James ‘Jem’ Mason (1816-1866) was one of the great steeple chase jockeys when the sport was in its infancy, famously riding Lottery to a win the inaugural Aintree Grand Nation in 1839. Mason was also a close friend of Henry Poole with whom the tailor agreed an endorsement arrangement that earned Mason’s reputation as a dandy and put Henry Poole & Co on the map as London’s finest equestrian tailor.
Mason was born in Stilton, Huntingdonshire, the third son of a horse breeder/dealer who was said to have ‘the finest collection of hunters to be seen anywhere’. Mr Mason Sr moved the family to a residence in Pinner adjoining Dove House Farm where a Mr Tilbury kept his stud of over 200 hunters. Tilbury engaged Jem Mason as a roughrider and the boy became used to schooling six to eight horses a day. His skill as a steeple chaser was witnessed as he rode with the Quorn, the Old Berkshire and the Hertfordshire hunts. It was at a meet of the latter that Lord Frederic Beauclerk was moved to proclaim ‘that boy picks the ground better than any of them’.
Beauclerk gave Jem Mason his first ride in 1834 on a horse called The Poet in the St Albans Steeplechase. Jem scaled under eight stone and the horse had to carry more than four stone of dead weight. The Poet refused the first fence but Jem eventually won his debut steeple chase ‘at a common canter’. According to Mason’s obituary in The Sporting Life, Jem was already a hero with the Harrow boys who would come and watch him ride at Tilbury’s stud. ‘Such an idol did he become with them that, when it was settled that he was to ride The Poet in his own maiden steeple chase at St Albans, they insisted on presenting him with his jacket (racing silks) for luck’.
According to The Sporting Life ‘James Mason, as a steeple chase professional, scarcely had a peer in England’. His riding style is described thus: ‘a lath-like, elegant figure, beautiful seat and hands, and a very quick eye combined to make him quite the admiral Crichton of the steeple chase field though his great rival, Tom Oliver, was a much harder man and a finer finisher. What struck you so in Mason was the perfect absence of anything like effort or fuss. The right thing to do came to him by intuition and he did it instantly’.
Though he is a flat racing champion, deadly dandy Frankie Dettori is perhaps the closest the racing fraternity comes to Jem Mason’s panache today. Mason was said to wear a new pair of white kid gloves for every race. When asked why he risked a high fence rather than riding cross country into a forest, he excused his derring-do by saying ‘I’ll be hanged if I am going to scratch my face, for I am going to the Opera tonight’. As astride, as in life, twenty-two-year old Mason was fearless and absconded to London with fifteen-year old Elizabeth Haryett who would become the actress Harriet Howard and mistress of Henry Poole customer Prince Louis Napoleon.
Mason won the inaugural Grand National racing in the colours of John Elmore (ink blue silks and black cap) who was the owner of Lottery and father of Jem’s future first wife Charlotte. According to William C. A. Blew’s A History of Steeple Chasing (1901), ‘No man ever rode fairer in a race than did Jem Mason and seldom if ever did any rival lodge an objection against him for crossing. There was also another good trait to his character – he was always ready to help a friend. When the erratic Tom Oliver had nothing left in the world but Trust-Me-Not, he asked Jem Mason to buy him in order that he might have a little ready money. “Don’t sell your horse” said Jem, “but send him to me and I will win you a race”’.
In his unpublished manuscript Henry Poole: The Prince of Tailors, Donald MacAndrew writes ‘in 1844 he (Jem) discarded the silk to keep a stud of hunters with Henry (Poole) at the Bell Inn, Winslow … And thenceforth the two men were almost inseparable’. However, A History of Steeple Chasing says that Jem ‘went into business with his brother Tom and, his wife having died in the meantime, he married as his second Miss (Harriet) Seckham, daughter of the famous Oxford dealer and hirer-out of hunters to undergraduates’.
A History of Steeple Chasing dates Jem Mason’s last professional ride as 1848 and writes it was ‘more by way of a lark than anything else, at Hendon, and he did not even condescend to take the cigar out of his mouth’. He did come out of retirement at the request of Lord Strathmore but failed to complete the race. He was in fact suffering from the onset of throat cancer ‘thought to have been induced by excessive smoking’. Having undergone a tracheotomy, Jem Mason died aged fifty-one at home in St John’s Wood and is buried in Kensal Green.