Freemasonry is a worldwide organisation that promotes to its members elements of ethics, morality, philosophy, personal development and community service. Its male-only membership extends across race, religion and nationality. Although it existed earlier, Freemasonry was formalised in London in 1717 under an international controlling body or Grand Lodge, and then spread throughout the world. The first lodge in Melbourne was formed in 1840. When a local independent body, the United Grand Lodge of Victoria, brought all lodges under the one jurisdiction in 1889, it controlled 140 lodges and 6500 members.
Before and after World War II, Freemasonry was regarded as a useful aid to joining the public service and other large organisations. Six Victorian governors have been grand masters of Victorian Freemasonry, including Lord Somers, the Earl of Stradbroke and Sir Dallas Brooks. Many lord mayors of Melbourne were also Freemasons, although Freemasonry's influence in municipal government was less obvious.
Membership grew rapidly. By 1964 about half of Victoria's 110 000 Masons were in Melbourne, although some of the 300 Masonic centres have subsequently closed or been replaced as membership has decreased. The fall in numbers reflected the wider decline in community support of traditional service and religious organisations (although Freemasonry is not a religion) during the last quarter of the 20th century. There was strong social rivalry between Freemasonry and the Catholic Church during much of its history, but as the influence of both has diminished, so has the antagonism.
The headquarters of Freemasonry Victoria is Dallas Brooks Hall. Opened in East Melbourne in 1969, it serves as a venue for concerts, speech nights and other public functions. The Freemasons Hospital opened in 1937, while the Royal Freemasons Homes have provided aged care since the 19th century. Freemasonry co-operates with other charitable organisations, or donates directly from its own charitable trust, to assist those in need. A Masonic Task Force, established in the 1980s, assists other services in time of flood, bushfires and other accidents and disasters. While women are still not able to join, they do now attend some Masonic meetings. In 1989 over 16 000 people attended a function at the Rod Laver Arena to mark the centenary of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria.