The Confectioner’s Wife, Barber’s Daughter, Sisters in Caernarvon and Other Early Women Operative Masons

Stack of books croppedBy Karen Kidd, PM
(I speak only for me)
Sometimes an obvious lie is reason enough for me to find an archive, scratch up the resources to go visit that archive and then spend hours studying the archive to confirm what I already knew: the lie really is a lie.

When your niche history is women Freemasons, as it is mine, there are plenty of lies to be investigated. It seems to be my job in the 21st century, when a lot of history is being rewritten because of lies told in the not-all-that-distant past (thanks, Victorians). It doesn’t pay well but it needs to be done.

Today’s blog is about one lie in particular that is fading away. For generations, so-called scholars and walk-a-day Freemasons on the malecraft side of the Craft too often repeated as fact that women can’t be Freemasons because there were no women among the medieval operative masons, those who built the great cathedrals.

It’s a stupid lie. I could go into many reasons why it’s so stupid but the most glaring reason is that the operative guilds – a number of which remain active (see below) – have never denied the existence of its women members. It’s not a thing for them.

It has been a thing for some Freemasons, even malecraft scholars, who have promulgated this lie. They had their reasons. Ignorance looms large among them but there also was a desire to use this as an excuse – such as it is – to deny the existence of women Freemasons. They did so without buy-in from the operatives.

And the operatives historically, because of this, have not been very happy with Freemasons – including me by association. Not only did we steal their tools (we did) but we’ve also told lies about them; and ignored what efforts they made to correct us (they seem to have largely given up trying to get their tools back). As Freemasons who want to believe this particular lie have shown no especial interest in listening, the eventual attitude of the operatives, in my observation, has been to tell Freemasons “you go do you, leave us alone.”

This has been the state of things for generations as certain Freemasons nourished this peculiar, shared delusion.

That in mind, I recognize that the opportunity I received in the spring of 2017 to review the remaining medieval and enlightenment period membership records of the London Company of Masons, stored in MS 5984 at the Guildhall Library in London, was very special indeed. Getting permission wasn’t easy as I am a Freemason and, so far as the London Company is concerned, I’m somewhat suspect. They did, however, grant me permission.

There were conditions, mostly that I take great care of these documents as they are old and fragile. That meant the usual: white gloves (I brought my own), strings of white beads (the guildhall’s), staying within sight of the eagle-eyed librarians (who kindly pointed me to other documents), be careful where I breath/sneeze/etc., etc.

I also agreed not to publish photos of the records themselves (though I did take lots and lots of photos that I’m allowed to privately share), so the picture above of the bound records is the best I can do for this blog. I’m grateful for that much.

Not that I didn’t already know names of other operative women masons. I did. Just to name a few . . .

– (My personal favorite) “Gunnilda the Mason” of Norwich, mentioned in Calendar of Close Rolls for the year 1256.

– Four woman listed among the laboring, or “rough”, class of Masons in Caernarvon, for whom payments were recorded in about 1337. Rough Masons did the hardest work at the site. These four women Masons were Juliana filia fabri (Juliana, daughter of the smith), Emmota filia fabri (Emmota, daughter of the smith), Elena de Engoland (Elena of England) and Juliana uxor Ade (Juliana, wife of Ade). Juliana and Emmota, based on their contiguous position in the payment list and that bother were daughters of “the smith,” probably were sisters

We also have records of women operative masons whose names are not given. Clauses in the 1389 Certificate of the Guild of Masons at Lincoln refer repeatedly to sisters as well as brothers. Records of the Corpus Christi Guild at York charge apprentices to swear to obey “the Master, or Dame, or any other Freemason.”

I also knew the name of one woman (well, a teenager) operative mason that I expected to see – and did see – in the London Company’s records. She was Mary Banister, daughter of a barber in Barking, Essex, and her existence had been mentioned by a very few Freemasonic scholars who didn’t buy into the lie about her existence (and were generally ignored for their trouble).

I knew Mary Banister was not the daughter of a mason. Her father was a baker and she was not married when she paid 4 pounds 6 shillings to be apprenticed (same as was habitually charged male apprentices at the time) on 12 Feb 1713. That’s about all I knew about her before I saw the records for myself.

I now know her father was George Banister and that Mary Banister was bound to London Company master John Sumner. The London Company records actually contain two documents about Mary Banister’s binding. She is the only apprentice listed for Sumner in the London Company records I examined. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have other apprentices, the record is not completely preserved, but it is notable that no others are listed for him as one would expect.

I’ve never been able to find anything more about Mary Banister outside the London Company’s records, despite the wealth of genealogical information available online and off. Perhaps that will change one day; or I’ll pay a visit to Essex.

On the same page that records Mary Banister’s binding also is the binding of Richard Noals to his mother, Mary Noals, in January of 1714. Mary Noals was the widow of a Mason, as were many of the women listed in the company’s records, but she clearly was skilled enough to take on her son as an apprentice. Mary Noals also had enough cred with the London Company to be included in the “masters and mistresses” column of its rolls.

That said, some of the widows listed in the membership rolls clearly were not themselves Masons and, as such, usually are listed as acting on behalf of their husbands’ estates. However, those nonoperative women are easily differentiated from those, like Mary Noals, who knew how to handle the tools.

Another widow, Anna Barnes, took on her son as an apprentice on 28 Aug. 1713. In June of 1715, she took on another apprentice, John Barton.

Mary Easton is listed on four pages, which provide us with an unusual outline of her life. We first meet her via her husband, Robert Easton, on 19 April 1705 when he took on Clement William, a tailor’s son, as an apprentice. We see her again on 14 June 1727, by which time she is a widow, when she takes on Robert Green, a basket maker’s son, as an apprentice.

On 14 June 1729, by Mary Easton apprenticed Henry Daintry, the son of a London “victualler,” (The person who person who supplies food, beverages and other provisions for the crew of a vessel headed out to sea). On 6 Sept 1734, Mary Easton took on what may have been her last apprentice, Thomas Morris, the son of a deceased mason. Which is brow raising.

Presumably, a mason would not place his/her child as an apprentice with just any mason and Mary Easton wasn’t the only woman mason in the London Company records to take on a mason’s child. Susanna Munton, who lived in Ivory Street Aldgate, apprenticed John Brocket on 9 Nov 1786. Brocket was the son of London Mason William Brocket who, unlike Thomas Morris’ father, still was living.

It seems the younger Brocket could have been apprenticed to his father but he wasn’t. His father must have known Munton, which suggests a strong working relationship. No fee is listed, so maybe Susanna took on this apprentice without a fee. Which could lead to some speculation about how strong her working relationship was with the elder Brocket but the remaining record tells us little else. Maybe, one day, we will know more.

Like Mary Banister, not all apprentices are male. Sisters Catherine and Elizabeth Undershaft, daughters of wood salter George, who had died, were apprenticed five days apart in April 1767 to George Freshwater.

The London Company also records woman masters who took on female apprentices. One of these was Susanna Twiss, daughter of Shrewsbury cloth merchant John Twiss, to Frances, widow of Richard Holt, on 28 March 1751. John Twiss had died before his daughter was apprenticed.

I could drone on a while listing one operative woman mason after another, I found enough women members in the London Company records to fill up several pages, but I’d rather this blog not turn into a list. I’ll mention only a couple more.

In my opinion, the most interesting woman mason listed in the London Company of Masons membership rolls is Mary Latour. Her husband, René, was not a mason. René Latour was a confectioner by trade and “bottle groom” to William III.

I don’t know what a bottle groom did in the time of William III and it does seem to be something of a mystery. Even my inquiry to the Royal Collection Trust has failed to resolve the mystery, though one guess I’ve heard is that this person kept a bottle of wine handy in case the king wanted to imbibe. In any case, the position appears to have been honorary, it seems this was more of an excuse to pay René Latour a stipend to keep him on side, rather than give him an actual job to do.

Not that it didn’t pay well. The remaining record indicates René Latour was paid £54 per year, which was not a small sum at the time, and his office answered to the king’s groom of the horse. René Latour died in 1702.

The London Company’s records don’t record how Mary Latour came to be an operative mason in her own right but she clearly did. On 8 October 1714, in her 12th year as a confectioner’s widow, she took on her son, also René, as an apprentice.

Almost two years later, on 24 September 1716, she took on another apprentice, Henry Rogers, the son of a joiner, itself an indication of how closely stone masons worked with wood carpenters.

That Mary Latour had two apprentices with no evidence of a Mason working in her stead – that she didn’t need another mason working in her own stead – is clear evidence of the obvious: that Mary Latour was an operative mason in her own right. No lie will undo her existence and the truth eventually wins out.

Mary Latour was, however, a member of the London Company at a time when membership was beginning a long, slow decline. The cathedral building period was over and there was no longer so much work available for masons.

The last woman mason I noted in the London Company records was Mary Simpson, widow of John Simpson, who apprenticed Robert Staning on 15 June 1805 and her son, John Simpson, on 9 January 1812. The latter date suggests Mary Simpson’s son was very young when her husband died.

Mary Simpson’s inclusion in the London Company’s records precedes a period when the company dropped the word “Mistresses” from the “Master and Mistresses” column in its record. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when but it documents a very important point in human, as well as masonic and Freemasonic, history. There had been a change in attitude toward women’s work that could be its own paper and women began to find themselves more firmly excluded from various professions.

There’s no reason to suppose that the London Company of Masons restricted its membership based on gender. Instead, it seems that there came a generation in which social conventions arose that caused the number of such women to drop, that human beings in general decided on a stricter division of labor based on sex. The London Company of Masons didn’t cause those social conventions, its records are simply one indication that it happened.

Which points up the real reason behind the lie I was investigating. Women were not excluded from Freemasonry because there had been no operative women masons. They were excluded because social conventions developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that were adopted by Freemason en masse and elsewhere in life that created a belligerence toward women in professional and social life.

That is a more difficult and certainly less sexy reason to explain women’s exclusion but it’s true, notwithstanding.

Most of the women on my list are from the English-speaking world and I won’t make any apologies for that. I don’t speak other languages especially well and I really don’t have the skills or resources to scour archives in other languages.

That said, my own Anglo-centric research has turned up early women masons, which suggest women masons existed at the time in other parts of the world. This, of course, requires they be looked for, recognized and no longer ignored but I won’t be doing that any time soon.

That said, I think I’ve done well considering almost all of my sources have been primary (I’m not generally building on the work of other scholars) and it has taken a considerable amount of resources to do what I’ve done. So if you want to go find operative women masons documented in not-English speaking parts of the world, you go do that 🙂

There’s plenty of modern operative masonic history to occupy me as well. In April, fire broke out beneath the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral in Paris, which was built by medieval stone masons. As mentioned above, I have not gone looking for lists of early stone masons outside the English-speaking world but there’s every reason to believe women were include among the operatives who built Notre-Dame.

With its destruction, stone masons are in demand for its rebuilding. And, of course, this group of highly skilled workers who know how to wield a mallet and chisel includes women. It seems no one is now bothering to deny that truth.

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