INDIA-L ArchivesArchiver > INDIA > 1999-01 > 0917632468
Subject: Philip Mason
Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 10:54:28 -0700 (MST)
Daily Telegraph (London). Obituaries,Friday, January 29, 1999
Author and colonial officer in India who toured his province by elephant
and wrote a history of the men who ruled the Raj
HILIP MASON, who has died aged 92, was one of the last of the great
figures of the British Raj; his book The Men Who Ruled India, which he
wrote after an adventurous career in the Indian Civil Service, evokes
comparison with Kipling.
It was under the pen-name Philip Woodruff that Mason first published The
Men Who Ruled India, in two volumes, The Founders (1953) and The
Guardians (1954). As a history of the Raj seen through the lives of the
men who ruled India, the book is an undoubted classic of British-Indian
Mason tells of the bad men as well as the good. Thus Frederick Cooper,
who unnecessarily caused the death of 282 mutineers who had surrendered
to him, is depicted, as well as men like Charles Metcalfe, who abolished
slavery in Delhi 50 years before it was abolished in America, and Bartle
Frere, who made Bombay into a healthier city than London.
The book is full of brilliant impressionistic portraits of the men
themselves; for example, that of Malcolm Hailey, who once told a junior
colleague: "You will have a trying day tomorrow. You will be on the
alert all day and will probably have a riot. But I have discussed all
your arrangements and I approve of them. One embarrassment at least you
shall be spared: I am going fishing."
Mason is as good at describing the installation of a Governor as at
recounting the simple outdoor life of the District Officer: "the smell
of canvas and smoky fires was in your nostrils, a horse between your
knees on a dewy morning, or walking home in the darkness through the
wafts of rich scent that eddy slowly round the village".
Better, perhaps, than any other writer on British India, Mason makes one
realise what an adventure it all was.
Philip Mason was born at Finchley, north London, on March 19 1906 and
grew up in Duffield, near Derby, where his father, a country doctor, had
his practice. His forebears had for many generations farmed in Rutland.
Philip was sent to Sedbergh, under W N Weech, who considered that young
Mason's "zestful admiration" of Kipling "made up for shortcomings in
Greek prose and algebra". From Sedbergh, he went up to Balliol, where he
was taken under the wing of the celebrated "Sligger" Urquhart.
His numerous Oxford activities, including a tour with the Balliol
Players which brought him into contact with the aged Thomas Hardy, did
not prevent him taking a First (in PPE) - obligatory for entering the
Indian Civil Service.
Mason's first posting, in 1928, was to Saharanpur, in the United
Provinces. He later confessed to having been occasionally fooled into
paying out bounty on "wolves", which were really hyenas stuffed inside
old wolf skins. In 1930 he became Sub-Divisional Officer at Bareilly,
after which he was moved to Lucknow, where he discharged various duties
and was for a time City Magistrate.
In 1933 he was appointed to the Government of India as Under-Secretary
in what was then known as the Army Department, in Delhi. There he met
Mary Hayes, who had come out to India for the winter to stay with her
uncle General Twiss, the then Military Secretary. They were married in
The next year, Mason, aged 30, returned to the United Provinces as
Deputy Commissioner of Garhwal. This seemed to him to be "the best job
in India". He was in charge of a mountain district in which his
headquarters was three days' journey from the nearest railway terminus.
The outlying villages were anything up to 18 days' march from his
headquarters. Nine months of the year were spent travelling, preceded by
his official elephant, whose mahout doubled as the local burglar; but
Mason and his bride liked walking among mountains better than anything
else. "They are like two children, laughing and playing" was how the new
Deputy Commissioner and his memsahib appeared to the Garhwalis.
Like all the best District Officers before him, Mason managed to be "the
father and mother of his people"; he also managed to be on good terms
with the Congress ministry which took office in the United Provinces in
1937, something that was not required of his predecessors.
The Second World War put an end to his time in Garhwal and brought him
back to Delhi and Simla as Deputy-Secretary to the Government of India
in the newly-established Defence Co-Ordination Department.
On Christmas Day 1941, however, Mason lost an eye when he was
accidentally shot full in the face while out hunting jungle cock. The
injury meant that, despite recovering well, he was less able to cope
with heavy paperwork. In 1942 he moved jobs to become Secretary to the
Chief of Staffs Committee, India, working closely with Field Marshal
Wavell, who won his lasting affection.
Mason accompanied Wavell when, in 1943, he went to London and then on to
Washington with Churchill; and it was while they were aboard the Queen
Mary that Churchill had the idea of setting up a Supreme Allied Command
for South-East Asia. Mason and Commodore (later Admiral Sir Ralph)
Edwards worked out the original plan for the new structure of command.
When Mountbatten arrived in India as Supreme Allied Commander, Mason
joined his staff as Head of the Conference Secretariat and eventually
moved with him to Ceylon. He returned to Delhi in the late summer of
1944, as Joint-Secretary to the Government of India in the Defence
Department. In 1946, he represented the Defence Department in the
Central Legislative Assembly.
In Independence year, 1947, Mason saw something of the old Princely
India as Tutor and Governor to the grandsons of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
He might have stayed longer in Hyderabad, but, as he afterwards wrote,
"I believed it was time for the British to go, time for India to settle
her own affairs."
He and his wife were anxious to make a home for themselves and their
children in England, and he wished to concentrate on his new career as a
writer. His first novel, Call the Next Witness, had been accepted by
Jonathan Cape just as he was about to leave with Churchill for
>From 1945 to 1962 he was to bring out a book almost every year, both
novels and non-fiction, written at first under the pen-name of Philip
Woodruff, later under his real name.
>From 1952 to 1958, Mason was also Director of Studies in Race Relations
at Chatham House. He was a member of the Committee of Enquiry to examine
the problems of minorities in Nigeria in 1957, and the next year was
appointed Director of the Institute of Race Relations, a post which he
held until 1969. A report that he wrote the following year, which
advocated support for Southern African guerrillas, shocked many members
of the report's sponsor, the British Council of Churches.
He was chairman of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants in
1964-65, and was on the Executive Committee of the United Kingdom
Council for Overseas Student Affairs from 1969 to 1975.
After his retirement from the Institute of Race Relations, Mason
concentrated again on his writing. His later books include A Matter of
Honour (1974), a much-applauded history of the Indian Army; a biography,
Kipling: the Glass, the Shadow and the Fire (1975); Skinner of Skinner's
Horse (1979) and The English Gentleman (1982).
He also wrote a delightful autobiography, A Shaft of Sunlight (1978),
and in 1985 produced a condensed version of The Men Who Ruled India.
While the latter has the advantage of combining The Founders and The
Guardians in a single volume, the abridgement necessitated the removal
of many good things which someone less modest would have insisted on
He was appointed OBE in 1942, and CIE in 1946. He was an honorary Fellow
of the School of Oriental and African Studies.
He is survived by his wife, and by two sons and two daughters.
We'll miss him.