ONCE thought of as an institution shrouded in secrecy, closed to outsiders, the masonic movement in Bolton is now promoting its facilities for private hire.

Tucked away in Silverwell Street, Silverwell Hall, home to Bolton Masonic Lodge, is now a popular venue for weddings and functions.

It is fair to say that passing pedestrians are hardly blown away by the hall’s outward appearance — possibly exactly as intended.

While other grand halls and wedding venues are set back in sweeping grounds, Silverwell Hall is on a street corner, with its dusty orange brick exterior more akin to a row of terraced houses.

Inside, however, it is a different matter.

Purpose-built in 1928 and oozing history, the large halls, lavishly-furnished club rooms and fascinating, yet still fiercely protected, lodge rooms are so eye-catching it is amazing that so few people are aware of the facilities.

All that is changing, though, according to manager Bob Taylor, who has run the hall with wife Christine since 1984.

He said: “We now have only 20 members and we used to have dozens more than that.

“A lot now go to golf clubs instead.

“It is increasingly difficult to get members these days.

“The hall is now used for weddings, birthday parties and outside functions, and from September to May, we are looking to fill it with as many people as we can.”

Silverwell Hall has long played host to weddings but these were normally only for lodge members. Now there are so few, many dates are available for the public.

There are some grand features at Silverwell Hall, not least the staircase visitors must climb immediately after going through the main door.

Rumour has it that the Italian architect who laid the stairs was so concerned about people watching him and stealing secrets that he covered each step up as it was completed.

Weddings take place in a reception hall, which can sit about 80 people, and has a portrait of the Queen overlooking the dining area.

Parties are then encouraged to move to the club room for a drinks reception.

The money the hall accrues from hosting functions is spent wisely as charity remains at the heart of the masonic movement.

Inside Silverwell Hall, posters proudly proclaim that the national movement raised nearly £7 million for good causes in 2011.

The Bolton Masonic Hall falls under the East Lancashire division, with the region’s current Grand Master Sir David Trippier, a former Conservative MP and Bury Grammar School alumnus.

Mr Taylor said visitors to the hall in recent years have come from as far afield as Hong Kong and Canada, but it has not lost touch completely with its more private past.

Guests are still barred from taking pictures of the two treasured lodge rooms, although they are allowed in.

Principal officers have seats on all three sides, with a gavel to hand to issue rulings.

Pennants from all the lodges associated with the hall adorn the sides of the room.

There have been thousands of masonic lodges, but Bolton is the home to the 37th created, Anchor Hope Lodge, which was formed more than 280 years ago in 1732.

The Freemasonry organisation traces its origins to stone masons from the 14th century.

It seems the recession, which has so publicly crippled the poor, is not something the most wealthy and influential are immune to either.

Perhaps the changing face of masonry is best illustrated by their recruitment drive tactics. At one time, a mason would have to be recommended by a friend already in the lodge, and all would vote by putting a white or black ball in the bag.

Only if the bag’s contents was totally white would the lodge embrace a new brother, and usually only people working in certain professions such as law or medicine would be considered.

Now you can apply online.