1796. In Revolutionary France, the Directoire appointed a young General Napoleon Buonaparte to command of the Army of Italy, forever changing the face of Europe. Also in 1796, though on a different plane, in a different spirit, probably with much less justification and certainly with less dramatic results, the 'Moderns' or Premier Grand Lodge appointed Sampson Eardley, FRS, FSA, 1st Baron Spalding as Provincial Grand Master for Cambridgeshire. HRH George, Prince of Wales, was the Grand Master at the time, with the Earl of Moira as acting deputy; with what we now know as 'Pro-Grand Master'. In considering Eardley's fitness or enthusiasm for the job, it is perhaps as well to bear in mind R.W. Bro. Bathurst's 'impression that any peer, baronet or MP who was invited to dine with Grand Lodge was apt to be made Provincial Grand Master irrespective of whether there were any Lodges world in his part of the world or not'.
Sampson Eardley had been a gilded youth. In 1759, still at Eton and but eleven years old, he had received a Baronetcy from the grateful government of the Elder Pitt. Mind you, the lad was not then an Eardley, but simply Sampson Gideon, favoured son of a very rich father. Sampson's grandfather was a Portuguese Jew who settled in London as a merchant of the West India trade and became very successful, changing his Portuguese name of 'Abudiente' to the more readily acceptable 'Gideon'. this man's son, Lord Eardley's father, also named Sampson, was born in London and at the age of twenty went into business for himself with a capital of £1,500 which, astoundingly, he increased over fivefold in two years. Walpole, the 'first Prime Minister', sought his help in raising a loan for the War of Jenkin's Ear with Spain. Gideon was a leading light in Johnathon's Coffee House in Exchange Alley and may be seen as a father of the Stock Exchange. His knowledge of the markets served him well in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie advanced with his highland army on Derby. There was considerable panic in London, but Gideon kept his head and bought everything he could lay his hands on. When the Young Pretender turned back and began the disastrous retreat that led to Culloden, the market recovered and Gideon was a millionaire. In time he became the principal source and organiser for major Government loans, at one time providing Pitt's Government with £1.7 million, as security for which he had pledged his own considerable fortune and estates. He was, by now, the highly respectable and respected Sampson Gideon Esq., Gentleman, of Spalding in the County of Lincolnshire, said to have an income of 'a guinea a minute'. What he really wanted to be, however, was a Baronet!.
In 1959, though Pitt had his Annus Mirabilis, the Year of Victories, and (as proved by correspondence from the Dukes of Newcastle and Devonshire) was well aware of Sampson Gideon's invaluable assistance in financing it, the fact of Gideon's Jewishness was sufficient to bar him from any public honour. As Horace Walpole said of him, however, 'He breeds his children Christians' and indeed there was young Sampson at Eton, being educated as a Christian Englishman. And so Sampson Gideon received his honour - not Sampson Gideon the father, but Sampson Gideon the eleven year old. Convention (or prejudice) was satisfied.
The old man died in 1762, leaving Sir Sampson Gideon, Bart., a very wealthy young gentleman of large estates in several counties. In 1768 Sir Sampson married Maria, the daughter of Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas. Two years later he stood for Parliament for Cambridgeshire. At that time the Earls of Hardwicke (the Yorke family), and the Dukes of Rutland dominated politics in Cambridgeshire and shared the two County seats. When Viscount Royston became Earl of Hardwicke in 1764, he left the Commons but could not find a Yorke willing to take on the 'family seat', so gave his support to Sir Sampson Gideon who fought (or more precisely, bought) Thomas Brand of Bedford for the place. The second seat, of course, was always for the Rutland nominee. Gideon paid Brand £1,000 and bought him off. He duly became MP for Cambridgeshire and was again elected, with Hardwicke's support, in 1774. At the election of 1780, however, young Philip Yorke wished to take up the Hardwicke seat and of course, did so. Although the Government of the day favoured Gideon and Yorke, rather than Manners, Rutland's candidate, Hardwicke dared not support Gideon for fear of losing Rutland's friendship. Gideon refused to withdraw (although he had originally promised his patron that he would do so if ever the Hardwickes desired to resume their traditional place) and insisted on fighting the seat. It became very expensive, Gideon was always prepared (and equipped) to spend heavily to get what he wanted. It is said that the three candidates spent over £50,000 on the election. think of what that represents in modern cash terms and you are up in the millions. However, the result was that Lord Robert Manners won 1,741 votes, Philip Yorke 1,455, and Sir Sampson Gideon cantered in third with 1,038. Undismayed he offered his name and his money elsewhere, and was an MP for Midhurst in Sussex before moving to the City of Coventry in 1784. There Gideon stood with his brother in law, John Wilmot, as supporters of the Younger Pitt against the Fox-North coalition, the 'Unholy Alliance'. The records of that City show Gideon in the same light as in Cambridge, using heavy bribery and bottomless expenses to obtain his election. The cartooning was savage and the expenditure lavish over the 15 days of the poll but, with the Treasury patronage to assist, Gideon and Wilmot were successful over 'Lord Shuffle' (Sheffield) and 'Gonaway' (Conway) as the lampoons called them. At the end of that Parliament Gideon's firm support of the Government was rewarded. In 1798, perhaps angered by the many scurrilous and crude comments about his Jewish origin in the recent elections, Sir Sampson Gideon assumed, by sign manual, the surname of Eardley. At the beginning of the following year His Majesty the King made him Lord Eardley, 1st Baron Spalding, in the Irish Peerage.
It is difficult to see why the Masonic appointment was made in 1796, except for Eardley's position in the County and his undoubted wealth and prestige. Unlike his successors he was not a Cambridge but an Oxford Varsity man, though he did send his son up to Caius in 1819. Since his son was already a graduate of 'The Other Place', it does suggest he felt Cambridge must have something special. He does not seem to have left any mark as an active Mason, though this is not surprising by the standards of the time. There were, at most, but four Lodges extant in Cambridgeshire at that period and Lane's 'Register of Lodges' does not record any for Huntingdonshire, which was thought to be included in Eardley's Patent, although the Patent book at Grand Lodge gives only Cambridgeshire.
Scientific Lodge No. 88 (Constituted 1754) was working then, under the number 106, the sixth number it had held. Having moved its base of operations from the Robin Hood Club in Butcher Row, near Temple Bar, to Peele's Coffee House in Fleet Street, it transferred to The Three Tuns in Peas Hill, Cambridge, and thence to The Black Bear. In 1762 there was a scandalous row in the Lodge, when one group with the Warrant migrated to The Sun, while some, with the records, books and jewels, remained loyal to The Black Bear. In the fullness of time Grand Lodge ruled that the Lodge at The Sun was the only regular warranted Lodge in Cambridge. It was several years before the breach was healed and the independent Lodge ceased to compete. The Lodge declared with great emphasis (in 1762) that their jewels and records had been STOLEN, and solemnly resolved that, having reason the believe that some members of the Lodge or other masons were involved, 'such mason or masons be for ever excluded this Lodge and that their name or names be made known to Grand Lodge and at the bottom of every summons shall be mentioned these words - "Beware of Cambridge Cowans"'. Lane shows that the Lodge was erased in 1786 but reinstated at the Eagle & Child, Cambridge, in 1791. Fortunately, a 'zealous and expert workman', one Brother James Grubb, remained steadfastly loyal throughout the years when there were but three or four members and the Lodge did not officially exist, and his loyalty has preserved the records and continuity of the Lodge. In those records, however, there is no reference whatsoever to Lord Eardley, thus seeming the confirm the suggestion that he was never an active 'Provincial'.
The Lodge which started at The Club Inn, Bridge Street, Wisbech, in 1764 was also operating, under the title of Philharmonic Lodge, though it disappeared well before the Union, being erased in 1811. It was based at The Red Lion Inn when Eardley was appointed. In 1791 they had a well-publicised celebratory meeting with the Officers of 'the Cambridge Lodge' (presumably the Scientific Lodge). The Cambridge Chronicle of July 16th 1791, reports that
'On Tuesday sennight the Phil-harmonic Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, attended by the Officers of the Cambridge Lodge, assembled at The Bell Inn in Ely' (the Lodge was based at The Bell from 1783-93 before returning to The Red Lion) 'to celebrate their patron, it being Old St. John's Day, from whence they proceeded to Fordham, a distance of about none miles, with a grand band of music playing before them. The concourse of people in the streets, and at their windows, was very numerous and the satisfaction they expressed added not a little to the joyous occasion. At Fordham the brethren partook of the festive board, at which place they were joined by many gentlemen of the neighbourhood who all seemed to vie who shewed them the most respect. In the evening they retired to their Lodge at Ely, where liberality, conviviality and harmony, the known characteristics of the society, closed this auspicious day.'
It seems that retiring to Fordham for a service of thanksgiving and a bun-fight is quite an old tradition in the Province. No car-parking problem then of course. But where did they put the band?
The Cambridge New Lodge, later called the School of Plato Lodge, was three years old in 1796 and sending regular returns to Grand Lodge. It was not erased from the Register for a further 53 years, probably reaching its greatest significance in the days of George Adam Browne. In Whittlesea (sic) a forerunner of St. Andrew's Lodge, St. Andrew's Lodge of Moral Reformation may have been in existence in 1796, but it is most unlikely. It received a re-issued warrant in 1809 and the only return in Grand Lodge is dated 1810, but the warrant itself, as issued to Lodge No. 361, is dated 1761. the Lodge was not actually erased until George Browne was in office, but erasure often followed many years after real demise. The Province was hardly a hot-bed of Masonry. It did have one distinction however, so far as early Freemasonry is concerned. The 'Antients' didn't penetrate to any extent. Dermott's 'Ahiman Rezon', the Antients' equivalent to Anderson's Constitutions, lists Lodge No. 135, a Lodge in the Isle of Ely, as being established in 1765. It is listed by the Antients down to just before the Union, but there appears to be no evidence of its continued existence, or any returns or record of meetings. Still there was and Antients' Lodge started there in '65 and - apart from a very short lived Military Lodge, Cambridgeshire Militia Lodge under Antients' warrant No. 327 - it remains the only toehold they ever gained in this Province of Cambridgeshire. Our 'Ancient Brethren' of Scientific Lodge resolved stoutly in June of 1767 'that no Antient Masons be admitted members of this Lodge', so presumably there were one or two known or believed to be about!
So what was there for Lord Eardley to do? Very little, would seem to be the answer. Mind you, his appointment may have produced a short lived burst of enthusiasm, since the Social Lodge, with the number 567, was founded at The Hoop Inn in Sidney Street in 1797. there is no evidence to suggest that Eardley constituted it or was involved. However it didn't last long and was eventually erased in 1809. Also, in King's Lynn, a warrant was issued for the Lodge of Strict Benevolence No. 553 in the year of Eardley's appointment. Because it was believed, at the time, that the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 prevented the granting of new warrants, the warrant was reassigned to Wisbech in 1805. The last King's Lynn admission entry is dated 1799 and the next is a Wisbech entry for 1805, at The Vine Inn. The returns preserved in Grand Lodge are only from 1806 to 1811, but it is possible that the Lodge operated from 1797. However, it would be a Norfolk lodge until 1805 and it was certainly Consecrated by Sir Edward Astley, PGM of Norfolk from 1785. Thanks to a sturdy brother named William Bell there remains both a human and a material connection between that old Lodge and the Lodge of United Good Fellowship, No. 809. (See under T.H. Hall) Wm. Bell was able to attend the Consecration of 809 in 1860 and the banner of the Astley's, which was part of the Lodge Furniture then, apparently came with him.
There is nothing, however, to suggest that Lord Eardley ever held a Provincial Grand Lodge or appointed Provincial Officers, other than a Deputy in the person of the Revd George Adam Browne. It is only the Calendar in Grand Lodge which suggests this, listing Browne as Deputy from 1812. One can only assume that Browne was 'Deputy' in the same way an absentee Rector left his parish to a Curate. I can find no evidence that Eardley ever visited a Lodge in Cambridgeshire or in Huntingdonshire. We know that the Baron joined the Lodge of Antiquity No. 1 in 1810 but the Union (1813) saw his Lodge re-numbered as No. 2, following the agreed drawing of lots. After that Lord Eardley seems to have dropped out completely and there is no Masonic activity of any sort that has been recorded at Grand Lodge. He died at the age of 76 in 1824. Browne remained the sole Masonic authority locally from 1812 to 1843.