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Sir Josiah Mason (1795 – 1881)

Sir Josiah Mason, the epitome of Samuel Smiles’s 'self made man', taught himself the value of hard work in early childhood. Born in Kidderminster on 23rd February 1795, he began his career, aged eight, as a seller of home-made cakes, progressing from this to shoe-making, house-painting, carpentry and his father’s own trade of carpet weaving.

In 1816 he came to Birmingham, to manage his uncle’s gilt toy business and later Samuel Harrisons’s split ring business. In 1829 he became interested in the trade for which he is chiefly remembered – the manufacture of pen nibs. His pen factory, the largest in the world, spelt the death knell of the quill pen. His final industrial venture was electro-plating with the firm of Elkington, in Birmingham.

Josiah Mason devoted his wealth to visionary social service. He founded an orphanage and almshouse in Erdington and, in 1875, the Scientific College in Edmund Street, the inspiration for the University of Birmingham, 25 years later. Reluctantly accepting a knighthood in 1872, he sought no other recognition.

He died on 16th June 1881, the year after the College opened, leaving permanent memorials in the University, three almshouses and the Mason Trust, all of which continue to benefit the local community.

Christine Penney, Head of Special Collections, University of Birmingham

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