BY THE END OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, London’s population had risen to 800,000; farm houses were close to the City centre, stagecoaches rattled down its streets, night watchmen with their lanterns cried out the hours and hackney chairmen shouted, “By your leave there!” and then often knocked unsuspecting pedestrians into the foul smelling gutters.
The cramped living conditions meant that smallpox and other infectious diseases were commonplace. Life was harsh and regular work did not guarantee survival.
According to one estimate, the average age of death amongst unskilled workers was nineteen. Infants and children under five, invariably from the working-class, made up almost half of all the deaths in London during the latter part of the eighteenth century.
But beneath the squalor and misery, a new spirit of philanthropy was beginning to stir. John Howard worked to improve living conditions in the overcrowded prisons and hospitals, William Wilberforce campaigned to abolish the slave trade. And the colony of New South Wales was founded, with the intention of introducing a milder form of punishment – deportation!
The year 1788 marked the beginning of a new era in many walks of life. In January, the first issue of The Times Newspaper was printed (it was previously called the Daily Universal Register) and before the month of March was out, the school first known as the Royal Cumberland Freemason’s School, was founded by Chevalier Bartolomeo Ruspini, under the patronage of HRH The Duchess of Cumberland.
He and his colleagues wanted to put into practice the real teachings of Freemasonry and in so doing they sought to benefit people other than themselves.
Two similar institutions for boys opened 10 years later (in 1798) and operated independently for 60 years, providing education and clothing for the sons of distressed masons; The title ‘Royal’ was granted to the boys institution in 1832.
In 1973 the Grand Master MW Brother HRH The Duke of Kent asked The Hon Mr. Justice Bagnell to review all of the Masonic Charities, and as a result of his report the two were amalgamated as the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys. The Boys school was sold in 1977 but the girls school in Rickmansworth remains, and operates as an independent educational establishment accepting both fee paying pupils and those supported by a petition from the RMTGB.
The trust deed was signed in the early 1980s and aims to support the educational needs of children (of all ages) of distressed Freemasons; and where funds permit, the children without a Masonic connection.
The Trust today has extended its remit and is now able to assist with emergency grants for cases of financial hardship, welfare support and bursaries for gifted and talented children. Recent years have seen applications continually rise, particularly as a result of the recession – with the 2010 annual report showing the total number of children assisted as 1820. New cases increased during the year by 30%.
The decision taken, all those years ago, by Chevalier Ruspini and eight other fellow Masons to found a school for the daughters of Freemasons who had fallen on hard times, was indeed very far sighted for the age, especially as an elementary education did not become compulsory until 1876.
Ruspini’s legacy has not only proved to be long lasting, but also represented a shining example to everyone of philanthropy in action. He is remembered as a good neighbour and friend to children. Today, the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB), continues the good work begun by Chevalier Ruspini all those years ago.