Two women's masonic organisations exist: the Honourable Fraternity of Antient Freemasons and the Order of Women's Freemasons.

They have a lodge system, rituals and rules which are identical to those for men. They do not mix formally with the men except on social events, although there is at least one mixed lodge.

Joyce Arram, a legal executive at Walters in Lincoln's Inn Fields, has been a member of the Honourable Fraternity, which has over 2,000 members in 49 lodges, since the mid-1960s.

Because there are fewer members, she says the chances of using freemasonry to network for profit are even less than for men.

She said: “The main attraction is the charity and the chance to meet people. We are very family orientated – a lot of our members are related to each other.

“I joined because someone asked my mother and she couldn't join at the time. I liked the idea so I joined.

“The people who criticise are invariably not freemasons and it is easy for them to be suspicious.

“I always declare my membership. I am a woman freemason and proud of it. I do not object to an inquiry provided that all other similar organisations are covered as well.”

The objectors

ONE South Wales barrister believes he became the target of a masonic conspiracy because he turned down an invitation to join a lodge.

He was approached by a chambers colleague 22 years ago to join a new lodge in Cardiff. The colleague suggested it would be useful for them to join because most of the senior legal figures in the city were members.

He refused because he considered freemasonry contrary to his religious beliefs. He said: “I don't want to be under an obligation to an organisation like that.

“Since then, I have realised that I was on the receiving end of some nasty treatment, and as a result I have turned very much against it.”

He claimed masonic clerks and solicitors delayed payment for cases, people did their best to see he didn't get work and often sent him to the wrong court for his cases.

“The whole thing is to get you out of the profession,” he said. “It is to make it not worthwhile your being there. It didn't work in my case because I was wealthy.”