One of the most treasured iconic images of British history and tradition is the distinctive scarlet-plumaged Chelsea pensioner with its characteristic tricorne hat. Whilst this exceptional species is frequently observed in its native habitat amongst the shrubberies and lawns of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, it is an infrequent migratory visitor to the sandy shores of the Fylde coast and, when away from its more familiar surroundings, it sheds its iconic headwear and dons its shako, a less flamboyant peaked hat.
In a rare sighting, believed to be the first of its kind ever in West Lancashire, an extremely fine specimen was spotted perching on the chair of King Solomon in Symphony Lodge No 4924 in the Masonic hall at Blackpool.
Former Coldstream guard John Gledhill, proudly sporting his Chelsea pensioner finery, was installed as master of the lodge with military precision and in magnificent style by installing master Steve Smith, mentor for the Blackpool group of lodges. The lodge is proud that since its consecration in 1927 no member has served a year’s tenure as WM on more than one occasion. This has been aided by many joining members volunteering to occupy the exalted position. And so it was with John, another ‘willing’ volunteer!
Adding his dignified presence to the proceedings was Peter Elmore, representing the Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison. Unscathed by the wear and tear of modern society and its decline in general courteousness and etiquettes, Peter is one of those individuals who has retained a consistency of poise and demureness; embodying the perfect gentleman.
The general business of the lodge having been completed with expediency and exactitude by Roy Fenton, the procession of dignitaries bowled in. Shedding further lustre on this already special event were other distinguished grand and Provincial grand officers and acting Provincial officers. Grand officers Bill Eardley and Peter Bentham, Chairman of the Blackpool group of lodges commanded pole position behind Peter Elmore, followed by John Turpin vice chairman of the group, and supported by acting Provincial officers Martyn Jones, Gordon Ivett, and Chris Walpole.
Steve Smith, the installing master, in the course of his Masonic career has had many ambitions. As a young Mason, he had yearned someday to become master of a lodge. At one time he had entertained aspirations of being a director of ceremonies. Later he leaned towards being secretary of a lodge. But now having elevated his status to group mentor, all these desires were cast aside and forgotten. The sole thing that seemed most worthwhile to him now was to install John in the best possible manner and to this task he addressed himself with all the energy and enthusiasm he could muster. The resulting ceremony was delightful, impeccable and entertaining.
Equal to the task in hand too was Alistair Still, the formidable director of ceremonies of the lodge who had evidently whipped the company into great shape yet, being the perfectionist that he most certainly is he appeared to be ruminating on whether a few extra lashes may have paid dividends in some quarters.
Of particular note in the ceremony were the brethren who presented the working tools. Kicking off was Bill Snell with a delightful delivery of the tools of an installed master, followed by Vinnie Carte’s presentation of the third degree tools. David Wilson, a professional magician, thrilled the throng by conjuring up a wonderfully vibrant rendition of the second degree tools and, bringing up the rear, a marvellous recital of the first degree tools by Keith Roberts.
Two highly experienced Masons, Tom Bullen and Brian Sharples then gave exemplary addresses to the WM and wardens respectively. Following quickly on the heels of excellence, came brilliance. Peter Elmore rose with his customary dignity and delivered the address to the brethren in the most eloquent and articulate of fashions.
On occupying the chair John felt and looked quietly happy. He seemed to have brought sunshine with him from Chelsea. All eyes were now upon him and, being a chap of a demure and unassuming disposition who never seeks attention and shies away from limelight, he had acquired a complexion that perfectly complemented his splendid scarlet tunic.
But the Coldstream guards train their sons well. Once John had digested the fundamental fact that his installation had been concluded, he grasped the role of master with the tenacity of a lithe mongoose pouncing on a dastardly king cobra and adopted a stance of supreme efficiency. He seemed to be so energised that, should he have had any desire to do so, he could have felled a two ton hippopotamus with a single blow of the gavel. One may pontificate, with a degree of reluctant trepidation, that even the ubiquitous Steve Smith was reduced to a meagre shadow of his former resplendence by John’s alluring performance.
During his years in the Coldstream Guards John had served in Kenya, Aden, and Bahrain. He was stationed at Gilgil camp in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952 to 1960. Posted to the camp in 1959, it is rumoured that John’s arrival there was the sole reason that the Mau Mau surrendered the following year, although, being the modest man that he is, John refuses to take full credit for the regiment’s success.
The Coldstream Guards is the oldest regiment in the regular army in continuous active service and dates back to the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell gave Colonel George Monck permission to form his own regiment as part of the New Model Army. The Monck’s Regiment of Foot was formed in August 1650 and less than two weeks later it took part in the Battle of Dunbar at which the roundheads defeated the forces of Charles I. After Richard Cromwell’s relinquishment of his position as Lord Protector, Monck gave his support to the Stuarts and in January 1660 he crossed the River Tweed into England at the village of Coldstream from where he made a five-week march to London. He arrived in London in early February and helped in restoring Charles II to the throne. Such is the glory of the regiment that John is so proud to represent.
And this was one of the points that Peter Elmore spoke of in conveying the best wishes of the Provincial Grand Master. Adding further glitter to the dazzling ceremony, John presented Peter with handsome donations to charities, including £1,400 to the West Lancashire Freemasons’ Charity, £200 to Prostrate Cancer research, £200 to the Blackpool Group Sponsored Walk, £100 to Violet’s Light, and £100 to the Children’s Hearing Service.
The day was an occasion to celebrate and remember. The rare sighting of a Chelsea pensioner alighting the chair of King Solomon in West Lancashire was made extra special by the endearing, modest and enigmatic personality behind the tunic.