Freemasonry and stoodley pike west yorkshire

from steve hanson blogger
I wrote a letter to Todmorden News about Stoodley Pike and its strange features a few years ago (it was printed in the Friday December 3, 2004 edition). I was hoping to draw some Freemasons out of the woodwork to comment, but none were forthcoming. However, a week after publication, a man approached me in a pub and asked if I had written the letter. I told him I had and I asked him what he thought. ‘Load o’ bollocks…’ he replied. How I miss West Yorkshire. Here are my musings in full. All the quotes relating to the Pike are from E.M. Savage’s excellent little booklet on the monument.

Stoodley Pike, built in 1856, sits above the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden. An obelisk, it’s part of a trend which Alan Moore called ‘the great Masonic obelisk siting drive of the nineteenth century’. The obelisk design of the tower is a ‘…reflection of patron Samuel Fielden’s freemasonry’ and of the society of the time’s obsession with Egyptology.

As well as the obelisk shape, the compass symbol of Freemasonry is on the lintel above the door. About a quarter of the way up the obelisk is a balcony offering views of the valley. This balcony can only be reached by narrow stairs, which have to be navigated in total darkness. This is a version of the Freemason’s blindfold ceremony, compulsory on your ascent, built into the monument.

During the actual Freemason ceremony, a hangman’s noose is placed around the neck of the blindfolded ‘candidate’, the end of the rope hanging down behind him (it’s always a ‘him’). The Inner Guard places the point of a dagger to the candidate’s left breast. This is baptism by fear, in the presence of the ‘Great Architect of the Universe’.

The stairs spiral up around the central coil of Stoodley Pike, the dizzy ascent accentuated by the deliberate lack of lighting. You literally have to take a leap of faith to go up, commit yourself to the uncertainty of what lies in the darkness. This makes Stoodley Pike a religious artefact, an optical technology and a figure of control, as much as it’s a peace monument, war memorial and Freemason’s fancy. The plunge into pitch black as you ascend the stairs to the balcony only lasts a few minutes, but it seems much longer. As with Masonic initiation, the potential rewards for going through the ordeal are great, as the view from the balcony is breathtaking, the whole of Todmorden can be seen from there. As part of restoration work in 1889, a grill was placed in the balcony floor so that a little more light would be shed on the ascendant, and the roughly hewn stone around the grill can still be seen. But this is an afterthought, and even with this addition, nearly all of the steps remain in total darkness. A simple choice could have been made for the stairs to be lit, a couple of windows would have sufficed, but they were never part of the original design.

Paul Overy writes of attractions created for the nineteenth and early twentieth century, of Great Exhibitions and World Fairs in which ‘…visitors were subjected to sensations of shock, vertigo…’ Overy links these panorama-like spectacles, moving dioramas, sometimes called ‘vertigo machines’, to the fragmenting of vision within modernity. It is unclear how far this comparison can plausibly be pushed here, yet Stoodley Pike’s design certainly uses some of the tension build-and-release of the rollercoaster, albeit much more subtly. I don’t think – apart from the initial plunge into darkness and release – that the Pike can be read completely as a fragmenting vision machine. C.L.R James’s comments on modern cinema and culture could be figured in as well, they place the western visual space in the ‘panoramic’.

Stoodley Pike is an optical technology from the nineteenth century. It works by removing all vision from you in a way that instills fear –this is the fragmentation of vision- and then restoring your sight in a spectacular, panoramic way. The ‘blind’ are made to see, but of course made to see in a very didactic way. The underlying message of the view from the balcony is one of ownership; this is the land we survey, you are privileged to be seeing it. And literally, nearly all of Todmorden’s key buildings were created by Freemason Samuel Fielden, his associates and family. It’s an exclusive view, not for the faint-hearted, only for those brave enough to make the leap of faith, but a leap of faith into a patriarchal, religious (often non-conformist) organisation. The link between macro view and phallocentricity has been widely acknowledged, only bolstered here by Stoodley Pike’s overtly phallic shape.

The optical aspect (the view from the balcony) is a symbolic grasping at the immediate local territory, and the appropriation of aesthetics of an ancient, ‘exotic’ artefact (the obelisk design) at colonial territory. The Pike is an early symbol of globalisation, nearby Manchester being a key early globalising city, via its export, not only of an industrial model, but of the whole form of industrial capitalism. A form of branding from the 19th century, the land is signed and sealed by this giant stamp, as a land registry deed would be, as the cows in Stoodley Fields below were once branded. Icon, logo, it has since become the emblem of the town of Todmorden. For instance, it’s the emblem on the front of the Todmorden News and Advertiser, the town’s newspaper, in which my letter on Stoodley Pike originally appeared.

The site has been used for much longer than the current monument though. The first Stoodley Pike is rumoured to have been a beacon where fires could be lit to warn of the Spanish Invasion. Oral histories frame identity. People locate themselves in a Todmorden-of-the-mind. I’ve heard parents asking their children if they think they’ll see ‘The Stoodley Pike ghost’ inside. In William Law’s poem, Wanderings of a Wanderer, a stanza on Stoodley Pike reads: ‘Thou standest upon the tomb of one unknown’. A skeleton discovered when the first Pike’s foundations were laid is rumoured to be the body of a murder victim, but even this anecdotal evidence died along with the workmen building foundations for the second Pike, who did find bones there, but never confirmed if they were human or animal. When restoration was finished in 1889, twenty Masons visited Stoodley Pike. The foundation stone of the current incarnation of Stoodley Pike was laid with Masonic honours. ’A youngster perched on his father’s shoulder, leant forward to see all that was going on, and was touched accidentally by the Tyler’s sword, and blood flowed freely’.

Flints and other stone age artefacts have been found on the moor, so it is likely the area has been familiar to man for a long time. Todmorden people didn’t always live down in the valley, early man lived on the moors as the valley was a densely vegetated swamp. Before any Pike monument existed, a heap of stones used to stand on the spot, the keeper of which, it is said, had to keep them tidy, otherwise:

‘…no-one could sleep. The banging of doors and other noises started up… Elusive flames were to be seen playing around the stone’.

The habit of building new churches and cathedrals on older pagan sites is active here, but this kind of myth I will leave for the Ackroyds and Sinclairs of this world. There is a much more straightforward reading to be had here, albeit a Foucauldian one: this myth encourages order through building (literally, ordering stones) the penalty for failure being chaos, hell. ‘Redemption’ in this era comes through a Cartesian ordering of space.

Discussing Philippe Hoyau, Patrick Wright says ‘The past may still be an imaginary object, but it is now organised around three major models: the family, conviviality and the countryside. Purged of its leading political tensions, the past can then be offered to one and all in newly inclusive ceremonies of collective identification.’

Stoodley Pike is ‘naturalised’ as a tourist site, busy on summer days, but below this veneer of ‘collective identification’ it is a bizarre collage of styles, aspirations and religious motifs, as Freemasonry itself is. The ‘traditional’ is always to some extent ‘fake’, and buildings of power, as Raymond Williams has it, are to some extent always ‘ambivalent’. But the practice of siting great public works is, in the final analysis, still an exercise in Power, from the Roman-era on up.

The Stoodley Pike seen today isn’t the first, but the second. The first version of the Pike, commemorating the surrender of Paris to the Allies in 1814, fell in strange circumstances. It was already fragile after being cracked by lightning. Then, on the afternoon the Russian Ambassador left London before the declaration of war with Russia, the first Stoodley Pike collapsed. The monument to peace conveniently fell on the eve of war. Stoodley Pike is officially a war memorial and peace monument. Yet a peace monument could have been made in any form, like the Remembrance Gardens in Centre Vale Park, or the stone carved lists of the fallen found in many towns all over the world…

A lightning conductor was added to the second Pike to limit damage. This enlightenment science element is another strong narrative emerging from Stoodley Pike. Todmorden lad made good, John Cockroft studied under Ernest Rutherford, taking part in nuclear research, which irrevocably changed the face of the world. Along with Walton, he first split the atom. The family cotton mill had a water wheel, so the Cockroft family took us – via paying for John’s Manchester University science education with the proceeds of the industrial revolution – from water power to nuclear in the space of a generation. Such was the incredible modernity we have just been through. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein inevitably shadows a narrative such as this. Victor Frankenstein’s teacher introduced him to almost unlimited godlike powers, as did John Cockrofts. As Todmorden artist and writer William Holt put it in his novel The Wizard of Whirlaw, he had discovered ‘the key to unlock the powerhouse of the universe’.

The first visible tribute to John Cockroft’s efforts appeared in Todmorden years before his blue plaque did. In 1962 a CND symbol appeared on Stoodley Pike. Just below, John Cockroft’s Great Grandfather, Jack o’ the Heights had grazing land. The CND paint dauber(s) chose their target well. A monument to peace in Europe during an age of altogether new potential violence. The CND symbol stood on a symbol of conservative power and enlightenment narratives. Parallel to the Bush visit demonstrations in London, an effigy of the US president was toppled at Stoodley Pike. It actually looks like a rocket, a stone missile placed high on the moors for all to see, the new sword of Damocles hanging over us in the post-fusion age, an age ushered in by one of the town’s sons. The CND symbol is still visible on the Pike, and though faded, it is now as much a part of the Frankenstein’s monster that is Stoodley Pike as are its bricks and mortar.

There are shadows of the Cold War here, espionage, 39 Steps running inside. But this is to read Stoodley Pike as metaphor, before we all get carried away. However, on some of the more over-excitable websites, it is suggested that Masonic influence may have been behind the choice of Trinity for the test of the first atom bomb. Alchemy, another practice linked with Freemasonry, was the attempt to transmute base metals into gold. John Cockroft achieved a true alchemy of base substance – in nuclear fusion – where alchemists failed. Yet as I write, ‘Rutherford’s room’, in Manchester University, is being investigated, as those who inhabited offices above, below, and to the sides, have been dying of cancer. In this we can read another old and strong myth related to Victor Frankenstein, that of Prometheus.


Hanson, S. (2004) ‘Open letter about Stoodley Pike: Does it represent Masonic ‘leap’? in Todmorden News, Friday December 3, 2004, (page 6)

Holt, W. (1959) The Wizard of Whirlaw. Printed and published by the author

James, C.L.R. (1954) ‘Popular Art and the Cultural Tradition’ reprinted in Third Text No. 10, 1990. C.L.R. James had Anna Grimshaw as an assistant in his later years, who taught visual anthropologist Amanda Ravetz. Her PhD thesis is an ethnography of Todmorden.

Moore, A. (1996) From Hell. London: Titan

Overy, P. (2003) ‘Re-Inventing the Wheel, Speed In Slow Motion’, from Visual Cultures in Britain, Vol. 4, Number 2. Manchester University Press

Savage, E.M. (1998) Stoodley Pike. Todmorden Antiquarian Society

Shelley, M. (1993, orig., 1818) Frankenstein. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth

Wright, P. (1985) ‘Everyday Life and the Aura of the Modern Past’ from On Living In An Old Country. London: Verso, 1985


I came across the original letter to the Todmorden News and so here it is:

An open letter regarding Stoodley Pike:

I’m wondering if any local historians or people with family links to Stoodley Pike’s construction have made a connection which I feel is a possibility. Stoodley Pike’s balcony can only be reached by stairs which have to be navigated in total darkness. The re-building of the second version of the monument was paid for by subscription, with patronage from the Freemasons. The Masonic compass is on the lintel above the entrance to the stairs. The ascent in total darkness appears to replicate the Masonic blindfold ceremony, a trial by ordeal, a leap of faith, after which enlightenment is received with the removal of the blindfold and acceptance into the order. Whilst I wish to completely dissociate myself from the kind of occult conspiracy theories which already surround my subject, it does occur to me that the Pike might be designed to replicate this ceremony for the layperson: ascent by ordeal, followed by a privileged view. I probably need not point out the fear which ascending Stoodley Pike for the first time can generate. As part of restoration work in 1889, a grill was placed in the balcony floor so that a little more light would be shed on the ascendant, and the roughly hewn stone around the grill can still be seen. Even with this addition though, nearly all of the steps remain in total darkness. A simple choice could have been made for the stairs to be lit, a couple of windows would have sufficed, but they were never part of the original design.

There was an error in this gadget
Related Posts with Thumbnails

  © Blogger template The Professional Template II by 2009

Back to TOP