Making a Mason in Prison

We shall be excused by our readers for amusing them with the following anecdote.

All Societies and all Parties were carried away with the ye popular frenzy of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’; and among ye rest, the quiet and peaceable Freemasons came in for their share : —

‘March 3, 1769, ye Members of ye Lodge, held at ye Jerusalem Tavern, in Clerkenwell, attended at the King’s Bench Prison, and made Mr. Wilkes a Mason.’


The Gentleman’s Magazine (a famous newspaper founded in 1731) reported

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Portrait of John Wilkes
IMAGE LINKED:  wellcome collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In Volume 3, Part 1, page 61 of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum we can read that John Wilkes, a journalist and radical politician, was made a Mason on Friday, 3 March 1769. Further, that at his initiation, he was in prison.


Extract from AQC Vol 3, part I, 1890, p. 61.
IMAGE CREDIT:  AQC Attribution


John Wilkes Esq; before the Court of King’s Bench, engraving from The Gentleman’s Magazine for May 1768.

The Jerusalem Tavern 


The Jerusalem Tavern (right) and St Johns Path (left) in Britton Street, Clerkenwell, London. By Chris Wood,
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

So, we know, from this, that John Wilkes was made a Mason by the members of the Jerusalem Tavern’s Lodge in [St John’s Gate] Clerkenwell, London.

But who were they? Lane’s Masonic Records report that the Jerusalem Tavern’s Lodge was a lodge active since  1771.

So were they irregular masons? Probably not, because we know that there was another Jerusalem Lodge which was warranted in 1731, and which changed its meeting place twice as the tavern changed as well.

David Henry was editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1754, after the death of Edward Cave (or Sylvanus Urban as he signed himself).


Front page of The Gentleman’s Magazine, London, May 1759.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The magazine was in fact written and printed in the Jerusalem Tavern itself at St John’s Gate. 

So, we might be forgiven for assuming that the author’s sources must have been accurate.

In 1762, David Henry married the widow of Mr. Newell, formerly the master of the Jerusalem Tavern. So he also owned the tavern where the lodge met.

John Wilkes (17th October 1725 – 26 December 1797), was the son of Israel Wilkes, a malt distiller. He was a journalist and a radical politician.

The AQC paper reports;

“He was a man of shrewd parts, much strengthened by profound Erudition, but it is to be lamented that his genius and talents were shaded by scepticism and licentiousness.”


John Wilkes, Esq., 1763. Etching by William Hogarth (British, 1697-1764), Brooklyn Museum, bequest of Samuel E. Haslett.
IMAGE LINKED:  Brooklyn Museum Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Elected Member of Parliament for Aylesbury in 1757, he created in 1762, a weekly newspaper: The North Briton, which attacked George III and John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute who was then the Prime Minister.   


King George III. Stipple engraving by P.W. Tomkins, 1801..
IMAGE LINKED:  wellcome collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute depicted as a Colossus wearing a tartan scarf about his shoulders stands on two stone pedestals before the tower to St James’s Palace as William Pitt the Elder, leaning on a crutch, pleads with him from below. Engraving, 1767..
IMAGE LINKED:  wellcome collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Wilkes was angry with what he felt were too generous peace terms given to France at the end of the Seven Years’ War.

Great Britain had gained the bulk of New France in North America, Spanish Florida, some Caribbean islands in the West Indies, the colony of Senegal and superiority over the French trading outposts on the Indian subcontinent.

For Wilkes this was still not enough. Even more, Wilkes hated his Prime Minister most for being a Scot!

The name of his newspaper The North Briton was chosen in response to The Briton (a pro-government newspaper published by Tobias Smollet) Wilkes issued his paper only a week after Smollet’s publication.

It was an anonymous paper, but everyone knew that Wilkes was behind it.

So when in the issue number 45 (a symbolic number for the Jacobite movement) The North Briton attacked a royal speech of George III praising the Treaty of Paris, Wilkes and forty eight other people were arrested for seditious libel.

When you read the article, you understand why!


Extract of the North Briton Number 45.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

As a Member of Parliament he was protected by his status and was quickly released.

However, Parliament voted that his privilege from arrest did not extend to the writing and publishing of seditious libels.

Wilkes wisely moved to Paris and didn’t return until 1768.

Re-elected as a Parliament Member he was then arrested and detained at King’s Bench prison. An event which led to the Massacre of St George’s Field on 10 May 1768, where a crowd of 15,000 citizens came to riot (or support) Wilkes and were hunted down by the troops.

Seven people were killed, including one young man, William Allen, mistaken for a rioter. The Irish playwright and government supporter Hugh Kelly made a defence of the government’s right to use force against Wilkes’ supporters.

This in turn led to a riot at the production of Kelly’s new play A Word to the Wise at the Drury Lane Theatre, forcing the production to be abandoned.


St George’s Fields, Southwark: anti-Catholic rioters in the Gordon riots wielding sticks, displaying banners, and setting buildings on fire. Etching, 1780
IMAGE LINKED:  wellcome collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

On 8 June, Wilkes received a twenty-two month sentence for blasphemy and seditious libel, and was expelled from the House of Commons. Naturally, some of his friends tried to help him in many ways – including bringing him into Freemasonry under a dispensation from the Grand Master:


Extract – The Oxford Magazine Or Universal Museum, Volume 2, for March 1769
IMAGE LINKED:  Wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Full page of the Oxford Magazine Or Universal Museum, Volume 2, for March 1769
IMAGE LINKED:  Wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

He was initiated with others such as George Bellas, Lewis Francis Bourgeois, Capt. Reed, and John Churchill.

But, how could an initiation ceremony have been performed in a prison?  Part of the answer was given by J. M. Hamill to Cecile Révauger in their correspondence where he said:

Denslow, in his 10000 Famous Freemasons, is correct in stating that John Wilkes was initiated by members of the Jerusalem Lodge n°44. What is problematical is whether the event took place in prison or whether John Wilkes was allowed out on parole for the event, as was possible as he was in a debtor’s prison . The press reports of his initiation state that it took place in the prison but this was later denied by the Masonic authorities as holding a meeting in prison was contrary to Masonic rules. The Minute Book of Jerusalem Lodge unfortunately does not state where the meeting took place.   

But the legend has remained and some other papers like the Lloyds Evening Post continued this story.

Lloyd’s Evening Post, also known as Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle, was a British evening newspaper published tri-weekly in London from 1757 to 1808.

Founded shortly after the London Chronicle and similar in format, it came out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, alternating in “friendly rivalry” with the London Chronicle which came out on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.


Lloyd’s Evening Post
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It is though proper to acquaint the Public, that I, in the presence of two grand Officers, and by virtue of a general Dispensation, dated February 2, 1769, signed by the Deputy Grand Master, did make Mr. Wilkes a Free and Accepted Mason. The Dispensation may be seen by any Mason, at the Jerusalem Lodge, No. 44, on a Lodge night.

– Tho. DOSSON, Master.

George Bellas and John Churchill who were also initiated that night were members of a society created only a few days before their initiations: the Society of the Gentleman Supporters of the Bill of Rights, founded on 20 February 1769, and consisting of many Freemasons.

Created three days after the eviction of Wilkes from his new Parliament seat in February, it was;

“primarily to support the political career of John Wilkes, the leadership of the Society, and most notably Rev. John Horn Tooke, subsequently took steps to broaden its aims to include a full program of radical reforms”.

It is certain that the Wilkes’ initiation was a political matter between engaged Masons who were in the public life of London.

However, it raises the question as to whether Wilkes fulfilled the requirement in his obligation to be free and of good report.

Andersen’s Constitutions noted:

“The Persons admitted Members of a Lodge must be good and true Men, free-born, and of mature and discreet Age, no Bondmen, no Women, no immoral of scandalous Men, but of good Report.”

For his supporters, John Wilkes was a man of good report, good and true (member of so many clubs that no one knows the list by heart), free-born, of mature and discreet age, not a Bondman, or a woman.

The only thing which could have stopped him was that he was an immoral and scandalous man, but apparently, that didn’t matter.

Was his initiation a mistake?

The Freemasons Magazine and Masonic Mirror from 27 October  1860 noted:


Freemasons Magazine and Masonic Mirror, 27 October 1860.
IMAGE LINKED:  Wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

And so the story continues to join other stories in Freemasonry which are difficult to prove due to conflicting evidence – or, sometimes, no evidence at all.

The name of John Wilkes has become synonymous, however, with political dissent.

John Wilkes was 32 years old when his newspaper began its attacks on the establishment.

Only five years after this article in the Freemason’s Magazine a twenty-seven year old John Wilkes Booth named after John Wilkes would murder Abraham Lincoln because of political dissent.

John Wilkes Booth was also reputed to be a 33rd degree Freemason, while Lincoln himself had petitioned to join the Order after his term in office.

In later life John Wilkes became less radical, becoming Lord Mayor of London, Master of the Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers of the City of London, and a magistrate who defended the Bank of England with troops.

He died in his bed in his house in Grosvenor Square, London, at the age of seventy two.


Statue of John Wilkes in Fetter Lane, London.
IMAGE LINKED:  Wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Article by: Hervé H. Lecoq

Hervé H. Lecoq (P.M., M.M.M., M.C., M.R., S.E.M., E.M., C.A.R.)  born in 1982 and works as a manager in the field of online sales.

Member of the Académie de Vaucluse and of various historical associations, having received the Light in 2009, since 2010, he has administered various websites relating to Freemasonry.

Authors of articles in French but also English in journals, magazines or on news sites, he is the author of the Masonic science-fiction novel: L'Apprenti Perdu (ECE-D editions) and administers the Youtube channel: French Freemason.

Masonic web site:

Youtube Channel:


Mes premières questions sur la Franc-Maçonnerie (French Edition)

By: Hervé H. Lecoq (Author)


Style Emulation: Apprenti, Compagnon, Jeune Maître (Mes premières questions sur la Franc-Maçonnerie) (French Edition)

By: Hervé H. Lecoq (Author)

There are very few books in French on the English Emulation style rite to learn about each grade and improve.

This book was thus born from a request from Apprentices, Companions and Young Masters who wanted a guide, in French, to enable them to understand the logic of the teachings of this rite, its History and its customs.

Validated and improved in the Lodge for several years by “masonic students”, you will appreciate being taken by the hand, throughout your progression up to the rank of Master, by advice to improve your practice, clarity of explanations history and the benevolence of this Mentor to take with you everywhere.


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