Ask anyone at the Masonic Hall in Blackpool and they will tell you that William Sheldon Rawstrone is a fellow of immaculate credentials. Familiarly known as ‘Sheldon’, he is a perfect gentleman. He is bright, cheery and compassionate. He is always perfectly attired. His ritual is legendry and inspirational. Indeed, his ritual needs to be heard to be believed, mere words being inadequate to convey the full facts with regard to his amazing virtuosity. Yet, it is a curious thing about Sheldon, and one on which many Masons have commented, that while, as already stated, he is a supreme ritualist, he is also incredibly humble about his abilities and never misses an opportunity to encourage and praise younger brethren. He exemplifies all that is great in Freemasonry. And, if that were not enough, he is a delight to meet.
These were just a few of Sheldon’s qualities that Assistant Provincial Grand Master Harry Cox highlighted in a gilt-edged golden jubilee when officiating at the celebration of Sheldon’s 50 years in Freemasonry in Blackpool Temperance Lodge No 5303. Those who have, in the past, had the pleasure of attending a 50 years celebration conducted by Harry will be only too aware that none does it better. And, in his tribute to Sheldon, Harry was at the peak of his form, sparkling to an almost unbelievable extent.
There was, of course, a plethora of other notables in attendance as well. Past Assistant Provincial Grand Master Terry Hudson led a galaxy of grand officers including Peter Elmore, Geoffrey Pritchard, Assistant Provincial Grand Master Norman Cope (Province of East Lancashire), Blackpool Group Chairman John Turpin, North Fylde Group Chairman Duncan Smith and Past Provincial Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies David Thomas, who had specifically requested to officiate as director of ceremonies during the evening; such is his respect for Sheldon. Acting Provincial grand officers Jim Finnegan, Phil Houldsworth and Joe Codling added further pizazz to the procession. There were countless highly-ranking Provincial officers, many who had travelled from surrounding Provinces, and a full house of friends and admirers. It had all the ingredients for a memorable occasion.
Harry was enthusiastic in his acceptance of the lodge’s gavel and immediately asked Dave Thomas to position Sheldon in front of the master’s pedestal. Ensuring that Sheldon was comfortably seated, Harry delivered a wonderful synopsis of Sheldon’s life, introducing due reverence at poignant moments and humour when appropriate. It is a skill that Harry has mastered to perfection. It is impossible to explain how he manages it, of course. One can merely state the facts.
Opening his delivery with a brief recount of events that occurred during the year of Sheldon’s birth, Harry reminded the audience that 1943 marked the RAF 617 Squadron’s modified Lancaster bombers raid on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany, using the ingenious ‘bouncing bomb’ developed by Barnes Wallis and immortalised in the 1955 film ‘The Dam Busters’. It was also the year in which Italy surrendered to the Allies and, approximately one month later declared war on its former ally Germany.
The Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin announced that, on account of the acute shortages of manpower, one in every 10 men between the ages of 18 and 25 called up to serve their country would be required to work in the coalmines instead of being drafted to the services. There would be no distinctions amongst those selected for the mines. University graduates, sons of the privileged classes, manual labourers and the working classes would all have to muck in together and, of course, these became known as the ‘Bevin Boys’.
It was on 30 August of that year that ‘Sheldon’ was born in Freckleton, Lancashire; the son of Harry and Annie Sheldon. His father Harry was a plumber by trade and was also a very talented musician, playing in the Freckleton Brass Band from the age of seven, firstly playing cornet and then later, trumpet. He passed all his examinations to attend Kneller Hall Military School of Music in London but got cold feet at the last minute and decided not to go. He did however play with the Tower/Winter Gardens Band as first trumpet, and was often called on to play with the ‘great’ Henry Hall Band. Those readers old enough to remember Henry Hall’s guest night on the radio; (Harry Cox assured the gathering that he only knew of it because his mother had told him!), were informed that whenever Henry Hall was broadcasting from Blackpool, he always asked Sheldon’s father to play as first trumpet.
Incidentally, a year after Sheldon was born, the Freckleton air disaster occurred on 23 August 1944 when a consolidated B-24 Liberator (named Classy Chassis II) of the United States Army Air Force crashed into the centre of Freckleton. The aircraft careered into the Holy Trinity Church of England School and demolished three houses and the Sad Sack Snack Bar. The death toll was 61, including 38 children. A memorial garden and children’s playground were opened in August 1945 in memory of those lost, the money for the playground equipment having been raised by American airmen at the Warton airbase, some of whom were Freemasons that regularly visited many lodges in Blackpool and the Fylde.
During the war, Sheldon’s father was never called on to serve in the forces, as he was the only plumber in the area and plumbing was classified as a reserve occupation. He did nevertheless join the home guard and it was his job to climb up and down Blackpool Tower, fire watching. And as Harry pointed out in his narrative, climbing meant ‘climbing’; going up the steel steps on the outside of the tower.
When Sheldon was aged three the family moved from Freckleton to a boarding house on Albert Road, Blackpool and his mum looked after the boarding house, assisted by his father who continued with his music (while the plumbing had to take a back step). The family remained in the boarding house for four years until Annie was diagnosed with heart problems and the doctor advised them to sell up. Thus, they moved to Clifton Crescent in Marton and Sheldon’s father returned to domestic plumbing.
Sheldon started junior school at St John’s School adjoining the Blackpool Masonic hall, and moved to Highfield school at the age of 11, and it was there that he met a young Geoffrey Pritchard (now a grand officer of the United Grand Lodge of England) who was six months his junior.
In relating Sheldon’s life, Harry Cox delved into Sheldon’s skills as a golfer, having started playing golf at the age of nine and going on to play in numerous international tournaments, including the British Boys Matchplay Championship, the British Boys Strokeplay Championship and in the British Youths Championship for three consecutive years. On those occasions he was accompanied by his then fiancée Jackie who acted as caddie. He was also a keen swimmer, representing Blackpool against Lancaster and Preston and the NW England ATC at RAF Cosford in the National Championships.
At the age of 12, Sheldon had started helping his father in the plumbing business, working Saturday mornings and during school holidays. When he left school at 14, there was only one job that he wanted to do – plumbing. And, Sheldon being Sheldon, he was a master of his craft, a point that Geoffrey Pritchard made mention of during his tribute to Sheldon at the festive board.
Sheldon had met his delightful wife Jackie through St Mary’s Church, South Shore at the age of 16, and both went on to be Sunday school teachers. Jackie was also church treasurer and Sheldon was deputy church warden. Together they ran a drama club and after entering the St Annes Drama Festival for one act plays, Sheldon came away with the award of best supporting actor of the week. (Perhaps it shouldn’t be mentioned that he played the part of the village idiot in Eve Bretherton’s play ‘The Ninth Day’).
On leaving school, Jackie worked as a statistician for a certain John E Funk a very well-known and respected Freemason who was one of the longest serving Masons on the Fylde.
Jackie entered a competition at St Annes Pier – the Miss Bristol competition – sponsored by the Bristol cigarette company and won it, winning a cash prize of £4. Encouraged by her nanna, she entered the Blackpool Gazette and Herald Girl of the Year Competition and again, won. This resulted in Jackie having a very busy year, opening garden parties and attending press balls among other activities and on occasions attending two and three events in a day, with Sheldon acting as Jackie’s consort on these occasions.
As a result of winning the competition, there was a cash prize of £75, presented by the actress Violet Carson (better known as Ena Sharples of Coronation Street), along with a painted portrait by local artist Fred Wood, and at that time, Past Assistant Provincial Grand Master Jack Humphrey used to produce a bronze cast of the head of the winner on behalf of the Gazette and Herald, which he duly prepared for Jackie.
Sheldon and Jackie were married on 18 June 1966 and were blessed with a son Karl and a daughter Kerry. Karl went on to be a video editor at the BBC, then changed career and went back to University and got a job as a teacher and then onto Yeovil University and is now senior Lecturer at Bournemouth University.
Kerry concentrated on ice skating, originally at Blackpool, then obtained a position with Disney World on Ice and toured the world. While working with Disney she met her husband Paul and now lives in Kentucky where Kerry runs an ice rink, with many of her students winning international trophies.
Sheldon came into Freemasonry on 17 October 1967 and it was at this point in relating Sheldon’s life that Harry asked secretary of Blackpool Temperance Lodge to read out the minutes of that lodge meeting.
He was passed to the second degree on 16 April 1968 and raised to the sublime degree of a master Mason on 17 September 1968. He served all the offices of the lodge and was installed into the chair of Blackpool Temperance Lodge on 19 January 1982 at the Imperial Hotel Blackpool (it took years in those days to get into the chair of King Solomon). At his installation, Sheldon was delighted to invest his father as organist of the lodge, something that he had learnt to play while in his 60s. Sheldon served as master of the lodge for two years.
On leaving the chair, he served as assistant director of ceremonies for five years, as director of ceremonies for six years, secretary for two years, then director of ceremonies again for a further 11 years and has served as almoner since 2012. He is currently master of the lodge again and is also tyler for two other lodges. In recognition of his dedication to Freemasonry, Blackpool Lodge of Tranquillity made him an honorary member in 2016.
In 1989 he was appointed to Provincial grand rank with the acting rank of Provincial Grand Steward, promoted to Past Provincial Senior Grand Deacon in 1993 and further promoted to Past Provincial Junior Grand Warden in 2001.
Sheldon was exalted into Blackpool Chapter No 1476 on 20 January 1983, completing all the offices on route to the chair and invested as its first principal in March 1992. In 2012 he was again installed as first principal, the first companion to occupy the chair for a second time in Blackpool Chapter. He has served the office of almoner of the chapter since 2003. In 1992 he was appointed in Provincial Grand Chapter to the rank of Past Provincial Deputy Grand Sword Bearer.
On completion of his narration of Sheldon’s career, Harry asked Blackpool Group Chairman John Turpin to read the commemorative certificate issued by the Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison and Harry proudly presented it to Sheldon – who received it with even greater pride.
Acclamations to Sheldon continued at the festive board when Geoffrey Pritchard, in his own inimitable humorous style, lavished praise on Sheldon and reminisced on their schoolboy days. The clear picture that emerged was how highly William Sheldon Rawstrone is thought of by all but, if one particular quality was to be highlighted; it would be his skill as a ritualist.
In performing ritual, Sheldon dissects every sentence of a passage to reveal each subtle sentiment, making it personal and accessible, and stamps it as a defining work, bringing a fresh perspective to whichever ceremony he is conducting. There is little doubt that he is a master amongst masters of ritual, and he has been for the last 50 years.