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Freemasons see young blood as key to survival

Freemasons Hall - the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England - in London
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Freemasons Hall - the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England - in London

It's out with the old at the Freemasons as the international society looks to boost the numbers of young people joining its ranks as it works to survive in the modern world.

Founded around the 17th century in Europe before being exported to the U.S. and worldwide, freemasonry is also known as "the craft," in homage to its roots in stonemasonry.

It portrays itself as a "fraternal society" where its members support one another, providing a space for like-minded people to socialize at "lodges" and carry out charitable works, while enabling its six million members worldwide to improve themselves on a moral level.

Famous Freemasons have included presidents and prime ministers, from Winston Churchill in the U.K. and George Washington in the U.S. and famous businessmen such as Henry Ford and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Mozart and Buzz Aldrin were also members.

The group also has strong links to the British royal family, with the Queen's cousin, the Duke of Kent, the current patron, or "Grand Master," of the U.K.'s Freemasons.

However, the society is not without its detractors who accuse it of being a secret society, where its predominantly male-only lodges use "funny handshakes" and "secret symbols" to recognize one another. Furthermore, it has been accused frequently of being an "old boys network" where members use their connections for personal gain.

In a bid to quash what it calls the "myths" surrounding it as it heads towards its tercentenary in 2017, the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales (UGLE) – the governing body of the U.K. Freemasons which oversees around 8,000 lodges – has undergone something of a re-branding exercise.

"We want to be seen as a more relevant society," said Nigel Brown, Grand Secretary (or chief executive) of UGLE told CNBC.

"There's no doubt that the majority of our members are older but young people have a huge amount to offer to the mix within lodges - the older members might have more life experience but the younger ones have new ideas and it's the combination of that that's important."

The organisation has tried to raise awareness of its existence and activities among young people as its existing membership ages. In 2005, it set up a "universities scheme" to "establish and/or enhance arrangements and opportunities for undergraduates and other university members to enjoy Freemasonry," as the scheme's website says.

At its post war peak, there were in excess of 500,000 Freemasons in the U.K.. By November this year, there are 214,000 – which had fallen from 228,000 in 2011. But the latest figures give some promising reading for the society.

Although in November 2013, the 21-30 age group represented only 2.07 percent of the total membership of U.K. Freemasons while all other age groups have declined in numbers, the range of younger members has increased.

Membership among the 21 to 30 age group has increased 7.65 percent over the last two years while membership in all other age groups decreased; The 40 – 50 age group has declined just over 10 percent, around 7 percent among 50 to 60 year olds and is down almost 10 percent between 60 to 70 year olds.

Masonic Temple in the City of London
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Masonic Temple in the City of London

University Lodges

Since the launch of the universities scheme, forty lodges that either operate in university towns or are attached to universities to cater mainly for students or alumni have become involved. Masons that CNBC spoke to insisted that the scheme was to "raise awareness" about the group and not to actively recruit more members – which is against the group's ethos.

Alistair Townsend has been a Freemason for 22 years and is the Secretary of Isaac Newton University Lodge (INUL), a lodge attached to Cambridge University principally made up of past and present students.

He told CNBC that there had definitely been an increase in younger members within his lodge of 200 members. "Older members within INUL are definitely aware of the importance of recruiting and retaining younger members," he said.

"Young people bring new ideas. We can get all the 60 year olds that we want but it's important to bring in people with new ideas. Unless we get that, the way we interact with the outside world, freemasonry is not going to change."

Membership costs around £100 a year for a regular member but students pay around a quarter of that figure. Asked what the organisation actually offered young people, Townsend said it enabled young people to feel connected to the past, a sense of tradition and formality which was "now missing from life and the world."

"We've got to find a way to show young people that we are inclusive, without losing those qualities," he added.

Claims of inclusivity and openness have been countered by accusations that the group is male-dominated, however. Women can become Freemasons, but can only join "orders" which are separate from the mainstream male-only lodges.

Interestingly, female members call each other "brother" and the head of the lodge is called the "Worshipful Master" like their male-only counterparts. The "International Order of Co-Freemasonry" – also known as "Le Droit Humain" - is open to men and women but is not widely approved of among many masons.

A French freemason
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A French freemason

Secrets and Symbols

With the organisation's main entrance requirement hardly taxing -- the only pre-requisite for joining being that applicants have some belief in a higher being – there could be concerns that younger members don't take the group seriously.

Furthermore, the Freemasons have been dogged with an accusation that they operate as an "old boys network" in which members give each other an unfair advantage in the world of business or politics – something else that could attract some young people looking to get ahead in a more hostile world where the competition for jobs is rife.

INUL's Secretary Alistair Townsend said it was important to meet younger applicants before they were accepted into his – or any lodge – to make sure they were suitable for membership and were joining for the right reasons. UGLE's Nigel Brown, meanwhile, said that "if a member came to me expecting some kind of leg-up he'd be struck off immediately."

With thousands of other university societies operating in the U.K. that offer students the chance to socialise, practice a hobby or learn a new skill, joining the Freemasons might not be the obvious choice to engage in such activities – unless they did see some kind of personal advantage.

One active young Freemason conceded that some people did join for the wrong reason. "Some people make the fundamental mistake of believing that the freemasons are essentially a networking club," Sanjay Mody, a doctor who counts himself among the 21 to 35 age group of Freemasons, told CNBC on Monday. "But it's not all, it's about fellowship and camaraderie."

Mody joined the group in 2001 when he was a medical student in Scotland. Having lived and worked in the U.S. and Cayman islands, he's attended not only his "mother lodge" in Scotland ("Lodge Ancient No.49") but many abroad.

"As corny as it sounds, for me joining the masons was like a "calling". The masonic values matched what I was looking for and I found that a lot of my friends at university were in it already."

The latest event to harness the influx of younger members is the forthcoming "University Lodges Ball," a 150-year-old society event that has been resurrected by the "Apollo University Lodge" of Oxford and Townsend's Cambridge lodge to be held this weekend in London.

One of the organisers of the ball, which is open to members and non-members alike and being held to make money for a veterans' charity, said that it was a way for the organisation to promote itself among a wide range of young people.

"I think what's happened with freemasonry, like a lot of large companies or organisations, is that the world has changed around us and it's just taken us slightly longer to adapt and change with it," Freemason Daryn Hufton-Rees told CNBC.

"We're not some weird, secret society," he said. There are no Illuminati roaming about or funny handshakes involved -- although, by the way, it's a grip, not a handshake -- We're an organisation with moral codes and people join us for the sense of camaraderie, the opportunities to learn and charitable giving."

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt