The Unlawful Societies Act of 1799

Although the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 is often mentioned in Masonic scholarship, some nuances remain.

The background is that the American Revolution 1775 – 83; the French Revolution 1789 -1814; and, the 1798 Revolt of the United Irishmen, by virtue of apparent ‘masonic organisational form’ [1], seemingly, implicated Freemasonry in rebellion.  

But’s what’s wrong with that?  Provided that no other crime was committed, The Constitutions of the Freemasons protected a rebellious Mason from lodge expulsion.   

The Charges of a Freemason II. Of the CIVIL MAGISTRATE supreme and subordinate conclude,


If a Brother should be a Rebel against the State, he is not to be countenanc’d in his Rebellion, however he may be pitied as an unhappy Man; and if convicted of no other Crime, though the loyal Brotherhood must and ought to disown his Rebellion, and give no Umbrage or Ground of political Jealousy to the Government for the time being; they cannot expel him from the Lodge, and his Relation to it remains indefeasible.

Portrait of the Right Honourable William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) after 1806, copy of a original of 1804.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, however, enough of Freemasonry was more than enough.

That American Colonists had successfully revolted against British hegemony was not unnoticed in Ireland.

Britain had been at war with Napoleon for seven years and dissident Irish were inviting the French to invade England, via Ireland, to enable Irish fighting men to swell the numbers of the French military.

Pitt’s Unlawful Societies Act sought to proscribe Freemasonry.

This could be regarded as somewhat strange as the ‘Modern’s’ Grand Master was the Prince of Wales (acting Grand Master, the Earl of Moira) and the ‘Antients’ were led by the Duke of Atholl.

Neither students nor militant trade unionists – hardly stereotypical rebels!

However, under a cloak of respectability and confidentiality, Masonic lodges may well, by accident or design, have provided ‘cover’ for those with seditious intent. (In depth GPC candidate interviews were yet to arrive!)

George Augustus Frederick (12 August 1762 – 26 June 1830) Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, 1790-1813
IMAGE credit:  King George IV when Prince of Wales as Colonel of the tenth Light Dragoons. Photogravure, 1905. – Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Seal used by Premier Grand Lodge of England, J. Ramsden Riley – Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha Vol VIII 1891
IMAGE linked:  wikimedia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl, Grand Master of the Ancient Grand Lodge of England 1791-1812. Engraving by Charles Knight, after John Hoppner.
IMAGE linked:  wikimedia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Seal used by the Antient Grand Lodge, J. Ramsden Riley – Quatuor Coronatorum Antigrapha Vol VIII 1891
IMAGE linked:  wikimedia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Obviously, the above mentioned grand personages were more than a match for their critics, including a Prime Minister.

The Unlawful Societies Act begged a deal: Atholl was the Grand negotiator [2].

Thus in the Unlawful Societies Act, 39 Geo III Chapter 79, Freemasonry was given explicit legal recognition; and implicitly, established a ‘relationship’ between Freemasonry and the State [3].

Seemingly, the ‘deal’ required the inviolable Charges of a Freemason to be amended! In subsequent publications of the Book of Constitutions, the ‘indefeasibility’ paragraph was dropped.

No longer any protection for the rebellious Mason! That sections of the ‘Antient Charges’ can be ‘dropped’ as required, augurs well for a 21st Century Masonic mind-set. 

As is well known, the Act, required lodges to make annual returns, to local magistrates, of their members’ names, abodes and status’/professions.

It is also well known that this requirement was formally repealed in 1967.

However, what is not well known is that in September 1940, the Grand Secretary wrote to lodges advising them that returns were no longer necessary; this, twenty-seven years before the repeal!

What political processes were involved? Who authorised the Grand Secretary thus to write? What we do know is that the Monarch and Prime Minister were both Freemasons. (You might think so, I couldn’t possibly comment!) 

Further deatils:  Unlawful Societies Act of 1799


[1]  Andrew Prescott, A History of British Freemasonry 1425-2000, University of Sheffield, 20 February 2006.

[2]  Andrew Prescott ‘1799 Unlawful Societies Act’, The Canonbury Papers, Vol. 1.

[3] Diane Clements, Freemasonry Today (Summer 2009) …‘the provision included in the 1799 Act was the first statutory acknowledgement in the UK of the existence of Freemasonry and formed the basis of the relationship between Freemasonry and the state’.

Article by: Gerald Reilly

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