Charlotte Mason’s Parents

Unwed mothers and their infants were an affront to morality. They were spurned and ostracized both by the public relief and charitable institutions. Muller’s Orphan Asylum in Bristol in 1836 refused illegitimate children; they accepted only “lawfully begotten” orphans. Children conceived in sin had no doubt inherited their parents’ lack of moral character and would contaminate the minds and morals of legitimate children in their care. Although there were a few orphanages opened to accommodate illegitimate children, the majority of the institutions adhered to the policy of denying them entry, despite the fact that the largest number of orphans were illegitimate. In 1842, the Poor Law Commissioner issued orders that loose women ought to be kept away from women and girls of good character in the workhouses.

FIG. 92. Pedigree chart illustrating the law that two defective parents have only defective offspring. A, alcoholic; (7, criminalistic ; d, died; F f feeble-minded; T, tubercular. After Goddard.

Hold that thought.

One of the topics I really appreciated from the CLUSA conference in North Carolina is Margaret Coomb’s extensive and meticulous investigation into Charlotte Mason’s family background. What we’re usually told about her is that CM was the only child of only children, orphaned and left without relatives at the age of 15 or 16. However, Mrs. Coombs questioned that because the only source for it is a typewritten document allegedly by Lizzie Groveham,  whose other papers are all handwritten. And the typewritten page shows some distinct similarities with the typewriter belonging to Miss Mason’s most uncritically loyal follower, Elsie Kitchings.

Margaret Coombs discovered that Miss Mason’s father is Joshua Mason, an Irish Quaker. His first wife was a fellow Quaker his own age. Together they produced nine children, then she died at age 36 after 17 years of marriage. Four years later, he married again, to another  Quaker. The second marriage lasted almost twenty years, they had three children, and she died when those children were age 20-14.

A few years later a third marriage is recorded for Joshua Mason- he is married to one Margaret Shaw, a young, beautiful, single Catholic woman, who had a baby with Joshua Mason already. The baby is our Charlotte, born out of wedlock.  Remember that thought we were holding?  Let that information on how people viewed illegitimacy at that time percolate a bit.

He was considerably older than his bride, and the wedding was performed before an Irish Catholic priest, an action which got you kicked out of the Quakers at the time. At one time, Margaret Coombs speculated that this is why Charlotte’s father delayed the marriage, out of fear of approbation and banishment from his co-religionists.  However, now she believes, based on some other evidence, that Joshua Mason was actually out of the country at the time of Charlotte’s birth and probably did not even know that Margaret Shaw was pregnant until much later. Given Joshua Mason’s age, John Thorley and others wonder if he was really the father of the baby. Perhaps he married her only to give the child a name. My personal speculation is this- as I understand it, Joshua went with his son to Australia, which is where they both were when the baby was born. The son, much closer to Margaret’s age, died in Australia and Joshua returned home and then married Charlotte’s mother. Perhaps the father of the child was his late son?  We don’t know.  We do know that while Joshua married Charlotte’s Mother, they lived apart for some time.

Sadly, both Charlotte’s parents died within a year of each other while living apart. Margaret died of what was almost certainly some form of cancer, perhaps uterine cancer. Joshua died of ‘general debilitating disease,’ which may have been dementia, and that may be why they were living apart. Or maybe the Catholic/Quaker thing just wasn’t working out. There is a lot of room for speculation, but what is certainly true is that Miss Mason was born before her parents married, and she seems not to have wanted anybody to know that.  When you consider that thought we are holding,  you can see why.

Margaret Coombs says she found evidence that young Charlotte actually lived with one of her older sisters for a time.  All of her half siblings were many years older than she, most of them were older than her own mother. They were all Quakers, who had nothing to do with Catholics at all if they could help it. Charlotte says she was raised as an only child, and she was her mother’s only child, but not her father’s. Charlotte never mentions the half sister she lived with for a time.  We don’t know why.  Coombs speculates this was because Charlotte was selfish and ungrateful, but in my opinion it seems more likely to be because the half siblings didn’t want it widely known that their very Quakerish father had a child out of wedlock and then later married her Catholic mother.

She was always extremely reticent about her early life, although there is a passage in volume 5 that I have always thought is autobiographical:

I wonder does any little girl in these days of many books experience the keen joy of the girl of eleven I can recall, crouching by the fireside, clasping her knees, and listening, as she has never listened since, to the reading of [Sir Walter Scott’s] Anne of Geierstein? Somehow, the story has never been re-read; but to this day, no sense impressions are more vivid than those of the masked faces, the sinking floor, the weird trial, the cold bright Alpine village––and no moral impression stronger than that made by the deferential behaviour of “Philip” to his father. Perhaps the impression made later by the Heir of Redclyffe [Charlotte Mary Yonge] ranks next in intensity.

If it is truly autobiographical, and I do not see how it can be otherwise, one wonders who was doing the reading, her mother or her father? It would be just one or two years later that she became an orphaned student teacher at Holy Trinity National School for Girls and Infants in Birkenhead, which may be another reason she remembered those particular books so well. Perhaps they were the last her parents were able to read with her.

Still holding that thought about the extreme social stigma of illegitimacy at this time?

Eugenics was very much the consensus science of the day- all the best people believed it.  Scientists wrote volumes, politicians passed laws, and reformers took it into consideration in their reforms.  In many cases Eugenicists were claiming that children of unmarried parents inherited the taint of their parentage, that parents with such poor self control obviously had severe defects which could result in imbecility, criminal tendencies, and other serious flaws in their children. Being illegitimate hindered your prospects for marriage in Masons social class, since it was a concern that you could pass on to your children these criminal, anti-social, and immoral tendencies which had caused your parents to fail so drastically in self-control and personal responsibility in the first place.

I find this sheds new light on just how easily Miss Mason was breathing when she says in volume 2:

“As to Heredity––We are taught, for example, that ‘heredity’ is by no means the simple and direct transmission, from parent or remote ancestor, to child of power and proclivity, virtue and defect; and we breathe freer, because we had begun to suspect that if this were so, it would mean to most of us an inheritance of exaggerated defects: imbecility, insanity, congenital disease––are they utterly removed from any one of us?”

What a relief it must have been to her to know that just because she was born out of wedlock, she had no more reason to worry about hereditary defects of character than any other human being.

For me, given the times in which she lived, Miss Mason’s illegitimacy makes all the more poignant her insistence on the point that children were *not* tainted by their parentage, but all of them, regardless of  parentage, were born persons, with an equal capacity for good or evil.




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  1. J
    Posted August 8, 2021 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Could Charlotte have not known her parents married after her birth?

    • Headmistress
      Posted August 11, 2021 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      I suppose, it’s possible, I doubt it. She would have likely seen their marriage certificate and her birth certificate. Also, her father had multiple children by his previous two wives, and Charlotte stayed with at least one of her sisters from time to time, but she seems to have gone to great lengths to hide her connections to her father’s side of the family and anything much about her parents, which is more likely if she knew about the delayed marriage..

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