John Pallister looks at the tireless work of Skipton ‘people’s hero’ George Mason. A man who wore many hats, all for the good of the people.

IT has often been said that good fortune and bad luck abound in equal measures and that may well have been proved true in 1845. In that year Sir John Franklin set out upon his expedition to find the ‘North West Passage’ with disastrous results and the failure of the Irish potato crop heralded the start of an appalling famine. Perhaps to balance the books, it also marked the birth of George Harrison Mason in Eastby. Although not known at the time, baby George was destined to join the pantheon of Skipton and Craven’s volunteering and business giants.

Moving to Skipton at the age of three, George had become fatherless by the age of seven. Although he got a better education than the majority of boys at that the time, having attended the Parish Church School and Ermysted’s Grammar School, he was not yet noted as a ‘high flyer’ and began work as an apprentice plumber and painter. However from the very earliest times, his social conscience lead him towards voluntary works, where his insatiable energies were harnessed for the benefit of the underprivileged. Even at the height of the Empire, Skipton had plenty of need for social help and leadership. Central and local government were just beginning to learn those responsibilities towards the welfare of the ‘ordinary people’ that we nowadays take for granted. The failure of leaders to alleviate the Irish famine during those times and in a home country of the world’s greatest Empire, ably illustrates the point.

From the many eulogies made at the time of George’s funeral, it is clear that he was a man of deep Christian faith, who was warm and respectful to all manner of society, and beyond moral reproach. Although these attributes came naturally to him, they were to become significantly enhanced by his adherence to the Weslyan Methodist traditions. Although christened as a member of the Church of England, as with so many other social reformers, the Methodism of the time seems to have ‘raised his game’. In fact George first preached a sermon in Water Street Chapel at the age of 19, and was to continue as a much sought after lay preacher throughout the Skipton circuit and beyond, for the next 46 years. Of course that lead to Sunday School teaching, lay work with chapel members and for him taking the post of hon. Secretary to the managers of the Weslyan Higher Grade Schools from 1884, until their adoption by the County Council. Increasingly interested in the welfare and opportunities available to the youth of Skipton, saw George become heavily involved with the Mechanics Institute and in 1894 the building of Skipton’s iconic Science and Art School (later the Craven College), which he faithfully served for for 30 years as Treasurer and Trustee.

By the age of 43 George was coerced by friends into standing for a seat on the Skipton Board, at a time when there were no wards but a straight count in elections. George topped the poll and his services were later transferred to the newly created Skipton Urban District Council in 1895. Other public roles included being a Justice of the Peace and a Land Tax Commissioner for Craven, whilst interest in providing better housing brought about directorship of the Building Society and later service as President. It was George who pushed for the planting of the High Street trees and as a member of the Free Library Committee, he worked upon securing and building the New Free Library, still a very prominent and well used feature of the town. Opened in 1910 a plaque near the door also records others involved and the opening by Skipton’s MP Sir Matthew Wilson bt.

Temperance was a vital support to many in those days of cheap alcohol, and participation in the Oddfellows Lodge for 43 years alongside Honorary Rechabite membership, perhaps crystalized in George’s Chairmanship of the ‘Skipton Coffee Tavern’. This was a valiant effort towards social improvement, by providing comfort and support to townspeople who enjoyed little opportunity for socialising outside Skipton’s many pubs. It was hoped that the risks of alcohol dependency and destitution would be much reduced, by these warm and friendly temperance facilities. Headquarters were the ‘Globe Tavern’ in Sheep Street, but taverns in Cavendish Street and Sackville Street also did a good trade, all providing hot dinners daily, ladies tea rooms, smoking rooms for menfolk and accommodation for visitors to the town.

The need for a hospital in Skipton was urgent and plans were made to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 by such a commitment. This was taken up with customary enthusiasm by George, who was a Committee member and hon.Treasurer of the project. Sadly he didn’t live long enough to see the completion of the Granville Street hospital, as he died on the 18th April 1907 at the early age of 62.

Did this paragon have time for other things? He most certainly did, having a happy family with two sons and a daughter, but possibly his crowning epitaph to many, was his business acumen in founding and growing his eponymous business, whilst juggling all his commitments to the town and its people. The firm he started ’G.H.Mason’ was to become a household name throughout Craven and beyond, and was certainly one of the principal employers of skilled tradesmen in the locality. It was to last 126 years, but that is another Craven story.

The efforts remembered in this short biography were acknowledged by the people of Skipton at the time of George’s funeral, when on the day, 500 townsfolk reportedly walked to the Waltonwrays cemetery behind the cortege, lead by a contingent of mounted police. The flags on the town hall and other public buildings were at half mast, and shopkeepers in the High Street closed their shops, as a fitting tribute to this Craven worthy.