Leaders of Modern Industry by G. Barnett Smith: Sir Josiah Mason
From Graces Guide
Note: This is a sub-section of Leaders of Modern Industry by G. Barnett Smith
'THE pen is mightier than the sword,' Lord Lytton makes one of his characters exclaim in Richelieu; and as we lavish honours on the heroes of the battlefield, we should surely not be backward in paying tribute to the 'heroes of industry. The pen has certainly been a greater instrument of civilisation than the sword, and its maker as well as its wielder is deserving of recognition. And when, with the industrious manufacturer is combined the eminent philanthropist, as in Josiah Mason's case, no apology is needed for sketching his career, as an example and an incentive to others. Mason, Gillott, and Mitchell practically revolutionised one of the staple trades of the Midlands, and gave it an immense impetus whose effects are still being felt.
Before relating the story of Mason's life and labours, it will be of interest briefly to trace the history of the pen before his time. The desire to express thoughts and ideas by means of written characters is almost coeval with the race. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and other ancient nations wrote upon papyrus or parchment with a reed pen; and when they used tablets of wood or stone covered with wax, they wrote with a pointed stylus of bronze, bone, or other material. It stated that reed pens are still the only kind used by the natives of Persia and some neighbouring countries, the metal pen being unsuited to their style of writing. Reed pens are cut almost in the same way as quills. Quills were used for caligraphic purposes as early as the seventh century; and reed pens were also still employed in Europe at that time, having been then in use for upwards of a thousand years.
To a limited extent, metal pens must have been in use among the Romans, for in the Naples Museum there is a bronze pen, nibbed like a modern steel pen, which was found at Pompeii. Silver pens were also occasionally made in the Middle Ages; but more as curiosities, it is thought, than as articles in general use, and the same may be said of all metallic pens of more recent date, until we come to the nineteenth century. For twelve centuries before the present, quills were universally employed in Western Europe, and it was not until about the year 1840 that steel pens began to be substituted for them in British schools. Even in the latter half of the nineteenth century there have been authors and statesmen who have remained faithful to the quill, and have never used any other instrument for writing.
There are traces of the metallic pen, however, in France, Italy, and England, as far back as the fourteenth century, but it was never made of steel. In the records of the prosecution of Robert d'Artois, in 1329, a bronze pen plays a conspicuous part in the forgeries for which the accused was tried. In one of the earliest printed books at Padua, it is stated that the work was 'fashioned and by diligence finished for the service of God, not with ink of quill nor with brazen reed, but with a certain invention of printing or reproducing by John Fust, citizen of Mayence, and Peter Schaeffer, of Gernsheim, Dec. 17th, 1465 A.D.'
Careful researches into the history of metallic pen-making have been made by Mr. Samuel Timmins, a well-known Warwickshire antiquary. In a contribution to the Birmingham Weekly Post some years ago he wrote:
While steel pens, as an advancing article of manufacture, do not date further back than about 1825, there is no doubt that they were made in Birmingham for special private use as early as 1790. There is no reason why a piece of metal or steel should not have been made in the form of a quill pen long before; but no example of a very early date seems to be known.
The example I am going to mention is beyond all doubt of the date assigned, so long ago as 1717. The pen forms part of a very remarkable little volume in the magnificent library of Mr. William Bragge, C.E., of Sheffield. It is attached (like a pencil, through loops in an ordinary memorandum book) to an old Dutch volume, dated 1717. The silver pencil unscrews in two places one to produce a lump of solid plumbago, mounted like a crayon, and the other showing a metallic pen, either silver or plated steel, polished, and with the peculiarity of having the slit all up to nearly the top of the pen; evidently a very early example of pen-making before steel was found flexible enough to write well. The exact date of this early pen is given beyond doubt by the title page of the book, of which the subjoined is a translation from the Dutch original— "Newly-invented Merchant's Office Almanack and Memorandum Book, for the year of our Lord MDCCXVII. (New Style.) Containing the List of Horse, Cattle, and Leather Markets for the Year, and the Daily Changes of the Moon. By John Albertz van Darn, Amsterdam. By the Heirs of Albert Magnus, at the House of Cornelius Danckerts, New Dyke, at the Sign of the Atlas. With Privilege." Mr. Nyhoff, the librarian at the Hague, stated to Mr. Bragge that this rare almanack was supplied officially to the members of the States General. As no other volume with a pencil of plumbago and steel pen seems to be known, and as the pen, pencil, and volume are beyond all doubt coeval, the manufacture of at least one steel pen must be carried back as far as the year 1717.'
That French steel pens were early in use is shown by a letter in Roger North's Autobiography. Writing to his sister under date March 8, 1700-1, North says: ‘You will hardly tell by what you see that I write with a steel pen. It is a device come out of France, of which the original was very good, and wrote very well; but this is but a copy, ill made. When they get the knack of making them exactly, I do not doubt but the Government of the Goose Quill is near an end, for none that can have these will use others.'
French metallic pens are also amusingly alluded to in a volume entitled A Journey to Pas in the Year 1695, by Dr. Martin Lister. After touching upon the various kinds of pens, the author adds: A Quill soon spoils; Steel is undoubtedly the best, and if you choose China Ink, the most lasting of all Inks, it never rusts the Pen, but rather preserves it, like a kind of Varnish, which dries upon it, though you take no care in wiping it.'
In Sainte-Beuve's History of Port Royal there is likewise a reference to metallic pens. 'One owes to Port Royal,' remarks the author, 'the use of pens of metal, which have saved the pupils much time, and have spared them many small miseries.' In 1691 La Fontaine prayed the Reverend Mother for a few copper pens, if she still made them. Pope, in one of his minor poems, refers to steel and golden pens made by one Bertrand. Johann J. Janssen, writer to the Mayoralty of Aix-la-Chapelle, claimed in 1748 to be the inventor of the steel pen. 'Just at the meeting of the Congress,' says Janssen, in his Historical Chronicle of Ai x-la-Chapelle, 'I may without boasting claim the honour of having invented new pens. It is perhaps not an accident that God should have inspired me at the present time with the idea of making steel pens, for all the envoys here assembled have bought the first that have been made, therewith, as may be hoped, to sign a treaty of peace, which, with God's blessing, shall be as permanent as the hard steel with which it is written. Of these pens, as I have invented them, no man hath before seen or heard. If kept clean and free from rust and ink, they will continue fit for use for many years. Indeed a man may write twenty sheets of paper with one, and the last line would be written as well as the first. They are now sent into every corner of the world as a rare thing to Spain France, and England. Others will no doubt make imitations of my pens, but I am the man who first invented and made them. I have sold a great number of them at home and abroad, at one shilling each, and I dispose of them as quickly as I can make them.'
From information gleaned by technical writers on the subject, we learn that the earliest English metallic pens of which there is definite knowledge were some made in 1780 by Mr. Harrison, split-ring maker, Birmingham, for the eminent Unitarian divine Dr. Priestley. They were made of sheet steel, formed into a tube and filed into shape, the joining of the metal making the slit. Brass pens were likewise made in England before the end of last century, and one of these was sold in the Strawberry Hill collection of art objects and curiosities in 1842. Various plans were tried early in the nineteenth century to produce pens more durable than ordinary quills. There were quills pointed with metal, and pens constructed of horn and tortoiseshell with small pieces of diamond and other hard gems embedded in them by pressure. Sometimes gold was attached to the points, but of course such pens were costly, and out of reach of the general public.
Barrel pens of steel were made by Mr. Wise in London in 1803, but these also were too high in price. The first English patent for the manufacture of steel pens was granted to Bryan Donkin in 1808; and the first patent in America was granted in 1810 to Peregrine Williamson of Baltimore for the manufacture of metallic pens. Sheldon of Sedgley made steel pens of the barrel type in 1815, and sold them at eighteen shillings per dozen. Five years later the number of manufacturers had increased. To James Perry must be awarded the credit of bringing steel pens into general use. In 1819 he began pen-making at Manchester, using for the purpose the best Sheffield steel, made from Swedish charcoal coal. Perry was the first to overcome the rigidity previously complained of in steel pens, by introducing apertures below the shoulder and point of the pen — thus transferring the elasticity of the implement to a position below instead of above the shoulder. About 1824 Perry removed to Red Lion Square, London, where he continued the manufacture of pens under his patents, which included the invention above cited. The Perryian pens were pressed into the market with great energy, and they were soon known and used throughout the country, before the leading Birmingham pen-makers, Mitchell, Gillott, and Mason effected a new departure in the trade by the use of machinery in the production of pens.
At this point I shall take up the biographical sketch of my subject. As Mr. J. T. Bunce has shown in his excellent Memoir of Mason, he was in all respects a self-made man, having no advantages of birth, connections, education, or means. So far as regarded the probability of wealth or of personal eminence, no life could have begun in a manner less promising. He started, indeed, not so much upon the lowest round of the ladder, as at the very foot of it, with little chance, as it seemed, of getting so high as the first round. He was not even a mechanic by any formal training, for he was taught no trade, served no apprenticeship, was inducted into no "art " or mystery " of handicraft. How this happened is not very clear; but his own recollection was distinct that it was so, and that he stood a good chance of going through life as a labourer in the ordinary sense, or of earning a precarious livelihood by turning his hand to those odd jobs which fall to the lot of one who, according to the common saying, is jack of all trades and master of none. From this shiftless kind of life Josiah Mason was preserved by his natural resolution, ingenuity, and industry, and by an innate conviction that, somehow or other, he must do something in the world, both for himself and for others.'
The ancestry of Josiah Mason has not been taken further back than three generations. His paternal grandfather was a working bombazine weaver at Kidderminster with a turn for mechanics and music, and also for dealing with machinery of a simple character. He was named Josiah, and he had an only son, also named Josiah, who married Elizabeth Griffiths, the daughter of a respectable workman at Dudley. Josiah the second moved to Kidderminster, where he attained a position of trust in a carpet manufactory. He had four children, three sons and a daughter. The second son was Josiah Mason the third, and the one destined to make the family known to future generations. He was born on the 23rd of February, 1795, in a little house in Mill Street, Kidderminster. The street is now called Josiah Mason Street, to commemorate a benefaction by Sir Josiah to the dispensary of the town. Mason survived his sister and both his brothers. So far from being ashamed of his humble origin at Kidderminster, he had it duly set forth in the trust deeds of Mason College; and he directed that both in regard to this institution and his orphanage, preference should be given to children belonging to Kidderminster, his earliest home, and to those of Birmingham, which was his home in later years.
Young Mason went to a dame's school, held in a cottage next door to his father's house. The tuition was of course cheap and inefficient. Nor was it of any long duration, for at eight years of age he began the business of life by selling cakes in the streets. His cakes and rolls were so much appreciated that purchasers sometimes gave the industrious lad an extra penny. Owing to his perseverance he was soon able to enter upon a more ambitious field. Purchasing a donkey, which he named Admiral Rodney, he became a dealer in fruit and vegetables, which he sold from door to door. His mother gave him practical help, while his father sagely recommended him never to let anybody know how much money he had got in his pockets. Desiring at length a more settled occupation, Josiah took to shoemaking at home, where he could help to nurse his elder brother, who was a confirmed invalid. He began by simply mending shoes, but passed from a cobbler into a shoemaker proper. Quality was what he aimed at, and he was rather too conscientious to make it pay. He would buy the best leather and put into it the best work, so that in later years he would say with a twinkle, 'I found I couldn't make it pay, and must become bankrupt, so I gave it up.'
Distressed by his defective education he taught himself writing, and obtained casual employment by writing letters for those who were unable to conduct their own correspondence. In a short time he was able to buy a few books, and where he could not buy he borrowed. His reading was of the severer kind — history, science, theology, — and it is said to be doubtful whether he ever read any work of fiction in his life. First at the Unitarian Sunday-school, and later at that of the Wesleyans, he was able to supplement his hardly-acquired knowledge by valuable lessons.
About the year 1812 Mrs. Mason opened a little shop for the sale of groceries. Josiah was her right-hand man, and when to the shop was ultimately added a bake-house, used for the cooking of Sunday dinners, he superintended it. But he still hankered after a settled trade, and assumed in turns the role of a carpenter, a blacksmith, and a house-painter, making progress in all, but being satisfied with none.
Then, in 1814, when he was nineteen years old, he found employment in Mr. Broom's carpet-works, at Tinker's Hill. For two years he laboured here, thoroughly mastering the business, and doing his work so well that his employer showed it to others as a pattern and a stimulus. But carpet-weaving was monotonous and led to nothing, while the utmost remuneration he could secure at it was a pound per week. Consequently he wanted more scope, and craved for a wider field. The 'hardware village' of Birmingham had already come into note, and thither Josiah Mason turned his steps. There was plenty of employment, and new industries were constantly being introduced, or old ones developed. In his twenty-second year he paid a visit to Birmingham to see what it was like. This proved the turning point in his career, and he never went back to live in Kidderminster.
He found in Birmingham all that he wanted. It was a free town, full of enterprising citizens, and offering abundant opportunities for young men of business ability and perseverance. Work was not concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy men, but there were numbers of small masters who shared in the various trades rapidly springing up. When young Mason entered Birmingham he found it 'a town fast rising in population, wealth, and influence'; there was 'an industry varied beyond computation, and embracing every kind of metal work, from the great engines made at Soho to the steel trinkets forged and filed and polished in some garret in a bye-street'; and there were 'an army of workers, energetic, ingenious, and inventive in the highest degree, capable of independent exertion, and at the same time susceptible of adapting themselves to the complex organisation of large factories. It was precisely the place to suit Mason, who was possessed of courage, industry, and activity, and who was qualified to develop an organising faculty which, later in life, exerted an important influence upon his own fortunes and upon the trade of the town.'
Mason always spoke of it as a providential circumstance that his steps were directed towards Birmingham. Settling down there in 1816, he married on the 18th of August in the following year his cousin Annie Griffiths. Their union, which was one of unclouded happiness and perfect confidence, lasted for more than fifty-two years. When Mrs. Mason died, on the 24th of February, 1870, the surviving husband, though grief-stricken, could look back on a far longer span of blissful married life than most men.
Mason's first occupation in Birmingham was in looking after a gilt toy business, in which his uncle Griffiths was the chief, and subsequently sole proprietor. The gilt toy trade included the production of common jewellery, gilt rings, buckles, chains, fancy buttons, clasps, and personal ornaments of all kinds. Through the fault of his original partner Griffiths had nearly lost all the money he had invested in the business; but Mason worked with such a will for a period of nearly seven years, that he recovered his uncle's money, paid off all the debts of the concern, increased its value as a business, and largely increased the profits. When all this had been done, his uncle behaved with base ingratitude. He had led Mason to believe he would be taken in as a partner, and now, when he had turned a worthless business into a prosperous one, it was sold over his head, and the fruits of his skill and industry were denied to him. When Mason learnt the facts, he exclaimed, 'I will never re-enter the place; I have done with it at once and for ever.' With the Griffiths family he would have no further business transactions whatever, and all through life he felt keenly the injustice of the treatment to which he had been subjected.
For a short time he was thrown upon his own resources, but in 1822 he was introduced by a mutual friend named Heeley — a member of the Wesleyan body — to Mr. Harrison, a split-ring maker, in Lancaster Street. Harrison was soon satisfied of Mason's capacity and his willingness to work, and he engaged him at the first interview. As Harrison was leaving the house in Lancaster Street for a cottage which he had built for himself, Mason went to live at the former. The house had workshops behind it, and a pleasant garden beyond. This site, with about an acre of ground besides, was afterwards occupied by Mason's steel-pen manufactory, in one portion of which the old split-ring business continued to be carried on.
For a period of twelve months Mason drew no settled salary from the business, merely taking what he wanted for himself and wife to live upon. Then he spoke to Harrison, who said he was willing to sell the business, and retire altogether if his assistant could find anyone to help him with the money. Mason tried, but failed, and then his master behaved most generously to him, practically making him a present of the business. 'Give me,' he said, '£500 for the stock and the business, and pay me that amount out of the profits as you make them.' Mr. Bunce thus remarks upon the circumstance, and upon the relations between the two men:
The value of the bargain may be inferred from the facts that the first £100 was paid in August, 1823, and the last £100 in May, 1824. To the close of his life Sir Josiah Mason kept, as a precious relic of his old friend and master, the little octavo memorandum-book - thumbed and blurred, and "dog-eared " by the use of years, but always treasured by its owner, and shown by him with honest pride to his friends in which these payments were entered, together with other records of ordinary trading transactions: purchases of metal, sales of goods, payments of wages, deposits with the bank, investments of savings. On the last leaf of the book were Mr. Harrison's entries of receipts for £500, the purchase-money: the only accounts which ever existed between the two.
Nothing could have been simpler than this transaction; nothing more honourable to both parties to it. The old manufacturer, who had made what he desired — a modest competence — and who wished to be free in his declining years to enjoy it, recognised in the probity, industry, and intelligence of the younger man the qualities requisite to the successful conduct of a business in which, while retiring from it, he still felt a natural interest, and which he desired to see conducted on the same principles as those which had governed his own conduct of it. The confidence thus displayed by Mr. Harrison was justified by his associate so entirely that a close and tender friendship, lasting throughout the remainder of Mr. Harrison's life, sprang up between the two.'
Though he had given up the business, Harrison continued to be a frequent visitor to the factory in Lancaster Street, and the feeling of affectionate veneration in which Mason held him was so strong, even in old age, that he never tired of speaking of his many estimable qualities his kindliness, honesty, and capacity, and he traced to him his own success in business life. Before Harrison's time, split-rings were laboriously made in small numbers by filing and bending, but he adapted the stamping press to their manufacture, and was the inventor of the flat ring now commonly used for bunches of keys. Harrison was a great friend of Dr. Priestley, who could never understand how split-rings were made, so on one occasion the manufacturer took him to Lancaster Street and showed him the operation of the stamp, which made the ring at a single blow. Upon this the Doctor threw up his hands, and exclaimed, 'With all my philosophy, I could not have dreamt of such a thing.' It was owing to Dr. Priestley's complaining that he could not obtain satisfactory pens wherewith to write that Harrison made him the first steel pens produced in Birmingham.
Master of a business which promised to secure him a competency, Mason now looked forward to the future with confidence and hope. He had a deeply religious nature, and never failed to attribute his various openings in life to the intervention of a Higher Power. He was, unfortunately, not blessed with children, and his business probably occupied more of his thought in consequence, for he was not a man to put up with a life of inactivity. In three years he had prospered so greatly that he bought the buildings in Lancaster Street, and also took in new premises. The split-ring trade expanded rapidly owing to his improvements. Hoop rings had up to this time been finished by hand, the bevelling being done slowly, and at considerable cost. Mason felt that they could be done much mare quickly and cheaply, and accordingly devised a bevelling machine, by which he gained £1,000 in a single year. The machine which he constructed in 1825 still continued in use after his death.
Mason next took up the work by which he amassed his enormous wealth, and by which he will be known to posterity, viz., the improvement and manufacture of steel pens. Following upon Donkin's English pen patent already referred to came one in 1809 by Frederick Bartholomew Folsch and William Howard for 'a pen made of glass, enamel, of any sort of stone or metal'; and in May of the same year Folsch took out another patent in his own name only, for 'a pen which may be made of any sort of metal,' and with a socket in the holder to contain ink. The next patent was one granted nine years later to Charles Watt, to protect an invention for coating quill pens with gold. Nine or ten years more elapsed, and then Gorge Poulton obtained a patent for a reservoir tube to hold ink, the pen to be made of steel. Then, in April, 1830, Perry took out a patent for making pens by a new method, from hard, thin, elastic metal, and a length of slitted or cleft space scarcely exceeding that of quill pens.
In 1832 Perry made other improvements, securing greater flexibility. But the greatest improvement in pen manufacture was the adoption of the screw hand-press for the cutting out of pens, thus enabling the manufacturer to supply them cheaply and in quantities. At first the method of slitting pens by machinery was kept a profound secret. To John Mitchell, a Sheffield cutler, who removed to Birmingham in 1822, belongs the credit of first making pens by machinery. His step-son, Gillott, also began to use machinery for pen-making in 1829, at which time likewise Mason began to use the press for the same purpose, though both of them worked unknown to each other. But it was afterwards demonstrated, and fully admitted by Mason, that Mitchell had the prior claim to the invention of making steel pens by machinery. Mason made barrel pens in 1828, and 'slip' pens for Perry in 1829. Gillott took out a patent in 1831 for his method of making pens by machinery.
In the hands of the three leading pen-makers mentioned above, the steel-pen industry became in the course of twenty years one of the most important in Birmingham. Though a simple-looking instrument, the pen has to go through some sixteen different processes before it is finished ready for use. A technical authority thus describes the method of manufacture:
The steel of which the pens are made comes from Sheffield, and is in sheets 6 feet long and 1 foot 5 inches wide. It is first cut into strips of convenient width; next it is annealed and rolled to the requisite thickness, when it is found to have trebled its original length and to have acquired a bright surface from the action of the rollers.
The "blanks," or first shape of the pen, are now cut out by means of a press; next comes the operation of marking or stamping the name on the pen, then piercing; but before they can be formed into the shape of a pen they require to be softened by annealing. They are freed from dust and grease, placed in round pots, which are again enclosed in larger ones, are covered with charcoal-dust, put into a muffle or iron box, heated to a dull red, and then allowed to cool.
The pens are next raised or formed into the required shape by a blow from a screw-press fitted with a punch and a die. Then they are hardened. This is done by arranging them in thin layers in covered iron pans of a round shape, which are heated to a bright redness in a muffle. The contents of the pans are next emptied into a bucket, immersed in a tank of oil, and transferred to a perforated cylinder, which, being quickly rotated, drains off the oil. The pens are still greasy and as brittle as glass, and in order to cleanse them they are again placed in perforated buckets and plunged into a tank of boiling soda-water.
They are next tempered, or softened, by enclosure in an iron cylinder which is kept revolving over a charcoal fire until the requisite degree of softness is attained. The pens have been blackened by this operation; they are next scoured by being dipped into a tub of diluted sulphuric acid, and then put into iron barrels containing water and material made from broken and finely-ground annealing pots. The barrels are kept revolving for five, or sometimes eight hours; then the pens are subjected to a second process of scouring in barrels filled with dry material of the same kind; and then to a third process, in which dry sawdust is the scouring or cleaning agent.
The pens have now acquired a bright, silver tone, and the points have been rounded. They have then to be ground between the pierced portion and the point; this is done on a small revolving solid wheel or "bob" made of wood, covered with leather, and coated with emery-powder. Next comes the operation of slitting, which is cleverly accomplished by a cutting-press; but, the edges of the slit being sharp, the pens are again polished in revolving barrels. They are now coloured and varnished; the colouring is done in a copper or iron cylinder over a coke fire; if to be lacquered they are placed in a solution of shellac.
Afterwards the spirit is drained off, the pens are placed in wire cylinders, and kept revolving until the lacquer is dry. Next the pens are spread on iron trays an put into an oven, the heat of which spreads the lacquer evenly over the surface. Girls now look over the pens, throw aside the faulty ones, and the good ones are packed into boxes ready for sale.'
In 1849 there were twelve pen factories in Birmingham, employing about 2,000 men, women, and girls, the weekly output of pens being stated at 65,000 gross. In 1866 the following returns of the trade were made by the manufacturers:—
Number of makers, 12; men employed, 360; women and girls, 2,050; horse-power, 330; number of pens produced weekly, 98,000 gross; quantity of steel used weekly, 9.5 to 10 tons; prices of 'slip' pens, from 1.5d. to 1s. per gross, and of barrel pens, 7d. to 12s. per gross. About 2,000 additional hands, chiefly women, were employed in making pen-holders, paper-boxes, and other accessories of the trade. The conditions of work and rates of pay were thus described in a volume on the industries of Birmingham: The condition of the work-people employed in metallic pen-making is very satisfactory, in consequence of the large and lofty rooms in which the work is usually done, and the generous care which the principal manufacturers display for the welfare and improvement of the persons they employ. The wages of girls vary from 5s. to 12s. per week, some of the younger earning only 2s. 6d. to 3s. 6d., while some few of the older and more skilful work-women earn as much as 15s. or 20s. per week. The men earn from 18s. to 20s.; the boys 4s. 6d. to 8s., or if skilful, 8s. to 16s.; and the skilled adult males (chiefly tool-makers) from 30s. to 80s., and some even 90s. to 100s. per week. The hours of labour are usually from 52 to 57 hours per week, all beyond those hours being reckoned as "over-time," and the Saturday half- holiday is nearly universal in the pen factories.'
The Handbook of _Birmingham, edited by Mr. Timmins, and published in 1886, gives the following account by Mr. Maurice Pollack of the trade as it existed at that date:
There has been little improvement since 1865. Muffles heated by gas, on the plan of Dr. Siemens, have been introduced for tempering and colouring, and ordinary gas is also used in connection with these processes; but these improvements are only used by one or two firms, and more as a matter of convenience than as a means of making pens of a better quality or lower price. Many patents have been taken out since 1865, for new styles of pens; the most successful have been those which deal with the points; these have been turned up or turned down, thickened or planished, all for the purpose of producing smooth points to glide freely over the paper even with a rough surface.
The fashion in paper and ink materially influences the style of pens. The J pens (so-called because that letter was embossed upon one of the first and best-known broad points) have been extensively used, and have influenced handwriting, especially that of ladies.
Calligraphy as an art has fallen off in this country, and this has influenced pen manufacture. The most delicately made pens are manufactured for foreign use. There are perhaps, not so many pen works now as there were in 1865, but the productive power has vastly increased. The present weekly average of pens manufactured is about 160,000 gross, requiring from 16 to 18 tons of steel, of which only at eight tons appear in the article, the rest being loss or waste.
Pen steel is still produced in Sheffield, the best being made from Swedish iron. The number of girls and women employed is from 3,200 to 3,600, whilst the number of men employed as tool-makers, rollers, engineers, stokers, etc., hardly exceeds 500. The increase in make since 1865, of quite 60 per cent., is mainly due to the export trade. No new per manufactories have been established since 1865, except in the United States, where there are now four pen works, but of these only one is of importance.
In France there are now only three pen manufactories, and the production is less than it was three years ago. In Germany there is only one, and its make, though improved in quality, is very inconsiderable in comparison with the large consumption of steel pens in Germany. An attempt has been made to establish works in Russia, where the duty on steel pens is high, but after existing one or two years the manufactory was burnt down, and no attempt has been made to rebuild it.
The Customs duty on steel pens, with the exception of Russia or the United States, where it is sixpence per gross, is very moderate, and prevents the importation of low or middle-class pens. The price obtained for steel pens depends more upon the reputation of the maker or of the mark than upon their intrinsic value—hence the difficulty of giving an average value of each gross of pens produced.
Josiah Mason stated that from the time of his introduction to James Perry, in 1829, he became a steel-pen maker. An improvement which he had made in a Perry pen, and of which a sample was sent to the maker in London, brought Perry down to Birmingham in great haste. He at once began to employ Mason, and Perry and Co were his only customers for many years. From their first interview until the year 1873 Mason was the sole and only maker of the Persian and the steel B pens sold under Perry's name. At first the trade was small, but in 1831 pens to the value of £1,421 were made by Mason for Perry. Then, as the greater demand resulted in reduced prices and a larger production, increased machinery and an increasing number of work-people became necessary, until at length Mason became the largest pen-maker in the world, and employed by far the largest number of hands in the trade.
For a long time one part of the process of pen-making was kept a profound secret. This was the method of slitting pens by means of the press, instead of by the old and uncertain methods of cracking. Mason himself, with his own hands, made the dies and punches required for the slitting, and the presses in which these were fixed were worked by two or three women in a separate room, to which none but the actual workers and their master were admitted.
Gillott was so struck by the quality of Mason's pens that he proposed they should go into partnership, saying, 'Let us join, and not another man shall make a pen besides us.' Mason preferred to stand by himself, however, though he and Gillott had many business transactions together. Mason's own name appeared on great numbers of pens which he made for Somerville and Co and Perry and Co. For a time he received valuable assistance in the production of pens from Isaac Smith, who revealed much mechanical ingenuity, and afterwards from W. F. Batho, who remained with Mason until he resumed the personal management of his pen-works after the opening of the Erdington Orphanage.
The increase of trade induced Mason to extend his works, and he constantly added to them until he laid the foundation for producing 40,000 gross of pens weekly, although this quantity was not reached when he sold his works in 1875 to the trustees of Perry & Co., Limited. At that time the output exceeded 32,000 weekly, and the works embraced, in addition to the industry of pen-making, the manufacture of pen-holder sticks, pen-holder tips, paper-binders, and numerous minor articles. At the close of 1873 a series of steel pens of the most perfect finish, each pen being stamped 'Sir Josiah Mason,' began to be produced and these pens are sold at the present day. When Mason gave up business, nearly 1,000 work-people, four-fifths of whom were women, were employed in his works. About sixty tons of pens were constantly in movement through the works. As nearly a million and a half of pens may go to a single ton, some idea may be formed of the magnitude of an establishment capable of dealing with sixty times this number.
Mason's connection with the electro-plating trade was also of considerable importance, and now demands attention. The ancients knew how to gild metals, and to plate silver upon copper. In England, likewise, gilding was used in the Middle Ages, and in 1403 an Act was passed to prevent persons from selling gilt articles as the genuine metal. A Sheffield mechanic named Bolsover invented in 1742 the method of plating which was commonly in use before the application of electro-plating. Bolsover discovered the art of laying silver upon copper, and his discovery was improved upon by Joseph Hancock, one of the Sheffield cutlers, who used it to imitate the finest and most richly embossed plate.
Birmingham soon took up the manufacture of plated goods, James Watt's partner, Matthew Boulton, establishing his well-known factory at Soho. Sir Edward Thomason followed in 1796, and from this time the trade rapidly increased. Volta's great discovery of chemical electricity in 1799 was developed by various English and European chemists between that date and 1805; and in 1807 Sir Humphry Davy made a decided advance in the science of electro-metallurgy. In 1831 Faraday achieved still further triumphs, and three years later he made the important discovery that 'when a voltaic current was passed through different salts in solution or in a state of fusion, the amount of salt decomposed by the current was in direct proportion to the quantity of electricity; and that the quantities of substances dissolved and set free in electrolysis were in definite proportions by weight, and that those proportions were identical with the ordinary chemical equivalents of the substances, and thus established the important law of definite electro-chemical action.'
Experiments by Professor Daniell, Mr. De la Rue, and Dr. Golding Bird followed; and then, in 1839, came an avalanche of discoveries by M. Jacobi of St. Petersburg and Mr. Jordan and Mr. Spencer in England, each of whom claimed to have invented the method of electro-deposition. In 1842 a similar claim was made on behalf of Mr. J. S. Woolrich of Birmingham the inventor of the electro-magnetic method, — 'who succeeded in gilding an article by voltaic precipitation from the ammoniacal solution of gold, before the published experiments of Mr. Jordan and Mr. Spencer appeared.'
The credit for the earliest commercial use of the electrotype process is due to Mr. George Richards Elkington and his cousin, Mr. Henry Elkington, who were engaged in 1838 in coating military and other ornaments with gold and silver by simply immersing them in solutions of those metals, particularly a boiling one of carbonate of potash containing dissolved gold. In conjunction with Mr. O. W. Barratt, they patented a process in 1838 for coating articles of copper and brass with zinc, by means of an electric current, generated by a piece of zinc attached to the articles by a wire, and immersed with them in a boiling and neutral solution of chloride of zinc. Dr. George Gore states in his Art of Electra-Metallurgy that this was the first patent in which a separate metal was employed for electro-plating purpose. But the grand discovery of electro-metallurgy was eventually made in 1840 by Mr. John Wright, a surgeon of Birmingham. By an ingenious experiment, Mr. Wright obtained what had never been acquired before, namely, a thick deposit of firm and white silver by electrolytic action. He submitted his results to Messrs. Elkington, who embodied the discovery in a patent. Mr. Wright received a royalty of one shilling for every ounce of silver deposited, but after his death an annuity was paid to his widow instead of the royalty.
Two years after the discovery of Mr. Wright's process, Mr. Woolrich patented an invention which - as Mr. Bunce remarks in an interesting passage —
. . .was destined to effect a great advance in the mode of producing the electrical current required for the depositing process. Amongst the most brilliant discoveries of Faraday was that of magneto-electricity. He found that, when the pole of a magnet is made to approach towards and recede from the core of a coil of insulated copper wire, alternating shocks are induced in the coil. These alternating shocks may be made to act in the same direction; they can then do the same kind of work that is accomplished by a galvanic battery. The idea of applying the currents so developed to the purposes of electro-metallurgy was formed by Mr. Woolrich, who, in 1842, patented a machine — a dynamo, in fact — for producing them in such a way as to be applicable to electro-deposition. The patent was originally worked by Mr. Thomas Prime, of Northwood Street, Birmingham, where Faraday saw the machine in operation. Dr. Percy mentions this interesting fact in his volume on the Metallurgy of Iron and Steel. In 1845, he says, "I conducted Mr. and Mrs. Faraday over Mr. Prime's works, where, for the first time, that great philosopher saw his discovery of the magneto-electric current applied to the electro-deposition of silver. I shall never forget the sparkling delight which he manifested on seeing this result of his purely scientific labours rendered subservient to a beautiful art and to the advantage of others." The superior constancy of the current obtained by the magneto-electric machine over that furnished by the battery soon became manifest; and, though Woolrich's form of the dynamo has long since passed out of the practical into the historical stage, the method embodied in his invention is now in almost universal use as a source of electricity for coating metals. The first dynamo made by him for use by Mr. Prime has been presented by the son of the first user, the present head of the firm, to the Corporation of Birmingham, and is now preserved in their Museum at Aston Hall.
A further improvement of great importance was due to another Birmingham discoverer, Mr. M. Milward, of Elkingtons' establishment. In 1847 Milward and a person named Lyons took out a patent for producing bright deposited silver by 'adding compounds of sulphur or carbon,' bisulphide of carbon being preferred, to the cyanide of silver solution. This Process has been constantly and extensively employed ever since. Dr. Gore states that since the year 1847 the chief improvements which have been made in electro-metallurgy have been the gradual extension of the process for multiplying printing surfaces, in stereotyping, etc., and in the production of works of art, etc., of increased size, in copper, until deposits several tons in weight have been attained; the extensive use of nickel as a coating upon harness furniture; the protection of articles of cast-iron from rusting by a coating of copper; the substitution of magneto-electric machines and thermo-electric piles for voltaic batteries; the purification of crude copper in the process of copper-smelting, and the economical production of coppered iron rollers for calico printing by means of magneto-electric deposition.'
An interesting and condensed description of the process of electro-plating is given by a scientific writer in the latest edition of Chambers's Encyclopaedia. He observes that the 'art of coating the baser metals with silver by the galvanic current is theoretically of great simplicity, but requires in the successful application of it very considerable experience and skill. Articles that are electro-plated are generally made of brass, bronze, copper, or nickel-silver. The best electro-plated goods are of nickel-silver. When Britannia-metal, iron, zinc, or lead are electro-plated, they must be first electro-coppered, as silver does not adhere to the bare surface of these metals. Great care is taken in cleaning the articles previous to electro-plating, for any surface impurity would spoil the success of the operation. They are first boiled in caustic potash to remove any adhering grease; they are then immersed in dilute nitric acid to dissolve any rust or oxide that may be formed on the surface; and they are lastly scoured with fine sand. Before being put into the silvering bath, they are washed with nitrate of mercury, which leaves a thin film of mercury on them, and this acts as a cement between the article and the silver. The bath where the electro-plating takes place is a large trough of earthenware or other non-conducting substance. It contains a weak solution of cyanide of silver in cyanide of potassium (water, 100 parts; cyanide of potassium, 10 parts; cyanide of silver, 1 part). A plate of silver forms the + electrode, and the articles to be plated, hung by pieces of wire to a metal rod lying across the trough, constitute the — electrode. When the plate is connected with the copper or + pole of a one or more celled galvanic battery, according to the strength required, or subjected to the magneto-electric current, and the rod is joined with the zinc or - pole, chemical decomposition immediately ensues in the bath, the silver of the cyanide begins to deposit itself on the suspended objects, and the cyanogen, liberated at the plate, dissolves it, re-forming the cyanide of silver. According, then, as the solution is weakened by the loss of the metal going to form the electro coating, it is strengthened by the cyanide of silver formed at the plate. The thickness of the plate depends on the time of its immersion. The electric current thus acts as the carrier of the metal of the plate to the objects immersed. In this way silver becomes perfectly plastic in our hands. We can by this means, without mechanical exertion or the craft of the workman, convert a piece of silver of any shape, however irregular, into a uniform plate, which covers, but in no way defaces, objects of the most complicated and delicate forms. When the plated objects are taken from the bath, they appear dull and white; the dullness is first removed by a small circular brush of brass wire driven by a lathe, and the final polish is given by burnishing. The process of electro-gilding is almost identical with that of electro-plating. Success in either attained by proper attention to the strength of the battery, the strength of the solution, the temperature, and the site of the + electrode.'
The process of 'finishing' plated articles is a careful and elaborate one. Mr. Ryland, in a paper contributed to a work on Midland Hardwares, describes the methods of burnishing, and then contrasts the old with the new process of silver-plating as follows:
Under the old process all ornamental work was produced by the die-sinker, and, as a consequence, every portion of the die had to be so arranged that the work would 'leave' it. The foliage, if attempted, was clumsy, the stems and leaves, being massed together, were heavy and shapeless, and the human form was never attempted. Now, by the aid of modelling, casting, and electro-depositing, the most delicate forms are capable of being applied by the manufacturer, and the human figure stands out pre-eminently as a great addition to the plater's art. The graceful forms of animals, birds, and insects are seized upon by the modeller, and made subservient to his productions. The old method of proceeding was by first plating the copper, and then, by means of various manipulations, producing an article which was finished, all but burnishing, when it left the hands of the workman. Electroplating has reversed all this, and that which was formerly the first is now the last operation, for it is necessary that the article should be finished and nicely polished before it receives its coat of silver. Owing to the new mode of plating, there is no occasion to protect the edges of the work by the silver thread soldered on, all the edges being filled and polished.
Soft solder is almost banished, silver solder has taken its place in putting on the mountings, and these mountings are all filled with brass instead of lead or tin. This mode of work renders the article more durable, and, if well plated, it will last in domestic use for twenty years; and then, if the silver be worn off, the goods can be re-plated, which was impossible under the old process. A well-made and well-plated article, manufactured by the electro process, is a far better production than those made by the old method of plating. On the other hand, a poor electro article is far inferior to the worst class of work manufactured under the old system.
The Birmingham and Sheffield platers resisted the introduction of the new process, but Messrs. Elkington persevered, and ultimately overcame all obstacles. The metal used in electro-plating is that which is variously known as German silver, nickel-silver, albata, etc., and it was chosen on account of its near approach in colour to silver. The best quality, and that most difficult to work, is an alloy of 40 parts of copper 20 parts of spelter, and 20 parts of nickel. It is very hard and white, and is that used by all manufacturers. It is much more expensive than the ductile copper which was previously used, and the difficulty of working it led at first to a serious loss in some departments. But, by the division of labour and the employment of machinery, many difficulties were overcome, and a good workman can now do better than under the old process. The report of the jury on exhibits at the Great Exhibition of 1851 stated that Elkington and Mason were the first who introduced into England the application of the electro process to gilding and silvering.
In the development of the electro-plating industry Josiah Mason bore a conspicuous part. On the invitation of Mr. G. R. Elkington he entered into partnership with the firm in 1842, the Elkingtons feeling that they needed the support and assistance of a man of undoubted business capacity and position in their new enterprise — one who could bring in both brains and capital. The supporters of the old processes predicted Mason's ruin, but his own faith in the recent scientific discoveries was strong, and he felt that the new process of plating must inevitably supplant the old, slow, and costly system of hand-plating. Yet, at one time, there was actual danger lest the patent should run out without yielding valuable results to its possessors. The firm therefore resolved to demonstrate the value of the process by the manufacture of plated wares, and it was now that Mason's practical business abilities, and his capacity for organisation, Proved of the highest service. Mr. Elkington had been hampered by apparently insuperable difficulties, and it was largely owing to Mason's efforts that these were overcome, and one of the staple industries of Birmingham was saved to the city.
Mason's biographer observes that his energies were –
. . directed to the work of making the new trade pay. Being embarked in it, he undertook it with characteristic energy, and with a power of concentrated labour which few men could have equalled. It was necessary to provide suitable buildings for a manufactory; and the great establishment now existing in Newhall Street, Birmingham, was resolved upon.
This was Mr. Mason's own design. He laid out the plans of the workshops and the showroom, which were built largely after his own arrangement. These works were intended for the production of articles of taste, and of those domestic articles to which ornament could be applied. But, with his partner, Mason saw clearly that for a considerable time the business must largely depend upon productions of a humbler description, in common use, capable of being supplied in any quantity equal to the demand, and of being sold at a comparatively cheap rate. This led to the extension of a manufactory in Brearley Street, Birmingham, previously used for the production of electro-plated spoons and forks. Here, with ample space and abundant means, every appliance of mechanical skill was provided for the preliminary processes, and the electro-deposition was carried out upon a scale which proved to the hand-platers that in the new method, backed by capital and energy, and directed by a spirit of courage and enterprise, they had not so much encountered a rival, as they had found a master, and ultimately a destroyer.
The new firm did not, however, stop here. Their views extended with the growth of their business, and with the progress of their goods in public favour. While Birmingham formed the headquarters of the trade, and while visitors were attracted to Newhall Street from all parts of England, the Continent, and America, it was thought desirable to go boldly into the great markets, and consequently extensive showrooms and warehouses were opened in London and elsewhere. After these years of labour and outlay, Elkington and Mason reaped a rich reward for their skill and enterprise. The Great Exhibition of 1851 gave them the means of demonstrating their triumph; and from that date to the present day — holding their ground by successive advances — they have stood at the head of the electro-plating trade throughout the world: foremost in quality and design, in enterprise, in the magnitude of their operations, and in the reputation they have achieved.
While Mason devoted himself to the practical part of the concern, he also took a deep interest in the artistic developments of the trade, and he saw with delight that many of the articles produced became, if not 'a thing of beauty and a joy for ever,' at least objects really beautiful to look upon, as well as distinguished for their durability. Mason's first partnership was with George Richards Elkington and Henry Elkington. This lasted from 1842 to 1852, when Henry Elkington retired, and the partnership between the others was renewed. It was finally dissolved in 1857, and Mason did not join the newly- constituted and still existing firm of Elkington and Co.
Many anecdotes are related of Mason's readiness to consider suggestions, and his honourable business methods generally. One of these relates to Herr Krupp, the founder of the famous steel works at Essen. Krupp had invented machinery for rolling the metal 'blanks' from which spoons and forks are made — the object being to lengthen the blanks by rolling, in the manner in which a piece of steel is thinned down, and at the same time to impart greater density to the metal. He offered the invention to Elkingtons, but Mason thought the price too large, and offered £10,000. At the same time he advised the inventor to sell his patent elsewhere for a greater sum if he could, promising to abide by his offer of £10,000 if he could not. Krupp could not obtain a larger amount, and came back and accepted Mason's offer. The German inventor was so impressed by Mason that he subsequently more than once invited him to become his partner, but Mason declined because he was fully absorbed by his occupations in Birmingham.
The manufacture of India-rubber rings was another trade which Mason indirectly assisted in developing; but a greater undertaking than this was the copper industry which Elkington & Mason established at Pembrey, near Llanelly, in South Wales. Alexander Parkes, an able chemist employed by the firm, took out a patent for smelting copper ores, and purifying the copper by means of phosphorus. Elkingtons acquired the patent, and then prospected for a suitable place where they could set up works for smelting the Cornish ore. Elkington & Mason first went to Swansea, but they found it too smoky, and at length they pitched upon a spot on the Burry River, not far from Llanelly. Here extensive works were laid out, and operations begun, Parkes, the inventor, taking the scientific, and Mason the general management. In the course of a short time the village of Pembrey sprang up, and the proprietors of the copper-works displayed a genuine interest in the physical, moral, and intellectual welfare of the workmen. Cottages were built, with a small garden allotment to each; collieries were opened to supply coal; schools were erected for 350 children; and provision was made for religious instruction. The industry and the little colony generally still remain in a flourishing condition. Mason had great difficulty in persuading the children to attend the schools, although the educational facilities were excellent in every way. Having tried various plans, he at length took down with him from Birmingham, on his visits to Pembrey, supplies of useful articles such as hats, bonnets, shoes, and articles of clothing, which he distributed as rewards to the children who attended the schools. It was not long before the hitherto empty schools were half-full, and ultimately they became wholly so. Small fees and a judicious system of rewards were afterwards introduced, and the schools prospered.
In addition to the profits derived from his various undertakings, Mason made large additions to his wealth by the successful purchase and sale of land and building sites, and by investments in commercial and miscellaneous companies. Wealth is like a snowball, and it is astonishing how it increases when it is rolled along, after once the nucleus has been obtained. It was so in Mason's case. But he was not only a money-getter; he was a money-spender on a great scale, and in a noble way. Some misjudged his character because he was strict and business-like in his dealings, taking exactly what was due to him, as he gave to others with equal exactitude what was due to them. But all through the accumulation of his gains he had a settled purpose, which was to do something for the helpless and the friendless, those who were left stranded in the race of life. And he was resolved to do this in his lifetime so that he could to a certain extent act as his own steward and almoner, and thus secure the right use of his benefactions.
His first benevolent enterprise was a small institution begun at Erdington — the suburb of Birmingham which he always favoured — in 1858. It combined an almshouse for aged women and an orphanage for girls. How he came to do this was because he had seen the evil effects of his own indiscriminate charity. He had been imposed on again and again, and he determined to do good in such a manner that imposture should be rendered impossible. Not satisfied with his first experiment, however, he desired to have an orphanage on a much larger scale, with something of a public character, and under public management. He therefore sought out Dr. Miller, who was then Rector of St. Martin's, the chief parish in Birmingham. They were unknown to each other, and as Mason unfolded his plan, Dr. Miller gave him little encouragement, as he feared the requisite number of people could not be found to support a great scheme. But at length the Doctor said 'Well what about a donation to start it with — £20 or £50 is not much in this case.' Mason's reply fairly electrified the Divine: Plenty of such sums would tell up, Doctor; I would give £100,000 to start it!' Dr. Miller felt as though he could embrace his visitor. A meeting of clergymen, ministers, and others was convened at St. Martin's Rectory to discuss the scheme. The offer of £100,000 amazed those present. After about a dozen meetings, however, an insuperable difficulty arose. Mason belonged to no religious order or denomination, but he wanted the children to he taught the Holy Scriptures as Timothy was taught. Many of the clerical sympathisers held out vigorously for the Catechism, and so the project fell through. The donor felt that he could not found the institution solely upon a Church basis.
Thrown upon his own resources, Mason determined to carry out his plan for an orphanage alone. He selected a suitable site at Erdington, obtained plans and designs, and began the work of construction in 1865. The position was conspicuous, and as the building first, and then its lofty towers, gradually loomed up on the horizon, people questioned each other as to its object. The donor went quietly on, constructing the strong, durable, and magnificent building, and at the same time preparing the trust-deed of his foundation. The trust-deed was a very important matter, for in order to satisfy the requirements of the Mortmain Act it had to be enrolled twelve months during the life of the founder, or otherwise it could not take effect. Other arrangements had also to be made in view of the possibility of the founder's death in the interim. All difficulties were overcome, however, and on the 31st of July, 1869, Mason was able to enjoy the deep and unalloyed pleasure of personally opening his splendid institution, by presiding over the first meeting of the trustees.
The buildings forming the Almshouses and Orphanage at Erdington were valued at £60,000, while the princely endowment was estimated at no less than £200,000. This great charity on the part of a simple Birmingham manufacturer entitled him to rank with such philanthropists as George Peabody, and it has been noted as a coincidence that these two men were born in the same month of the same year. Mason's noble work was wholly his own, both in conception and execution, down to the smallest detail. Without asking or receiving help of any kind, he gave to trustees, 'and through them to the public, a set of almshouses for twenty-six women, an orphanage for three hundred children, finished in building and arrangement, with plans of management laid down carefully throughout and perfected, both charities in full working order and actually at work; and to crown all, with an endowment in land, so well-chosen as to promise rapid growth in value with each successive year, and so ample as to shut out for ever the need of an appeal for other help.'
With regard to the inmates of the Orphanage, it was provided that the number of boys should never exceed one-half the number of girls for the time being inmates therein. There was only one qualification for admission namely, that every child should be of or under the age of nine years, and the legitimate child of poor parents, both of whom were dead. There was no restriction as to locality, condition, country, or religious persuasion. Boys might remain in the Orphanage until they were fourteen, and girls until they were eighteen years of age. A good sound education was provided for — and everything was perfectly free, lodging, clothing, maintenance, and training. The girls were to be brought up to all household and domestic duties. The religious instruction imparted was to be completely unsectarian. Seven trustees were appointed by the founder to act with him during his lifetime, and after his death seven others were added, appointed by the Town Council of Birmingham. The trustees were to be lay-men and Protestants, and were to hold their appointments for life, except for certain disabling conditions specified. The education given in the Orphanage is so thorough that not long after its foundation, at the Government examinations the boys passed cent. per cent., and the girls and infants more than 97 per cent. in the general standards. The Almshouses for Aged Women are admirably conducted, and connected with this portion of the charity is a home for servants who have been sent out from the Orphanage, and who may be temporarily disabled, or may need a place of residence while seeking new situations.
The third, and in some respects the greatest, of Sir Josiah Mason's benefactions was the famous Science College, erected and founded for the purpose of systematic higher education. There were many admirable educational institutions in Birmingham, but there was no place for the higher instruction of students who found the existing means inadequate, and were consequently obliged to rely upon private tuition, or to resort to the universities or provincial colleges. He therefore resolved to offer to the community the free gift of a great teaching institution, carefully arranged, thoroughly equipped for its work, and well endowed, to bear the name of the Mason Science College. On the 12th of December, 1870, the foundation-deed was formally executed. When the twelve months required by the Statute of Mortmain had expired, Dr. J. G. Blake and Mr. G. J. Johnson were legally constituted the first trustees of the College, and as such held in trust the various properties conveyed to them by the founder for the purposes of the College. The College was erected in Edmund Street, Birmingham. It formed one side of a square, the others being occupied by the Town Hall, the Council House, the Corporation Art Gallery, and the Free Libraries worthy institutions for a free city. There were six trustees of the building, four being appointed in addition to Messrs. Blake and Johnson, already named.
The plans having been approved and the works begun the donor laid the foundation-stone on the 25th of February, 1875, that being the eightieth anniversary of his birthday. In consequence of the extremely inclement weather, the outdoor proceedings were brief, and an adjournment was made to the Queen's Hotel. Here were assembled representatives of the Corporation, the Magistracy, and of the institutions connected with education, literature, science, and art. Mr. John Bright specially attended to show his interest in the event, and his sympathy with the aims of the founder; but the Mayor of Birmingham, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, was absent through severe domestic affliction. The Deputy-Mayor read an address of congratulation and thanks to Sir Josiah Mason for his magnificent gift, and the hope was expressed that he might live to witness the completion of a work which would be imperishably associated with his name. Mason's reply, which was read for him on account of his advanced age, was a document of profound autobiographic interest. No apology is therefore needed for reproducing the text of it, which ran as follows:—
I have to thank you most sincerely for your presence here to-day, to witness the laying of the foundation-stone of my Scientific College, and I have to thank you also for the kind address which has just been read, and for its full and generous recognition of my labours. It is, indeed, a matter of deep satisfaction to me that at my advanced age I am still in possession of sufficient health and strength to allow me to take this personal share in commencing the work I have so much at heart it fills my mind with gratitude to the Giver of all Good, and if it should please Him to allow me to see the completion of the building which we have just begun, I shall be content to depart, with the confident belief that others, rightly appreciating my design, will carry out the scheme of the College in the spirit in which I have been permitted to begin it. This work, gentlemen, has been long in my mind, for I have always felt the importance of providing enlarged means of scientific instruction, on the scale required by the necessities of this town and district, and upon terms which render it easily available by persons of all classes, even the very humblest. The experience of my own life has long since satisfied me on this point.
When I was a young man — it is so long ago that while still living in this generation I can recall the memories of a time long past — there were no means of scientific teaching open to the artisan classes of our manufacturing towns; and those who, like myself, would gladly have benefited by them were compelled to plod their weary way, under disadvantages and difficulties of which our young men of the present day can form no adequate idea. Schools at that time were few and poor; there were no institutions of popular teaching, no evening classes to which youths might go after their day's work was ended. Whatever I learned I had to teach myself in the intervals of laborious and precarious occupations, first at Kidderminster, my birth place, and later in Birmingham, the home of my adoption, and the place where sixty years of my life have been spent. At Kidderminster, as a youth, I worked at a variety of trades baking, shop-keeping, carpet-weaving, and others. <When I came to Birmingham, in my twentieth year, I was first connected with one of the then staple trades of the town, the gilt toy making, and it was not until after ten years of hard work and heavy disappointment, that I found the position that Providence had destined for me.
At thirty years of age, with twenty pounds of savings as my whole fortune, I was brought into association with one of the most honourable, industrious, and ingenious of men, Mr. Samuel Harrison, the inventor of split-rings, whom I served for a time, and to whose business, on his retirement, I succeeded. Mr. Harrison was no common man; he was a friend of Dr. Priestley, whom he assisted in many of his philosophical experiments, and for whom, I may mention, as a matter of interesting local history, he made the first steel pens that ever were made in Birmingham. To me he was a dear and good friend, whose memory I have never ceased to cherish with continual affection.
To the business I received from him I afterwards added the trade of steel pen making, which I have now followed for more than forty-seven years, first as the maker of the well-known Perryian pens, and later in my own name, until I have developed the works into the largest pen factory in the world though I ought to say that the building in which they are now conducted no longer belongs to me, but has been conveyed to the Trustees of the College, as part of their endowment, so that I am now the tenant of my own foundation. This business and that of the split-ring making were my sole occupations until 1840, when accident brought me in close relations with my late valued friend and partner, Mr. G. R. Elkington, who was then applying the great discovery of electro-deposition, and through my association with him in this undertaking I may claim a share in the creation of a form of scientific industry which has so largely enriched the town of Birmingham, and increased its fame throughout the world. To this we afterwards added the establishment of copper-works in South Wales.
Since the death of my friend Mr. Elkington, I have restricted myself to my original work as a pen maker and a split-ring maker, with an occasional deviation into other employments in which science has been brought to the aid of industry.
I mention these facts to show you how the means with which God has blessed me have been acquired, and to show also how natural it is that I should devote some portion of those means to assist in promoting scientific teaching, to advance the varied forms of scientific industry, with which, throughout my Birmingham life, I have been so closely connected. But before I could take in hand the foundation of this College I had another work to do. I had always had a great desire to do some deed of love for the poor and helpless, and therefore my first care was to make provision for the aged and the orphans. This I was enabled to do by founding the Orphanage and Almshouses at Erdington; and this being done, I was at liberty to turn my attention to the project of the College.
There were many difficulties to be overcome. Willingness to give money will do much, but it will not do everything. The site, for example, was a great hindrance; many places were thought of and put aside; others were sought for and could not be obtained. These delays, however, did not really do any harm to the scheme; indeed, they afforded time for the proper consideration of the plan of the College, and the preparation of a deed of foundation of a nature to give full effect to my wishes. For this I must acknowledge my great obligations to my friend and adviser, Mr. G. T. Johnson, and to other gentlemen, some of whom are included in the number of my trustees. At last, all difficulties being overcome, and the plans for the College being settled, we are assembled to witness the commencement of the building which I have undertaken to erect as the future home of the foundation, and before long I hope to see the first body of students collected within its walls.
The scheme of the College, as most of you know, is a large one, and I have sought to make it as liberal as possible in the character and extent of the teaching, the system of management, and the mode and the terms of admission. Whatever is necessary for the improvement of scientific industry, and for the cultivation of art, especially as applied to manufactures, the trustees will he able to teach; they may also, by a provision subsequent to the original deed, afford facilities for medical instruction; and, as has been mentioned in the address read by the Deputy-Mayor, they are authorised, and indeed enjoined, to revise the scheme of instruction from time to time, so as to adapt it to the requirements of the district in future years, as well as at the present time.
It is not my desire to set up an institution in rivalry of any other now existing, but to provide the means of carrying further and completing the teaching now given in other scientific institutions, and in the evening classes now so numerous in the town and its neighbourhood, and especially in connection with the Midland Institute; which has already conferred so much benefit upon large numbers of students, and which I am glad to see represented here to-day. My wish is, in short, to give all classes in Birmingham, in Kidderminster, and in the district generally, the means of carrying on, in the capital of the Midland district, their scientific studies as completely and thoroughly as they can be prosecuted in the great science schools of this country and the Continent; for I am persuaded that in this way alone — by the acquirement of sound, extensive, and practical scientific knowledge — can England hope to maintain her position as the manufacturing centre of the world.
I have great, and I believe well-founded, hope for the future of this foundation. I look, forward to its class rooms and lecture halls being filled with a succession of earnest and intelligent students, willing not only to learn all that can be taught, but in their turn to communicate their knowledge to others, and to apply it to useful purposes for the benefit of the community. It is in this expectation that I have done my part, thankful to God that He has given me the means and the will to do it; hoping that from this place many original and beneficial discoveries may proceed; trusting that I, who have never been blessed with children of my own, may yet, in these students, leave behind me an intelligent, earnest, industrious, and truth-loving and truth-seeking progeny for generations to come.
On the 1st of October, 1880, the College was opened. The proceedings of the day began with a meeting in the Town Hall, presided over by Mr. Richard Chamberlain, Mayor of Birmingham, and attended by representatives of the Corporations of Birmingham and Kidderminster, and of the leading scientific and literary institutions of Birmingham, and the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and London, the Victoria University, and by the Trustees and Professors of the College. An enthusiastic greeting was accorded to the venerable Founder, who was fortunately able to be present. A choir, selected from the Birmingham Choral Festival Society, sang Mendelssohn's hymn 'Let our theme of praise ascending.'
Then Professor Huxley delivered the opening address, remarking at the close of it that there were many present who could look back to the time when the anticipations of the building or dedication of a College such as that they had now seen launched would have been looked upon as a piece of chimerical absurdity, and when there was not, in the whole of the three kingdoms, accessible to the inhabitants, high or low, such teaching as would now be available to every inhabitant of Birmingham, rich or poor, in Mason's Scientific College.' Speeches were afterwards delivered at a luncheon by Mr. G. J. Johnson (the President), Professors Huxley, Max Muller, Greenwood, and Roscoe, Mr. R. W. Dale, and Dr. Tilden, Professor of Chemistry in the new College. At a conversazione held at the College in the evening, the ceremony of transferring the building to the Trustees took place. The Founder, standing on a dais in the Physics Laboratory, and holding in his hand the key of the College, said, 'This key of the College is now mine, and I can say that the College is mine; but in a moment I shall be able to say so no longer, for I now present it, and with it the College, to my old friend Mr. Johnson, on behalf of my trustees, to be held by them in trust for the benefit of generations to come.'
The total value of this great gift—buildings and endowment was about £200,000. The buildings of the College are four stories in height and extend in their greatest depth to about 300 feet. The style is Gothic of the thirteenth century. The accommodation includes five lecture rooms, commodious laboratories, three museums, a handsome library containing 20,000 volumes, class rooms and offices, a common room for students, and separate retiring and reading rooms for women students. Originally, the deed of foundation provided for scientific instruction only, with the addition of the English, French, and German languages; but by later deeds the Founder authorised the Trustees to provide instruction in all branches of science — including medicine and surgery - in art, languages, and literature, and all subjects required for degrees in arts or science. One restriction only was imposed on the Trustees: they were to permit no lectures, teaching, or examinations on theological questions or political subjects of a party nature. The number of trustees was fixed at eleven, six of whom were nominated by the Founder, while the remaining five were elected by the Town Council of Birmingham after his death. The institution made rapid progress. During its first year there were 85 students, but in 1888-9 there were no fewer than 415 students in the day classes, and 309 other students in the evening classes, making a total of 724. The usefulness of the College had thus exceeded the most sanguine expectations.
The Town Council of Birmingham desired to erect a statue of Mason, to be placed in the Corporation Art Gallery, but as none of the designs pleased the philanthropist the project fell through, much to his satisfaction, as he had most reluctantly consented to the proffered honour. However, as the result of a private subscription, Mason's portrait, painted by Mr. H. T. Munns, was formally presented to the Town Council in 1872, and placed in the Art Gallery. In the same year, the Queen conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, and, in consequence of Mason's advanced age and the state of his health, her Majesty specially directed that the usual ceremony and presentation at Court should be dispensed with.
As far back as 1841 Sir Josiah Mason had suffered from a gastric affection, complicated by heart disease, for which he tried many remedies, French and English, and finally found considerable relief under the water cure at Malvern. Twice he made a continental tour, on the first occasion in quest of health. During his long career in Birmingham, Mason had various residences, his final home being Norwood House, Erdington, a fine mansion which he built on the main road from Birmingham to Sutton Coldfield. Here he took delight in grape growing.
It is noteworthy, as showing the self-abnegation of the man, that the very house he lived in belonged to the Orphanage, and he paid rent for it as an ordinary tenant; his manufactory also, while he remained in business, was the property of the Mason College Trustees, and he paid the fair ordinary rent for it. He thus literally gave up everything for others. In the noble picture gallery at Norwood House there was a Viennese self-acting organ, an expensive instrument. In accordance with his last wishes, this organ was removed to Mason College, and placed in the Examination Hall. His last public appearance was at the opening of the College; but, although seriously failing in health, he received the Trustees and Professors of the College at dinner on his eighty-sixth birthday, February 23rd, 1881.
He took cold in the month of April following, and a slight accident which occurred to him caused him to take to his bed, from which he never rose again. He passed away quietly and painlessly on the 16th of June, 1881, and on the 25th he was laid to rest in a mortuary chapel erected by him in the Orphanage grounds to receive the remains of his wife, who had pre-deceased him by eleven years. A statue by Mr. F. J. Williamson was publicly erected in his honour, being placed in the square of the Mason Science College.
In indicating Josiah Mason's personal characteristics his biographer lays stress upon his resolution and tenacity of purpose, his kindly humour, his tenderness towards children, his business aptitude, his benevolence, his practical intuition, his faith in himself, his power of detachment and faculty of continuity, his skill in organisation, his simplicity and yet conscious mastery, his dislike to notoriety, his homely and regular habits of life, and his firm belief in an over-ruling God. There is no doubt that such men as Mason have had much to do with making England what she is, and in maintaining her position in the world.
Sources of Information