by Yoshio Washizu
The explanations given to the Candidate for having a
pointy thing pressed to his chest and something else hung about his neck
and shoulders are simple enough on the surface – but like all things
Masonic there are, if we but stretch our imaginations a little, deeper
moral implications and historical lessons. They are also possibly
intimately connected in a very surprising way, as we shall see.
Masonic ‘fire’ is an old custom which may be derived
from that of firing after toasts. The original practice was modified by
our masonic ancestors to suit their needs. The custom of gun-fire
salutes after toasts already existed in the 17th century. Dr. Richard
Kuerden (or Jackson) MD (1623-1690?) of Preston in Lancashire, compiled
a Brief Description of the Burrough and Town of Preston (1682-6), in
which he described a celebration of the Preston Gild Merchant thus:
... the Mayor, with his great attendance is received
in the streets by his guards of Souldiers and Companys of Trade, he
makes his procession to the Church gate barrs, where he and his
attendance are entertained with a speech made by one of the chief
Schollers of the School, a Barrel or Hogshead of nappy Ale standing
close by the Barrs is broached, and a glass offered to the Mayor, who
begins a good prosperous health to the King, afterwards to the Queen,
the Nobility and Gentry having pledged the same; at each health begun by
Mr. Mayor, it is attended with a volley of shott from the musketiers
attending; the country people there present drinking of the remainder.
Here is another example of the 17th century custom of
toasting associated with gun-fire. In February 1694 Captain Thomas
Phillips, in his account of the voyage of the ship ‘Hannibal’, referred
to a similar practice thus:
In this garden [of Cape Coast Castle on the West
Coast of Africa] captain Shurley and I entertain'd the agents, factors,
and other officers of the castle at dinner before our departure ...
where we enjoy'd ourselves plentifully, having each of us six of our
quarter-deck guns brought ashore, with powder, &c., and our gunners to
ply them; which they did to purpose, and made them roar merrily, firing
eleven at every health.
Two months later Phillips and some other officers
dined with the native chief who occupied Christiansborg Castle, having
captured it from the Danes. When they were ascended, the Chief drank to
them in a glass of brandy and all the guns in the fort were discharged.
After dinner he ‘drank the king of England’s, the African company’s, and
our own healths frequently, with vollies of cannon’.
Some believe, however, that such a practice has
nothing to do with the origin of the term, masonic ‘fire’, but that it
is rather the conversion into reality of what is really a metaphor.
It is unknown exactly when masonic ‘fire’ started.
Anderson recorded in his New Book of Constitutions (1738) that
Desaguliers, the newly installed Grand Master, ‘reviv'd the old regular
and peculiar Toasts or Healths of the Free Masons’ on June 24, 1719. We
do not know what those ‘old regular and peculiar Toasts’ were like and
whether or not the ‘firing’ was practised then. It is in French
exposures published in the late 1730s and the early 1740s that we find
the earliest reference to the practice of masonic ‘fire’. For example,
here is an extract from the Reception d'un Frey-Maçon (1737):
... this ceremony [initiation] ended,&this
explanation given, the Candidate is called Brother,&they seat themselves
at Table, where they drink, with the permission of the Worshipful Grand
Master [the W.M.], to the health of the new Brother. Each has his Bottle
before him; when they want to drink, they say, give the Powder, everyone
rises, the Grand Master says, charge; the Powder, which is the Wine, is
poured into the glass; the Grand Master says, lay your hands to your
firelocks [armes], and they drink to the health of the Brother, carrying
the glass to the mouth in three movements; after which,&before replacing
the glass on the Table, it is carried to the left breast, then to the
right,&then forwards, all in three movements,&in three other movements
it is set down perpendicularly on the Table, they clap their hands three
times&each of them cries three times Vivat.
On the other hand, the earliest reference to such a
practice in England is contained in Three Distinct Knocks (1760), from
which the following description is taken:
Every Man has a Glass set him, and a large Bowl of
Punch, or what they like, is set in the Center of the Table; and the
senior Deacon charges (as they call it) in the North and East, and the
junior Deacon in the South and West; for it is their duty to do so,
i.e., to fill all the Glasses. Then the Master takes up his Glass, and
gives a Toast to the King and the Craft, with Three Times Three in the
Prentice’s; and they all say Ditto, and drink all together, minding the
Master’s Motion: They do the same with the empty Glass that he doth;
that is, he draws it a-cross his Throat Three Times ..., and then makes
Three Offers to put it down; At the third, they all set their Glasses
down together, which they call ‘firing’: Then they hold the Left-hand
Breast-high, and clap Nine Times with the Right, their Foot going at the
same Time: When this is done, they all sit down.
The same source notes that the reason for their
drinking three times three is:
... because there were antiently but Three Words,
Three Signs and Three Gripes; but there have been Three added, viz. The
Grand Sign of a Master, the Pass-Gripe of a Fellow-Craft, and Pass-Word,
which is Twelve in all for you to remember, viz. The Word, Sign and
Gripe of an enter'd Apprentice is Three: The Word, Sign, Gripe,
Pass-Gripe and Pass-Word of a Fellow-Craft is Five; And the Master hath
Four, viz. The Sign, the Grand Sign, the Gripe and Word, which is
However, just because the earliest reference to
masonic ‘fire’ is found in French exposures does not mean necessarily
that the custom originated in France. No reference is made to this
custom in Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected published in 1730. During
the next 30 years few exposures were published in England—perhaps partly
because of the great popularity of Prichard’s booklet. There is no
telling if masonic ‘fire’ was in practice in England during that period.
It could have been practised in England first and then exported to
France. Or it could have started in France and English freemasons
adopted it later. No definite conclusion can be drawn because there are
insufficient records available on this matter.
Masonic ‘fire’ with Brethren crashing down
thick-based drinking glasses on the table was once a common practice.
The use of such firing glasses is now much less common, however, and the
‘fire’ is more usually accompanied by the Brethren clapping their hands
instead. There is no official form of giving ‘fire’. Basically, it is a
variation of ‘point-left-right’ (PLR) followed by the ‘three times
three’ hand clapping—a typical ‘fire’ procedure being PLR, PLR, PLR, one
(point to the left), two (point to the right), one clap, short pause and
three short claps followed by another set of three short claps.
Various theories have been suggested about the origin
of the PLR. Listing several different theories, e.g., the Sign of the
Cross made by a clergyman in benediction over food or drink, the ‘Hammer
of Thor’ sign used in Scandinavia in olden times to appease the great
God, the motions made by a bricklayer when lifting cement with his
trowel and a royal salute of 21 guns, Carr concluded none of them can be
considered its origin and that such movements rather originate from one
of the early modes of recognition. Some doubt there is any significance
or symbolical meaning in masonic ‘fire’ itself and believe it is a
survival of a convivial custom originally carried out as a cheerful,
boisterous routine8. The way masonic ‘fire’ is given varies widely in
different localities. Carr recalled an Australian freemason’s
description of several different forms of ‘fire’ in use in that country:
One of them, which involved clapping the hands on
different parts of the body, was almost a gymnastic exercise, requiring
a degree of agility by no means conducive to good digestion.
In one Lodge in Shrewsbury the ‘fire’ is given by
using small gavels, about three or four inches long. They are used for
‘firing’ in much the same way as hands are used elsewhere. They are
employed for the PLR and then banged for the ‘one, two, three’. They are
also used for ‘running fire’. After a toast, the Master may announce,
‘Running Fire, Brethren!’ and gavel once. The Brother who is sitting on
his left gavels immediately, followed on the one on his left and then so
on round the tables, ending with the Master. It is noisy but sounds
quite good. The same kind of ‘running fire’ is also conducted with
‘firing’ glasses in some lodges.
So there are many variations of masonic ‘fire’. It
cannot be said that a certain way of ‘firing’ is the only correct way
and that any other way is incorrect. It is a matter of local custom and
the particular lodge. Masonic ‘fire’ is the completion of the toast and
it is part of the honours accorded to whoever is the subject of the
toast. Thus there is no reason for its omission after the toast with the
exception of ‘silent fire’. However, needless to say, not all lodges
practise masonic ‘fire’. Given by tapping one forearm with the fingers
of the other hand instead of clapping, so-called ‘silent fire’ is a
variation (or even an aberration) of masonic ‘fire’ and is not so
popular. It is uncertain when or where ‘silent fire’ was adopted first.
Cartwright stated that many years ago certain Tylers adopted the
practice of calling for ‘silent fire’ ‘merely with the idea of marking
the toast proposed by them with a special characteristic. In fact, it
was a case (...) of “giving themselves airs”’. Generally, it is believed
that it grew out of the practice of quiet ‘firing’ to the memory of
deceased Brethren and that it turned into ‘silent fire’ in due course.
It is a contradiction of words, however, because masonic ‘fire’ is
supposed to be a joyful, noisy salute. According to another Brother, in
his early masonic days, i.e., in the early part of this century, the
then Deputy Grand Registrar used to say that ‘silent fire’ was not
formal in character but was given because the Tyler had left his place
outside the door of the banquet room and that there might be
eavesdroppers outside listening to the ordinary noisy fire. Citing an
example of a Lodge in Sussex that has adopted ‘silent fire’ because its
festive boards are held in a room adjacent to other non-masonic
customers in a public house, Mead commented that this may also be the
historical reason for some other lodges using this type of ‘fire’.
‘Silent fire’ has been witnessed after the toast for
‘Absent Brethren’ in some lodges or after the Tyler’s toast in others.
Many masonic writers are against ‘silent fire’ being given on such
occasions. In 1885, one writer observed:
I would deprecate the recent absurd innovation for
which no authority can be found, of accompanying reception (of the
Tyler’s toast) by actions partially of a funeral character, alien in
every respect to the true sentiment of the toast itself. The wish
expressed for ‘relief from suffering’, and ‘safe return’, and is not at
all in the nature of sorrowful regret, unmixed with hope. Sympathy for
present circumstances should be accompanied with cheerful anticipations
and best wishes for future prosperity; not with despondent condolences
and grievous lamentations.
Another commented that it used to be the custom in
his Province (Northans. and Hunts.) to have ‘silent firing’ until it was
forbidden by Provincial Grand Master, Lord Euston, who said, ‘It was
quite bad enough for them to be in distressed circumstances, we do not
want to bury them’.
There are lodges that do use ‘silent fire’ after
toasts to deceased Brethren. Some Brethren approve of ‘silent fire’ but
for this purpose only thus:
The only appropriate time for ‘silent fire’ is when
we drink to the memory of a departed Brother17; If indulged in on rare
occasions only, it adds a peculiar solemnity to a toast with which some
sadness of thought or memory is associated.
The effect of ‘silent fire’ will be heightened by
contrast with the noisy ‘fire’ of the preceding toasts. But it does not
really belong to any other occasions. Carr observed: If one were
drinking to the memory of a departed Brother, that might well justify
the omission of the fire altogether, but after a lengthy search I must
confess I was unable to find a single argument that could explain or
justify ‘Silent Fire’.
And there are others who maintain that ‘silent fire’
has no place in ‘after proceedings’ at all and they oppose its use at
the masonic festive boards20. By the way, in 1986 the Board of General
Purposes (UGLE) made the following recommendation about the presence of
non-masons at ‘after proceedings’ and it was adopted formally by the
... whilst it is desirable to exclude all non-masons
from the dining room before the commencement of the toast list, it is
not strictly necessary but ‘fire’ should not be given in their presence.
In some lodges, clapping is used instead of masonic
‘fire’. For example, at the end of a speech, the Director of Ceremonies
might stand and announce, ‘Brethren the Honours are ...’ and, depending
on the rank of the speaker, will knock once for those who have not been
installed as W.M. and three times for all those who have been so
installed. All present join in by striking the table.
Then there are still some other forms of ‘firing’
observed at some masonic and non-masonic gatherings. Here are just two
examples to illustrate this point.
There is Regimental ‘fire’ adopted by the members of
the Honourable Artillery Company. It is also given in the FitzRoy Lodge
no. 569 (Finsbury, London), which is made up of members of the
Honourable Artillery Company, but only to and by members of the Lodge.
After the toast, a command is given, ‘Regimental Fire, ready present!’
Then the members of the Regiment raise their right hands and swing them
across their bodies nine times, at the same time shouting ‘Zay!’ The
call ‘ready present’ represents the lighting of a fusee and the swinging
of their hands across their bodies represents their attempt to keep it
alight. The ninth ‘throw’ represents the throwing of the grenade and the
shouted ‘Zay’ the explosion.
Then there is ‘Kentish fire’ which is said to have
originated in reference to meetings held in Kent in 1828-9 in opposition
to the Catholic Relief Bill, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
This ‘fire’ is given by the members of the ‘Men of Kent’ and the
‘Kentish Men’ Associations. It is given in the form of rhythmic clapping
made to the beat of 1…2…345, which is often started by a few determined
members during the first burst of the more usual ‘ragged’ applause after
a speech or a performance.
The following description illustrates a case in which
‘Kentish fire’ was used by freemasons in the 19th century. At the
banquet which followed the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Grand Lodge
of Kent held on 18 July 1859, the then PGM, RW Bro. Charles Purton
Cooper, rose to propose a toast to the health of HM the Queen but,
before doing so, he told this anecdote:
Before her Majesty’s marriage, in leap year, she
courted Prince Albert, who after a little difficulty thought proper to
accept her. On consulting her ministers upon the subject, they informed
her that they held themselves responsible for her Majesty’s acts; but as
for the young man, they could not be answerable for what he might do, or
might leave undone. The Queen said she wished that her Albert should be
made a Freemason; but her uncle, the late M.W. Grand Master, the Duke of
Sussex objected, on the ground that, as a royal husband, the Prince was
bound to have no secrets whatever from the Queen. Her Majesty having
urged the point in vain, as the old duke was inflexible—replied that as
her husband could not be made a mason, her first son should be one.
In fact, HRH Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales,
did become a freemason and eventually was elected to serve as Grand
Master (1874-1901). Two other sons, HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of
Connaught, and HRH Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, also became
freemasons and the former served as Grand Master for 38 years (1901 to
1939) after his elder brother assumed the throne.
After relating the above anecdote, the PGM proposed
‘the health of the Queen and the Prince of Wales’ and it was received
with loud cheers and ‘Kentish fire’. Before the toast the ladies, who
were accompanying their husbands, had returned to their places at the
tables from ‘their meagre collation in the anteroom’. The evening’s
proceedings were carried out without any masonic ceremonial whatever.
The PGM made some additional remarks and proposed a toast to ‘the health
of the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Zetland, MWGM’ which was drunk with ‘Kentish
fire’ too. He then gave the toast to ‘the health of Lord Panmure, RW
Dep. GM and the rest of the Grand Officers’ which was followed by
another ‘Kentish fire’.
It naturally follows that, as there is no specific
toast to the Grand Master Mason, there is likewise no toast to the
Depute Grand Master, the Substitute Grand Master or to Grand
Office-bearers. Throughout Scotland it is common to have 'Masonic
Honours' following the proposal of a toast. In other Constitutions this
is called 'Masonic fire'. For example, following the proposal of the
toast to The Grand Lodge of Scotland, the Master of the Lodge would say:
— "Masonic Honours, Brethren, for Grand Lodge, Count, Wardens, count,
one, two, three". Senior Warden says "Once, twice, thrice". Junior
Warden says "One, two, three". Thereupon the Brethren give one of the
many 'three times three' form of hand-clapping, followed each time by
It should be noted that the phrase 'Point, left,
right' is not used in Scotland for Masonic honours. Of recent years a
few Lodges in Scotland have adopted the custom of certain groups of
Brethren in England and Ireland of 'drinking wine with the Master'. This
is most certainly not Scottish usage and this practice is deprecated.