Page 1: Biography
Architect, politician, local politician
This biography, written by John Stacpoole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1, 1990.
William Mason was born at Ipswich, Suffolk, England, on 24 February 1810, the son of George Mason and his wife, Elizabeth Forty. On 1 June 1831 he married Sarah Nichols or Nickless, a Berkshire woman 15 years older than he, at St Pancras Old Church, London; they had one son, William. Sarah died at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 22 September 1873 and on 20 December at St Paul's Church, Dunedin, William married Catherine Fenn (formerly Allison). There were no children of this marriage.
Mason attended a private school in Ipswich and was then articled to his father, who was borough surveyor and one of the Ipswich dock commissioners. At an early age he moved to London to study architecture under Thomas Telford and Peter Nicholson, before taking employment with Edward Blore, special architect to William IV and to Queen Victoria. During this period Mason exhibited once at the Royal Academy. In 1835 he returned to Ipswich and designed a number of churches and parsonages for the bishop of London and union houses for the Poor Law Commissioners.
In 1838, desiring, in the words of his obituary, 'to assist in building up the Colonial Empire of Great Britain', he sailed with his wife and six-year-old son to New South Wales. There he worked with Mortimer Lewis, the colonial architect. He won first and second prizes in a competition for the design of a mechanics' institute.
William Hobson, before leaving Sydney to take up his lieutenant governorship in New Zealand, offered Mason the position of superintendent of public works under Felton Mathew, on the understanding, Mason later claimed, that there would be a change of title, to colonial architect – and greater independence – once he had proved his capabilities.
Mason arrived at the Bay of Islands on 17 March 1840 and was soon involved in the purchase of J. R. Clendon's Okiato land and in preparations for the transfer of government to the Waitemata. He was a member of the founding party which arrived at the site of Auckland on 16 September 1840. He was responsible for providing shelter and work places for the officers and mechanics and for unloading and assembling the prefabricated Government House sent from England. The first Auckland land sale was held in this building with Mason as auctioneer.
In July 1841 Mason resigned his position because it offered little scope for architecture and entered a three year partnership with Thomas Paton, in a business which combined land sales with architectural services. His St Paul's Church, Emily Place, his association with Bishop G. A. Selwyn and his involvement as a director of the first Auckland newspaper belong to this period. Both partners took up land at Epsom where Mason built a flour mill and began farming, which remained an intermittent activity throughout his life.
In 1846 Mason sold his Epsom property and, after a short time at Pakuranga, bought William Fairburn's 300 acre East Head farm at Tamaki. He was invited by Colonel R. H. Wynyard in late 1854 to design a new Government House, after the burning of the earlier building. He accepted and moved into town. In 1856 he was appointed president of the Board of Works but found political interference disagreeable and, after less than a year, returned to East Head. In 1861 he was elected unopposed as MHR for the Pensioner Settlements, perhaps aided by his rank as an officer of the Auckland Militia and his previous experience as an alderman of the short-lived Common Council of Auckland in 1851.
A year later, having been engaged to design southern offices for the recently formed Bank of New Zealand, he moved to Dunedin, which was beginning to prosper from the discovery of gold. He did not resign his seat in Parliament although he was now at the opposite end of the country. He set up a busy architectural practice, at first with David Ross and then with W. H. Clayton. Notable buildings of this period were the Colonial Bank, the exhibition building (later converted to a hospital), the combined post office and courthouse, and Edinburgh House. Mason was elected the first mayor of Dunedin, serving two terms from 1865 to 1867, but left Dunedin in the latter year to live at Maheno, in North Otago, on a property of almost 3,000 acres, which he called The Punchbowl. There he became chairman of the road board and renewed an interest in coastal shipping. But in 1871 he went back to architecture in Dunedin, in partnership with N. Y. A. Wales.
In 1876, with his much younger second wife, Mason retired to live at Queenstown, where he again sat on the Bench as a justice of the peace. He took an interest in local politics, and in 1879 made an unsuccessful bid to return to Parliament. Soured by the tactics of his political opponent, H. J. Finn, he moved to Paradise, at the head of the lake, and, with the help of a married couple, farmed 317 acres there until ill health drove him back to Dunedin. He died at the Grand Hotel on 22 June 1897. His wife, Kate, survived him. His only child, William, had been drowned in a well on the site of St Paul's Church in Auckland, in 1841 at the age of nine. The boy was believed by many to have been murdered by the notorious Joseph Burns.
Mason's career was remarkably diverse at a time when a diversity of talents was a virtue. His record in Parliament was not outstanding: he spoke rarely, but showed himself aware of issues between Maori and Pakeha and advocated Maori representation in the legislature. As mayor of Dunedin he supported the provision of a water supply and the levelling of streets. As a farmer he proved that farming in the high country of Otago was not impossible.
His chief contribution was in the design of some of the country's first buildings. He was versatile and eclectic in his work, not committed to any one manner, but ready to meet his clients' wishes. Few of his buildings now survive – Old Government House in Auckland, St Matthew's and All Saints' churches, Bishopscourt (now part of Columba College), the Bank of New South Wales, and his own London Street house in Dunedin – but in his lifetime they set standards without which New Zealand would have been a poorer place.