A cut above…

One of the pleasures of being a publicity officer is that of visiting lodges and chapters within the group and celebrating with others their achievements. On this occasion, it was a celebration of 50 years in Masonry for Phillip William Birch (Phil) worshipful master of Toxteth Lodge No 1356.  As the brethren began to assemble at Woolton Golf Club in the Geoffrey Hirst Masonic suite there was an air of joyous expectation. Brethren met with each other, Assistant Provincial Grand Master Kevin Poynton circulated amongst the assembly and Mark Barton Provincial Deputy Grand Director of Ceremonies conducted a final rehearsal.

Kevin congratulates Phil on his achievement.

Kevin congratulates Phil on his achievement.

The lodge was opened in the first degree and the usual business was despatched with alacrity. Phil then opened the lodge in the second and then the third degree. At that point Mark Barton entered the lodge room and announced that the APrGM demanded admission. Kevin, accompanied by other grand and Provincial grand officers processed into the lodge room and Kevin was cordially welcomed by the Phil who offered him the gavel. Kevin accepted the gavel with humility saying that he felt truly privileged to have been invited and to have the honour bestowed upon him of leading the evening’s celebrations.

Having taken the chair Kevin wished everyone the compliments of the season and closed the lodge to the first degree. He then opened the proceedings by telling everyone that one of the lessons he had learned is that no matter where you are or where you go to celebrate any achievement – whether it be a birthday or any other milestone, unless you can share it with someone its meaning somehow becomes less important and that’s why he was so pleased to see so many brethren in the room this evening.

He observed that, each time we meet we are happy and we communicate happiness and happiness is a lot like measles, it’s infectious! Kevin went on to point out that he and the celebrant had something in common, in that they both sold things.  He stated that he held people who sold things in high regard, for he asserted, there is nothing in this world that moves without someone sells something. He said that: “Good salesmen don’t consider themselves to be salesmen, they consider themselves to be in the ‘people business’, because they know that people will only buy from people they like.” The references to ‘salesmanship’ and their relevance became evident as Phil was placed by the PrDGDC before him and his ‘story’ was related to the assembly.

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A proud son, Simon (left) with Phil.

A proud son, Simon (left) with Phil.

We learned that Phil was born in January 1944 at Mill Road Maternity Hospital in Liverpool, the first child of Tom and Doris Birch. At the age of two Phil contracted pneumonia, which in those days was a very dangerous illness. Despite making a full recovery it left him with severe childhood asthma and this prevented him taking part in the usual sports of a young boy. However, Phil’s mother and father were keen ballroom dancers and in 1962 Phil, at the age of 18, was chosen to represent England in the first International Youth Teams competing in Denmark. On three occasions Phil appeared on BBC television’s ‘Come Dancing’. This led Phil to become a qualified coach to teach dancing with the Imperial Society of Dancing and the Allied Association of Dancing.

A career in dancing seemed a likely outcome but Phil’s mother was also a hairdresser and so it was that on leaving school he took up an apprenticeship in ‘ladies hairdressing’, initially earning the princely sum of £1-7s -6d (£1.35) per week. His younger brother Gordon, also went into hairdressing and together they had several salons in Merseyside at one time. In 1967 Phil decided to look for new challenges and thus applied to the international hair company L’Oreal.  He was considering two positions within the same company, one as product technician and one for a trainee sales representative. He was very surprised when the letters came through inviting him to London to interview for both jobs. Luckily one interview was in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Phil took the position as trainee sales rep earning £650 per year; a company car was included (Mark One Ford Cortina) and within six months he was promoted and given the whole of the Merseyside area to look after.

This career move resulted in Phil meeting his wife, Irene who was the owner of a salon in Derby Lane, Stoneycroft, which was situated opposite Billy Martyn’s School of Dance. He and Irene were married in 1968. Unfortunately, this was the end of Phil’s dancing career as Irene was no Ginger Rogers!

Phil proudly displays his ‘illuminated scroll’.

Phil proudly displays his ‘illuminated scroll’.

A further career change took place for Phil when ladies fashion required hairpieces and wigs. So, Phil moved to a London company called Hair Plan. Due to his excellent knowledge of ladies’ hairdressing and a proven track record in sales of hairdressing products (hence the title for this story) Phil decided to combine the two and put them to good use supplying both products to salons.

Eventually Phil joined Wella (GB) Limited as a sales rep for the Wirral area and progressed to the position of National Accounts Manager. However, the job did include some considerable travelling and this meant leaving Irene alone for long periods of time. So, Phil left Wella and joined a local wholesale hairdressing company, LEC (Liverpool) Limited, a hair product company that ‘expanded’ into aerosol fillings. They invented their own product, a type of foam setting conditioner, for curly permed hair. For two years Phil promoted ‘Hair Mousse’ at exhibitions all over the world. Phil was promoted to National Sales Manager in 1994 and this included the role of Export Manager. He has admitted that his one regret is that his travels never took him to Australia.

Phil and Irene had a son in 1969, Simon, who was destined to become a Lewis Mason and in fact was present that evening and acting as IPM for the evening. In 2005 Simon and his wife Michelle presented Phil and Irene with a grandson Aaron who, it is hoped will one day become a fourth generation ‘Toxteth Mason’.

Kevin then provided details of Phil’s Masonic career, which started in 1966 with his initiation into Toxteth Lodge at Liverpool Masonic Hall in Hope Street. He was initiated by his uncle, Jack Herbert. Lodge membership at that time was around 166. One of Phil’s earliest recollections of Freemasonry was that of attending a Ladies Night in Reece’s Ballroom in Liverpool City centre at the age of 14 where he gave a demonstration of his ballroom dancing abilities!

He first took the chair of Toxteth Lodge in 2000 and has held a number of important offices within the lodge. He and son Simon were part of a very rare occurrence in 2016, when Simon had the pleasure of installing his father into the chair at Toxteth for the second time. Phil’s dedication was recognised by the Province, firstly in 2009 when he was appointed to the rank of PPrSGD and later when he was promoted in 2015 to PPrGSuptWks. He became a joining member of Hamer Lodge No 1393 and was master in 2005. He was exalted into De Grey And Ripon Chapter No 1356 in 1991.

Kevin concluded his recital by saying that as the evening marked Phil’s 50 years in Freemasonry, the Provincial Grand Master has caused a commemorative certificate to be prepared which he then asked the Woolton Group Chairman Andy Whittle to read. Kevin then presented the certificate to Phil with further congratulations. Before completing the celebration, Phil presented a cheque to Kevin for the Masonic Charitable Foundation for £200 which he gratefully received, thanking the lodge for its generous donation with great sincerity.

Phil responds to the toast to his health.

Phil responds to the toast to his health.

During the meal that followed a raffle was held and raised £197 for Masonic charities. Andy Whittle proposed the toast to Kevin’s health. He duly responded by thanking all for attending, thanked the lodge secretary for providing much needed information and made a special mention of the publicity officer who had taken the photos and would then put the story together for publication. Kevin noted that he was aware how much time this process took and thanked Colin Roberts for giving so freely of his time. The acting Provincial officers were thanked for their support as was Mark Barton for ensuring that everything ran smoothly.

Simon Birch, most appropriately proposed the toast to the celebrant and took the diners ‘down memory lane’ recalling important events that had happened throughout his father’s life. Phil, in his response, regaled everyone with humorous stories of the hairdressing profession. Phil also received several gifts and cards from the lodge, one item being an illuminated scroll which had been artfully crafted by a member of the lodge.

Before the tyler’s toast was honoured, flowers were presented to both Kevin and Andy to take home to their wives, Sue and Amanda. After a wonderful celebration, excellent dinner and ‘cracking good company’ the brethren headed homeward.

Article and photographs by Colin Roberts

Pictured, from left to right are; Mike Cunliffe, Joe Brine, Kevin Poynton, Phil Birch, Andy Whittle, Tom Arnold, Matt Wilson and Mark Barton

Pictured, from left to right are; Mike Cunliffe, Joe Brine, Kevin Poynton, Phil Birch, Andy Whittle, Tom Arnold, Matt Wilson and Mark Barton

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