Stranger than fiction

What have the oldest known Masonic lodge, the Spanish Armada of 1588, a shipwreck off the coast of Washington State, USA in 1891 and the current director of ceremonies of Emblem Lodge No 6727 in Blackpool got in common? Not a lot, one would think. But strange things happen in the universality of Freemasonry. And this is one of the strangest of those stories.

The gavel presented by James Murray from Mother Kilwinning Lodge No 0.

The gavel presented by James Murray from Mother Kilwinning Lodge No 0.

On 3 November 1891, the British sailing ship Strathblane was wrecked on the beach about 10 miles north of the small township of Ilwaco on the Pacific coastline of Washington State, USA. Captain of the vessel John Cuthell, along with six crew members, drowned but the First Mate, James D Murray, was rescued by holding onto the tail of a huge horse that had been trained to swim in rough seas. The horse was ridden by Judge C C Dalton who, following the rescue, invited James Murray to stay with him in Ilwaco until he could return to Scotland.

During discussions with C C Dalton, James Murray confided with him that both he and Captain John Cuthell were members of Mother Kilwinning Lodge No 0, Ayrshire, Scotland and requested that the Captain be given a Masonic funeral service. No Masonic lodge existed in Ilwaco at the time but Masons from around the district were assembled and performed a Masonic funeral service for the Captain, whilst the six crew members were given traditional services. All seven were buried in Ilwaco cemetery.

Gordon Smith.

Gordon Smith.

Mother Kilwinning No 0 is believed to be the oldest lodge in the world, reputedly originating in the 12th century, before the formation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736. Mother Kilwinning was a Grand Lodge in its own right, issuing charters and warrants. On joining the Grand Lodge of Scotland, it relinquished this right but in 1743 Grand Lodge decided to number lodges by seniority and oldest records. Unfortunately, many of Mother Kilwinning’s minute books had been misplaced, thought to have been smuggled to France by monks during the reformation. Mother Kilwinning was placed second on the roll of Grand Lodge, a position the members strongly disagreed with, so withdrew and continued to issue charters as they had done previously.

The dispute lasted until 1807 when the Grand Lodge of Scotland and the Grand Lodge of Kilwinning met in Glasgow and settled their differences and a new and binding agreement was reached, that being that Mother Kilwinning was placed at the head of the roll and consequently, it now has the famous and distinctive number ‘0’.

When James Murray had recuperated in Ilwaco, he returned to Scotland and related details of the shipwreck and the kindness of the Masons and citizens of the area around Ilwaco. Captain Cuthell’s widow asked for a stone to be placed on her husband’s grave and as a gift to thank the Ilwaco-area Masons for performing the service to Captain Cuthell, Mother Kilwinning No 0 presented a gavel fashioned from timber from a wrecked galleon that had formed part of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Gordon presenting the briefcase to Don Talley.

Gordon presenting the briefcase to Don Talley.

When James Murray returned to Ilwaco, he arranged for a stone marker to be placed on Captain Cuthell’s grave and wooden crosses marked the six crew-men’s graves. He also presented the Mother Kilwinning gavel to local Masons and this sparked the formation of what is now Occident Lodge No 99 on 12 June 1895. The gavel was taken to the 1897 session of the Grand Lodge of Washington by the Occident Lodge secretary and the Grand Master Yancey C Blalock governed the session with it, since then it has been encased in a wood and glass case and is now displayed in the lobby of Occident Lodge.

James Murray married Judge C C Dalton’s sister, Frances and it is assumed, they lived and died in the neighbouring township of Chinook, a few miles from Ilwaco.

All very interesting one may say but what has this to do with the current director of ceremonies of Emblem Lodge in Blackpool?

Well, in 2017, the director of ceremonies of Emblem Lodge Gordon Smith travelled the 6,000 or so miles to Washington State to attend his nephew’s raising ceremony. In the previous year, Gordon had introduced Craig (his nephew) to the Grand Architect of Washington State Don Talley who was master of Longview Lodge No 263. Since then, Craig, who married an American girl Katie and relocated to Washington, has joined Longview Lodge and in May 2017 was to be raised to the sublime degree of a master Mason.

During his travels, Gordon and Craig were browsing around antique shops in Astoria, Washington and happened on a briefcase that was inscribed with the name ‘Donald Leslie Talley’ (Don Talley’s grandfather). D L Talley had been Mayor of Kelso for a time and senator for Kelso, Washington State for 28 years. Unhesitatingly, Gordon and Craig purchased it and presented it to Don Talley at Craig’s raising ceremony. That chance purchase is remarkable in its own sense. But more was to come!

James D Murray’s apron from Mother Kilwinning Lodge No 0.

James D Murray’s apron from Mother Kilwinning Lodge No 0.

On the day of purchasing the briefcase at the antique shop in Astoria, Gordon and Craig were scheduled to have lunch at Occident Lodge No 99, (the very lodge that had been formed following the rescue of James D Murray back in 1891). During the luncheon date, secretary of the lodge Ron Robbins gave Gordon and Craig a conducted tour of the lodge room and naturally, very proudly drew their attention to the gavel that was prominently displayed in the lobby. Gordon, while absorbing the historical account that accompanied the gavel, was suddenly amazed at reading the name of James D Murray. The name was familiar. He had seen it recently elsewhere. Could there be a connection?

At the same antique shop in Astoria from which Gordon had purchased the briefcase, the shop owner had tried to interest Gordon in an old Masonic apron, an item that he had obtained in a bulk purchase from a house clearance in the town. The asking price was $150. It meant little to Gordon at the time; certainly not for an outlay of $150, and so Gordon could not be persuaded. However, under the bib of the apron were inscribed the words ‘James D Murray, Mother Kilwinning Lodge No 0’.

This was where Gordon had seen the name before! On notifying Ron Robbins of the coincidence, Occident Lodge immediately purchased the apron and it now shares pride of place with the gavel. It has been returned to its rightful home. Research continues into the life of James D Murray and his wife Frances. Who knows what other intrigue has yet to surface from this story?

But what of Gordon’s nephew’s raising ceremony? Gordon reports that it was a ‘wonderful ceremony’ and that the occasion was privileged to have Jim Mendoza, Grand Master of Washington in attendance. It would certainly be memorable for Craig; a marvellous ceremony in the presence of illustrious Masons and in the knowledge that he and his uncle were instrumental in piecing the history of Occident Lodge. Was it coincidence or was it a form of divine intervention? One will never know. But then one never knows when such strange happenings may occur. It may be your turn next!

Pictured from left to right, are: Gordon Smith, Don Talley, Jim Mendoza and Craig Smith.

Pictured from left to right, are: Gordon Smith, Don Talley, Jim Mendoza and Craig Smith.