Thursday 18th October 2018. A glorious autumn day at the seaside. Just over two weeks ago I had been here to witness the Installation of Neil Johnstone as our new Provincial Grand Master. Now I was back again at the Winter Gardens, along with a couple of hundred other “dark blues” – that’s shorthand for Provincial Grand Officers and above – for the twice-yearly meeting of the Provincial Officers’ Mess. The Mess is open to all masons who have received Provincial honours. It’s a friendly, informal gathering – dress code is jacket and tie – and you get a meal (which you pay for), a chance to gossip, and an update on important matters affecting the Province.
Firstly, of course, the inner man. We sat down to lunch at one o’clock. For the carnivores, the main course was braised steak, beautifully succulent, melt-in-the-mouth stuff. “That’s the best meal I’ve ever had at an Officers’ Mess”, one of my table companions was heard to say.
After we had enjoyed coffee, and the last of the red wine, the Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies, Andy Stevens, introduced the Mess President, Neil Johnstone himself. It’s Neil’s job to conduct the formal part of the proceedings. He began by commenting on the usefulness of the Mess meetings, and stated that he always went away from them with more knowledge than he had had before. After dealing with Apologies, he asked the Mess Secretary, Phil South, in the absence of the Mess Treasurer, William Daniels, to second adoption of the Accounts for the previous year. The Accounts had already been sent to all Mess members, and, as there were no comments, they were approved. Phil thanked William for all his hard work, and a Vote of Thanks was duly recorded.
Now it was the turn of the President himself to address us. He said that, with the Mess meeting coming so rapidly after his Installation meeting, we had probably heard quite enough from him, and he would be brief. He hoped that most of us had enjoyed the Installation (I certainly had!). He commented on his meteoric rise from Worshipful Brother to Right Worshipful Brother and now to President. Laughter all around. He thanked the Provincial Grand Secretary, Phil South, and the Provincial Grand Director of Ceremonies, Andy Stevens, for all their hard work for the Installation. Applause.
Neil stated that he had “inherited a Province undergoing substantial change”. Among the items uppermost in his mind were a keenness to develop Masonic Centres to make them more attractive, to put a greater emphasis on communications and membership, and to develop further people’s perceptions of Freemasonry. And, as always, there was the continued emphasis on supporting charities, including, of course, the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) at national level and the Cornwallis East Kent Freemasons’ Charity (CEKFC) in the Province. “Good,” I thought. “He’s clearly got his mind focussed on what he wants.”
Neil then introduced the Guest Speaker, Les Hutchinson, Chief Operating Officer of the MCF. Les began by saying that this was his second visit to Margate in less than a fortnight, and still no stick of rock. Laughter. Les went on to explain that the MCF had been newly constituted in December 2015, and it had made “manic progress” ever since. Currently following a comprehensive five-year strategy, its core values were:
- responsiveness to need
- to make a difference
- to always strive for excellence
The MCF aimed to be a listening and inclusive organisation, and would continue to work closely with Provincial, Lodge and Chapter Charity Stewards. It wished to show compassion and dedication to society as a whole, and had already donated almost £5.5 million to external charities.
The MCF was now one of the biggest charities in the UK. It had attained a high degree of professionalism, was easier to contact, and had set in place a faster and more efficient process for those in need.
To give us an idea of the size and effectiveness of the MCF, Les reeled off some impressive statistics. In the last year, enquiries nationally had exceeded 9,000, resulting in the payment of over 7,000 grants to over 4,000 Freemasons and their families, the total sum exceeding £12 million. 269 of these grants were made to beneficiaries in our Province, the total sum exceeding £422,000.
And what about payments outside Freemasonry? In that same year, MCF received 2,582 applications from charities spread across England and Wales. After due diligence and detailed consideration, they paid 453 separate grants, totalling almost £5.5 million. Four of the charities were based in East Kent, and they received a total of £105,000.
And there was more (phew – this guy certainly knows his stuff, I thought). Legacies were running at £4.8 million a year, grants were being given to support nearly a thousand places in care homes, and there were currently twelve Festival Appeals up and running for the MCF. And to round it off, there was now an MCF Unit Trust: the Masonic Charitable Foundation Strategic Investment Fund. And all the money came from us Freemasons. Reasons to be proud!
To applause, the President thanked Les for a most interesting and informative address.
And so to the final item on the agenda: “Any other business”. Since we had had a Guest Speaker, there was no other business, apart from the reminder that the next Mess meeting would be on Thursday 21st March 2019: same place, same time – and, hopefully, same weather.
Richard Eastwood, Provincial Senior Grand Warden, then proposed a Vote of Thanks to the President. He hoped that Neil’s professional experience in disaster and recovery management wouldn’t be called upon too often in the Province (laughter) and thanked him for his dedication and selflessness as our new PGM. Applause.
At just after 3 pm, the President retired from the Hall and the meeting concluded. Just time for a final chat to one or two friends, and out into the warm afternoon sunshine. Another excellent, convivial occasion. Well done, chaps!
Report by John Ray