THE BOSWELLS AND
Although the probabilities are in favour of the affirmative, it is yet a debatable question whether the great lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, was a member of the Craft, or no, but there can be no doubt that his great biographer was not only a Freemason but that, in common with other members of his family, he held high office in the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
The name of Boswell first occurs in Scottish Masonic records in 1600, when, at a meeting of the Lodge of Edinburgh, held on 8th June, John Boswell, of Auchinleck, was present and attested the minute by his mark. It gas been claimed that he, or his son, Thomas, was a Warden of this Lodge, but there is no evidence adducible in support of this statement.
It is also a fact, capable of easy proof, that the Laird of Auchinleck, the father of the famous biographer (born 1707), Senator of the College of Justice and Lord of Justiciary, 1756, was a member of the Lodge of Edinburgh; that his brother, John (born 1710), Doctor of Medicine, Censor and, for seven years, President of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, was Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1753-54. At the Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, held in November, 1759,
Grand Lodge having considered the report of its standing Committee anent the French prisoners at present in the Castle of Edinburgh, recommended to Bro. Dr. John Boswell and others “to inquire into and inspect the condition and situation of these prisoners, particularly such of them as they shall find to be Freemasons and to report their opinion as to their number and necessity with their first convenience.”
Grand Lodge, it may be stated, had previously voted ten guineas towards the relief of such prisoners in purchasing clothes and other necessaries for them “and particularly their brother Masons.”
James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer (born 1740), son of the Scottish Judge, the Laird of Auchinleck, himself also the well-known author of Corsica, was made an honorary member of the Lodge of Edinburgh, in February, 1777. He was an initiate of Canongate Kilwinning, of which, in due time, he became Master. He was, from 1776 to 1778, Deputy Grand Master of Scotland, having previously served the office of Senior Grand Warden, an office which is elective and not appointive.
The most famous Masonic member of the family, however, was James’s son, Sir Alexander Bpswell, who was born on 9th October, 1775, at the family mansion at Achinleck, Ayrshire and named after his grandfather, the Laird of Auchinleck, the Scottish Judge, who then lived there. He became Master of Mother Kilwinning on 21st December, 1820, an office which also carries with it the right to reign as Provincial Grand Master for Ayrshire. On the day of his election to the chair of Mother Kilwinning he composed and sang, the following song, which he dedicated to the Lodge. He called the poem “The Mother Lodge, Kilwinning,” and its metre enables it to be sung to the tune of “Bonnie Dundee”:
Alexander Boswell was the originator of the scheme for the erection of a monument on the banks of the Doon to the memory of Robert Burn and, in 1820, presided at the Masonic ceremony when its corner-stone was laid. Like many others who have set out the laudable motive of doing honour to famous men and worthy causes, Alexander encountered much apathy when he set the scheme in motion. It had been arranged that the clerk of the county of Ayr should convene a public meeting to accord Burns this tribute. When the time appointed arrived only three people had put in an appearance – Boswell himself, the Rev. H. Paul, of Broughton (a zealous Mason) and the clerk. Boswell was in no way disconcerted or perturbed. He elected himself chairman, proposed the erection of the monument, declared the resolution and instructed the clerk, who was acting as secretary, to send out the subscription sheets. These were accorded a hearty reception and the laying of the corner-stone, Boswell sang the following song, which he had composed for the occasion:
At a later stage in the proceedings Alexander Boswell gave another original song. He called it “To Anacreon in Heaven”:
As Provincial Grand Master for Ayrshire, he convened a meeting of that sub-jurisdiction in August, 1821, for the purpose of drawing up and presenting to King George IV, patron of the Order, a letter assuring him of their faithful and loyal attachment and wishing him a long and prosperous reign. On That occasion he sang the following song of his own composition;
In August, 1821, he was created a Baronet and, on the 21st of December following, as Provincial Grand Master, he consecrated Lodge Blair at Dalry, when, at the banquet which followed, he sang the following song, which he had composed for the occasion, which, according to the Minutes, “none elicited such shouts of applause.”
On the following day he presided at the anniversary meeting of Lodge Mother Kilwinning and that is his last recorded Masonic appearance. In the following year he was killed in a duel, a quarrel not of his own seeking and one in which he refused to participate, shooting in the air, as he had announced his intention of doing. He could have escaped the consequences, according to the code of “honour”, had he broken a vow to secrecy which he had taken. Paralysis set in as the result of the wound he received and, to the great loss of Masonry and the sorrow of his friends, he passed away. Robert Howie Smith, in his “Memoir”, says;
As a Brother of the Mystic Tie he entered fully into the spirit of a pastime, not the least recommendation of which is its relentless exorcism of everything approaching to the claims of caste. And this allusion is a reminder that, Masonically, he reputation was as high as his rank in the Craft – the one not infrequently being in the inverse ration of the other, seeing that honour and office do not always not always go hand in hand. For years he adorned more than one throne in the Province, by his dignity and firmness, heading several important demonstrations and materially advancing the best interests of the Fraternity. He was also their standing poet-laureate – an honorary post which he held for the district and for Burns’ Clubs and scientific societies all over the kingdom.
His father, James Boswell, lived from 1786 to 1788 at 55 and 56, Great Queen Street, a double house afterwards absorbed in the buildings of Freemasons’ Hall, but now pulled down to make way for the new Masonic Peace Memorial. It was here, undoubtedly, that he wrote part of his famous Life of Samuel Johnson. When Grand Lodge rebuilt the structure it presented portions of the façade and the staircase to the London County Council for preservation in the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road. It was not found possible to repair and preserve the building in situ owing to the fact that the brickwork and piers supporting the structure were decayed and cracked, that dry rot was prevalent in the timbers of the roof and that the front wall was out of plumb. Among the previous residents of the house were the two first Earls of Bristol, Thomas Fairfax (Cromwell’s commander-in-chief), the third Earl of Devonshire; the second Earl of Sunderland; the seventh Duke of Norfolk; while for a time, it was also the residence of Richard Brinsley Sheridan.