‘People are not clubbable any more’: A South Yorkshire Orangeman speaks

You don’t often hear much these days from the Orange Order in England. It is there, though – there are lodges all over the country, and not just in Liverpool. There is even one in my native city of Sheffield: the John E Bingham Loyal Orange Lodge 844 (established 1913). Richard Harvey has been a member of the Lodge for 36 years, and is the Grand Orange Lodge of England’s Grand Chaplain. It was only with some difficulty that I was able to find the Peak District caravan site that he runs, in order to meet with him for a chat about the Order. At least I can say that his patience is much better than my skills at following directions…

As we sat at a table in the Derbyshire countryside on a cool July evening, Richard was keen to talk about the Institution in England:

The Order stands to protect the Williamite settlement of 1688 because we believe that only under that settlement can civil and religious liberty be guaranteed for all, and the experience of this nation is that whenever it wasn’t under that, civil and religious liberties were under threat.

We stand for old values: We stand for God, for Queen, for country, for patriotism – shall we say, the British system of democracy and liberty that we bequeathed to the world…

The Grand Chaplain was particularly keen to emphasise how the Order never used to be associated principally with Ireland. He insisted, moreover, that most of its roots were English:

They would tell you that the Orange Order came into being after the Battle of the Diamond in Loughgall, but really, it is a recognised fact that between 1688 and 1795 a number of unfederated societies existed under the broad umbrella term of the Orange Association. The first Orange Association was the Association of the Gentlemen of Devon, where, shortly after William of Orange landed, at Exeter Cathedral, all the nobles in the South West signed a document undertaking that they would support William until all threats to civil and religious liberties were completely defeated: we would regard that as the first Orange warrant.

Richard Harvey, Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of England, and member of LOL 844 in Sheffield
Richard Harvey, Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of England, and member of LOL 844 in Sheffield

As we chatted on, Richard talked about the Orange Order’s international dimension – in particular, its impact on Canada (He added that he was distantly related to Manitoba rebel Louis Riel (1844-85)):

In the Imperial Council Report for 1903 when Grand Lodge met in Dublin, that year, the Grand Lodge of England returned over 30,000 members, while Scotland returned around 29,500, and Canada returned more members than Ireland – people don’t realise, the Order was far more powerful and bigger in Canada than it ever was in Ireland. It absolutely ran Ontario…

As if more proof were needed about the Order’s Canadian influence, no fewer than four of Canada’s 22 prime ministers have been Orangemen – the most recent of them being John George Diefenbaker (Canada’s PM in 1957-63). Anyway, Richard continued, adding another little-known Orange fact:

There did use to be a Grand Lodge of South Africa, but the Grand Lodge there folded in the ’50s because they weren’t prepared to implement apartheid and sit in separate lodges…

This assumption that the Order is an Irish thing, certainly, I would say goes no further back than Home Rule and the Home Rule crises of the late 19th Century, but really more probably associated with the Troubles…

So who is attracted to joining the Order in England? Richard said that there are many reasons: some join up for the social side of things, others do so because their fathers were Orangemen. Increasingly, he added, they are appealing to conservative-minded people, and not just Protestants:

We live in an increasingly secular and liberal society – a society that isn’t governed by absolutes, where everything is situational: what was good and moral and proper 20 years ago isn’t now – it’s been changed completely. What was unacceptable and frowned upon 30 years ago, now is perfectly acceptable. In my view, it’s not just society, but many of the so-called Protestant Churches have compromised in that way, and accepted more liberal values, whereas in the Orange Order we believe now exactly what we believed when we were formed. We don’t change, and that is increasingly attractive to people, we find, because it gives them an anchor, really…

About seven years ago we had a Roman Catholic who wanted to join the Lodge. I met with him, and he might have been a good member, but obviously he couldn’t be a member, and he said to me ‘I don’t understand why I can’t join. Yes, I was born a Roman Catholic but I’m not a practising Catholic, but apart from that one thing, everything that you believe, everything that you stand for, I stand for, and I just feel I’d be amongst like-minded brethren.’ Unfortunately, we couldn’t admit him – although we do admit Roman Catholic converts: once a few years have elapsed and we are satisfied that the conversion is genuine, then yes, we’ll admit them.

So what kind of activities are LOL 844 involved in?

If there’s a particular piece of legislation going through that we’re not happy about then we might decide that individually we would lobby our MPs…

We might go out for a trip somewhere to a place of Protestant interest. Lord Frederick Cavendish (former Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1882, who was murdered in Phoenix Park) is buried near Chatsworth, in Edensor – there’s a private chapel to him there, and I’ll sometimes take groups down there, and talk them through it all. We have a Protestant Martyrs Memorial. We’re as far north as the Marian Martyrs came – the most northerly one was Joan Waste, a 21-year-old blind girl who was burned at Derby…

As he talked about the Sheffield Lodge’s activities, Richard suggested that their limited membership numbers may offer them some advantages:

In LOL 844 there are over 30 members. There were thirteen in it when we hosted Grand Lodge in 2006, but every other month or so we’re attracting members, though we do have a drop-out rate as well, but really we’re doing better than we’ve done for years….

If you’re in Liverpool, with a lot of lodges and bands and a lot of parades, it’s very easy to be an Orangeman, it’s a whole social life. If you’re joining it in somewhere like Sheffield or Doncaster you’re joining it because you’re seeking it out, and you’re joining it because you absolutely believe in those things, so I would say we have a very strong level of commitment from our people. That’s not to say we don’t have some join, and they’ll last a few months and say ‘Oh, it’s not for me’.

I moved on the conversation to the issue of parading. Yes, LOL 844 do hold parades, but they are very irregular events, and Richard explained why:

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold parades, though it’s difficult for all organisations, because of the health-and-safety requirements and insurance requirements. It’s difficult even for ex-servicemen in some places. If we parade in Sheffield we have to maintain £5 million public liability insurance – but that’s not uncommon, that’s the same across all cities, I think. Also, the police and the local authorities are stretched for money, so many councils will charge for road closures, or the police will charge, because they say ‘Oh, we have to put extra people on’, so it’s not cheap to hold a parade now…

The last time the Sheffield lodge held a parade in the city was two years ago, for the lodge’s centenary, but there was little media coverage of the event. I asked Richard whether it was because many people in England associate the Orange Order with Northern Ireland and the Troubles:

In the minds of the person in the street, certainly we’ve suffered, without a doubt [from that association], but I blame a hostile press. I regard the press as hostile, by and large, to the Orange Order. They weren’t the slightly bit interested in coming down in 2013, but I’m quite sure that if there had been any bother, the cameras would have been there, and it would have been flashed all across Yorkshire Television. It may have been because there was an English Defence League parade on the same day in Chapeltown near Barnsley, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Whenever Grand Lodge issue a press release on anything, it’s never printed…

As the light started to fade, Richard concluded by conceding that the Orange Order’s relative decline in England (contrasted with its strength in Northern Ireland) was as much down to social changes in the country over the decades as it was to the problem of media coverage, and that ‘In many ways we never recovered from the First World War’:

We’re never going to get back to what we were before the First World War, because irrespective of numbers killed, people are not clubbable any more. In 1914, for example, there were 1.2 million Oddfellows, now there are 200,000, and less than a thousand meet in lodges. Fraternal societies everywhere are struggling, and they’re never going to get back to what they were, but I think we’re bucking the trend in the Orange, I do. We’re returning more every year – not massively more, but we are returning more every year, and in a time when people are not clubbable. I’m sure people would say we are anachronistic, in that we hold to the old values and loyalties that we do, but nevertheless we do hold to them. There’s so much change and so much situational ethics, and I think it’s part of the human spirit that it wants a degree of certainty – it wants to know that this that I was brought up to believe in, it’s still true.

After we finished our conversation, I thanked Richard Harvey for his time and patience, and made a mental note to invest in a decent Sat-Nav…

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.