Biography of James Agar
Right Worshipful Brother James Agar (died 1838)1 is responsible for giving the fraternity of Freemasons more consistency, and greater attachment to the works of Euclid, as well as more insight into holy scripture. Yet a biography of his professional, personal, and Masonic life and contributions has not been presented, nor celebrated in regular Freemasonry. This biography fills that gap by presenting some of what is known of his life from primary sources of information, as well as addressing the significance of his contributions to Freemasonry.
Fortunately we are able to learn an appreciable amount about James Agar from the documentation of the time. While the lives of many people of his time passed without record, certain key events in the lives of the elite were noted. And it is from those records that we can gain an understanding of James Agar. Still, some details are only determined by inference, and other events are knowable from secondary sources.
James Agar lived in turbulent times. The American Revolution ended in 1776. The French Revolution occupied the decade of 1789 through 1799. And there was an Irish Rebellion in 1798. The Napoleonic Wars commenced in 1803, and concluded with the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815. The War of 1812 in North America ended in January 1815 with the Battle of New Orleans.
The British Parliament passed the ‘Unlawful Societies Act’ in 1799 to supress seditious societies including a growing number of trade unions. Owing to efforts by the Grand Masters of both the Antients and the Moderns as well as from influential Masons, a clause was inserted to partially exempt regular Masonic Lodges from the full brunt of this law.
The British Monarch through these years was King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820; almost the full life of James Agar. A brother of King George III was the Duke of Cumberland, who was elected Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge of England in 1782. Four of the sons of King George III became Masons.
Important musicians of the time include: Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Joseph Haydn (also a Mason), Niccolo Paganini, Gioachino Rossini, and Franz Schubert (also a Mason).
Prominent writers of the era include: Robert Burns (also a Mason), Immanuel Kant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott (also a Mason), and Jane Austen.
There is a project underway to draw attention to those who lived in London from 1690 through 1800. It was started by a group of academics exploring the lives of ordinary people through their encounters with institutions such as church and the courts. LondonLives.org organizes access to over 240,000 pages from various archives as well as datasets from other sources.2 A noted diarist of the day was William Godwin (1756 to 1836). His hand-written diaries and notes for the years 1788 through 1836 have been digitized for use by researchers into the life of the elite in London.3 James Agar is mentioned 22 times in Godwin’s diaries over these years.
We may infer that James enjoyed financial support from a wealthy family, and that his immediate family was connected to a more famous branch of the Agar family that enjoyed rank and fortune as well as the privilege of titles in the peerage of Ireland.
Family support is evidenced first in the early in his life as young James was admitted to Trinity College Dublin on 6 May 1775. The record of admission notes him as being the “Son of James, generosus”. Generosus is a Latin word meaning ‘gentleman’. The record notes as well that he is a ‘pensioner’, with the meaning that he paid for his tuition and did not have a scholarship from the College.4
Later in his life, George Agar, 1st Baron Callan, died and left James a fortune.5 This is an indication of the connection James Agar enjoyed with the branch of the Agar family with estates in County Kilkenny and an ancestral home at Gowran Castle.
The Trinity College record does not indicate what subjects he studied while he was a student in Dublin. Most certainly he studied some scripture, and Latin. I propose that he also studied Geometry because of the prominence of the study of geometry at universities of the day. The Library at Trinity College in Dublin is famous for being the home of ‘The Book of Kells’, which is a collection of beautifully illustrated Celtic scripture manuscripts. The Library also contains a large collection of translations and editions of The Elements by Euclid.
The importance of the study of Euclidean geometry at Trinity College is evidenced in the life of Thomas Elrington (1760 – 1835). He entered Trinity College at the same time as James Agar. On graduation Thomas Elrington enjoyed successful careers as an academic and clergyman. He eventually became Provost of Trinity College, and Bishop of Leighlin and Ferns. For the use of Trinity College he edited ‘Euclid’s Elements, The First Six Books’ in 1788, which was reprinted a dozen times.6
James Agar must have done well in his education for on 29 April 1779 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in London, England. This is one of four governing bodies for the legal professions in England.7 He continued his education at St. Mary Hall, Oxford, a sister college to Trinity College. He was admitted there on 19 May 1784.8 Soon after, on 28 June 1784 he was called to the bar.
During his legal career, James Agar was named in the Old Bailey Session Papers as attending the metropolitan sessions from 1793 through 1834. He was registered to practice in the Palace Court from 1792 through 1820. And he was listed as counsel in the London, Middlesex and Westminster Sessions from 1793 through to his death in 1838.9 He is noted to have had chambers in Hare Court at the Inner Temple in the 1780s through at least to 181110; essentially this is an address for his office at one of the four governing bodies for the legal profession.
There are two instances of legal trouble for James Agar. Historian Ed Pope notes that on the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in 1798, James Agar was arrested at the Inner Temple on suspicion of high treason and held for six weeks in the Tower of London along with several others.11
There is also a record of the court proceedings in the Old Bailey for 26 May 1819, showing Charles Rennett accusing James Agar of wrongdoing. Mr. Rennett asserts that before his father died, his father “was of an imbecile mind and decollated constitution”. While his father had prepared a will in 1805 allowing for fair distribution of his estate to his wife, daughter and to Charles Rennett as his son, in 1809 James Agar took “advantage of my father’s mental weakness” and got him to sign a new will which divided the estate between Mr. Rennett’s sister, James Agar, and James Agar’s “illegitimate” son. The proceedings note that this was one of a series of private injuries to Mr. Rennett that led to him kidnapping the 3 year old son of Joseph and Sarah Elizabeth Horsley as a way of seeking restitution. The Rennett family was close to James Agar, and the young boy who was kidnapped was a relative of James Agar. The recorded decision of the court is that Charles Rennett was guilty and sentenced to be transported for seven years.12
Historian Ed Pope has found through his research that James Agar had two sons. While there isn’t an accessible document noting a marriage, there is a record of William Gaysper Agar, son of James and Ann Agar being born 10 November 1788 and subsequently baptised 4 December at the church of St. James Clerkenwell. There is also the record of another child John Charles Agar being baptised there in 1791, but the lack of further records of this second child means he probably didn't survive infancy.13 There are no further records for Ann Agar either. We may infer that she may have died in childbirth, which was more common then than now.
James’ son William Agar became a Commander in the Royal Navy in 1829. He commanded a sloop, the HMS Arachne. Unfortunately in mid-December 1831 it went ashore on a reef off the island of Mariguana (The Bahamas); and this led to a court martial.14 The court martial was held 13, 14 February 1832 and the conclusion recorded as assigning no blame to the officers. Instead, they were commended for seamanship in recovering the vessel. On the 22 of January, 1833, Commander Agar’s ship assisted HMS Pallas to salvage the ship Isabel. The salvage-money awarded the crew of the Arachne was paid by the Admiralty in April of 183415. However, before this payment, William Agar died. His will was proved16 3 February 1834 in which he left most of his estate to his father James Agar17.
James Agar’s recorded marriage was to the widow Sarah Fletcher. They were married 10 May 1805. The marriage of James and Sarah was noted in a newspaper of the day18. One of the witnesses to this marriage was George Agar, the 1st Baron Callan (1751 – 1815). Sarah Agar died in 1811. Her will includes a lengthy list of bequests and grants of monies to many family and friends. Just a few years later, in October of 1815, George Agar, the 1st Baron Callan, died. In his will he provides £2000 to James Agar.
While his professional life as a barrister appears to have been successful, we cannot conclude the same for his personal life. James Agar left the land of his birth. He spent time in jail. The mother of his two sons died. A son died in infancy, and the other son died in the prime of his life.
Having reviewed his professional career and personal life, we can now consider his Masonic career. His early history within his mother Lodge was proudly noted during a centenary event for the Lodge.19 James Agar was Initiated into Mount Lebanon Lodge No. 73 of London, England, in 1786. This was a Lodge constituted on the 27 February 1760 by the Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons according to the Old Constitutions (the Antients). I must note that this is the current name and number of the Lodge. It has undergone several re-namings and re-numberings through its long history.20
He was elected and Installed the Worshipful Master of his Lodge in 1787.
He achieved prominence in the Antients Grand Lodge, being elected and serving as Junior Grand Warden in 1788 and 1789. Then he was Senior Grand Warden in 1790. He became Deputy Grand Master and served in that position from 1791 through 1794. He continued active leadership in the Grand Lodge as evidenced in the proceedings for 1 June 1803 there is the record “signature book or attendance register introduced to ensure only appropriate members enter lodge meetings at the suggestion of James Agar, Past Deputy Grand Master”.21 To Masons today, this means that we owe the fact we have a Tyler’s Register to this eminent Brother.
Rt. Wor. Bro. James Agar was present and fully involved in the ceremonies of the Union of the Antients and Moderns to form the United Grand Lodge of England. As I record in my book The Master’s Emblem Explained for Masons, Rt. Wor. Bro. James Agar was present and leading the meetings of The Board of Works in 1815 when decisions were made regarding consistency for our aprons. He continued to demonstrate leadership in the Fraternity as the First President of the Board of General Purposes of the United Grand Lodge of England. The last time he was recorded as present at a meeting of the United Grand Lodge of England was 6 June 1832.22
Rt. Wor. Bro. James Agar died at his home at Holly Terrace, Highgate, on 25 January 1838, in his 81st year. He was buried at St. Pancras old cemetery on 2 February 1838.23 His death was noted in The Legal Observer,24 and also in Freemasons’ Quarterly Review.25 The obituary in Freemasons’ Quarterly Review notes he was one of the Commissioners to bring about the union of two Grand Lodges. And “he was one of the Trustees of the United Society’s Funds for many years”, as well as “a liberal contributor to the Charities.” The obituary concludes: “Unable, for the last few years of his life, to attend to the duties of his profession, he retired to enjoy ease, comfort, and solitude, at his house in Holly Terrace, Highgate, where he was visited by a very select circle of friends until Nature’s lamp becoming exhausted, he gradually declined, and died at the advanced age of eighty years.”
His will26 makes no mention of family, and leaves his estate to “my dear friend William Agar of Carlton Chambers Regent Street in the County of Middlesex, Esquire”. A Memorandum to the will leaves sums to servants; “one hundred pounds and also a sum equal to purchase both of them an annuity for life equal to the amount of a year present wages (of) sixteen guineas a year both of my female servants in recognition of their long and faithful service to us and in recognition of my servant William (surname is unclear) faithful services twenty guineas a year”.
In his life he contributed greatly to the Fraternity of Freemasonry. He was elected as a leader, and served through the time of reconciliation. There is a very clear record of his ongoing impact by the requirement for all Lodges to have a Tyler’s Register. I assert that by his education in scripture, geometry, and law, he had the intellectual foundation to present to our gentle Craft a clear identity through conformity of our aprons, and later through the precepts for our Constitutions. Being in the right place, at the right time, and with a properly constituted mind, he gave us the Master’s emblem in February of 1814. Having earned the esteem and respect of the Brethren, he guided the development and implementation of a Constitution that is the model of governance used throughout the world wherever regular Craft Masonry is practised.
There is not a place of remembrance we might visit to honour Rt. Wor. Bro. James Agar. St. Pancras old cemetery was modified in late 1800’s due to railroad expansion. Many bodies were relocated and grave markers or monuments were moved. As Masons, we know our greatest respect to departed merit is to cherish his memory in our hearts.