William Porter was a prominent Freemason in Sussex who undertook to pay for the building of the Masonic Hall in Queen Street, Brighton as a memorial to his son, Sydney Porter, who had died in March 1917 while training with the Royal Navy. The source of William’s fortune is not clear: at various times, he gave his occupation as Joiner, Builder & Timber Merchant, Brewery Director, Restaurant Proprietor, and Architect & Building Surveyor.
William Porter was born at Windmill Street, Runcorn, Cheshire on 24 October 1854, the second child of William Porter (1822–1863) and his wife, Eliza née Parnell (1823–1900).
William Porter senior was born in Warrington and married Eliza Parnell at St Elphin’s, Warrington on 2 November 1845. The couple’s first child was born in early 1848. At the 1851 census, the family were living at Oxford Lane, Warrington when William gave his occupation as “brewer”.
By William junior’s birth, the family had moved to Windmill Street, Runcorn; on William’s birth certificate, his father’s occupation was given as “labourer”. By the 1861 census, however, the family had returned to Warrington and were living at 27 Victoria Place, with William senior again described as a “brewer”, and Eliza as a “ginger beer manufacturer”.
The couple’s third child, Elizabeth, was born at Warrington in the summer of 1861. William senior died at Warrington in June 1863, aged 41, when William junior was only 9 years old, following which he was raised by his mother, who supported her three children from her business manufacturing ginger beer.
At the 1871 census, Eliza and her two younger children were living at Victoria Street, about 1½ miles north of Victoria Place, when 17-year old William was employed as a joiner. James had left home by now, but died in May 1872.
On 25 December 1873 at Holy Trinity Church, Warrington, William, aged only 19, married Elizabeth Clare, also aged 19; her father Thomas Clare was a tile cutter.
The couple’s first child, William Thomas, was born at Warrington on 21 June 1877. Two further sons quickly followed: Stanley, born on 25 February 1879, and Henry Stephen, born on 9 November 1880.
At the 1881 census, the family were living at 89 Manchester Road, Warrington, when William gave his occupation as ‘Builder & Timber Merchant’.
By 1890, the family had moved to North Meols, near Southport where William and Elizabeth’s fourth child, Bertie Cecil was born on 16 July 1890. At the census in 1891, the family were resident at 11 Sefton Street, North Meols, with William giving his occupation as ‘Brewery Director’. When William was initiated into Freemasonry in the following year, his occupation was recorded as ‘ Restaurant Proprietor’ and his address as 28 Hampton Road, Southport.
At some time in the next few years, the couple appear to have moved to the south coast, when they attended the baptism of their youngest child, Bertie at Christ Church in Folkestone, Kent on 11 July 1897.
Shortly afterwards, William moved to Brighton and had a house built at ‘Hylands’ in Dyke Road, Patcham. At the 1901 census, William (now a ‘retired Building Surveyor’) was living at Hylands with a 32 year old housekeeper, Frances Jenkins from Portsmouth, and two other servants, while his wife, Elizabeth had returned to Lancashire and was living at Common Road, Parbold, near Wigan with her two younger sons, and two servants.
On 25 December 1901 at Hylands, Frances Jenkins gave birth to a son. On the birth certificate, his name was recorded as ‘Sidney’ although the family spelt his name as ‘Sydney’. Frances is recorded as ‘Frances Porter, formerly Jenkins’.
Elizabeth Porter died at Parbold on 20 May 1903, aged 49, with cancer of the uterus. Her death certificate records her as the ‘wife of William Porter, Surveyor’.
At the 1911 census, William and Frances were living at Hylands with 20-year old Bertie (now a Sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy) and 9-year old Sydney. Frances gave her name as ‘Frances Porter’, describing herself as ‘married’ and that the marriage had lasted 17 years, although no record of any marriage between the couple has been traced. She also recorded that the ‘marriage’ had produced three children, two of whom had died. (It has not been possible to identify these two children,)
William was initiated into Victoria Lodge No 2360 at Southport on 14 October 1892, and raised and passed at the following monthly meetings on 15 November and 13 December 1892 respectively. He was installed as Worshipful Master of Victoria Lodge on 16 October 1900, at the Freemasons’ Hall at Eastbank Street, Southport.
He subsequently joined three Sussex lodges: Earl of Sussex No 2201 in April 1911, Sussex Masters No 3672 in April 1916, and Temperance Lodge No 4064 in January 1920, where he was the founding Worshipful Master. He remained a subscribing member of all four lodges until his death.
He was the Provincial Senior Grand Warden for Sussex and Past Grand Deacon at Grand Lodge.
William was also a member of East Sussex County Council and a county magistrate.
Sydney was born at Hylands on 25 December 1901 and was educated by Charles Hammond at Beechcroft School in Kearsney, Dover until September 1915, when he followed his half-brother Bertie into the Royal Navy, joining the Royal Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight.
In February 1917, there was an outbreak of measles at Osborne which claimed the lives of several cadets. Sydney was taken ill on 18 February with the illness rapidly worsening. He became seriously ill with broncho-pneumonia, resulting in his death on 5 March 1917.
Sussex Masonic Centre
Following Sydney’s death, William financed the building of the northern extension to the Masonic club premises in Queen’s Road, Brighton and the creation of the Sussex Masonic Centre as a memorial to his son.
At a meeting of Provincial Grand Lodge of Sussex on 17 December 1918, W. Bro Porter made an offer that if the brethren of the Province would subscribe a sum of £5,000 to purchase the club premises and six adjoining cottages, he would ‘at his own expense erect thereon a building comprising two lodge rooms with all necessary accommodation and offices for the Provincial Grand Secretary’.
The offer was accepted ‘with the greatest appreciation’ and construction work commenced immediately. The foundation stone was laid on Thursday 26 June 1919 by Charles Gordon-Lennox, 7th Duke of Richmond & 2nd Duke of Gordon, KG, GCVO, Provincial Grand Master, accompanied by Major Robert Lawrence Thornton C.B.E., the Deputy Provincial Grand Master and many other distinguished brethren. The building of the new temple was delayed until 1924 before new homes could be found for the tenants of the six cottages that stood on the site, and sadly William Porter was never able to see the results of his generosity.
On his death in January 1924, William Porter left £10,000 to the Trustees of the Province of Sussex Masonic Temple on trust with the income to be applied for the upkeep of the new temple.
The final cost of the building was about £17,000 to which was added the £5,000 for the site and several thousand pounds for furnishings. The new Masonic Centre was finally dedicated on 20 July 1928 by the Rt. Hon. Lord Ampthill, Pro. Grand Master and a team of senior Grand Officers, following which it became home to most of the Brighton-based lodges, many of whom had previously held their meetings at the Royal Pavilion.
William died at Hylands from cancer of the rectum on 9 January 1924.
Other family members
William’s eldest child, William Thomas was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge and called to the bar in 1901. In 1907, he was appointed a magistrate in Kenya, becoming town magistrate in Nairobi in 1909. He was also puisne judge in Cyprus from 1911, in the Gold Coast in 1915 and in Ceylon in 1921. He retired with ill health in 1924, settling in Eastbourne, where he died on 14 January 1928, aged 50. He was also a Freemason, having been initiated into St. Pauls Lodge, No 2277 at Limassol on 6 March 1912.
Bertie Cecil Porter attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth from January 1906, and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in May 1907, becoming a lieutenant in May 1912. During the First World War, he served on HMS Minerva in the eastern Mediterranean, as part of the Allied naval forces supporting the Gallipoli Campaign. He remained in the Royal Navy after the war, retiring in July 1933 with the rank of Commander. During the Second World War, he served with the Compass Department of the Admiralty, with the rank of Acting Captain, becoming the department’s director in 1948. He was awarded the O.B.E. in the 1946 New Year’s Honours. He was also awarded the Portuguese Military Order of Aviz in December 1918. He died on 3 November 1959 at Poole, Dorset aged 69.
1861 England Census
1871 England Census
1881 England Census
1891 England Census
1901 England Census
1911 England Census
Cambridge University Alumni, 1261-1900
Foreign Decorations and Awards 1905-1922
National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966
United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Records, 1751–1921
The Courier: 18 January 1924. Mr William Porter
Dixon, H.R. The History of Sussex Freemasonry (1974)
Drury, Jennifer: Listed Buildings – Masonic Centre, mybrightonandhove.org.uk
Eastbourne Gazette: 18 January 1928. The Late Mr W.T. Porter. Death After Much Illness
Evening News (Brighton):
24 April 1924. Sussex Masonic Temple Gets Reversion of £10,000 Under a Will
21 July 1925. Brighton’s New Masonic Temple
Find A Grave:
The Freemason’s Chronicle: 27 October 1900. Victoria Lodge No. 2360, Installation of Brother William Porter
Lancashire Online Parish Clerk Project: Marriages at Holy Trinity in the Town of Warrington
1 July 1919. Masonic Temple
29 April 1924. A Generous Mason
Nemeth, Robert Stuart: Sussex Masonic Centre, 29 May 2007
Osborne Magazine: Summer 1917. In Memoriam
The Scotsman: 22 December 1905. Royal Navy Cadetships
20 December 1918. County Notes
18 January 1924. County Notes
8 June 1928. Sussex Freemasons’ Temple
The National Archives:
For more about the Royal Naval College at Osborne, see the “HMS Racer” website maintained by Stuart Goodwin.
Family memorial: Find A Grave
Cadets at Osborne: Find A Grave
Memorial at Sussex Masonic Centre: David Earley
Sydney Porter grave: Find A Grave
William Thomas Porter: National Portrait Gallery