Sir Josiah Mason
One sunny morning in June, I went out five miles from the great
manufacturing city of Birmingham, England, to the pretty town called
Erdington, to see the Mason Orphanage. I found an immense brick
structure, with high Gothic towers, in the midst of thirteen acres of
velvety lawn. Over the portals of the building were the words, "DO DEEDS
OF LOVE." Three hundred happy children were scattered over the premises,
the girls in brown dresses with long white aprons: some were in the
great play-room, some doing the housework, and some serving at dinner.
Sly Cupid creeps into an orphan-asylum even; and the matron had to watch
carefully lest the biggest pieces of bread and butter be given by the
girls to the boys they liked best.
In the large grounds, full of flowers and trees, among the children he
so tenderly loved and called by name, the founder, Sir Josiah Mason, and
his wife, are buried, in a beautiful mausoleum, a Gothic chapel, with
stone carving and stained-glass windows.
And who was this founder?
In a poor, plain home in Kidderminster, Feb. 23 1795, Sir Josiah Mason
was born. His father was a weaver, and his mother the daughter of a
laborer. At eight years of age, with of course little education, the boy
began the struggle of earning a living. His mother fitted up two baskets
for him, and these he filled with baker's cakes, and sold them about the
streets. Little Joe became so great a favorite, that the buyers often
gave him an extra penny. Finally a donkey was obtained; and a bag
containing cakes in one end, and fruit and vegetables in the other, was
strapped across his back. In this way, for seven years, Joe peddled from
door to door. Did anybody ever think then that he would be rich and
The poor mother helped him with her scanty means, and both parents
allowed him to keep all he could make. His father's advice used to be,
"Joe, thee'st got a few pence; never let anybody know how much thee'st
got in thee pockets." And well the boy carried out his father's
injunction in afterlife.
When he was fifteen, his brother had become a confirmed invalid, and
needed a constant attendant. The father was away at the shop, and the
mother busy with her cares: so Joe, who thought of others always before
himself, determined to be nurse, and earn some money also. He set about
becoming a shoemaker, having learned the trade from watching an old man
who lived near their house; but he could make only a bare pittance. Then
he taught himself writing, and earned a trifle for composing letters and
Valentines for his poor neighbors. This money he spent in books, for he
was eager for an education. He read no novels nor poetry, but books of
history, science, and theology.
Finally the mother started a small grocery and bakery, and Joe assisted.
Many of their customers were tramps and beggars, who could buy only an
ounce or half-ounce of tea; but even a farthing was welcome to the
Masons. Later, Josiah took up carpet-weaving and blacksmithing; but he
could never earn more than five dollars a week, and he became restless
and eager for a broader field. He had courage, was active and
industrious, and had good habits.
He was now twenty-one. He decided to go to Birmingham on Christmas Day,
to visit an uncle whom he had never seen. He went, and this was the
turning-point of his life. His uncle gave him work in making gilt toys;
and, what was perhaps better still for the poor young man, he fell in
love with his cousin Annie Griffiths, and married her the following
year. This marriage proved a great blessing, and for fifty-two years,
childless, they two were all in all to each other. For six years the
young husband worked early and late, with the promise of succeeding to
the small business; but at the end of these years the promise was
broken, and Mason found himself at thirty, out of work, and owning less
than one hundred dollars.
Walking down the street one day in no very happy frame of mind, a
stranger stepped up to him, and said, "Mr. Mason?"
"Yes," was the answer.
"You are now, I understand, without employment. I know some one who
wants just such a man as you, and I will introduce him to you. Will you
meet me to-morrow morning at Mr. Harrison's, the split-ring maker?"
The next day the stranger said to Mr. Harrison, "I have brought you the
very man you want."
The business man eyed Mason closely, saying, "I've had a good many young
men come here; but they are afraid of dirtying their fingers."
Mason opened his somewhat calloused hands, and, looking at them, said,
"Are you ashamed of dirtying yourselves to get your own living?"
Mason was at once employed, and a year later Mr. Harrison offered him
the business at twenty-five hundred dollars. Several men, observing the
young man's good qualities, had offered to loan him money when he should
go into trade for himself. He bethought him of these friends, and called
upon them; but they all began to make excuse. The world's proffers of
help or friendship we can usually discount by half. Seeing that not a
dollar could be borrowed, Mr. Harrison generously offered to wait for
the principal till it could be earned out of the profits. This was a
noble act, and Mr. Mason never ceased to be grateful for it.
He soon invented a machine for bevelling hoop-rings, and made five
thousand dollars the first year from its use. Thenceforward his life
reads like a fairy-tale. One day, seeing some steel pens on a card, in a
shop-window, he went in and purchased one for twelve cents. That evening
he made three, and enclosed one in a letter to Perry of London, the
maker, paying eighteen cents' postage, which now would be only two
His pen was such an improvement that Mr. Perry at once wrote for all he
could make. In a few years, Mason became the greatest pen-maker in the
world, employing a thousand persons, and turning out over five million
pens per week. Sixty tons of pens, containing one and a half million
pens to the ton, were often in his shops. What a change from peddling
cakes from door to door in Kidderminster!
Later he became the moneyed partner in the great electro-plating trade
of the Elkingtons, whose beautiful work at the Centennial Exposition we
Mr. Mason never forgot his laborers. When he established copper-smelting
works in Wales, he built neat cottages for the workmen, and schools for
the three hundred and fifty children. The Welsh refused to allow their
children to attend school where they would be taught English. Mr. Mason
overcame this by distributing hats, bonnets, and other clothing to the
pupils, and, once in school, they needed no urging to remain. The
manufacturer was as hard a worker as any of his men. For years he was
the first person to come to his factory, and the last to leave it. He
was quick to decide a matter, and act upon it, and the most rigid
economist of time. He allowed nobody to waste his precious hours with
idle talk, nor did he waste theirs. He believed, with Shakespeare, that
"Talkers are no good doers." His hours were regular. He took much
exercise on foot, and lived with great simplicity. He was always
cheerful, and had great self-control. Finally he began to ask himself
how he could best use his money before he died. He remembered his poor
struggling mother in his boyish days. His first gift should be a home
for aged women--a noble thought!--his next should be for orphans, as he
was a great lover of children. For eight years he watched the beautiful
buildings of his Orphanage go up, and then saw the happy children
gathered within, bringing many of them from Kidderminster, who were as
destitute as himself when a boy. He seemed to know and love each child,
for whose benefit he had included even his own lovely home, a million
dollars in all. The annual income for the Orphanage is about fifty
thousand dollars. What pleasure he must have had as he saw them swinging
in the great playgrounds, where he had even thought to make triple
columns so that they could the better play hide-and-seek! At eight, he
was trudging the streets to earn bread; they should have an easier lot
through his generosity.
For this and other noble deeds Queen Victoria made him a knight. What
would his poor mother have said to such an honor for her boy, had she
What would the noble man, now over eighty, do next with his money? He
recalled how hard it had been for him to obtain knowledge. The colleges
were patronized largely by the rich. He would build a great School of
Science, free to all who depended upon themselves for support. They
might study mathematics, languages, chemistry, civil engineering,
without distinction of sex or race. For five years he watched the
elegant brick and stone structure in Birmingham rise from its
foundations. And then, Oct. 1, 1880, in the midst of assembled
thousands, and in the presence of such men as Fawcett, Bright, and Max
Muller, Mason Science College was formally opened. Professor Huxley, R.
W. Dale, and others made eloquent addresses. In the evening, a thousand
of the best of England gathered at the college, made beautiful by
flowers and crimson drapery. On a dais sat the noble giver, in his
eighty-sixth year. The silence was impressive as the grand old man
arose, handing the key of his college, his million-dollar gift, to the
trustees. Surely truth is stranger than fiction! To what honor and
renown had come the humble peddler!
On the following 25th of June, Sir Josiah Mason was borne to his grave,
in the Erdington mausoleum. Three hundred and fifty orphan-children
followed his coffin, which was carried by eight servants or workingmen,
as he had requested. After the children had sung a hymn, they covered
the coffin-lid with flowers, which he so dearly loved. He sleeps in the
midst of his gifts, one of England's noble benefactors.