Thomas Mason’s father, a joiner, moved to Stalybridge from Stoney Middleton in Derbyshire in 1776. Thomas (1782-1868) was born on Market Street, Stalybridge. His father died when he was three years old, leaving a widowed mother to look after him.
He started his working life aged eight as a piecer in a mill when 14 hour shifts were the norm for children. Progressing through the carding room to hand spinner he rose to overlooker then manager and married a widow, Mary Wooley, nee Holden who ran a grocer’s shop in Stalybridge and was relatively prosperous.
In 1815 he established his own cotton business with James Booth and Edward Hulton renting a few jennies at Chadwick Mill on Currier Lane in Ashton. They worked as carder, clerk and salesman. Many of Ashton’s millocrats started at this mill.
The company grew quickly expanding into other mills and became wealthy enough to take a house on Park Parade in Ashton, a building subsequently occupied by The Ashton Savings Bank. After that he moved to Stamford Street, then Henry Square, buying up Groby Hall on Jowett’s Walk in Ashton Under Lyne, the erstwhile home of the Grey family of Leicestershire, Earls of Stamford and Warrington. In 1859 he built Audenshaw Hall.
Increased good fortune saw the creation of his own spinning concern, Thomas Mason & Sons at Higher Bank Mill in Bentinck Street. Henry, his son, spun cotton whilst Booth sorted the cotton rovings and Hugh started work at the Ashton District Bank until he had acquired enough financial skills to work in the Counting House. By 1851 the firm employed 297 hands.
Thomas became a prominent Ashton citizen, serving as police commissioner as well as teacher and superintendent of Chapel Street Sunday School, laying the foundation stone of their new building in 1867. Although a Methodist most of his life, when he moved to Audenshaw Hall, he became a member of the Moravian Church at the local settlement in Fairfield, he was also active in the Orange Association of England and the Freemasons, joining the Lodge the day that news came to Ashton of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, and on his death he was the oldest member.
He died surrounded by his family at Audenshaw Hall on 17 April 1868 and was buried at St Peter in Ashton five days later.
His eldest son, Henry (1814-1862) did work initally in the mill, but was not as industrious as his father, and by 1851 he was living the life of a Gentleman in Henry Square, moving to Audenshaw Hall with his father. He never married and died in Buxton on 29 July 1862, aged 48.
Booth Mason (1815-1888), named after one of his father’s business partners, did work a little harder than his elder brother and dabbled in local and national politics, unsuccessfully standing as Conservative candidate after the death of Charles Hindley, to the Liberal, Thomas Milner Gibson.
He was the object of some ridicule when he tried to be selected again as the Tory candidate in 1865, posting placards all about town with his name, and claiming that he represented every working man in Ashton. It’s interesting to note that the Tory supported suffrage for all working men, the Liberal radicals assembled in the town hall did not. They refused to accept his argument and made fun of him by imitating rough accents claiming to propose and second him. Gibson was returned unopposed. He was also displayed generosity towards the working men of Ashton, funding and equipping a reading room for the unemployed men of Ashton during the cotton famine.
He did however pursue a more successful career in the Orange Order, rising to Deputy Grandmaster of the Orange Association of England. He was still unwed in the 1861 census, but shortly after married aged 56 Margaret Howard (1837-1871), the daughter of an Ashton Millowner, Samuel Howard. The nuptials took place in August 1861, and after a brief stay in Abergele the couple settled at Arley House in Royal Leamington Spa. He certainly made up for the lost years, siring three girls and two boys in the course of eight years. Margaret died on 21 December 1871, possibly as a consequence of childbirth.
Jane Mason (b 1819) did not marry, and was still living at Audenshaw Hall in 1881.
Hugh Mason (1817-1886) was the youngest son, and took his father’s business forward. Although he did not live at Audenshaw Hall, his son Rupert inherited the Hall. Hugh was born on 30 January 1817 in Stalybridge and educated at the Stamford Terrace Academy. His business education was at the Ashton branch of the Manchester & Liverpool District Bank. Whilst still in his teens he joined the Ashton Mechanics Institution, and rose to become President. A keen churchman, he served as deacon and treasurer of the Albion Chapel in Ashton. In local politics he sat on the council between 1856 and 1874, serving three times as Mayor from 1857-1860.
During the cotton famine he ensured that men were kept employed via the building of a reservoir, although he did have to read the Riot Act in March 1863 when a mob from Stalybridge descended on Ashton and started looting shops.
He was a good employer and believed that his responsibilities as an employer outweighed those of a capitalist. He established the Oxford Mills colony providing decent housing for his workers, and he refused to cut wages during the Cotton Famine. His mill was fitted with first class equipment, believing that workspeople prefer first class tools, first class materials and first class wages. This paternalistic attitude continued into the worst days of the Cotton Famine when left with vast amounts of yarn, 14 months stock of cotton and rising losses he said that having made a lot of money I am content to lose a lot of it, rather than that my workpeople should suffer. He kept his workers on full wages and full time. The local union representatives avowed that they had never had five minutes trouble with him. His workers were the first locally to have a half day holiday on Saturday afternoon.
The Oxford Colony was built for £10,000 (£1¼m in 2021) and contained baths, reading rooms, a library, coffee rooms and recreation rooms. Outside there was a cricket ground, gymnasium, bowling green and skittle alley. All of these were provided free of charge to his workforce.
In Manchester he was active in the Chamber of Commerce, again rising to President from 1871-1873, and the Cotton Supply Association (President again).
Unlike his brother, Booth, he was a leading Liberal and helped found the Reform Club in Manchester and stood for MP in Ashton Under Lyne in 1880 winning the seat. In Parliament he introduced the Steam Boiler Explosions Act which tightened safety standards and prevented deaths in cotton mills.
He was an early supporter of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, supporting many reform bills (unsuccessfully) and acted as their spokesman. Again he rose to lead the Women’s Suffrage Movement, only retiring from it due to ill health.
He married first time, first to Sarah Buckley (1822-1852), the daughter of Abel of Ryecroft Hall. They had two children, Arnold (1851-1873) who died in the United States, and Clara (1849-1850). He then married her sister Betsy (1830-1861). Marrying your sister in law was not legal in England at the time, so he obtained a special license from the King of Denmark and they tied the knot her at the Evangelic Reform Church, Altona, Nordjylland, Denmark. After she died his third wife was Anne Ashworth (1817-1886).
During his time in Ashton, he lived at Groby Hall which he inherited from his father and as an MP his residence was 33 Onslow Square, Kensington. He died at Groby Hall on 2 February 1886, after catching a severe cold. The following year a grateful town built a statue to him, which now stands in Trafalgar Square (Ashton) facing his workers’ colony.
Hugh and Betsy had four children. Bertha (1855-1939) was like her father a tireless political campaigner, most notably in the women’s suffrage movement. Born at Groby Hall she became the first woman member of the Board Of Guardians in Ashton and between 1899 and 1903 was Chair of the North Of England Women’s Suffrage Movement, nationally she rose to Treasurer and Parliamentary Secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Movements as well as Chair of the Women’s Local Government Society and National Council of Women of Great Britain.
She used her political connections to lobby senior politicians and campaigned tirelessly for the right to vote, writing in campaigning journals such as Common Cause and The Vote. Outside of her political campaigning she was active in the Temperance Movement (being her father’s daughter she was naturally President). Despite her temperance, she did write against the restrictions imposed on women drinking at Public Houses, on the introduction of the Intoxicating Liquors (Temporary Restrictions) Act, 1914¹ where the the Chief Commissioner of Police in London had recommended women not be served, to avoid a disastrous probability.
In addition to the above, she campaigned for easier divorce laws, keeping Britain tidy, greater involvement of women in local government politics, and greater participation generally in municipal elections, which then as now had low turnouts, with less than half the electorate turning out.
She lived at Hindhead in Surrey and active to the end and judging by the fact that she was run over by a car twice aged 71 and 77 she rarely slowed down. She died on the 8 July 1939 at the Hans Crescent Hotel in Knightsbridge.
Edith Mason (1857-1913) married James Wooley Summers (1849-1913) the son and heir of John Summers. John and his brother carried on his father’s Ironworks business, Globe Ironworks of Stalybridge, and established the Shotton Steelworks in Wales. James became MP for Flint and the couple resided in London and Denbighshire.
Sydney Mason (1861-1925) was like his father a cotton spinner, and inherited by default Groby Hall. He married Amy McClure (b 1864), the daughter of John McClure of Norris Bank House. Groby Hall being an ancient building was clearly too old for him, so he and Amy moved to Wilmslow Road in Rusholme, and ended their days in the Manor House in Didsbury.
Rupert Mason (1859-1931) was the next to live at Audenshaw Hall. He was born like his siblings at Groby Hall. His father bequeathed him and his brother Sydney Groby Hall and Audenshaw Hall, with Rupert given the choice of residence, with a financial consideration payable by one brother to the other to make the legacy equal. Bertha and Edith received £15,000 each (£2m in 2021). The entire estate was £200,000 (£26.2m in 2021). The sons got the lion’s share.
Rupert chose Audenshaw Hall and lived there for the rest of his life. Like his sister he took a second residence in Wales, on Anglesey. He married Annie Mason Davenport (b 1862) on 7 September 1881 and Rupert continued in the family cotton business. Unlike most of his family, he took little interest in politics, concentrating instead on the performing arts where he was an enthusiastic promoter of young talent – publishing an elaborately illustrated book, The Robes of Thespis, only 25 copies of which were produced, at 14 guineas each (£930 in 2021). The tome gave spotlight to unknown artists aiming to give them success hitherto denied to them. It featured illustrations of works by Beerbohm, Ricketts and Fraser amongst others.
Rupert invested heavily in the nascent British Film Industry, forming British Authors Productions and in 1927 the company bought the freehold land vacated by the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley for £145,000 (£9.2m in 2021) with the view of establishing the largest film studio in the world. The aim was to invest £1m (£63m in 2021) and establish a British Hollywood.
The site² was bought out by Anglo American Productions in 1930, and Fox Studios in 1936, quota quickies were made there, Ealing used it for the occasional film until it was taken over by Redifussion TV and then LWT, filming Please Sir, On The Buses and Upstairs Downstairs there. The studios closed in 2016 after hosting X Factor and Britains Got Talent.
The couple had two children, Violet Gwendoline Mason (1886-1964) who married Major Harry D’Esterre Darby-Dowman of the Royal Anglesey Fusiliers in 1910, and Muriel Clare Mason (1884-1970) who remained a spinster.
Rupert died in London on 13 January 1931 and Annie a few years later. Soon after that the Hall was sold for conversion to flats and eventually demolished for a housing estate in the 1960s.
¹ Of course these temporary restrictions lasted until 2003. Government never relinquishes power.
² Described as being in the small town of Wembley, made famous in the Empire Exhibition of 1923
© Allan Russell 2021.
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