Judges bear the brunt of suspicion. They have been accused of using their membership to climb the judicial ladder and favouring counsel, defendants or plaintiffs who are fellow masons.

Lord Justice Millett, a freemason since 1968, is a member of the Chancery Bar Lodge. He said: “I was asked if I would like to be a member by a friend who was a member. My clerk and other members of my chambers were, I knew they enjoyed it, so I agreed.

“I have always regarded it as essentially social. One has dinner with one's friends and beforehand, there is an hour to an hour-and-a-half of ritual. It involves a certain amount of learning and performing which is quite fun. One can take a pride in doing it well.

“In some of the plays, the English is very fine. All barristers enjoy reciting poetry or making fine speeches.

“The outside world may say 'Well here's a judge, and he's socially meeting people who appear as counsel before him'. That's true, but we meet them anyway.

“I don't mention that I am a freemason because there is a feeling among some members of the public that we're in it for each other. If anybody asks me, of course, I say 'yes'.

“When I was appointed, I went in to see Lord Hailsham and he asked if there was anything I thought he ought to know. I said 'I ought to tell you I am a freemason', and he just laughed.

“We claim to have secrets but they are harmless. There is nothing in the slightest bit sinister. If anything, they are really rather ridiculous.”

Sir Maurice Drake, a High Court Judge, joined a long-established lawyers' lodge called Justinian in 1948. He later gave that up, but remained in another, and now attends three out of the four yearly meetings. He is also a member of a masonic offshoot called The Chapter.

He said: “My father and my grandfather were masons. You meet people that you wouldn't meet otherwise and you can have a very good dinner.

“You don't talk about politics and you don't talk about religion, and in a way it is quite a relief not to. You can talk about work – people ask me about the cases I have been involved in.

“It involves play-acting. An outsider might say it is a lot of grown men behaving like children. I can understood that, but it is fun all the same. The secrecy was always silly and I think the majority of people think it is not very important.

“There is certainly no conspiracy. The only criticism one might level is that if a number of people all work for a council, those who are masons may favour others who are masons. But that has arisen because they know each other, not because they are masons.

“If I were trying somebody and they tried to signal to me or whatever, I would have to restrain myself from increasing the sentence.

“I once recommended somebody who I didn't know was a mason for an appointment. A few months after the recommendation was out of the way, I met him at a masonic dinner.”

Gerard Elias, a senior recorder and freemason since 1970, is a member of a small non-legal lodge in Cardiff. He said: “My father was a freemason. I joined because I was led to believe it was a charitable organisation. I am not a member of this organisation to further anything.

“As far as I am concerned, there is nothing secretive about it. If anybody appearing before me has tried to communicate the fact that they are a mason, I was blissfully unaware of it.”