In every Freemason’s career there are events that become deeply etched on the mind as vivid and treasured memories; their initiation ceremony, their installation into the chair of King Solomon, receiving Provincial honours and promotions and, for a select few, their golden jubilee and, for an even rarer breed, their diamond jubilee. Such personal memories are, understandably, held with great fondness. But there are also other celebrations that are equally precious. They are not records of one’s own personal milestones but of other’s; they are of special significance because they focus on a highly respected and much admired colleague. And the greater the spectacle of the occasion the more deeply is the memory imprinted.
Such an occasion was when Geoffrey Ellis Prichard was celebrating his 50 years as a Freemason. Geoffrey, or Geoff to his countless acquaintances and affectionately known as ‘sticks’ to his close friends, is one of those extraordinary people that we consider a privilege to have met. Cheery, humorous and a perfect gentleman, Geoffrey immediately makes an impression. A measure of the respect to which he is held can be judged by the number and quality of dignitaries attending his celebration at Blackpool Temperance Lodge No 5303 where master of the lodge Sheldon Rawstrone (who is himself celebrating 50 years in Freemasonry later in the year) has been a friend of Geoffrey’s since their schooldays at the age of 11 years.
Reading like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Freemasonry on the Fylde Coast, 18 grand lodge officers attended Geoffrey’s celebration, along with a galaxy of eminent Provincial officers including acting Provincial officers John Lee, Gordon Ivett and Stuart Gay. Past Assistant Provincial Grand Masters were in attendance. Group chairmen and vice chairmen of Blackpool, South Fylde and North Fylde groups were all present. Past Provincial senior grand wardens and past Provincial junior grand wardens were out in force. The list bore witness to the respect and admiration that is afforded to Geoffrey.
Principal protagonist in the celebration was Assistant Provincial Grand Master Harry Cox who has frequently demonstrated that a more lucid and eloquent presenter is unlikely to be found in any of Freemasonry’s Provinces. Harry has a unique and legendry skill of producing a perfect balance between pageantry and camaraderie; instantly putting the celebrant and audience at ease, whilst preserving that decorum and propriety that the occasion duly demands.
Having ensured that Geoffrey was comfortably seated, Harry proceeded to recount aspects of Geoffrey’s life, through childhood to maturity and beyond, reminiscing over both serious and humorous chapters. Throughout the presentation, a happy smile was playing over Geoffrey’s fine face. He was obviously enjoying every minute of the evening.
Geoffrey was born on 25 January 1944, the year in which PAYE was introduced (meaning that tax could be deducted at source on pay day); minister of labour Ernest Bevin announced that, due to acute manpower shortages, one in ten conscripts would be ordered to work in the coalmines instead of joining the forces (these became known as the ‘Bevin Boys’); Italy surrendered to the allies and, in an about-face manoeuvre, declared war on Germany; the first of 500,000 prefabricated homes (or ‘prefabs’ as they became known) went on show in London and, on a lighter note, a Lancashire lass and lad were the two entertainers most in demand for troop concerts – Gracie Fields and George Formby.
Geoffrey, the second child of Pheobe Rebecca and Owen Wynne Ellis Pritchard, was born in South Shore, Blackpool three years after his sister Carol. His mum Pheobe had moved from Bacup in East Lancashire to Blackpool when her father retired from his position as superintendent at the Refuge Insurance. Geoffrey’s father originated from Liverpool and was a skilled French polisher and furniture salesman and, when called up for wartime service in the RAF, was posted to Kirkham as an aircraft fitter working on Spitfires, Hurricanes and Wellington bombers. It was while stationed at Kirkham that Owen met Pheobe, like many of their generation at that time, at the Winter Gardens. They later married and lived with Pheobe’s father in South Shore.
When Geoffrey’s sister Carol was to be born, his father was granted compassionate leave and, while on leave, his squadron was dispatched out to North Africa, leaving Owen stranded in Kirkham without portfolio where he remained for a number of months before being posted to the Isle of Islay, spending the remainder of the war in comparative safety servicing aircraft. When demobbed at the end of hostilities, he returned to French polishing, initially in his own business and later with RHO Hills department store on Bank Hey Street in Blackpool.
At the same time his mother set up a fish and aquarium shop, initially breeding fish at home in a shed at the back of the house and gradually expanding into shop premises and diversifying into pet supplies. Eventually, Geoffrey’s father retired from French polishing and joined his Mum in the running of the pet shop.
During his school days, Geoffrey joined the Blackpool Sea Cadets although he can’t remember why he joined as, by his own admission, he was an appalling sailor – “feeling sea sick just looking at a boat.” Despite his aversion to boats, he enjoyed his time in the Sea Cadets and the many friends he made.
As a boy and youth, Geoffrey was a keen footballer, playing both for his school and in youth club teams, either as centre half or full back (and also reserve goalkeeper). As the celebration evening went on, it became apparent that Geoffrey and Harry must have, at some point in those days, played against each other. Geoffrey was also a keen and proficient water skier (he was a founder member of the Wyre Water Ski Club), enjoying slalom skiing and competing against clubs in the North West.
On leaving school, Geoffrey gained an engineering apprenticeship with agricultural engineering company W Owen and Co of Poulton but soon gained an apprenticeship at English Electric Co in Liverpool, resulting in him living with his paternal grandmother. Three years later during the company’s annual holiday shutdown period, Geoffrey took temporary summer employment at W Owen (he was on unpaid leave from English Electric). It was during this period of temporary employment that disaster struck.
While working at the Royal Agricultural Showground in Blackpool and assisting another company to load a back-hoe, the implement toppled, falling on Geoffrey and causing severe spinal injury and paralysis from the waist down with the grim prognosis that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But the quacks didn’t know Geoffrey Ellis Pritchard like his friends in Freemasonry know him! Had they, they would have realised that Geoffrey is made of sterner tissue and lives by the axiom ‘never give up spirit’, a quality that he no doubt inherited from his mother who battled with cancer for 20 years – 15 years longer than her prognosis suggested. That is the same fighting spirit that Geoffrey displays.
Following the recommendations of an experienced sister on the ward in which Geoffrey was being treated, he was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon Mr Ken Wright who managed to clamp the spinal column with, in Geoffrey’s words, “an odd plate and a few screws”, to enable a revised prognosis that Geoffrey, with time, would probably be able to walk again. Geoffrey was in hospital for some three months and it took a further two years of intensive physiotherapy to reach the stage that he is at today.
At the time of his injury, Geoffrey was courting Jennifer Edmondson whom he had been at school with and, after the operation; they got married and had a daughter Lindsay Ellis who, in Geoffrey’s words, “is a chip off the old block, a super and very precious daughter.”
Following his recovery, Geoffrey started a business sharpening lawn mower cylinders, servicing mowers and hiring small plant, gradually expanding into repairing of other items with small engines; cement mixers and the like. This he did successfully for approximately 10 years until the business grew to such a size that he considered either retiring or expanding still further. The decision was taken out of his hands however. His spinal injury was producing complications, primarily the development of kidney stones which would necessitate an operation (at that time a very serious surgical procedure). Geoffrey being Geoffrey and always inquisitive, asked to see the stones after the surgery and was amazed to discover that each was the size of a golf ball.
The pressures and stresses of Geoffrey’s injuries took their toll on his marriage to Jennifer and they parted in 1973. He later met and married Joyce who unfortunately passed away in 2012 but, since then, met Kathryn who Geoff describes as ‘his rock’. They married in 2015 and now live in a bungalow in Poulton-le-Fylde and, between them, have five children and seven grandchildren.
One of Geoffrey’s main hobbies is caravanning, an activity that he has enjoyed since the age of 17 when he first borrowed his father’s Morris Minor Traveller and towed a 12 foot caravan to Cornwall. Over the years he has towed caravans the length and breadth of the UK and extensively in France and the Low Countries – perhaps you have been in one of the tailbacks that followed him!
When Harry announced that Geoffrey and Kathryn are both season ticket holders at Blackpool FC (some say the only two), an audible groan erupted from the gathered throng. At that juncture, Harry decided that the least said about it the better and quickly turned to Geoffrey’s Masonic career – with much better prospects all round.
Geoffrey’s father had been a Freemason and was keen on Geoffrey joining at the age of 21 years but Geoffrey waited until he was 23 and joined Blackpool Temperance Lodge No 5303 in February 1967, being passed to the second degree in May of the same year and raised to the degree of a master Mason in the November. He served all the offices of the lodge and was installed as its master on 15 January 1980. It was a highly emotional ceremony for Geoffrey and his father. Owen recited the address to his son Geoffrey and at the line ‘And may God give you, health and strength………’, was so overcome with emotion that he almost couldn’t continue.
At that time, Blackpool Temperance Lodge was strictly ‘temperance’ with no alcohol served at either lodge meetings or social functions. As a result of the rigid rule, attendance at functions declined and, always keen to modernise, Geoffrey persuaded senior members of the lodge to relax the rule at his Ladies Evening (although no wine was served at dinner, the bar was opened immediately after). This was the start of a gradual relaxation in the rules and within five years new by-laws were introduced to allow the consumption of alcohol, both during and after dinner. Since then, it would appear that the members have been making up for lost time!
Geoffrey served as the lodge charity steward from 1990 – 2001, during which time he was also a member of the West Lancashire Masonic Relief committee, travelling to Liverpool for meetings, and the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution Festival Representative for seven years. He was appointed Blackpool Group Charity Representative, a position he served for three years and then became Regional Care Officer for the South Fylde, North Fylde and Blackpool groups at the launch of the new care system in 2003, serving in that role for five and a half years.
In 1986 Geoffrey was appointed to Provincial office with the rank of Past Provincial Junior Grand Deacon and was promoted in 1993 to the rank of Past Provincial Junior Grand Warden. In 2002, in recognition of his services to the lodge, Blackpool Temperance Lodge made him an honorary member and in 2004 he was appointed to the grand rank of Past Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies and invested by the Marquis of Northampton at the April meeting of the United Grand Lodge of England.
Geoffrey was exalted into Blackpool Royal Arch Chapter No 1476 on 15 November 1973 and, completing all the offices on route, was installed as its first principal in March 1987. In 1992 he was appointed to the rank of Past Provincial Assistant Grand Sojourner and in 2002 was promoted to Past Provincial Grand Scribe Nehemiah. Later, in 2005 he was appointed to Supreme Grand Chapter with the rank of Past Grand Standard Bearer.
Ill-health was to strike yet again however when, in June 2013, Geoffrey was diagnosed with pancreatitis, resulting from infected gall stones. As usual, Geoffrey underestimated the severity of the problem and was admitted into intensive care at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. Despite being in a critical condition he, thankfully, responded to treatment and, once stabilised, received expert medical attention at Manchester Royal Hospital for over 12 months.
Plagued by misfortune, and as a final twist, Kathryn fell just before Christmas 2016 and broke her arm. This meant that both Kathryn’s and Geoffrey’s mobility has been severely restricted but, as usual, neither uttered a word of woe and it didn’t stop them carrying out their commitments to others. Commenting on Kathryn’s broken arm, Geoffrey joked, “As you would expect, it was the humerus bone!”
It was at this point in the celebrations that the Chairman of the Blackpool Group John Turpin read the certificate of recognition from the Provincial Grand Master Tony Harrison, prior to Harry presenting it to Geoffrey. It had been a splendid presentation and Geoffrey was visibly moved by the manner in which it had been conducted and the masses enthusiastically applauded to clearly state their admiration and respect for Geoffrey on his golden jubilee.
But the evening was not yet over; still more excellence was to come at the festive banquet that followed the formal element of the celebrations. Harry had provided a wonderful synopsis of Geoffrey’s life and career and, as if inspired by the brilliance, immediate past master of Blackpool Temperance Lodge David Edwards continued in similar vein when he proposed the toast to the celebrant. Comprehensively researched, meticulously structured and eloquently and sincerely delivered, David produced the icing on the cake. His speech reinforced the deep admiration and respect that the brethren have for Geoffrey.
Geoffrey in his response was pure ‘Geoffrey’. Renowned for his wit and relaxed delivery, he reminisced over some of the many friendships that he has formed in Freemasonry and recounted anecdotes about a number of his fellow grand officers, although it was suspected that some were fabrications or, at the very least, exaggerations. But then again, a good laugh at the expense of grand officers always goes down well with the masses.
There is no doubt that Geoffrey Ellis Prichard stands out from the crowd and his 50 years in Freemasonry celebration will remain firmly embedded in the minds of those privileged to have been present at his very special evening.