Iconic blitz photo has Great Yarmouth roots
PUBLISHED: 10:07 11 December 2010
Archant © 2010
IT is an image that has been reproduced around the world – an iconic photo that captured how the chaos of the Blitz had struck at the heart of the nation.
But in the picture, though St Paul’s Cathedral in London is engulfed in billowing smoke it still stands defiant, its white domed roof bathed in light.
And now, having used the internet to find out more about him, twins from Great Yarmouth are paying tribute to the man behind the lens – their unpretentious uncle and a local lad, who made it good on Fleet Street and framed a moment in history.
Michael and David Mason remember Herbert Mason, or Herbie as they called him, from the trips he made back to his hometown of Yarmouth while working as a photographer for the Daily Mail.
David, 64, said: “We knew him very well and he used to come back here on holiday. He was an unassuming guy and a favourite uncle – he was such a nice chap.
“Back then, we were young and weren’t aware, and even though we saw the picture on my father Harold’s wall we didn’t realise it was significant.
“When I was 16, though, I started to understand when I saw it on a double page spread in a book, so I got him to sign it.”
It was after Michael joined his wife Susanne, with whom he has twins, in digging into their family history through websites that they learnt more about Mr Mason.
Born in 1903 on St Peter’s Road, he was the son of Walter Mason, who ran a photography businesses on the seafront and in Gorleston, and worked for the Yarmouth Mercury.
There, he learnt the family trade before being drawn to the bright lights of London aged 21.
And it was after a brief stint with a commercial film company that he threw himself into the world of photo-journalism, growing in reputation until he eventually became chief photographer at the Daily Mail. It was here, on fire patrol on the rooftop of the newspaper’s headquarters just a few days after Christmas in 1940, that he took the photo for which he will be best remembered.
“He was on Northcliffe house, and their job was to telephone fire control if they spotted a fire, who would then send resources to fight them.” said Michael, who, like his brother, teaches first aid courses.
“And while up there he would’ve brought his camera with him and was obviously waiting for an opportunity to use it and there it was. “The funny thing is, he sold the picture to the Daily Mail on the day for about £5 and didn’t see a penny from it.”
Widely respected in the trade, he also worked for the Associated Press and was one of few photographers regularly picked to cover major events like royal weddings.
Over the war, he also covered one meeting of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in which he acted as a decoy, impersonating the president in a cortege while the real one slipped away by a secret route. And in one of many scrapes he survived after a ship he had taken to Malta was attacked by torpedo.
Mr Mason was still working up to the time of his death in 1964.
His is a skill that has stayed within the family, though not always in the most obvious of ways.
Father-of-two Michael added: “We were inspired by his photos, and both worked for Brian Ollington Photographers in Gorleston. Our dad used to enlarge photos, and we’ve also inherited some of the old kit.
“Now, my daughter works as a radiographer at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, so you could say she takes pictures professionally too.”
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