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Mason, Thomas (1800–1888)

by A. F. Pike

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Mason (1800-1888), police magistrate, was born on 18 August 1800, the seventh of eight sons of Thomas Mason, a solicitor of Carlesley, near Coventry, Warwickshire, England. His father went to London in 1807 and in 1817 was appointed attorney-general at Tobago where he died. His maternal grandfather was Dr Fountain, a London clergyman and an able Greek scholar. At 7 Thomas went to the Merchant Taylors' School but the death of his father prevented him from going to Oxford and he joined the mercantile firm of Heath & Furze. There he learnt several foreign languages and continued to read in them until his death. Loss of his savings in a bank crash decided him to emigrate and in December 1829 he arrived in the Thomson at Hobart Town with no possessions.

His first ten months were spent with his brother-in-law, George Frankland, who had encouraged him to come to Van Diemen's Land. He was made a justice of the peace and in March 1831 was a appointed assistant police magistrate and muster master in Hobart. In October 1832 Mason applied for an allowance of lodging money and argued that the £100 paid to police magistrates elsewhere was supplemented by lodging allowances. As muster master he received £200 and had five clerks to help him but the salary of the office had not increased since 1828. Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur agreed that Mason deserved a rise and recommended his case to London, but without success.

In April 1834 Mason became involved in the case of the convict Joseph Greenwood who had absconded from a road-gang and then stabbed the constable who had tried to arrest him at the New Town race-course. Greenwood appeared first before Mason and another magistrate for the very prevalent offence of absconding and was sentenced to receive 100 lashes; he was then tried in the Supreme Court for his capital crime and found guilty, but before his execution on 16 April Greenwood petitioned Arthur, claiming that the flogging was a torture and disfigured him to meet his Maker. The petition was supported by fifteen citizens but Arthur backed the magistrates, although he expressed dismay at their summary proceedings. Greenwood's claim received much notoriety even in the London press and Mason became 'personally obnoxious' to the radicals in Hobart.

Mason was promoted in April 1835 to the police magistracy in New Norfolk, as Arthur explained, in 'approbation of the Zealous & independent conduct he has displayed' in Hobart. At New Norfolk Mason also served as coroner and commissioner in the Court of Requests. Again he met unpopularity even among his fellow magistrates, and in 1835 was grossly insulted in public by Thomas Lascelles whose assigned servant had been removed by Mason for absconding. Lascelles took his complaint to the Supreme Court, where he proved that he had only lent his servant to a neighbour and claimed that Mason had been influenced by feelings of malice since the Greenwood case. The court found for Lascelles, but Joseph Tice Gellibrand thought Mason had a strong case for a new trial, and he was allowed to exchange offices for six months with Charles Arthur at Norfolk Plains. When retried, he was fully exonerated and his zeal was commended by Judges Algernon Montagu and (Sir) John Pedder.

From July to September 1837 Mason had further trouble on the bench when Major Gibson and Captain Armstrong claimed that his character had not been satisfactorily cleared; following a difference with Mason they resigned. Armstrong took the case to the Executive Council, but the resignations were accepted and Mason was honourably acquitted. In June 1841 he was insulted by the overseer of a road-gang. When Mason's complaints were ignored by Captain Alexander Cheyne he took them to the lieutenant-governor, who dismissed the overseer and criticized Cheyne for the improper employment of convict labour. After several other similar incidents it seemed clear to the lower classes at least that Mason was a ruthless 'hanging' magistrate. However, his career was not affected by his unpopularity and on 28 February 1844 he was appointed deputy-chairman of the General Quarter Sessions, only two weeks after being denounced by a fellow-magistrate, William Sharland, who was also treasurer of the New Norfolk Bridge Co. In July 1846 Mason temporarily became police magistrate in Hobart at a salary of £500 and next year returned to New Norfolk as police magistrate at £400 with allowances of £50. In April 1851 he was appointed police magistrate at Campbell Town at £450, and apart from five years at Oatlands held this post until his retirement. In 1862 his office was abolished and he retired on a pension. In 1868 he accepted the police magistracy at Launceston on half-pay in addition to his pension, and retired permanently in July 1879. He died at his home in Campbell Town in August 1888, leaving two unmarried daughters and a son Alfred Nathaniel, who was archdeacon of Hobart.

Apart from his duties as magistrate, coroner and commissioner of the Court of Requests Mason was an administrator of charitable allowances, an examiner of the census and a returning officer without pay for three electoral districts, including Glamorgan from 1855. He is also said to have taken part in the Black war of 1830. On 25 April 1835 he married Abigail, third daughter of Major Harvey Welman of the 57th Regiment; she died in December 1852, aged 34.

Mason boasted in 1862 that he had never been absent from his post except to attend a levee at Government House. His energy was undoubted but it was exercised relentlessly in court and without tact towards his fellow officers. His unusually untidy writing once prompted the attorney-general to comment that he could not 'decipher the hieroglyphics of this profound artist'; Mason's pompous protest to the colonial secretary brought little balm to his vanity. The Colonial Times, 23 April 1833, conceded that 'Mister Muster Master Mason [had an] elegant and graceful seat on horseback', but chided him for appearing self important and 'big with the fate of the Colony'.

Select Bibliography

  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 7 Jan, 22 Apr 1831
  • manuscript catalogue under Thomas Mason (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence file under Thomas Mason (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

A. F. Pike, 'Mason, Thomas (1800–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mason-thomas-2436/text3243, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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