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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?"

"I will."

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

all remember.

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

been alive!

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.