Vol. XIX No. 4 — April 1941

Anthony Sayer, Gentleman

Do you believe in ghosts? doubtless not. Yet the pale wraith of an unknown man haunts the corridors of Masonic history and the minds of Masonic students, for what he was and what he did profoundly influenced the growth and development of the Masonic Fraternity.

The first grand master of the first grand lodge, formed in England in 1717, less is known of Anthony Sayer than of any of his successors. Where and of whom he was born; what his life was like; whether he was married or single; what his education was; where he lived — of these we know nothing.

Of what little we do know, not much can be said of its accuracy. For the minutes of the first grand lodge were not written until years after the event, and Anderson, who wrote them, has none too good a reputation for either accuracy or veracity. Internal evidence indicates here and there an apparent deliberate mis-recording of facts; luckily the same internal evidence also indicates the probabilities of correctness in some particulars, including the election of the first grand master.

Anthony Sayer first appears upon the Masonic scene on two pages of Anderson’s Constitutions of 1738 as follows:

King George I enter’d London most magnificently on 20 Sept. 1714; and after the Rebellion, A.D. 1716, the few Lodges at London finding themselves neglected by Sir Christopher Wren, thought fit to cement under a Grand Master, as the Center of Union and Harmony, viz. the Lodges that met,

  1. At the Goose and Gridiron, in St. Paul’s. Church-Yard.
  2. At the Crown, in Parker's-Lane, near Drury Lane.
  3. At the Apple-Tree Tavern, in Charles Street, Covent Garden.
  4. At the Rummer and Grapes Tavern, in Channel Row, Westminster.

They and some old Brothers met at the said Apple Tree; and having put into the Chair the oldest Master Mason (being the Master of a Lodge), they constituted themselves a Grand Lodge pro Tempore in Due Form, and forthwith revived the Quarterly Communication of the Officers of Lodges (call’d the Grand Lodge) resolv’d to hold the Annual Assembly and Feast, and then to chuse a Grand Master from among themselves, till they should have the Honour of a Noble Brother at their Head.


On St. John Baptist’s Day, in the 3d Year of King George I., A.D: 1717, the ASSEMBLY and Feast of the Free and accepted Masons was held at the foresaid Goose and Gridiron Alehouse.

Before Dinner, the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of a Lodge) in the Chair, proposed a List of proper Candidates; and the Brethren, by a Majority of Hands, elected

Mr. Antony Sayer, Gentleman, Grand Master of Masons, who being forthwith invested with the Badges of Office and Power by the said oldest Master, and install’d, was duly congratulated by the Assembly, who paid him the Homage.

Capt. Joseph Elliot, Mr. Jacob Lamball, Carpenter, Grand Wardens.

Sayer, Grand Master, commanded the Masters and Wardens of Lodges to meet the Grand Officers every Quarter in Communication, at the Place that he should appoint in his Summons sent by the Tyler.

ASSEMBLY and Feast at the said Place, June 24, 1718.

Brother Sayer, having gathered the Votes after Dinner, proclaimed aloud our Brother,

George Payne, Esq.; Grand Master of Masons. . . .

Commenting on this short and colorless account of the most important event in Masonic history Dr. Joseph Fort Newton writes:

So reads the only record that has come down to us of the founding of the mother grand lodge. Who were present, besides the three officers named, has so far eluded all research; their faces have faded, their names are lost — but imagine the scene! The big room extended the width of the house, thirty feet one way and nearly twenty the other. In the center was an oak table, around which the delegates from the various lodges sat on chairs, smoking their pipes. The seat of Anthony Sayer was before the fireplace, with its polished brass fire-irons, with chestnut-roasters and bed-warmers hanging on either side of it.

It was an hour of feast and fun and fellowship as they sat down to dinner together, as English lodges do today. Each man had a rummer of foaming ale before him on the table, and as he drained it betimes it was refilled by a handsome maid, Hannah, whose name has survived long after others were lost. Only a few memories of that event which divided the story of Masonry into before and after; the famous sign in front of the house, so ugly that a Swan and a Lyre were mistaken for a Goose and a Gridiron; the skittle-ground on the roof; the small water-course, a rivulet of Fleet Brook, for which a way had to be made through the chimney; the pillar that propped up the chimney, and — Hannah, the maid!

Was Anthony Sayer a “Gentleman” as described in the minutes of grand lodge? The word then in England had quite a different meaning from what it has now in this country. In the days in which Sayer lived a man might beat his wife, cheat at cards, engage in a public brawl on the streets, even steal from his neighbors, and still wear the appellation “gentleman” provided he had lineage, lands, and did not work for a living — was not in other words, "in Trade.”

Nothing in the above must be construed that any suspicion has ever rested against the memory of Sayer that he was a rascal; the question which has caused consider able research concerns his right to be known as Esquire, a Gentleman, a person of birth and property, and has nothing to do with his character.

For many years the assertion in the grand lodges minutes was clouded by the unreliability of Anderson the recorder of those instruments. Long and patient research by J. Walter Hobbs, past master of Quatuor Coronati, the famous research lodge of England, seems to establish the probability that Sayer was of good family and in means and circumstances, at least at the beginning of his Masonic career, a gentleman in the then-English use of that term.

The question doubtless seems relatively unimportant; its stressing here and in the arguments of students are concerned mainly with the thought that if he were not a “Gentleman,” the Craft later adopted a new idea, of having always a brother of “quality,” if possible a peer of the realm, as grand master. If Sayer were actually of gentle birth and was selected because of that fact, the idea of “quality” in the titular head was already ingrained in the four old lodges that formed the first grand lodge in 1717.

Three excellent portraits of Sayer are extant; the artist Joseph Highmore, a Junior Grand Warden of the Premier grand lodge, painted him and from that painting at least two and perhaps three engravings were made. The first by Brother J. Faber, a Grand Steward, is dated 1750. Another is dated 1790. The third, in the possession of the District Grand Lodge of the Punjab, is similar to the 1750 engraving except for the peculiar circumstance that the Punjab portrait does not show the apron which is worn by Sayer in the original. Did someone alter the original by removing the apron? Or is the apronless engraving a proof from a plate which was not finished and to which the apron was later added? If so, the original painting by Highmore — now lost — doubtless had no apron. But that seems improbable, since the portrait is not only of Anthony Sayer, but "Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, Grand Master of the Masons.” A portrait painted of the first grand master, by a grand lodge officer, and engraved by another brother of the Craft, also an officer, would in all probability have been painted with an apron, not left for an apron to be added by an engraver in later years.

It is of interest to note that the apron is white, and that it is worn with the flap up; also this portrait of Sayer, according to the noted English Freemason F. J. W. Crowe, is the first graphic representation of the Masonic apron.

A short account of most of what little is known of Sayer appeared in the Freemason, June 6, 1925:

We also find among the worthies of the Old King’s Arms Lodge No. 28, London, England, the name of that somewhat elusive character, Anthony Sayer, the first grand master of England, about whom less definite information is known than of any of his successors in that high office. After serving the office of Grand Master in 1717, he, like George Payne, descended, in 1719, to the chair of grand warden. His name appears among the lists of members of the lodge which met at the Queen’s Head in Knaves Acre, in Wardour Street, for the years 1723, 1725, and 1730, which lodge stands as No. 11 on the Engraved List in the Library of grand lodge, and is now known as the lodge of Fortitude and Old Cumberland, No. 12. It is now known that he became tyler of the Old King’s Arms Lodge in 1733. It is also known that he received assistance from the Charity Fund of grand lodge in 1730 and again in 1741, and the Minute Books of the Old King’s Arms Lodge reveal the fact that he received assistance from their funds in 1736 and 1741. According to a notice in the London Evening Post of January 16, 1742, ten days after the election of his successor of tyler, he passed away a few days prior to that date, evidently in good Masonic odour since the funeral cortege set out from the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern, in Covent Garden, then the meeting-place of the Stewards’ lodge, followed by a great number of members of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Freemasons “of the best quality,” the body being “decently interred in Covent Garden Church.”

According to the Church Register the funeral took place on January 5, 1742.

In 1724 Sayer petitioned grand lodge for a sum of money. Whether this was charity, at the beginning of the personal troubles which brought him to poverty; whether he asked for money for some other purpose; whether he received any, history is silent. He again petitioned grand lodge in 1730, and this time received fifteen pounds “on account of his having been Grand Master.” Then, only a few months later, the minutes of grand lodge record:

A paper, signed by the Master and Wardens of the lodge at the Queen’s Head in Knave’s Acre, was presented and read, complaining of great irregularities having been committed by Brother Anthony Sayer, notwithstanding the great favours he hath lately received by order of the grand lodge.

The sequel is told in the minutes of December 15, 1730:

Brother Sayer attended to answer the complaint made against him, and after hearing both parties, and some of the Brethren being of opinion that what he had done was clandestine, and others that it was irregular, the question was put whether what was done was clandestine, or irregular only, and the lodge was of opinion that it was irregular only — whereupon the Deputy Grand Master told Bro. Sayer that he was acquitted of the charge against him and recommended it to him to do nothing so irregular for the future.

Just what it was he did is anyone’s guess, and many have been the speculations. Whatever it was, it was not sufficient to warrant anything worse than reprimand, if the words can be so considered.

Speculation has been rife as to why this shadowy unknown was chosen as the first grand master. While likely he had some position and place in life, he was too undistinguished to leave any real record. It is commonplace now and doubtless always has been, that the proposer of a new idea, plan, scheme which meets with the approbation of any body of men, is almost invariably commissioned as chairman of the committee to carry it out. More than one noted authority has believed that Anthony Sayer was the Mason who first proposed the idea of a grand lodge to the brethren who eventually formed it. Hobbs thinks that, if not the original proposer of the grand lodge, Sayer may have been a prime mover in the deliberations and arrangements — doubtless long drawn out and provocative of much dissension, discussion, opposition and delay — which eventually resulted in the four old lodges forming the Premier Grand Lodge.

If this is so — as seems not improbable — then Anthony Sayer takes on a great, even an awesome importance. Instead of being merely an undistinguished “gentleman” chosen grand master by brethren trying a new experiment, he becomes the mainspring, the force behind, the original cause of the whole system of grand lodges of the world. He is transformed from what his undistinguished and sparse history makes him, to the great Father of Freemasonry as we know it.

It is this possibility — it can hardly be said to be a strong probability — which gives Anthony Sayer his robes of honor in Freemasons’ memories, and makes of the thin ghost of an almost anonymous life a rounded figure of high importance.

In the London Post of January 16, 1742, appears this notice:

A few days since died, aged about 70 years, Mr. Anthony Sayer, who was Grand Master of the most Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons in 1717. His corpse was followed by a great Number of Gentlemen of that Honourable Society of the best Quality from the Shakespeare’s-Head Tavern in the Piazza in Covent-Garden, and decently interr’d in Covent-Garden Church.

And it is here that research students must leave him. But Romance may add a word.

If it is true that Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, was the first to propose a grand lodge to save from extinction the Speculatives whose lodges were slowly dying from lack of coordination and direction; if he were the driving force behind which carried the proposal through, he must have prophesied to those he sought to persuade to these views that a grand lodge would do much — that it would increase, not decrease the number of lodges; that it would foster the making of more Speculative Freemasons; that it would result in the spread of Freemasonry. Perhaps he promised that it would spread beyond London, even into the Provinces — even, perhaps, to the shores of the sea in all directions from London!

And if he did, a reverent Romancer may see in any of thousands of Temples, in any of multiplied thousands of lodges the world over, in the presence of any gathering of the five million brethren of English speaking Freemasonry, this misty wraith, present in a corner, stretching out fleshless and diaphanous ghostly arms and crying in a weak and unheard voice, “Oh, I told you so — I told you so — I told you so!”

The Masonic Service Association of North America