SECRETS are important things in communities where change, apart from the slow roll of the seasons, arrives only reluctantly, if at all. In New Zealand’s little towns and rural hamlets, back in the days of station-masters and telephone party-lines, the urge to elaborate an alternative identity, whose details were not the common knowledge of all and sundry, was very strong.
There had to be something more to you than the man the neighbours saw mowing his front lawn every Saturday morning; or, seated on a tartan rug in the brisk winter air every Saturday afternoon, sipping sweet tea from a thermos flask and watching the local footy team cover itself with mud, if not glory, on the poplar-lined playing fields down by the river. Most of all, you needed to be something more than just the polite little fellow serving behind the counter of the general store, the butcher shop, the drapers.
In the frenetic environment of our modern world, it is difficult to conceive just how constrained the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents really were. Travelling more than about twenty-five miles from one’s front door was a major undertaking in an age where private motor vehicles were rare and folk still got about on horseback or by bicycle.
People travelled slowly in those days: slow enough to both see everything that was going on, and to be seen by everybody doing it. Imagine, then, how exciting the thought of doing something that could not be seen; saying something that could not be heard; must have been to the upright and prosperous men of town and village. The prospect of leaving behind, if only for a few hours, the hum-drum world of wives and children, customers and clients, employees and tenants – and becoming something entirely different – must have had an enormous appeal.
I say "must" because the evidence of this need for a secret, more potent, more intense existence may be found in just about every settlement of any size in New Zealand. In some places they were built right there on the main street; in others at one remove from the daily commerce of the town, but everywhere they presented to the outside world a blank and uncompromising façade of secrecy. New Zealand’s Masonic Lodges were places where only the initiate gained admittance: secret temples, where dark oaths were spoken and ancient rituals enacted; places where the local grocer, butcher and draper was transformed into something new, and luminous, and powerful.
Transplanted from the bleak landscape of Scotland and Northern Ireland, to the equally desolate wilds of the West Coast and Southland (see illustrations) New Zealand Freemasonry retained a great many of its original prejudices and much of its historical purpose.
Vigorously anti-clerical, and theologically sceptical – as befitted its origins in the secret societies of the Enlightenment – Freemasonry placed less faith in an all-knowing God, than it did in the esoteric knowledge of its supposedly ancient brotherhood. Like the perennial Gnostic heresy, Freemasonry believes the mind of Man, properly prepared, is more than equal to the task of comprehending the mind and purpose of its maker.
This was a heady brew to pour into the brains of the good burghers of Hokitika and Clinton, but clearly of sufficient potency to persuade them to finance the sturdy little structures in which their brotherhood could meet without fear of prying eyes and flapping ears. For what, in the end, is more conducive to solidarity and mutual assistance than a shared secret, or secrets? Especially when the secrets shared are said to be drawn from the hidden wisdom of the ancients and sufficient to lift you high above the level of the common herd?
In many ways Freemasonry made New Zealand’s little towns. These numerous bands of Masonic brothers, who solemnly greeted each other every week down at the local lodge, could hardly avoid becoming an economic, social and political oligarchy, effortlessly presiding over their community’s commercial expansion and setting the tone of its cultural life. Deeds and projects which Adam Smith’s invisible hand might never have touched were very often the manifestations of the local Masonic brotherhood’s enlightened spirits.
They could also, sadly, be the moving force behind the very worst kind of reactionary social behaviour. It doesn’t take much for a small and secret group to move from light to darkness. Believing themselves to be the sole repository of local wisdom, and the only protectors of local prosperity, the Masonic brothers of how many small towns lent their power to causes that were as disreputable as they were self-serving? How fared the local unionist, clergyman, doctor or teacher of radical, or even liberal, views when the bigoted brothers of the local lodge turned their faces against them?
And how was justice served when the local magistrate, the local prosecutor, and the local policeman all greeted each other with the secret handshake? How many innocent people have been imprisoned, how many wife beaters and child abusers have gone free, thanks to the secret solidarity of the local Masonic brotherhood?
So, the next time you’re driving through one of our provincial towns, or rural villages, and you see a building of singular aspect, standing at a distance from the workaday world, pause, take a closer look, and ponder what role the men who gathered inside its walls may have played in the history of the place where you are standing. Imagine what arcane thoughts went through the minds of seemingly ordinary men as they plied their daily trades. Consider what deeds – dark or luminous – may have been set in motion behind the set-square and dividers that crown the secret door.