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Sir Josiah Mason

Sir Josiah Mason's Orphanage

Mason's Science College








Josiah Mason was born in Kidderminster in 1795.His father and grandfather were both weavers, although the grandfather displayed some of the ingenuity which was to prove one of the young Josiah's strengths, being an inventor and an expert repairer of machinery. The family were not well off and Josiah had little education. However he taught himself to write, and with the proceeds of a business as a door to door salesman of bread, fruit and vegetables that he entered into at the age of eight, he was able to buy himself books on science, theology and history, and to enrol at the local Unitarian Sunday school.

All his efforts to better himself came to little, however, and in 1816 he travelled to Birmingham to visit his uncle, Richard Griffiths. Though he never forgot his native town, he would never return to live in Kidderminster again. Richard Griffiths, who was manager of the Aston Flint Glass works, had invested in a jewellery and toymaking business but had had a dispute with his partner. He asked Josiah Mason to investigate, with the result that the partner left Birmingham. Mason's reward was to be put in charge of the business and in 1817 he and his new wife, his cousin Annie Griffiths, moved into the house to which the workshop was attached. After falling out with his uncle, in 1822 he got a job as manager for Samuel Harrison, a split ring manufacturer in Lancaster Street, near where Aston University is now. Harrison was an inventive man, who had not only invented the split ring for holding keys, but is also thought to have been the first to make steel pen nibs in Birmingham, for his friend Joseph Priestley, in 1780. Mason and Harrison became great friends and when, in 1823, Harrison wished to retire, he offered to sell the business to Josiah Mason for 500, to be paid out of profits in instalments of 100. Mason worked to improve the efficiency of the business, introducing stamping machines to make the split rings, which had previously been made by hand, and extending the product range. By 1828 the business had grown to the extent that he needed to extend the factory.

Josiah Mason began making pens in a small way in 1827, and in 1829 he was the first person to make cedar pen holders. Then, in 1829 he spotted some pens in a shop in Bull Street that had been made by James Perry of London. Convinced he could do better, Mason bought one of the pens, took it home and overnight produced three pens which he sent to James Perry. So impressed was Perry that he travelled up to Brum and signed a contract under which, for the next 46 years, Josiah Mason made every Perryian pen that was made, and in the process became the world's largest pen maker, although he sold very few pens in his own name, preferring to manufacture instead on behalf of firms such as Perry, Gillott and Sommerville. His business grew to the point where, when he retired at the age of 80 in 1875, Mason was employing over 1,000 people and his Lancaster Street premises had expanded into a large factory complex.  

As recorded elsewhere, in 1842 Josiah Mason took a one-third share in the pioneering electroplating business of H & G R Elkington, bringing about changes which greatly improved the fortunes of that company. For some reason, some years later Mason sold his pen making business to George Elkington and for a number of years the small number of pens the company sold in its own name were stamped 'G R Elkington, Birmingham'. I don't know when or why Josiah Mason sold out to George Elkington, but it may have been on account of an undiagnosed and debilitating illness which first afflicted him in 1841-2 and again in 1847-8, making him unable to work and leading to his travelling on the Continent in search of a cure. He eventually made a full recovery and, whatever had impelled him to sell, in 1852 he reversed his decision and in May of that year bought the business back from George Elkington. From 1865 Josiah Mason ceased all active involvement in the electroplating business, which was formally incorporated in 1887, six years after Mason's death, as Elkington & Co.

Since copper forms the base of electroplated ware, Elkington & Mason required a substantial supply of the metal. For this purpose they built a copper smelting works, complete with workers' houses, school and church, at Burry Port near Llanelli in south Wales. This business eventually passed into the hands of Elliott's Metal Co Ltd of Selly Oak, Birmingham. Josiah Mason was very much to the fore in pioneering nickel plating as a cheap substitute for silver plate. This became so popular that new refining techniques were sought and some time in the 1850s Mason and Alexander Parkes established the world's first nickel manufacturing works in Erdington, Birmingham.

As you might imagine, Josiah Mason became extremely wealthy and in the 1850s he turned his thoughts to philanthropy. In 1858 he opened almshouses in Station Road, Erdington, Birmingham, for spinsters and widows over 50 and orphan girls, providing accommodation in furnished rooms 14ft x 11ft with coal, gas and a small annual income provided. These premises proving inadequate to the purpose, in 1869 a second, larger orphanage was opened in Bell Lane (now Orphanage Road), Erdington, with rooms for 26 women and dormitories for 300 children. This huge, Italianate building, dominated by three tall towers, cost 60,000 to build and was endowed to the tune of 200,000. After differences of opinion with Anglican supporters, who were less keen than Mason on helping poor children, Mason decided to go it alone and found all this money,  which amounted to a huge fortune in those days, himself. Later a new wing was added to enable a total of 500 children to be accommodated. Only legitimate children, both of whose parents were dead, were admitted. Although they were provided with the necessities of life,  including schooling, conditions were harsh by today's standards. The children had no privacy, being accommodated in large dormitories; they were allowed only two visits per year, of two hours each; the diet was unvaried and barely adequate; the children were worked hard, doing most of the chores around the orphanage; and some - though by no means all - of the staff were sadistic bullies who ill-treated the children. Later the orphanage was redesignated as a school, but by the 1960s the cost of upkeep had become prohibitive, leading the trustees to close it in 1963. The site is now occupied by an estate of houses and the Yenton School.

In 1870 Josiah Mason embarked upon his greatest charitable project, drawing up trust deeds for a college of science. This being intended to equip its graduates to serve local industry, the curriculum was confined to maths, physics, chemistry, natural sciences, physiology and engineering. Literature and theology were specifically excluded. The college, which was situated in Paradise Street in the city centre, cost Mason 170,000 in building costs and endowments. It was opened in 1880. Two of its earliest alumni - Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain - were to become prime ministers.  In 1882 Mason's College absorbed the medical faculty of the older Queen's College, and in 1888 it became Mason's University College. This institution in turn became the University of Birmingham in 1900. The university having been established on a site at Edgbaston, in 1964 the old Mason's College buildings were knocked down to make way for the new central library.

Josiah Mason was knighted in 1872 and died in 1881, aged 86. His wife of 52 years, Annie, had died in 1870, aged 78. Even after he had given almost 500,000 to his various charitable projects, his estate was still worth 56,000. These were, of course, vast sums of money at the time. Josiah Mason was formerly commemorated by a statue in Edmund Street, which was removed in 1952 and in its place a bronze bust sitting incongruously atop a stone pillar has been installed in the middle of the roundabout at the junction of Chester Road and Orphanage Road, Erdington.  

If you want more information about Sir Josiah Mason I can recommend Brian Jones's interesting and readable biography, 'Josiah Mason 1795 - 1881, Birmingham's Benevolent Benefactor', published by Brewin Books and obtainable from booksellers or from The Pen Room




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Josiah Mason comes across as something of an enigma. He was notoriously miserly. His workpeople resented him for his meanness, and in shops he would argue over pennies. Given his vast wealth this was irrational. He had no great call for money; he and Annie lived quite modestly and in some respects frugally, and since they were childless they had no-one to leave money to. 

At the same time he gave vast amounts to charity, but the way in which he did so is interesting. Whereas his pen making business was all but invisible, most of what he made being sold under others' names, he made sure his charitable works were very visible. His orphanage was very definitely Sir Josiah Mason's Orphanage, and his college was equally clearly Mason's Science College. Moreover, both buildings were designed to be noticed, the orphanage in particular being furnished with three tall, striking and expensive towers. Was he saying, 'Look at this! I'm not mean really'? 

His orphanage must be considered a flawed institution. Its practical effect would be to save children who went there from the workhouse. Yet he set up a regime that was hard, frugal and gratuitously unkind (see below) and, perhaps unwittingly, permitted sadistic bullies to work there. One is left wondering how much better than the workhouse it really was?  On the other hand, his college was a great gift to the city, and in founding it he sowed a seed that ultimately flowered into one of the country's leading academic institutions.  


Sir Josiah Mason's Orphanage operated extremely restrictive policies when it came to allowing relatives to visit the orphans. Visits were allowed only from 3pm to 5pm on a set day each January and June. Visiting days were always on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, so many working people would have had great difficulty in visiting at all. No more than three visitors were allowed. There was a provision whereby visits at other times could be applied for in writing, but such visits were only granted if the  management considered the reasons to be compelling enough. It is hard to view this harsh policy of denying young children greater contact with relatives who may well have been loving, even if they were too poor to care for them,  as anything other than gratuitous unkindness.

2001 Bob Miles