Wiliam Mason (1725-97)

This man was one of my favourite finds when I was researching slavery and abolition for the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The memorial to his beautiful young wife Mary who he brought to Bristol’s Hotwells in the hope of curing her of TB is extraordinary.  In case you can’t make them out, this is his scream of pain at his loss:

Take, holy earth, all that my soul holds dear.

Take that best gift which heav’n so lately gave.

To Bristol’s fount I bore with trembling care

Her faded for: she bow’d to taste the wave

And died. Does youth. Does beauty read the line?

Does sympathetic fear their breasts alarm?

Speak, dead Maria. Breathe a strain divine.

Ev’n from the grave thou shalt have power to charm.

Bid them be chaste. Be innocent like thee.

Bid them in duties sphere as meekly move.

And if so fair, from vanity as free.

As firm in friendship and as fond in love.

Tell them tho’ ’tis an awful thing to die

(Twas ev’n to thee) yet. The dread path once trod

Heav’n lifts its everlasting portals high

And bids “the pure in heart behold their God.”

Spas were famous for their entertainments, for drinking, flirting and gambling, but they were also the last desperate attempt to escape from diseases that we are no longer subject to.

Mason’t life was a bridge between the now little known Augustan Age, of Pope, Handel, of Gay. The dawn of English garden design that became widespread in Europe, the first of the arts to recover from the disastrous loss of arts caused by England’s chaotic Reformation.

Mason was born in Kingston-upon-Hull, son of a vicar, but his mother died in his first year. He was descended from local merchants, and for much of his life he was financially secure enough to not need employment, so could experiment with his many interests, especially poetry and music, but he was something of a Zelig like creature, dabbling in many things and knowing many famous people, but never quite famous enough for his reputation to survive into the modern age.

From 1762 he was precentor at York Minster for 35 years where he had a major impact on the music, especially in promoting the congregation to join in with choral singing. He wrote poetry and was interested in the history of the art, especially its Celtic origins. He was a lifelong friend of poet Thomas Gray, of Elegy, and upon his death became his executor. When Publisher John Murray published part of this without permission, he sued in a landmark case which protected author’s rights.

He was friends with Bishop Warburton, of Gloucester, who was executor of Pope, so provided a model for Mason’s career of church and literature.

His early poetry was inspired by Milton, and in the 1770s some of his pieces were adapted for the London stage. He crossed swords with Dr Johnson, but he is now mostly known from indexes of famous people. He was described as a “restless literary experimenter.”

He was an early abolitionist, a friend of Wilberforce and Bielby Porteous. His 1782 sermon at York Minster God the Universal, the Equal Father of all Mankind was widely circulated, and he baptised a back man, Benjamin Moor, possibly to annoy the bishop in 1777. His charitable interests were wide ranging, including concern for prisoners and lunatics.

He was friends with Charles Burney and Thomas Arne provided music for his poems. He was an accomplished amateur musician, wrote several hymns and invented the , which sounded like a cross between a fiddle and musical glasses.

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