13 March 2013
An address by VW Bro Mike Woodcock, President, and W Bro Les Hutchinson, PAGDC, Chief Executive, Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys
‘A celebration of 225 years in supporting children by the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys‘
VW Bro Mike Woodcock:
Brethren, on the ceiling frieze above the senior warden’s chair, is an image of Pythagoras. It reminds me that the antient Knights of Pythagoras had a saying “that a man never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child”. Today, we want to tell you about a freemason who put that saying into action by creating the first central masonic charity 225 years ago.
He came, not from England, but from Italy, where he was a dentist – you might say he was of Italian extraction! He came to London in 1759. Then, a very different city with a population of only 800,000 crowded on the north bank of the Thames, between the tower and Westminster. Chelsea, Paddington and Marylebone were but farming villages.
England was becoming prosperous, the industrial revolution was underway and the English way of life, at least for the squire, the yeoman and the villager were the envy of Europe. But there was another side to society; the poor in the slums had a hard time, low wages, no welfare and a harsh penal regime. Gin houses advertising that you could get drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence, were the escape and ruin of many.
It was to this London that thirty year old Bartholomew Ruspini came with letters of introduction from influential connections in France and Italy, ensuring his rapid entry into the highest circles of society. He set up a dentistry practice on Pall Mall opposite Carlton House, the residence of the Prince of Wales and he began to clean the teeth of royalty.
Ruspini was initiated into the Bush Lodge; became a founder of the Lodge of the Nine Muses, helped the Prince of Wales, which whom he had become a good friend, set up the Prince of Wales’s Lodge and he achieved the rank of Grand Sword Bearer, a rank he held until his death.
Although there were occasional casual grants for the children of deceased brethren from the committee of charity of the moderns and the steward’s lodge of the antients, there was no continuous provision and so 225 years ago, almost to the day, Ruspini established an orphanage school for girls.
He secured the first funding from his wealthy connections, including the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York and Gloucester, and the Royal Cumberland School for Female Objects, was opened and named after the Duchess of Cumberland its first patron.
Fifteen girls met at Ruspini’s house on Pall Mall and processed to the new school, on the site of what is now the British Library. At the end of their school life, the girls were to return to their families or go into domestic service. School life was far from luxurious; meals consisted mainly of gruel, bread and beer with a weekly treat of boiled mutton – think of this brethren before you complain about your festive boards!
But Ruspini soon needed further funding for his school and so on its first anniversary he organised a church service and a dinner at which his masonic connections were invited to make donations – collected in a wooden box.
The event was called a festival and the collection an appeal. It raised 82 pounds, 10 shillings and 6 pence, about £9,000 in today’s values. That was freemasonry’s first festival appeal and it gave birth to the festival system which has endured for well over 200 years.
That brethren, is the collection box which started the festival system and it still bears the name of the Royal Cumberland School.
By now Ruspini had acquired a wide reputaton for benevolance and as result he received a papal knighthood conferring the title Chevalier.
What Ruspini had achieved inspired William Burwood and the United Mariner’s Lodge, to establish a similar charity for boys ten years later. The two charities grew and included the Royal Masonic Schools at Rickmansworth and Bushey.
But masonic boarding schools were not always the best solution and ‘out relief’ was started – financial grants for children who usually remained at home with their family attending local schools.
Eventually, this ‘out relief’ became the main support and in the 1980s, following the Bagnall Report, the girls and boys charities merged to form the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys.
W Bro Les Hutchinson:
If Ruspini were looking down on our proceedings today he would be extremely proud of his legacy and the impact it continues to have on the lives of so many.
The modern RMTGB is a far cry from its humble beginnings, but it still upholds the objects laid down for that first school, namely: to preserve children from the dangers and misfortunes to which their distressed situation may expose them; to train their young minds; and to qualify them to occupy useful stations in life.
We have moved on significantly from supporting just a few girls between the ages of five and ten and today we support almost 2,000 girls and boys, ranging from only a few months old to those completing full-time education, sometimes in their mid-twenties.
Today, our support is available to any child who is financially dependent on a freemason and this includes: step-children, adopted children and even grandchildren.
Today, just like in Ruspini’s day, our beneficiaries have one thing in common: they have all faced a life changing event that has reduced their family to a state of poverty. Around half of those we support have been affected by family breakdown; some have a parent who has a disability; almost a third have experienced the death of at least one parent – and some have lost both parents.
In the current economic climate more and more are from families affected by redundancy, unemployment or bankruptcy.
All of those we support are real children with real needs. And although we cannot completely erase tragedy, we can and do help to give them a brighter future.
Today, the majority of our grants are directed to children living at home, targeting the effects of poverty and helping to provide the best possible opportunities for them to succeed in life.
In addition to grants towards everyday costs, we also help with other essential items that can make all the difference to children, such as: school uniforms to ensure they fit in on their first day at school; extra-curricular activities to learn new skills, make friends and develop into well rounded young people; computer packages to enable them to complete their homework to the highest standard; and opportunities to develop rare and exceptional talent into a professional career.
We are responding to real needs of children in 2013, much like Ruspini was responding to real needs of children in his day.
But today, our work goes far beyond simply awarding and paying grants. Our skilled team of welfare advisers visit all the families in our care ensuring that they receive the appropriate support not just from us, but from the state and other providers. And our case advisers provide practical assistance and reassurance when families are at their lowest ebb.
As a celebrated philanthropist, Ruspini would be pleased to know that in addition to our core work, each year our grant making-scheme Stepping Stones helps thousands of non-masonic children.
He would also be proud that our choral bursary scheme provides other life-changing opportunities for children from low income families.
And his legacy now includes the work of Lifelites, our subsidiary charity which provides fun and educational technology, such as computers and games consoles, to every children’s hospice in the British Isles; helping to bring a little light into the lives of thousands young children who will never reach adulthood.
In these three ways we are demonstrating that masonic charity and Ruspini’s legacy are not just inward looking but a real force for good in wider society.
However, like Ruspini we need to work hard to secure funding to support our work. The short lease on that first school cost just £35 but we now spend over £9m each year and the festival system which he started continues to be the principal source of funding for the central masonic charities.
I have helped organise 25 festival appeals during which over £65 million has been raised for the trust. I am constantly astonished and immensely grateful for the generosity shown by the brethren and their families. Ruspini could never have imagined how his simple plan for securing the financial future of his school would become so pivotal to the existence and future of masonic charity.
But, what does the future hold for Ruspini’s legacy and that which is represented by that special collection box?
VW Bro Mike Woodcock:
Brethren, today, Ruspini would surely be proud that the charity he founded now cares for more disadvantaged children than at any time in its history.
He would be proud that the Royal Masonic School for Girls at Rickmansworth, although now an independent school, maintains a strong masonic tradition; providing a caring and special environment for some of our beneficiaries.
He would be proud that his name lives on in Ruspini House, located just behind Great Queen Street, where we provide accommodation for beneficiaries completing their education or beginning careers in London.
He would be proud that the endowment he helped to establish enables us to now spend on our beneficiaries on average, three times what we receive in donations from today’s freemasons.
He would be proud that the charity he founded now not only cares for boys as well as girls but works seamlessly with the other central charities providing, through Freemasonry Cares, a whole family approach – and as a man of change he would expect us to continue to evolve in order to meet the changing faces of society and of freemasonry.
But most of all he would be proud that never once in our 225 year history have we had to turn away a child in distress through lack of funds.
Brethren, that collection box is so much more than an item from a bygone age. It is a reminder that charity is at the heart of freemasonry and that we still rely on you, today’s freemasons, to support our vital work.
Let us finish with a passage taken from last year’s Prestonian lecture on Scouting and Freemasonry, words with which Ruspini would surely have agreed:
A child is a person who is going to carry on what you and I have started. He is to sit right where you are sitting and attend to those things that you and I think are important, after we have gone. We may adopt all the policies we please but how they will be carried out depends on him. Even if we make leagues and treaties, he will have to manage them. He will assume control of our cities, our provinces, countries and government (as well as scout troops and masonic lodges). All of our work is going to be judged and praised, or condemned, by him. Your reputation and future, and mine, are in his hands. All of our work is for him and the fate of our nations and all humanity is in his hands.
Chevalier Ruspini died 200 years ago this year and is buried at St James Church, Piccadilly. All the girls from his school attended his funeral wearing black cloaks.
Brethren, let us all remember not only those first girls but the hundreds and thousands of other disadvantaged children to whom we, as freemasons, have given a better start in life.
Thank you for listening to his and our story.
You can find out more information about the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys by visiting their website