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Newsletter, April 2003 (Issue 151)

Wm Mason of New Zealand

I enjoyed the experience of eating lunch in Old Government House, Auckland. Not only is it a pleasant building, currently used as a Senior Common Room at Auckland University, but for any visitor from Ipswich there is the extra satisfaction of knowing that its architect was born in Ipswich. He was William Mason, first child of George Mason whose role in Ipswich was equivalent to Borough Surveyor. George is described in The Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 as a "builder-architect of Ipswich where he allegedly designed the New Assembly Rooms" in 1821 (now the Chicago Rock cafe?).

William was baptised in St Nicholas parish on 24 February 1810. After studying and working in London, he set up his own architect's practice in Ipswich, designing churches in Essex and a workhouse in Ipswich. He emigrated to Australia in the winter of 1838-39 and moved on to New Zealand as Government Supenintendent of Works where he designed the first Government House in 1840 and other buildings including Auckland's first flour mill. He was a member of the official party under the first Governor who declared British sovereignty in New Zealand.

The first Government House was burnt down in 1848 and Mason was commissioned to design the present one in 1854. Typically for 19th century New Zealand, the buildings were mostly of wood, so the present Government House, now nearly 150 years old, has done well to survive as home to university staff, graduation ceremonies and social events. Long and spacious, it has probably been easy to adapt for its various purposes over the years. Its harmonious proportions and historical importance must make it a valued part of New Zealand's heritage.

As well as working as an architect William Mason led an extraordinarily varied life - in a very pioneering spirit, clearly alive to all the opportunities offered by a new country. He farmed, was a Captain in the Auckland Regiment and a Member of Parliament for Auckland. Following the discovery of gold in Otago, he moved south to Dunedin in 1861, where he could practise his architectural skills to the full, designing the Provincial Government buildings, the Post Office, banks, warehouses, churches and private houses, while also becoming involved with the development of the railways. Unfortunately few of these buildings survive, although the firm of Mason and Wales still exists. He was elected first Mayor of Dunedin. Mason died in 1897 as Dunedin was preparing to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. He was the last surviving member of that first official party which had declared British sovereignty in New Zealand.

I went to Auckland in the autumn of 2002 already armed with some of this information. It had been kindly provided by Ruth Serjeant whose article about William Mason in the Suffolk Review (New Series, Autumn 1989) was itself inspired by John Stacpoole's William Mason, The First New Zealand Architect (Auckland University Press and OUP 1971). I found further information accompanying Mason's photograph which hangs on the wall of Old Government House today and on the blue plaque on the building itself. A pity we haven't an address for a plaque here!


    Front cover of issue 151 Cover, issue 151

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