The Remarkable Adventures of a Sussex Bee-Keeper, Film Maker, Explorer and Rebel

In 1898 a swarm of bees made their home at Exceat Farm, close to Cuckmere Haven on the bend in the road between Seaford and Friston.  Some would consider this lucky but sometimes bees can stray inside an old house and become a nuisance.  In 1909 it was decided to remove the swarm.  The man who was chosen to remove the bees was John Charles Mason who was not only an experienced bee-keeper but also an early film maker.   He filmed the whole operation, which started with the removal of tiles from the side of the building, followed by the extraction honeycombs, some over four feet long, and the removal of the swarm to a new home. The last shots of the film show several men removing stings from their hands.   In order to film the operation, scaffolding was constructed against the wall of the ancient farm building to steady Mason’s camera. 

Despite its name, the Warwick Trading Companywas an American film distributer and they quickly snapped up the footage of the bees and distributed it widely as a film called ‘The Bee’s Eviction’.  It was one of the worlds first natural history films.   Despite the film being in seven short reels, it was very successful. In London it played at the Coliseum for several weeks where according to the press, ‘it caused a sensation’.

The following year Mason directed two more films; ‘The Bee Hunter’ and ‘Bees and Their Enemies’. Mason who had a ‘bee-farm’ at Bures, Suffolk, loved bees. In 1911 he directed three more films; ‘Production of Honey’, ‘The Hornet and Her Nest’ and ‘The Life of the Honey Bee’ in which he is credited as “Mr J.C. “Bee” Mason of the British Beekeepers Association, London.” This last film took over eight months to complete. 

‘Bee’ Mason

In May 1919 Mason filmed the funeral of King Edward VII, the Boat Race and the Grand National for Pathe News. 

John Charles Mason was born in Maidenhead, Berkshire in 1874.  He married Liverpudlian Ada Gertrude Fletcher in 1898.  The 1901 Census shows the couple living at New Windsor where Mason worked locally as a railway clerk.   He soon got promotion working on the railway. The 1911 census shows that Mason and his wife were living at 27, Ashstead Road, Clapham. His occupation is shown as a ‘railway official’. By this time he had already produced several films.

Although the 1911 census shows the surname ‘Mason’ after 1912 he started to use the surname ‘Bee-Mason’, a name which he kept until his death.   

By 1912 it was reported that he was giving ‘cinema-photographic performances’ to children in the Clapham area.  He also lectured to adults; in February 1912 he lectured to the London and North West Railway about Bees and Bee Keeping. He was described as a popular member of the LNER HQ Staff.

In 1913 Bee-Mason was involved in another film ‘Life of a Bee’. He is credited as being a ‘cast member’. That same year he appeared for a run of five weeks at the London Opera House narrating one of his films.  It was probably in late 1913 that Bee-Mason visited Holland where he purchased 500 colonies of Dutch Bees. As the cargo was considered ‘dangerous’ a ship had to be chartered to bring them to England.  One of the reasons for this live-import was because many English hives at that time had been affected by what was known as ‘Isle of Wight disease’.

In 1914 there were two films ‘The Bee Master’ and ‘Evicting Unwanted Tenants’ which were filmed at Bletsoe Castle  in Bedfordshire.  In March he was narrating one of his films in Exeter and the next month he was in Sunderland.   It is likely that by this time Bee-Mason had resigned from his work on the railway and had become a professional bee-keeper.  How else could he afford to run a ‘bee-farm’ (described as the largest in England), travel all over the country to lecture and even commission a ship?

In 1914 Bee-Mason announced that he was immune from bee-stings saying that when he first became interested in bees a sting would feel like a white-hot needle but he no longer felt any pain from them. He believed that bee-stings could help alleviate arthritis.  

War was declared in August 1914 and although at 40-years-old he was too old to ‘join up’, Bee-Mason wanted to get to the heart of the action.  He travelled to the Front in Belgium and took many photographs which were sent back to England and put on display at the London Philharmonic Hall. One of Bee-Mason’s films was shot in recently invaded Belgium and many of his photographs were exhibited around England by the French lecturer Walter De Marney. They gave ‘an excellent impression of the ravages of the Huns and showed the cathedrals and dwellings of non-combatants that had been ruthlessly destroyed’  and undoubtably served to assist as propaganda for the British war effort and to bolster the recruitment drives. 

He returned to England with 4,000 feet of film of the war.  Before a lecture at the Pier Theatre at Eastbourne in December 1914, the Eastbourne Gazettereported him as declaring “My nerves are shot to pieces but I suppose I should consider myself lucky to have reached England at all, for on more than one occasion I though my last hour had come. I have been with the Belgian troops all the time, for no cameramen are allowed with the British or French armies. Strictly speaking, I should not have taken films but the Belgian officers proved very tolerant towards me.”    At subsequent lectures he apeared dressed in khaki.   At Torquay his war footage was accompanied by a local orchestra playing the 1812 Overture.

In 1916 he made a film called ‘The Wartime One-Armed Handyman’  which unsurprisingly was about and injured ex-serviceman and how he coped with his disability. The plight of injured soldiers obviously concerned Bee-Mason as he offered to provide invalided soldiers with a hive of bees. 

In February 1917 Bee-Mason was back in Eastbourne and gave two lectures at the Winter Garden under the tag-line ‘Britain’s Greatest Bee Hunter’.  By the end of the year he had produced another film called ‘Waste Paper and the War’ showing how pulped waste-paper was made into cardboard boxes which were used to store ordinance for the war effort.   In July 1917 ‘Kinematograph Weekly’reported that the ‘war kinematographer’ Bee-Mason had accepted a new job with the Trans-Atlantic Film Company and that he had filmed the war on the French, Belgian and Russian Fronts.

In August 1918 the Government’s Board of Agriculture appointed a committee to investigate ways of improving bee-keeping in England and Wales and how to combat the ever-spreading ‘Isle of Wight disease’.  Although he was working on a feature-film ‘The Elder Miss Blossom’, Bee-Mason was selected for the committee. 

It was clear that Bee-Mason was a good cameraman and his new job with the Trans-Atlantic Film Company afforded new opportunities.  In April 1919 a film about Great War nurses called ‘Women Who Win’ was filmed by Bee-Mason.  Later in the year, a feature film set in Ireland, ‘Father O’Flynn’ was released. It was praised for how the Killarney scenery was filmed.  Again the cameraman was Bee-Mason. 

His work as a railway clerk now behind him, Bee Mason was becoming not only famous but financially independent. ‘Kinematograph Weekly’ reported in June 1919 that he had established a new company specialising in film printing called ‘Beemas Kinema’. Bee-Mason was a director of the Thames Ditton, based company. The report concludes “All the work carried out will be under the direction of the well-known cameraman J.C. Bee-Mason. It is believed that in the hands of such an experienced man, better prints than have hitherto be made will be made in the trade, particularly those that require careful tinting and toning.”

In 1919 Bee-Mason was commissioned to make a film in the south of France. The film was ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ and the lead was the music-hall star Charles Cockborn.   

Cockborn had made his name from singing about how gambler Charles Wells had won £50,000 (over £4million today) in just one night on the tables.  Wells returned to England and settled for a while in Newhaven. Although Bee-Mason must have enjoyed staying at the Monte-Carlo Hotel, money became short and Bee-Mason could not obtain the film he needed. He returned to England unpaid and in 1920 appeared before Judge Scully having sued the film company for his unpaid wages. (He was paid £15 a week – the weekly average wage at the time was less than £5.) 

Bee-Mason was the cameraman for the feature films ‘The Worldlings’ and ‘The Cigarette-Makers Romance’ in 1920. Both films received poor reviews apart from comments on how well they were filmed.  As well as filming, he was still travelling across the country to lecture about bee-keeping. In 1920 he was also was one of the founder members of the Kine-Cameraman’s Society. (At their first meeting he was involved in a discussion about terminology. Some members did not like the use of the word ‘cameraman’ as it could apply to a photographer and there was also debate as to whether it should be Kinema or Cinema)

It is clear that by now Bee-Mason was an established, and indeed very good film-cameraman.  So it is no surprise that in August 1921 he was selected to be the cameraman to accompany arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton on an expedition to the Antarctic.  

Eastbourne-based Shackleton’s 1921 expedition was hailed as the first ‘technological’ exploration of the frozen continent.  The expedition would take place by ship and aeroplane (although this was never actually used), the crows-nest of the ship was to be heated and the explorers would wear heated overalls. The exhibition would maintain contact by use of wireless and the ship was fitted with an early form of sonar.  Bee-Mason had gathered many expensive film and cine-cameras and had use of a specially designed dark-room.  He also took another strange piece of equipment – a bee which he kept in a matchbox in his waistcoat pocket to keep it warm!

The adventure was to be called the ‘Rowlett Expedition’ after Shackleton’s old schoolfriend John Quiller Rowlett who was a businessman and who had financed the project.  A Norwegian sealing ship was purchased and was refitted for the voyage.  The ship was renamed ‘The Quest’ and it is by this name that the expedition is now remembered. 

THE QUEST

In August 1921 the Quest sailed along the Sussex Coast and on 14th August anchored a quarter of a mile off Eastbourne beach. It was initially intended to moor the ship alongside the pier but due to the weather this was not possible.  In the morning hundreds of people rowed across to the vessel and were shown around it by Shackleton and his captain, New Zealander, Frank Worsley DSO.   John Quiller Rowlett (who also lived in Sussex at Frant) was also on board. In the afternoon the new Eastbourne motor-lifeboat ‘Priscilla MacBean’ collected most of the crew and bought them to the pier where they were introduced to Eastbourne’s Mayor, Mr Edward Duke. Shackleton joked that although his ship was robust enough to bump icebergs it was not designed to bump Eastbourne Pier!  He was also presented with a compass by the Eastbourne Girl Guides. (Shackleton’s wife, Emily, was Divisional Commander of the Eastbourne Girl Guides)

My Grandmother, Bessie Gordon saw the Quest off Eastbourne and took this photo of the ship surrounded bt rowing boats.

The Quest left London on 17th September 1921 and reached South Georgia in the Southern Ocean on 4thJanuary but the expedition was not a success. Tragically Shackleton died the following day.  The Expedition continued but, although they were to map the land and chart the ocean floor by depth-sounding, the ‘heart’ had gone out of the project without its enthusiastic leader. The explorers mapped areas of Franz Joseph Land and studied magnetic variations.

Bee-Mason took hundreds of photos and even got time to pose for some himself which were later used to advertised Bovril.  

Unsurprisingly another victim of the expedition was Bee-Masons pet bee.  It was buried under a rocky cairn at a point which was named ‘Point Apis’ (Apis being the Latin name for a bee)

Burial of a bee. Bee-Mason is on the left.

Bee-Mason became ill on the voyage and returned back to England before the Quest.  

In 1924 he was the official photographer with the Oxford University Arctic Expedition. At one stage his party was charged by a polar-bear which got within seven yards of Bee-Mason before it was shot. The following year Bee-Mason again teamed up with Frank Worsley to revisit the Antarctic.  The expedition was not without excitement; there was a fire on board, the ship crashed into an uncharted coral-reef and at one stage the crew had to take to small boats when the ship was close to being crushed by a massive iceberg. 

Maybe by this time our bee-loving explorer had had enough of snow as in 1928 he accompanied an expedition to the jungles of Brazil and Bolivia. At one time the expedition was surrounded by 200 hostile Toba Indians. On returning to England he produced a film of the expedition called ‘Through Green Hell’.  It was soon after this trip that he settled in Dene Hollow, London Road, Burgess Hill, Sussex.   

During the Second World War, Bee-Mason contacted bee-keepers throughout the Commonwealth to donate honey to the war-effort.  Many tons of honey was distributed including 15 tons to the Royal Navy for distribution to sub-mariners.  It was for these efforts that Bee-Mason was awarded the MBE. 

In 1947 Bee-Masons wife died and, with the money she left him, he established a local bee-farm which covered over three acres of Sussex downland.  During the 1940s and 1950 he toured the south of England talking about his experiences. 

You would have thought, with all this activity, that Bee-Mason would have settled down to quiet life in Mid-Sussex, but no – he got involved in another dangerous activity – local politics!

Bee-Mason was a Burgess Hill Councillor but was outspoken and often at loggerheads with his fellow councillors.  The local press reported that he was ‘often in hot-water due to his behaviour’.  At a council meeting on April 1952 he objected to ‘the scandalous allocation of council-houses in Burgess Hill’ and to make his point hammered on a desk with a block of wood.  He refused to desist and when he refused to leave the meeting, the police were called and he was arrested.   He appeared later at Haywards Heath Magistrates Court and intended to plead ‘not guilty’ however he suddenly became bewildered and pleaded ‘guilty’ instead.   He was bound over to keep the peace but the truculent councillor refused to agree and, as a result, was sentenced to two months imprisonment. 

Whilst in his prison cell he had a vision. He later recalled in a book ‘Why I went to Prison’ that his cell was lit by ‘a golden light like the light from a rising harvest moon’. A voice said ‘You are here for a purpose!’  This voice came from his spiritual bodyguard Bullafer who was a Bolivian Indian Chief who doubled up in the afterlife as Bee-Mason’s very own ghostly bodyguard.  The Bolivian explained that it was Bull-Mason’s destiny to go to prison and he had been made to plead guilty at Haywards Heath Magistrates by the spirit of Henry Jackson the MP for Coventry who had been dead for over 70 years. 

On release from prison he was again in trouble with the law when he was successfully sued on a number of occasions for libel and slander. These cases were as a result of public comments he had made about local council officials.  These allegations of corruption had been made in a newspaper which he had published named the ‘Stingers Gazette’.

In 1956 he was made bankrupt and, because of this, lost his position as a local councillor. He sold his house and moved to ‘Santos’ 20, Junction Road, Burgess Hill. 

John Charles Bee-Mason died In London on 25th August 1957 aged 82 years.  There cannot be many people who have lived such an interesting and dangerous life.  A letter in the West Sussex Gazette described him as a ‘rebel against recognised authority’ who was a ‘bonny fighter prepared to take abuse and defend the right or wrong which he believed to be right who was a brave man with a wonderful international record’

SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Sussex Express and County Herald (various)

Eastbourne Gazette (various) 

West Sussex Gazette (various)

Bioscope 

Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly

British Film Institute

John Allen

Screenonline.org.uk

British Silent Film Festival (2017)

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