From the Founding of Grand Lodge on 24 June 1717, the Feast or Grand Festival held every year on the anniversary of the Founding, which was also St John’s Day. The Feast was initially based at the Goose and Gridiron, and management of the Feast was in the hands of the Wardens and the staff of the Inn.
In 1721 the first noble Grand Master John, the second Duke of Montagu was elected and the numbers attending meant that Grand Lodge met at Kings Arms Tavern and the Brethren afterwards marched in procession to the Stationers’ Hall in order to dine.
Now that the meeting was much larger it was suggested that Stewards be appointed. They would not become Grand Stewards until 1792. The first known Steward was Mr Jessiah Villeneau who organised the feast with the assistance of Bros Thomas Morrice and Francis Baileysome, together with waiters from the Hall.
Anderson’s Constitutions state that:
“Then the Grand Wardens were order’d, as usual, to prepare the Feast, and to take some Stewards to their Assistance, Brothers of Ability and Capacity, and to appoint some Brethren to attend the Tables; for that no Strangers must be there. But the Grand Officers not finding a proper Number of Stewards, our Brother Mr. Josiah Villeneau, Upholder in the Burrough Southwark, generously undertook the whole himself, attended by some Waiters, Thomas Morrice, Francis Bailey, &c.”*
The office of Steward has not changed all that much since the appointment of these first Stewards. The number has increased; 1723 would see 6 appointed, and In 1728 a motion was moved…
“That a certain number of Stewards should be chosen, who should have the entire care and direction of the said feast (together with the Grand Wardens), pursuant to the printed regulations”.
This motion was carried when the Deputy Grand Master invited all those willing to accept the said office of Steward, to advance to the Table sign their names before the Chair. In the event 12 Stewards were appointed.
In these early years Stewards were individuals who had volunteered for the position and who personally nominated their successors. It was not until the union of the two Grand Lodges that the position was regularised and the nominations were made by specific Lodges rather than passing from one individual to another. It was also following the Union that the date of the Festival was moved to the Wednesday following St George’s Day. At the first of these, the 24 April 1816, “the eighteen Grand Stewards of the Day” were proclaimed. The number became 19 in 1904 and has remained so to this day.
“Initially born of necessity, the Stewards have been honoured to serve the Craft for more than a quarter of a millennium and long may they continue to do so. Their service is typical of that given to masonry in many ways by the Brethren generally. Freemasonry provides the opportunity- it is for us to embrace it” (Richard Tydeman)
* It is worth noting that Thomas Morrice and Francis Bailey were also senior masons. For more information about all three Stewards see the First Stewards.