During my time researching 41 Squadron's pilots and ground crew, I have come across some fascinating and amazing stories of service, bravery, sacrifice and achievement, but I have also encountered stories of murder, kidnapping, accidents, incidents related to finances and alcohol, tragedy, loss and sadness.
It was not uncommon when writing 'Courage' and 'Valour' to come across far more information on a particular story or person than I could use in the books, as the tangent would lead me away from the aim of the books.
So, too, with the interwar pilots, but some of these stories are worth being told, so I will use this medium from time to time to talk about them.
Of the ca 550 pilots and men I have researched who served on 41 Squadron between 1923 and 1945, few are as sad as the brief life of Plt Off Tony Mason (pictured to the right). It is his life and service that I am posting about today.
Anthony C. C. ‘Tony’ Mason joined the RAF as a Flight Cadet in April 1918, two months after his 18th birthday. However, the war was over before saw any action, and he was transferred to the Reserve in March 1919.
In November 1923, Mason re-applied for entry into the RAF and was granted a Short Service Commission. He was immediately posted to No. 1 Flying Training School at Netheravon for a six-month flying course.
In June 1924, Plt Off Mason was posted to 41 Sqn at Northolt, flying Siskins. His Officer Commanding was WWI Ace Gilbert W. Murlis-Green DSO & Bar MC & two Bars. His tenure was relatively short, however, and he was posted to the Aerial Gunnery School at Eastchurch for a two-month bombing and gunnery course in March 1925.
On 8 April 1925, during target practice, Mason failed to pull out of dive on a target in the sea off Leysdown, on the Isle of Sheppey, and was killed instantly. Aged just 25, the inquest found he had made ‘an error of judgement’. He was buried in St Martin of Tours Churchyard, Ruislip, a week later.
Plt Off Mason’s gravestone states, “In Undying Memory of Pilot Officer Anthony Carbery Mason, Only Beloved Son of Mrs. Gerald Hopkinson”. But behind that simple statement lies a heart-breaking story that goes way beyond the tragedy of his death.
Gerald Hopkinson was, in fact, Mason’s third stepfather, and one of his mother Minnie’s five husbands. The chaos of his home life and childhood, created by his parent’s multiple relationships, provide a shocking backdrop to his short life.
Born Minnie Willson [yes, two L's], Tony’s mother married her first husband, Charles Deighton O’Connell Barrows, aka Charles William Deighton Barrows, on 1 September 1895. In July 1898, Minnie petitioned for a divorce on the basis of the fact that Charles was still married to his wife Ada, and the marriage was annulled in March 1899.
Five months before the annulment, Minnie married T. Cecil Mason on 15 October 1898, thereby entering her own bigamous marriage and committing adultery. These issues were resolved in March 1899, of course, but Cecil Mason – Plt Off Mason’s father – divorced Minnie for her adultery with one Bertie W. Echlin in March 1902, when he was barely a year old.
Minnie remarried before the month was out, this time to Godfrey C. R. Mundy, on 24 March 1902. This marriage ended just three years later after Minnie applied for an annulment because the marriage had never been consummated due to her husband’s “frigidity, impotence, and malformation of [his] parts of generation” [TNA J 77/809/4584]. However, her claim was dismissed, and Mundy countered with his own petition, alleging Minnie’s adultery during his absence on Army service, which was granted in April 1905.
Meanwhile, Tony Mason’s father, Cecil, had also remarried, taking the hand of 22-year-old Fay G. Berkley on 28 January 1904. Their daughter Enid – a half-sister to Tony – was born six weeks later.
Minnie married her fourth husband, Edward Harrison, on 22 December 1906 but this marriage lasted no longer than the last. On this occasion, Minnie filed for divorce on the grounds of her husband’s adultery and his cruelty [domestic abuse] towards her, which was granted in February 1910.
As if there were not enough turmoil in Minnie’s life, some of her marriage certificates also contained falsehoods. While her first two identified her father as Alfred Willson, bookbinder, respectively bookseller, on her third marriage certificate he had become Arthur Willson, deceased, Doctor of Medicine. On her fourth, her father was Alfred Willson, deceased, Doctor of Medicine, but she also gave herself a middle name, marrying as ‘Minnie Diana Mundy’.
Once again using her adopted middle name, Minnie married her fifth husband, Gerald Hopkinson, in Kensington in July 1914, but little further is known about her life after this date.
Less than two years later, Cecil Mason’s second marriage ended after Fay filed for divorce, citing Cecil’s adultery and desertion “without cause for a period of two years and upwards” [TNA J 7/1236/7643] over several years from March 1908 to February 1916. Cecil did not defend the case, and the marriage was annulled in May 1916.
By that time, however, Cecil had already been in a long-term adulterous relationship with one Elizabeth E. Compton, and the couple had a daughter, Primrose, in March 1916, two months prior to the annulment of his marriage.
A second daughter, Trixie, followed in April 1918 (just as Tony Mason was joining the RAF), and a third daughter, Patricia, was born in October 1921.
All this time, Cecil and Elizabeth were not married, but in late 1924 they formalised their eight-year de facto relationship and wed. This marriage appears to have lasted as the family can be found in the 1939 Register, living in Highgate.
Minnie’s marriage to Gerald Hopkinson also appears to have stood the test of time, as the couple is recorded in the 1921 Census in Chichester, and it is also under Gerald’s name that she appears on her son’s gravestone in 1925.
There is little doubt that Tony’s childhood was confusing as he dealt with the chaos created by his parents’ multiple tumultuous relationships. By the time of his service with 41 Squadron, he had had no less than a father and three stepfathers, a mother and two stepmothers, a half-sister to his mother, and three half-sisters to his father.
He lived in a boarding school by the age of eleven, was living with his mother in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, when he joined the RAF in 1918, and living with his father in Cromwell Road, Highgate, when he was granted his Short Service Commission in 1923.
Despite the passage of over twenty years since Tony’s parents divorced, bitterness clearly prevailed between them until after he died. While probate was granted to his father, his mother appears to have paid for his gravestone, as she only named herself upon it; his father’s name is cruelly omitted.
However, in a final act of pure spite, Minnie had Tony’s gravestone inscribed with only three of his four names. While his full name was Anthony Cecil Carbery Mason, she omitted Cecil, Tony’s father’s name, and his headstone only shows ‘Anthony Carbery Mason’.
Given these circumstances, one can imagine that Plt Off Mason had had a very unsettled and unhappy upbringing. The events spanning his childhood must have had a devastating effect on him and his mental health. No-one should have to go through everything that he did, and yet it is probably more common that we would like to think.
Perhaps his service with the RAF was the one stabilising factor in his young life that offered him a sense of belonging and a promising future. How tragic, then, that just as he was settling into a career as a young RAF officer, free at last of the turbulence of his childhood, his life was abruptly snuffed out.
It is terribly sad to think that some people fight the odds stacked high against them, but still don't win because of circumstances beyond their control. Tony Mason was one such person.
If you happen to be passing St Martin of Tours Churchyard in Ruislip, please spare a thought for Plt Off Mason. Long may he rest in well-deserved peace.
PLT OFF ANTHONY CECIL CARBERY MASON
6 FEBRUARY 1900-8 APRIL 1925
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