Mason Science College was the first institution in Birmingham to provide degree-level teaching. It opened to students in October 1880 but it had been founded in 1870 by Sir Josiah Mason. The foundation stone for the college building was laid on 23 February 1875, Mason's birthday. Mason was born in Kidderminster in 1795. His father was a carpet weaver and later clerk to a carpet manufacturer. Mason had no formal education but learned to read and write with help from local nonconformist Sunday Schools. He had a number of jobs in local trades in Kidderminster, and moved to Birmingham in his early twenties to work for his uncle in the gilt-toy business. During the 1820s he purchased Samuel Harrison's business producing split rings. He developed the business by devising a way to split steel pen nibs mechanically, and won an exclusive contract to supply his products to Perry & Co. He invested the money he made in an electroplating business run by George and Henry Elkington, and set up new works and showrooms in Newhall Street, and also showrooms in Liverpool and London. Mason and Elkington also worked with Alexander Parkes in copper smelting and nickel production in the 1870s, and Mason established a nickel works of his own in Birches Green near Erdington.
Mason married Anne Griffiths in 1817. They had no children, and Mason spent much of his wealth on charitable causes during his own lifetime, including almshouses and an orphanage for girls in Erdington which he established in 1858 and was later expanded to admit boys as well. In recognition of his philanthropy he was given a knighthood in 1872. Mason's intention in founding a college was to provide an institution dedicated to scientific instruction, primarily for the benefit of citizens of Birmingham, and of his home town, Kidderminster. The foundation deed of 1870 was explicit in stating that literary education and instruction and all teaching of theology would be excluded from the college curriculum, but soon after the college opened the trustees had to make alterations to the deed to allow a broader curriculum to be taught in order for the college to comply with the regulations of the University of London which awarded degrees to Mason College students completing degree-level courses.
Mason appointed trustees to assist him in managing the business of the college. The first two trustees were Mason's solicitor, George James Johnson, and his doctor, James Gibbs Blake. Four additional trustees were appointed in 1872; George Shaw, professor of chemistry at Queen's College, Thomas Heslop, former professor of physiology at Queen's College, William Costen Aitken, designer for a brass and copper company, and John Thackray Bunce, editor of the 'Birmingham Daily Post'. Much of the trustees' business during the 1870s consisted of negotiating the purchase or lease of pieces of land or properties around Edmund Street and Great Charles Street in the centre of Birmingham, which would form the site of the college building, or administering rents from other properties acquired by Mason and conveyed to the trustees to provide income for the college. They also formed a sub-committee to advise on subjects to be taught by the college and the equipment and teaching accommodation required, and commissioned a local architect, Jethro Cossins, to design the college building.
The building was constructed in local red brick and consisted of a basement and three storeys laid out around a basement courtyard divided into west and east courts. The front entrance was on Edmund Street facing Ratcliff Place. The ground floor contained administrative office, the library, and the professors' common room. The upper floors contained laboratories, lecture rooms, an examination room, and departmental museums. There were separate reading rooms and cloakrooms for women students, and the chemistry lecture theatre had a separate entrance for women. Courses were open to both male and female students from the first academic session of the college in 1880-1881. The trustees appointed professors of chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology, a librarian, and museum curator in time for the start of college classes in 1880. Once the college was opened, the trustees separated their legal from their managerial responsibilities, and in February 1881 set up a Council to run the college. The Council set up a number of sub-committees to manage academic policy; the maintenance and care of college property; and the business of the library and departmental museums. Mason died on 16 June 1881 and additional Council representatives were appointed from the membership of Birmingham town council under the terms of the deed of foundation, which may have helped to broaden the focus of the institution.
At first the academic staff had very little influence over the activities of the college. Shortly after their appointment, the first professors began to meet monthly to discuss educational business, but they had no formal power to influence the curriculum or academic policy until the Council agreed towards the end of 1881 that an Academic Board could be formed. The trustees maintained overall control over both the professors and the academic work of the institution, making staff appointments on a three year basis, maintaining control over departmental budgets for equipment and the appointment of laboratory staff, and making the Academic Board submit its minute book for each of the Council meetings. The Council appointed a Principal in 1890, and the Academic Board became the Senate. By the 1890s, the educational work of the college was being administered by the Senate, and the academic staff had increased involvement in the management of the college, but the institution was still run by the Council.
In October 1881 professors of engineering, geology and mineralogy and botany and vegetable physiology were appointed, and the teaching of chemistry was enhanced by the addition of courses in metallurgy. Professors of Greek and Latin, English language and literature, and lecturers to teach French and German language and literature were also appointed for the 1881-1882 academic session.
In addition to day time classes, the college staff also taught evening classes, including subsidised lectures directed towards those working in local trades. The success of evening classes consisting of 'popular' lectures on general topics led to the establishment of short courses in the evenings aimed at particular trade groups in the early 1890s. Students could enrol for individual classes, or study towards specific qualifications, including matriculation, or degrees offered by the University of London. In 1882 an agreement was made for medical students at Queen's College to attend classes in botany, physiology and chemistry at Mason College, and eventually it was resolved that the medical faculty of Queen's College would transfer to Mason College in October 1892, using adapted accommodation in the existing college building, and new accommodation constructed on Great Charles Street. Additions to the college building undertaken around this time included departmental museums for natural history, pathology, public health, dentistry, anatomy and materia medica, a physiology laboratory, lecture theatres, and an anatomy theatre and dissecting room. Most of the medical staff from Queen's College moved to Mason College, and the majority of them had worked at the General Hospital or at Queen's Hospital. See UB/QC for records relating to Queen's College.
In 1885 the Academic Board developed a syllabus for a two year course for certified teachers which led to University of London matriculation, and by 1889 there were active discussions for Mason College to be involved in possible college for the day training of elementary school teachers. The publication of the 1890 Education Code triggered the formation of a local committee, and in October 1890 women students were enrolled in the Birmingham Day Training College for Elementary Teachers, having academic lectures in Mason College. In 1894 the existing day college for women became the women's section of the department of education at Mason College. George Kenrick presented an endowment of £200 per year, and in 1896 £2,000 was raised by subscription for the provision of a suite of buildings for the use of the day training department, and building adjoining the college were adapted for teaching.
181 students in total were recruited for the first academic session of the college, including enrolment on evening courses. Students could enrol from the age of sixteen. By 1886-87 there were 642 students enrolled. The initial growth of the college was rapid, and expenditure began to press on revenue almost immediately. In 1884 an additional endowment fund was started. The college also received a grant from the Treasury. Student numbers remained fairly static after the mid 1880s, and the college did not expand at the rate the trustees had hoped for. The majority of the college students came from Birmingham and the surrounding area, and only a minority of students were studying towards a degree or other qualification. Women were well represented, but most were either studying to become certified teachers in the Day Training Department or were middle class women taking occasional classes, often in modern languages. Relatively few women attended the college to take degree-level qualifications, and women were not admitted to the institution's medical faculty. Far more of the male students enrolled at the college with qualifications or a career in mind, and engineering and geology courses were particularly popular. The college established a department of Mining and Colliery Management in 1884, but was forced to suspend it in 1889 due to difficulties in getting qualified staff to teach, and because of the low numbers of students registered for courses.
A students union was formed during the 1880-1881 academic session, for regular day students. This association was managed by the students, but the professors and their wives were also involved. The union started a student journal, called Mason College Magazine, in 1883, and most meetings of the organization seem to have had a primarily social function. Lectures and papers were given, debates were organized, and cultural events included readings, plays, and musical evenings in which College staff also took part. A number of college societies were formed during the 1880s and 1890s. Most were connected with academic departments, like the botanical society, the chemical society and the physical society, but there were also societies for leisure activities like cycling and tennis. See UB/GUILD for records of Mason College Union.
The first four professors appointed to posts at Mason College were John Henry Poynting, professor of physics, William Tilden, professor of chemistry, William Bridge, professor of biology, and Michiah Hill, professor of mathematics. Most had attended institutions similar to Mason College, but other staff appointed during the 1880s did not have degree-level qualifications. These included Edward Arber, professor of English, and Charles Lapworth, professor of geology. The only member of staff with significant experience at professorial level was Robert Smith, professor of engineering, who had been founding professor of civil and mechanical engineering at the Imperial University in Tokyo. Later appointments in the 1880s and 1890s usually had more extensive experience in other higher education institutions, and the majority of those appointed to chairs in modern languages, like Karl Dammann, Hermann Georg Fiedler, both of whom taught German, and Eugene Joel and E. Loreille, who taught French, had higher degrees, as did Edward Adolf Sonnenschein, professor of Greek and Latin. The only female staff were those in the Day Training Department. The college employed a number of junior staff, both lecturers and demonstrators. Some members of staff carried out and published research, but there were few postgraduate scholarships, which restricted the ability of the college to attract research students. By the 1890s there were a number of scholarships and prizes for undergraduate students, particularly in the medical faculty.
The trustees were empowered to revise the constitution and scope of the college, as provided in the deed of foundation, every fifteen years from the death of the founder, and by 1896 there was growing pressure for the institution to gain degree-giving powers. There was some support for the college to become a constituent of the federal Victoria University, of which Owens College, Manchester, University College, Liverpool, and the Yorkshire College, Leeds were constituent members. The alternative was for Mason College to become a constituent of the University of London, or to form a Midlands University, along similar federal lines. At the end of 1894 some members of the Senate were appointed to a committee to discuss a scheme for a possible Midlands University. By the time changes could be made to the college constitution in 1896, most members of the Senate favoured joining Victoria University. Mason College Council had decided to seek the incorporation of the college by Act of Parliament, which would involve replacing the trustees with a wider and more powerful Court of Governors. the Mason University College Act received royal assent in June 1897, and the new structure was imposed on 1 January 1898. Mason College Council had approached Joseph Chamberlain for help with fund raising associated with the establishment of a Midland University, but he expressed his oppostition to this scheme and set out his vision for an independent University of Birmingham along the lines of Scottish universities like Glasgow, where he had recently been installed as rector in November 1897. Accordingly, the campaign for the new university was launched at the first meeting of the Court of Governors on 13 January 1898 and the vote for a University of Birmingham was carried unanimously. Chamberlain began to gather susbscriptions and by the time of the public meeting called by the lord mayor on 1 July 1898 he was able to provide a list of donors who had already promised part of the sum needed for the new university. The public meeting set up committees including one responsible for canvassing funds. Chamberlain used his position as Secretary of State for the Colonies to target extremely wealthy individuals including the Canadian High Commissioner, Scottish emigrant Donald Smith, now Lord Strathcona who eventually promised £50,000, and Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh steel millionaire, who offered £50,000 on condition that the money was used to construct new buildings for science teaching and funded a visit by members of Mason College to North American universities in the autumn of 1899 to look at facilities for science teaching there. Sir Charles Holcroft offered £20,000, and Sir James Chance offered £50,000 to fund engineering courses. Lord Calthorpe donated twenty five acres of land on the Bournbrook side of his Edgbaston estate in 1900, which provided a site for new buildings for the university.
The management sub-committee appointed at the public meeting of 1 July 1898 was responsible for producing recommendations on the academic and administrative structures that needed to be put in place to create a university out of Mason College, and the pattern of governance which should be set out in the charter and statutes. Some college staff and trustees expressed their opposition to Joseph Chamberlain's plan on the grounds that it would take too long for the institution to obtain degree-giving powers. Others were worried about whether the necessary money could be raised. Some individual members of staff, particularly Edward Adolf Sonnenschein, professor of classics, and Georg Fiedler, professor of German, lobbied the committees to try to strengthen the Faculty of Arts at the new university and to develop a school of modern languages. Sonnenschein and other members of staff from the Faculty of Arts, as well as some in the Faculty of Medicine at Mason College, met informally to discuss the constitution of the proposed university, amidst fears that they were being excluded from the Management sub-committee's decisions about the terms of the new charter and statutes. With Chamberlain's support this group were able to secure amendments which allowed for greater self-government for the Senate and faculties.
The university charter received royal assent in on 25 May 1900, and the property of Mason University College was vested in it from the start of the autumn term 1900. Mason College and its teaching staff were absorbed in the new institution, the University of Birmingham.
Source: Eric Ives, Diane Drummond, Leonard Schwartz, 'The First Civic University: Birmingham 1880-1980, An Introductory History', Birmingham 2000