Mason, William Shaw (c.1774–1853), administrator and statistician, was born in 1774 or 1775 in Dublin, where his father, Henry Mason, was a tax official; nothing is known of his mother. It is not known if he was related to the Monck Masons, his contemporaries. He was educated by a Mr Carpendale, entered TCD in October 1791, and graduated BA (1796). In 1805 he and two other men were jointly appointed remembrancer or receiver of the first fruits; he was also comptroller of legacy duty in the stamp office. He still retained these posts after 1810, when he was appointed secretary to the newly created Irish records commission; he was elected MRIA (1812). One source alleges that in a mix-up between him and Henry Monck Mason (qv) the appointment of William Shaw Mason was a mistake. However that may be, Mason and his staff, including Henry Monck Mason and William Betham (qv), started work enthusiastically and perhaps over-confidently; much was attempted, but too little was completed or even systematically begun. The commission's task of reorganising, cataloguing, preserving, and publishing Ireland's hitherto scattered public records was a daunting one. Some reports and two lists of records of particular types were published by the commission, and some progress was made on preservation; William Shaw Mason seems to have been instrumental in fitting out what became known as the Record Tower at Dublin castle, and Francis Johnson (qv) was instructed to prepare plans for a new building at the Four Courts. However, it is ironic that it was only when the records housed in that building were destroyed in 1922 that the work of the record commission acquired any real importance to historians; the unpublished calendars, transcriptions, and finding lists are in some cases the only trace of lost documents. In its own day, the record commission was harshly criticised by Betham, who became its implacable enemy; in 1822 he addressed a memorandum to the lord lieutenant, attacking the commission's disorganisation, inefficiency, and costs. Later the same year there was a parliamentary inquiry into its expenses, which were reexamined in 1829 by a select committee, and in 1830 the commission was wound up. Mason was instructed to hand its papers over to the triumphant Betham, who proceeded (as Ulster King of Arms (1820–53))to plough his own furrow through the Irish records, making little use of the work already undertaken.
Mason's burdens in the early years of the record commission were increased when he was put in charge of the first censuses of Ireland (1813–15, 1821). Mason was not well qualified, even by the standards of the day, in the infant science of demography; his organisation of the complexities of the gathering of data, as well as his over-confident analysis, have been criticised by demographic historians. However, his pioneering achievements should not be underestimated; he attempted something novel and ambitious, and if the 1821 returns had survived the 1922 explosions, genealogists, if not demographers, would have had cause to be thankful for his efforts. Social and local historians acknowledge the usefulness of, and frequently quote from, three volumes of statistical accounts of various parishes of Ireland, published by Mason in 1814, 1816, and 1819; he had solicited contributions from the Church of Ireland clergy, and had intended to produce a statistical survey of the whole country, possibly envisaging it as an adjunct to the enumeration of the population. Sir Robert Peel (qv), while chief secretary, encouraged Mason to undertake the compilation of the statistical accounts, and also asked him to select, for Peel's own library, books on Ireland that would be useful in the statesman's efforts to understand the country. Mason managed to collect three hundred rare and important volumes; a catalogue of the collection, with Mason's annotations, was published privately (1823) in only fifty copies. The catalogue was long a desideratum of bibliographers, and was reproduced photolithographically in 1970; it has historical interest in its own right.
During the years when he was trying to establish new structures and procedures in the Irish records commission, Mason was clearly distracted by problems in other aspects of his career. In 1822, in an excess of reforming zeal, he refused to accept the fees from clergymen customarily paid to the remembrancer of first fruits. He campaigned on historical grounds for the revaluation of benefices which had been unexamined for over two centuries, but his appeal to government produced only a rebuke from the under-secretary. In 1823 his lack of attention to the work of the stamp office was drawn to the attention of a commission of inquiry, and in 1827 he was accused of negligence and dismissed. In 1833 the office of remembrancer was suppressed, and because his work was found to have been unsatisfactory, Mason received no compensation. When he was finally granted a pension, he regarded it as insufficient, and in retirement turned his considerable energies to lobbying for redress, though without success. His proposals for a unified public record office were ignored at the time, and it is not clear whether the record system that eventually developed bears any similarity to his scheme. Mason died 11 March 1853 at his house in Camden St., Dublin.
He married (1805) Esther Potter; they had at least two sons. Some of his papers are in the library of TCD.