Updated: Jan 14
We shall probably never know exactly what it was that brought Annie Besant to Freemasonry. But we can be sure that Besant, who upheld the rights of women in the way that she did, would have been attracted by one of the guiding principles of the Grande Loge Symbolique Écossaise, namely the equality of women and men. In this Masonic Order, founded in 1893, to which Besant came in the years immediately after the turn of the twentieth century, women were for the first time admitted as equals with men, a very revolutionary concept at that time, in any walk of life, but especially so in Freemasonry.
Something else however would have attracted her the secular, laïque approach of Georges Martin. A; Besant had suffered abuse in her marriage which, for a time, influenced her attitude to the male gender, but crucially it altered her attitude towards religion, since her husband was a priest of the Anglican Church. It is important to note that she never confused religion with spirituality.
Annie Besant was instrumental in the spread of Le Droit Humain outside France after her initiation in 1902 and may be rightly considered as one of the founders of Le Droit Humain International. It was through A. Besant that Le Droit Humain came to be implanted in India, Holland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Poland, Java, Reykjavik and Bulgaria. In short, while Georges Martin was busy spreading Le Droit Humain throughout France, A. Besant was busy spreading it in the rest of the world.
In Great Britain A. Besant was also a member of the Fabian Society, a socialist, a feminist, a reformer and a member of the Theosophical Society. The Fabian Society is a socialist organisation, founded in 1884 to support and nurture democratic socialism in the United Kingdom. Its approach was through gradual reform rather than through revolution.
As a part of her social reforming activity, A. Besant supported the principle of birth control and promoted Charles Knowlton’s book on the subject. For this, she was arrested and charged, and was nearly imprisoned.
Other aspects of her reforming activity covered home rule for Ireland and for India, both countries being at that time under British rule. Above all, she campaigned for women’s rights, and one of her most prominent campaigns was in support of the notorious “Match Girls Strike” of 1888.
This was the cause célèbre of the day. A. Besant championed the cause of girls working in the match manufacturing business of the firm Bryant and May. These girls worked for miserable salaries under appalling conditions, and as phosphorus was used in the manufacture of matches, they frequently suffered from a disease known as Phossy Jaw, a disease which caused the breakdown of the bones in the jaw by the effect of the phosphorus used. A. Besant published articles such as White Slavery in London in her newspaper The Link which led Bryant and May to consider legal proceedings against her. Part of her article read as follows:
Messrs. Bryant and May apparently shirk the straightforward course of prosecuting me for libel, knowing full well that my statements can be proved, and they fear the publicity that such a suit would give to their shameful treatment of the girls they employ. In order to make the punishment of these girls as heavy as possible, they did not dismiss them at once, but kept them on for a week making their work very slack [and paying them paltry wages].It is hard to understand what kind of non-human beings they can be who can put into a woman-child’s hand 1s. 8d. as the price of her week’s labour.
Emboldened by this article, almost 1500 factory girls went on strike. This led to the creation of the “Matchgirls Union” which was headed by Annie Besant, and by 1901the firm Bryant and May had stopped using phosphorus in their factories.
In 1889 A. Besant became interested in the Theosophical Society and in 1893 she was welcomed to India by Colonel Olcott, the Founder and President of the Society. A. Besant herself became President of the Society in 1909. In 1911 she laid the foundation stone of the Theosophical Society building in London in a ceremony with strong masonic undertones. We can therefore see that, despite her unhappy experience with religion following on from her relationship with her husband, she was moving towards a different kind of spirituality.
Theosophy, broadly speaking, advances the view that there is a deeper spiritual reality which can be accessed through intuition, meditation or some other state transcending human consciousness, and that human beings are sparks of the divine trapped in the material world who desire to return to their spiritual home.
A. Besant was initiated in Freemasonry in Paris on 27 July 1902, and on her return to England with her friends, they held a Provisional Lodge at which it was decided to petition the Supreme Council in Paris to found a lodge in London. On 22nd September 1902 a delegation arrived from Paris led by the Grand Master, Sr Marie-Georges Martin, the wife of Georges Martin himself, to inaugurate the “Human Duty” Lodge No. 6 and to install Annie Besant as Right Worshipful Master.
A. Besant’s rise in Freemasonry was rapid: already in 1905, she was advanced to the 33°. However, from the moment that LE DROIT HUMAIN was implanted in the United Kingdom, it was clear that the ritual that had been given to them from the Supreme Council in Paris, although translated into English, would not do. The ritual had been conceived by Georges Martin, an avowed atheist and materialist, unlike Maria Deraismes whose orientation was far more spiritual. Although G. Martin and A. Besant evinced a great mutual respect, the one remained atheist and rationalist, the other had become spiritualist and theosophist.
At first, A. Besant used a translation of the French ritual, but it was soon found that this did not suit the British. The first transaction of “Dharma” Lodge in Benares in India, from 1907, a lodge founded by A. Besant, reflects this in its notes regarding the early days of the Order:
'In France, at the present day, the tendency in our fraternity is to dispense with the religious element and the large majority of [French] brethren, including those of our own Order, prefer a somewhat materialistic attitude. Our Supreme Council, however, in granting an English Constitution, recognised that different methods are required in different countries, and have consequently sanctioned our upholding for ourselves a belief in a creative principle under the title of “Great Architect of the Universe.'