The eighteenth century was an age of empire, enlightenment, military conflict and social, political and industrial revolution. It was ushered in with further Union with Scotland in 1707 and the end of the Stuart monarchy with the death of Queen Anne and arrival of King George I in 1714. For a substantial part of the century Britain was at war and yet by the year 1800 was well on the way to building the biggest Empire of all time. British Freemasons were empire building too both at home and abroad as recently formed Grand Lodges began to develop networks of Provincial Grand Lodges. Cheshire played a significant part in this process and subsequently can now be regarded as the oldest Masonic Province. There were seven Provincial Grand Masters with responsibility for Craft freemasonry in Chester and Cheshire in the eighteenth century. The most well known of these were the Provincial Grand Masters associated with the Premier (Moderns) Grand Lodge of England and they were:
- Colonel Francis Columbine in 1725
- Captain Hugh Warburton in 1727
- Captain Robert Newton in 1743
- Alderman John Page in 1754
- Hon John Smith-Barry in 1771
- Sir Robert Salusbury-Cotton in 1785
Perhaps less well known was Dr Hugh Cheney a Sheffield Surgeon appointed Provincial Grand Master for York, Lancaster and Chester by the Antients Grand Lodge in 1781.
The role of the early Provincial Grand Master was quite different from that of today. Incumbents were expected to operate more as Grand Lodge representatives and inspectors for a specified area with little detailed guidance. Appointed centrally they may have first functioned as an integral part of a senior private Lodge in the area in question. Grand Lodge had modest expectations of their provincial leaders at this stage and they only had Deputies and Wardens to support them. Initially there were no Provincial Officers or separate Provincial Grand Lodges. In these formative and most interesting of times just who were the Provincial Grand Masters of Cheshire? What did they do and what contributions did they make to eighteenth century freemasonry and society?