The Lady Freemason and the clock

U 8.971-4: — There was one woman, Nosey Flynn said, hid in a clock to find out what they do be doing. But be damned but they smelt her out and swore her in on the spot a master mason. That was one of the saint Legers of Doneraile.

Commentators have had no problem in identifying the woman who supposedly hid in the clock as Elizabeth Aldworth, née St. Leger (1693/95-1773/75), daughter of Arthur St. Leger, 1st Viscount Doneraile, in County Cork, who is regarded as the first woman to be initiated into regular Freemasonry. See image right of Mrs Aldworth, from a mezzotint of 1811: Wikipedia).

But the assertion that she hid in a clock tends to be regarded as what Gifford calls “a flourish of exaggeration” on Nosey Flynn’s part, and is therefore ignored. Documentary evidence, however, shows that the issue is more complex.

It is generally accepted now that in 1712 Elizabeth Aldworth witnessed a Masonic meeting in her father’s house unintentionally, and had to join the Lodge on being discovered, when she tried to beat a hasty retreat.1 So it comes as a surprise that this version of the events is of a much younger date than the more fanciful and less trustworthy one Flynn refers to.

Twenty-five years after the event Eliza Haywood played in a scene called The Female Freemason on the stage of the Haymarket Theatre in London. It is not known if Haywood or her partner Wiliiam Hatchet was the author.2

Two years after Elizabeth Aldworth’s death a short play, called an interlude, with the title The Clock-case, or Female Curiosity, was performed at Covent Garden in 1777. The London Chronicle of 3-6 May 1777 offers a summary of the plot (p. 428):

The scene is founded on the curiosity of Mrs. Square, a freemason’s wife, who wishing to get at the secret of masonry, conceals herself in a clock-case in the lodge by the assistance of her servant, who is the tyler; but he informing his master, and the rest of his brethren, of the plot, they at their meeting debate on the punishment due to those who should be found concealed in order to get at their sacred mystery; when they all agree that the loss of the tongue is the smallest atonement that can be made for such an offence. – Mrs. Square, having taken too much rappee [a coarse variety of snuff], unfortunately sneezes, which gives the alarm, when a general search is made; in consequence of which she is discovered – brought forward in no small agitation, and the surgeon ordered to deprive her of her tongue; but on her entreaties and the fullest assurances of her conjugal obedience in future, sentence is remitted and the interlude concludes with a grateful song and chorus addressed to the audience.

An astoundingly detailed version of the clock-case story, which claims in its subtitle to provide the “Story of the Hon. Mrs. Aldworth’s institution into the sublime mysteries of Freemasonry”, mentions real citizens of Cork at the time and shows some remarkable similarities to some key elements of the dramatical farce of 1777, with the hiding-hole and the tyler (the characteristic Freemasons' spelling of "tiler", especially in the sense "the doorkeeper who keeps the uninitiated from intruding upon the secrecy of the lodge or meeting": OED). It was published in May 1839 in the Cork Standard and reprinted in September of the same year with a picture of Mrs. Aldworth in The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review. It would seem a rather brazen bit of journalism if a Cork paper and a Freemason journal published an account of the events in Cork around the first female freemason and involving prominent citizens that was a pure figment.

The story claims that a Mr. Maberly kept a house of entertainment in Cork, in which was held a Freemasons’ Lodge. Mrs Aldworth unsuccessfully tried to bribe him to gain access to the secrets of masonry, and accordingly turned to his wife for help, who suggested to ask Tim Jinkins the tyler to effect secret admission. The tyler, however, informed the master of the lodge and the plan came to nothing. Months later Mrs Maberly purchased a clock at an auction, and eventually the clock-case was intended as a hiding-place for Mrs. Aldworth. It was decided to leave the works with a local clock-maker to provide enough room in the clock-case for the lady. With the help of a barmaid, she was securely placed inside on the evening of a lodge meeting. In due course the lady, exhausted from long confinement in one position, screamed faintly and went into a swoon. On her discovery some members voted for putting the lady to death but, but when the more moderate ones became aware that there was no law that a female should not become a free and accepted mason, they proposed her initiation into the order. And accordingly the honourable lady was received into the confraternity.

As late as 1878, a century after The Clock-case, or Female Curiosity, a chapter in E. Owens Blackburne’s Illustrious Irishwomen provided the now widely accepted version of events presented at the beginning of this note. It stated hopefully:

Thus vanishes the traditional story that the lady had hidden herself in a clock-case, her presence being betrayed by the whirring of the works, which she inadvertently set in motion, and was unable to stop.3 (vol. 2, p. 279)

But the clock-case story did not vanish, and it was still current many years later, not only in newspaper articles but even in a masonic publication:

Another account of the proceedings states that after she was married in 1713, Mrs. Aldworth hid in a clock in the Lodge room of an inn at Cork, and was thus able to witness the ceremonies. According to some, Mrs Aldworth later presided as Master of the Lodge.

Masonic Notes (1918-19), vol. 1, p. 29

Whether she did indeed hide in a clock-case in youthful recklessness and slenderness and if her freemason family perhaps decided after her death to make the circumstances of the first female freemason’s initiation more dignified, will fittingly remain a secret, just as it will be impossible to prove or disprove that Mrs Aldworth became a master mason, as the Doneraile’s lodge was obviously a private one.

Joyce’s source for this story, as for so much else in Ulysses, was most likely his father, a proud Corkonian if ever there was one and a colleague of three freemasons (Buckley, Crofton and Weatherup) in the Rate Collector General's office (see here for more information of these three colleagues of John Stanislaus Joyce).

Harald Beck


1 This version was documented in 1914 in a booklet published in Cork, and edited by Brother John Day: Memoir of the Honble. Elizabeth Aldworth of Newmarket Court, Co. Cork who was initiated into the Ancient Order of Freemasonry at Doneraile House, Co. Cork. A fifth, extended edition, was published in 2019 by the Provincial Grand Lodge of Munster at Cork.

2 See Carol Howard, “A Female Freemason on Stage?: Eliza Haywood’s Patriotism at Henry Fielding’s Haymarket Theatre” in Laura Engel, The Public's Open to Us All: Essays on Women and Performance in Eighteenth-century England, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2009, pp. 128-55.

3 Other versions of the story claim she was betrayed by a sneeze she could not stifle.

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