the stairs it is evident that there are many banquets to be held to-night.
The drawing-room is white-and-gold in colour. Four Corinthian pillars, the lower halves of which are painted old-gold colour, with gold outlining the curves of their capitals, support a highly-ornamented ceiling, the central panel of which is painted to represent clouds, with some little birds flitting before them. The paper is old-gold in colour with large flowers upon it. There is some handsome furniture in the room— a fine cabinet, a clock of elaborate workmanship, and some good china vases. The curtains to the windows are of red velvet. At the end of the room farthest from the door is a horseshoe table [-227-] with red and white shaded candles on it, ferns, chrysanthemums, and heather in china pots, pines, and hothouse fruits, and at close intervals bottles of champagne and Apollinaris. At the other end of the room, where stands a piano, with a screen in front of it, the gentlemen in evening clothes are chatting, having put their coats and hats on chairs and piano wherever room can be found. The waiters, in black with white gloves, are putting the last touches to the decorations.
Dinner is announced; a move is made to the table, and each man finds his place marked for him. There is a precedence in Freemasonry, as at Court, and this is adhered to in arranging the places at table.
The Victory is a Chapter which is very much in touch with the army and navy, and looking round the table, the company, but for the sombreness of their attire—for one or two Orders at the buttonhole, and here and there a decoration at the throat, are the only spots of colour—might be hosts and guests at some military mess dinner. The “Most Wise,” who sits at the head of the table, does not belong to either of the services, but on one side of him is the heir to a dukedom, who led at one time a troop of the Household Cavalry, and on the other one of the most popular of our citizen soldiers, equally at home on parade as in his civic chair when Master of one of the City Companies. These are flanked again by a well- known brigade-surgeon and a cheery Admiralty official. The gentleman who has just said grace, in two Latin words, left very pleasant recollec­[-228-]tions behind him when as ex-Lord Mayor he left the Mansion-House. All round the table are faces with the sharp soldierly cut or naval bluffness.
The “Grand Secretary” has ordered the dinner, and in the whole length and breadth of the world that hospitable Freemasonry covers, no man knows better how to construct a menu than he does

Tortue clair.
Filets de sole Meunière.
Vol-au-vent aux huîtres natives.
Faisan Souvaroff.
Selle de mouton.
Céleri braise Bordelaise.
Layer. Pommes Parisienne.
Poularde rôtie.
Lard grillé. Salade.
Bombe glacée Duchesse.
Os à la moëlle.
Dessert. Café.

I have eaten some good dinners at the Freemasons’ Tavern, and others not so good. To­night the cook is not up to his best form, and has not responded to the inspiration of the meuu. The turtle soup is not like that of the excellent Messrs. Ring and Brymer, or that of Mr. Painter; the faisan Souvaroff is dry, and the cook’s nerve has failed him when the truffles had to be added; but, on the other hand, the sole Meunière and the vol-au-vent are admirable, and the marrow­bones are large and scalding-hot.
[-229-] The genial old custom of taking wine is part of all Masonic dinners, and after the “Most Wise” has drunk to the other guests, much friendly challenging takes place. The marrow­bones having been disposed of; the ex-Lord Mayor, the Chaplain of the Chapter, says a grace as short as that before meat, and then follow the loyal toasts. It is the custom of the Chapter that speeches should be short, and the toasts of Her Majesty and the Prince of Wales, and the few Masonic toasts that follow, occupy very little time. Then the cigars are lit, and the formal order at table is broken up and little knots are formed.
One by one the guests who have an appoint­ment elsewhere, or who are going to the theatre, say good-night and go off; but a remnant still remain, and these make an adjournment to a cosy little clubroom on the top story of Freemasons’ Hall, where good stories are told, and soda-water-bottle corks pop until long after midnight.
15th November.

*** There is a small Masonic dining-club, called the Sphinx Club, which dines at the Freemasons’ Tavern, and which I mention because the dinner I last ate in company with my brother Sphinxes was one of the best efforts of the chef and of the manager Mons. Blanchette—which means that it was very good indeed. The club was founded as an antidote to the large amount of soft soap that Freemasons habitually plaster each other with in after-dinner speeches. No Sphinx is allowed to say anything good of any brother Sphinx, and when a [-230-] candidate is put up for the club his proposer says all the ill he knows or can invent about his past life. A candidate can only become a member of the club by being unanimously blackballed. It is needless to say that the best of temper and good fellowship is the rule amongst the Sphinxes, and the Free­masons’ Tavern seems to always have a very good dinner for them. This was the menu of their last banquet—

Tortue clair.
Rouget à la Grenobloise.
Caille à la Souvaroff.
Agneau rôti. Sauce menthe.
Choux de mer. Pommes noisettes.
Bécasse sur canapé.
Pommes paille. Salade de laitues.
Os à la moëlle.
Petit soufflé glacé rosette.
Fondu au fromage.