The Cable Tow Unbound

The Cable Tow: Its Origins, Symbolism, & Significance for Freemasons – While there have been a number interpretations of the symbolism of the cable tow, the most common explanation that one tends to hear… is the bond or tie between the initiate and the brethren of the lodge.

However, to me the cable tow has a more powerful meaning and is related to the statement: “Tomorrow will be the same as today, unless you do something different today than you did yesterday”…

How did I come to remove the veil of allegory regarding the cable tow to come to this conclusion?

The response of a newly initiated brother undergoing examination in the Alberta Canadian Rite Work on being asked to: “Describe the mode of your preparation” contains the statement – with a Cable Tow around my Neck, WM.

While there have been a number interpretations of the symbolism of the cable tow, the most common explanation that one tends to hear, if one steps away from initial use and explanation from the Work, is the bond or tie between the initiate and the brethren of the lodge. 

However, to me the cable tow has a more powerful meaning and is related to the statement: Tomorrow will be the same as today, unless you do something different today than you did yesterday.

The apprentice on joining a lodge takes the first step in doing something different on the day he joins, thus paving the way for making tomorrow different, and we trust better than today.

And that first step, the beginning of a journey that will make his tomorrows, better for himself, his family, his community, and his country.

How did I come to remove the veil of allegory regarding the cable tow to come to this conclusion?


The term cable tow seems have strong Masonic origins; and probably was derived from the word tow-line or towline.

In Joseph Fort Newton’s Short Talks on Masonry, [Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Inc. Richmond Virginia page 75]. The Cable-Tow he states: 

“Even in Masonic lore the word cable-tow varies in form and use. In an early pamphlet by Prichard, issued in 1730, and meant to be an exposure of Masonry, the cable-tow is called a “cable-rope”; and in another edition a “tow-line”.

The same word “tow-line” is used in pamphlet called A Defence of Masonry, written, it is believed, by Anderson as a reply to Prichard about the same time.”

While the meaning of the word tow-line is a rope or cable used in towing, as explained in the following references: The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 1975, & Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary, 1975, under the entry for tow contains the following:

v.t. 1. To pull or drag by a rope, chain, etc.

2. To drag or pull along.

n. 1. The act of towing, or the state of being towed.

2. That which is towed, as barges by a tugboat.

3. That which tows, as a tugboat.

4. A rope or cable used in towing; towline.


Whereas The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1976, indicates for tow:

1. v.t. (Of vessel, horse on bank, etc.) pull (boat, barge, etc.) along in water by rope or chain; (of vehicle) pull another running behind it: pull (person, thing) along behind one.

2. n. Towing or being towed: take or have in or on tow.

3. – line, – rope, used in towing.

If we now set the stage at the time when our rituals were being written and rewritten, we know that England was undergoing what is called the Industrial Revolution, the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society.

The Industrial Revolution started in the mid to late18th century. Canals and later railways and steamships provided the necessary transportation system that linked the industrial cities with sources of supply and markets.

Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Burton on Trent, Leicester, Oxford, Reading, London are just a few of the many such communities. [refers to major industrial cities in the United Kingdom]

Referring to the reference The Timetables of History we note the following events:

  • Formation of the Freemasons Grand Lodge, The Moderns, 1717, page 329,
  • Work begun on the Forth-Clyde Canal 1768-1790, page 355,
  • Building of the Firth-Clyde and Oxford-Birmingham canals begins1790, page 367,
  • First horse-drawn railroad constructed in England 1795, page 371,
  • Building of the Caledonian Canal begins 1803, page 377,
  • “Luddites” destroy industrial machines in North England, 1811, page 381,
  • Formation of the United Grand Lodge of England 1813, page 383,
  • Regent’s Canal, London, constructed, 1820, page 387.
  • Rudolf Diesel patterns his internal combustion engine, 1892, page 447.

Initially, a horse pulled the canal boats, via a towline attached to the mast of the canal boat.

The horse was led by the boatman, or family member, along the side of the canal on the towpath (Plate 1.)

The boat later, when the railways became serious competition for the canals, became the home of the boatman and his family.

Plate 1. Foxton Flight, Leicester Section, Grand Union Canal, circa 1908. This staircase of locks at Foxton was originally built in 1812, but in 1900 an inclined plane was built to replace them. This proved unsuccessful however and the refurbished locks reopened to traffic in 1908. From a painting by Alan Firth.

Tunnels were particularly interesting. When the boat came to a tunnel a plank was extended cross wise on the boat and the boat was “legged” through the tunnel and the horse was walked over the top. (Plate 2.)

Plate 2. Shrewley Tunnel, Grand Union Canal, circa 1910. Opened in 1799 with the completion of the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, Shrewley is remarkable for the separate tunnel for the towpath which necessitated ‘legging’ the narrow boats through the main tunnel. From a painting by Alan Firth.

As with any canal system, locks make up an integral part of the canal.

Locks allow the boats to move up or down from one part of the canal to another part of the canal with a different elevation.

The movement of cargo via canal boat, while easier than by road, required the involvement of the entire boatman’s family.

Great advances were taking place during the Industrial Revolution.

In time, a diesel motor replaced the canal horse. With the diesel motor it was found that a canal boat, the motor, could pull another canal boat, the butty.

Usually, but not always, the man operated the motor and the wife the butty.

However, the movement of 70-foot butty or canal boat with no motor and no horse, resulted in the boating family or canal people pulling the boat into locks, loading docks, and moorings.

Sonia Rolt’s book A Canal People, The Photographs of Robert Longden, clearly illustrates this part of the daily work of the canal people, which date form the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Plate 3. Mr. and Mrs. Sid Gibbons with Sid Jnr, very much intrigued by the camera and sitting on the cabin top. He may be harnessed for safety. The breasted-up boats have come for orders and Mrs. Sid (nee Littlemore) leans on her tiller to help the turn that the boats are to make. Everything is a point, and all looks relaxed and cheerful. Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden

Plate 4. With barely a change, except for the season, the same family boats, now loaded, are hauled cheerfully towards the camera and into the Oxford lock. Mrs. Sid Gibbons is with her daughter May and Georgie Hambridge: they were later married. On the left side is little Sid who, in the last plate, sat on the cabin top in more congenial and summery conditions. Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden

Plate 5. The dancing trio of cousins approaching the Oxford lock is Lucy Humphries, Rene Carter and Georgie Humphries, known as ‘Bucky’. They are pulling a boat to the lock alongside one of the few whitewashed houses in the group at Suttons, which was later demolished. Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden.

Plate 6. The slog of a hard pull at the bottom of Hillmorton locks near Rugby. The scour from the emptying lock made ‘the bottom to near the top’ along the towpath where the pull had to be made. It looks as if two pairs are working “butty’ – that is, friends helping each other. Both boats in the picture are butties and the motors are already in or entering the paired locks out of sight. Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden.

Plate 7. A friendly non-professional demonstrates how not to get maximum purchase on a tow. Peter Molony, Sonia and George Smith haul loaded butty Warwick into the Oxford lock. Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden.

Plate 8. A fine study of effective but relaxed physical effort. The pull is from the masthead. Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden.

These pictures clearly show the origin of the towline or the Masonic Cable Tow and its frequent position around the neck.

These pictures were taken at the very end of the canal boat commercial era.

However, these scenes together with those involving horses and towlines would have been part of daily life for every man during the early 1800s in England.


The preparation of a candidate for Freemasonry is steeped in tradition, with undertones of equality, obligation, duty, and commitment.

The use of the Cable Tow is explained to the candidate after he has taken his obligation.

The initial reaction to the explanation may be, or was to me, somewhat doubtful, but possibly plausible given the historic setting or theatrical nature of the ceremony.

This doubt about the underlying symbolism of the Cable Tow seemed to be unanswered in many of the Masonic texts and references.

At best, the explanations offered revolved around the question: How long is your Cable Tow? or the commitment by a member to his lodge and his brethren in the time of need.

Frequently, along with the discussion there is reference to actual lengths of a Cable Tow.

For completeness, if one refers to the Sonia Rolt & Robert Longden photograph, Plate No. 4, one can estimate the length of the Cable Tow.

On the assumption the boat is 70 feet long and the mast is at the 1/3 position (23’), that May Gibbons is approximately 6’ ahead of the boat, that Mrs Sid Gibbons, Georgie Hambridge, and May Gibbons each occupy 4’ of line (12’), and Mrs Sid Gibbons is holding 10 coils of line, with each coil having a diameter of 1’3” (39’) the total length of the towline shown is about 80 feet.

I am sure that in reality the length of the towline would vary with the tow, canal & tow path dimensions, owner preference, wear and tear, etc.

The symbolism of the Cable Tow, to me, is the burden of an uneducated life.

Just as the candidate is uneducated as he takes the first steps to join a lodge and by taking the responsibility to follow a well-regulated course of physical and educational activities that the burden of an uneducated life begins to be lifted and the Cable Tow removed.

From these pictures I am reminded that the cable tow will be about my neck tomorrow unless I take the initiative to do something different today to remove it.

And most assuredly the best I can do today to remove the cable tow about my neck or reduce the effects of life’s burdens is to educate myself.


The state of Freemasonry in Alberta has been well documented by Henderson.

In 1996 the membership was reported as 9308. The Grand Lodge Proceedings from 2005 indicate the number of members as 7861.

Which is a decline in membership of just over 7% per year.

In order to reduce and reverse this declining trend our meetings need improving.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that there needs to be a greater emphasis on the friendship of lodge members, the quality of the meetings, and the commitment by members to attend and support their lodge and brethren.

The significance of the Cable Tow for Freemasons today is that tomorrow’s meetings are going to be the same as today’s meetings, unless we do something different today than we did yesterday.

And therefore, we must educate ourselves regarding the interaction between people, improve our planning techniques for our meetings, increase the level of enjoyment each of our members receives from attending meetings, and being responsible for our level of enthusiasm when attending our lodge.

Further Reading:

The remarkable life of Sonia Rolt



A Canal People, The Photographs of Robert Longden, Sonia Rolt, Sutton Publishing, British Waterways, & The Inland Waterways Association, 1997.

Millennial Masonry, Kent Henderson, Global Masonic Publications, Williamstown, Victoria Australia, 2002.

Short Talks on Masonry, Joseph Fort Newton, Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Inc. Richmond, Virginia, 1969.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Sixth Edition, J. B. Sykes, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1976.

The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, Including Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary, The Readers Digest Association, Inc. Pleasantville, New York, 1975.

The Timetables of History, Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, New York, 1975

Article by: Chris E. Batty

Chris E. Batty was born in the spring of 1945 in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.

He immigrated to Canada early in 1965 with just $45 in his pocket and very little education.

Chris’s interest in Freemasonry stems from his father, who was a member of Bostall Heath Lodge No. 4492, English Constitution.

He has been a Freemason since 1975, served as Worshipful Master of Saskatchewan Lodge No. 92 GRA for the Masonic Year 1982; appointed the Grand Pursivant for the Masonic Year 2001 – 2002; elected as the District Deputy Grand Master for the Northern Lights District for the year 2005 – 2006.

Elected to the Masonic Higher Education Bursary Committee in 2006 and served as the Chairman from 2007 to 2014.

Elected Junior Grand Warden in 2012, and served as SGW, DGM, and the Grand Master for the year 2015 – 2016.

He was appointed as an Honorary Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Saskatchewan in 2015.

And subsequently, an Honorary Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Manitoba in 2017.

A Canal People: The Photographs of Robert Longden

By: Robert Longden (Author) Sonia Rolt (Editor)

During a few brief years in the 1940s and ’50s Robert Longden took a set of photographs of the narrow boat community at Hawkesbury Stop – the main meeting point for those who worked the Midland canals.

The images are of a close community representing them at work, at play and in their domestic affairs, as they lived on the paired and single colourful narrow boats of the time.

They illustrate the close relationship between all ages and types, and the dramatic boat shapes and infrascape of this rural and industrial area.

Sonia Rolt, who herself worked the canals during the period and knew the photographer, provides an introduction, which details not only how Robert Longden came to this involvement but also sets the photographs in the context of their time, the last period when the narrow boats could really be said to play an important part in transporting goods.


Short Talks on Masonry

By: Joseph Fort Newton (Author), Michael A. Smith (Narrator)

Written by Joseph Fort Newton, this book contains short talks and essays written for the Masonic Service Association of North America in its effort to induce Masons to know more about Masonry and to do more with it.

They do not deal with the entire Masonic system, but only with a selection of its symbols – old, familiar, and lovely – at the same time urging the value of Masonry as an asset in the making of better men and the building of a nobler national life.

The audio production was made by arrangement with the MSANA, in hope of bringing the light of this gentle philosophy to a new generation.

©1928 Masonic Service Association (P) 2015 Anaba Publishing, LLC


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