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Christopher Furness

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Christopher Furness, 1st Baron Furness (1852-1912) of Christopher Furness and Co was a British businessman and Liberal politician.

1852 April 23rd. Born in West Hartlepool, Durham.

He started his career as a buyer in Thomas Furness and Co, wholesale provision merchants, a firm owned by his older brother Thomas, and became a partner two years later. Stock for the business had to be brought in by ship, and Christopher found that it would be cheaper to use their own vessels, rather than hire other peoples. Consequently, on his initiative, the firm bought several steam ships from local shipbuilder William Gray and Co in 1877.

In 1882 Christopher Furness and Co was formed and the business was split into two. Thomas kept the provision merchants, while Christopher took charge of the shipping fleet. After seven years as a partner in the shipbuilding firm of E. Withy and Co, Furness merged it with his own company in 1891, to form Furness, Withy and Co. By a series of mergers, his firms become the main employers in Hartlepool, until they finally closed in the 1980s.

Furness was also involved in politics, and was elected Member of Parliament for The Hartlepools at a by-election in 1891.

He lost the seat in 1895, but was re-elected in 1900 general election, and served until his re-election in January 1910 was declared void after an electoral petition.

He was knighted in 1895 and in 1910 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Furness, of Grantley in the West Riding of the County of Yorkshire.

In 1909 he was made an Honorary Freeman of West Hartlepool.

1876 Married Jane Annette Suggit. They had one son, Marmaduke, born in 1883. Christopher Furness died on 10 November 1912, aged 60. He was succeeded in the barony by his son Marmaduke, who in 1918 was created Viscount Furness.

1904 'FURNESS, Sir Christopher, M.P., 23, Upper Brook Street, London, W. Tunstall Court, West Hartlepool, Grantley Hall, Ripon, Yorkshire. Car: Gardner-Serpollet. Represents West Hartlepool in the House of Commons, and is one of the most prominent figures in the shipping world. Hobbies: Yachting, shooting, golfing, driving. Clubs: Reform, Devonshire, Royal Thames Yacht.' [1]

1912 November 10th. Died


1912 Obituary [2]

We regret to announce that Lord Furness died at 4.15 yesterday morning. He had been in ill-health since September, when, on the advice of his doctors, he resigned office as chairman of Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company (Limited). Soon afterwards he went to his seat, Grantley Hall, near Ripon, for a rest, but his health grew worse and for some time no hope had been entertained of his recovery.

Christopher Furness was born on April 23, 1852, and was the seventh son of the late John Furness, who was at one time a coal trimmer and subsequently laid the foundations of a grocery and provision business in West Hartlepool which was afterwards developed by his sons into one of the biggest of its kind in the North of England. Christopher, after receiving an ordinary education, was put to the family business at an early age, and by the time he was 18 had so far given proof of his rare commercial aptitudes that he was sent out to Sweden as buyer for his firm. This was in 1870, and whilst he was at Gothenburg he heard for the first time of the outbreak of hostilities between France and Prussia. Learning that the French fleet was blockading the mouth of the Elbe, he saw his opportunity to make a corner in foodstuffs over an extensive area ; he entered into a number of very large contracts, and subsequently realized to such good advantage that he is reported to have cleared a profit of between £50,000 and £60,000 for his firm. The association of his family with the shipping trade in numerous contracts for the provisioning of seagoing ships, and also no doubt the experience gained in chartering steamers for the importation of their own supplies, turned Mr. Furness's thoughts to the shipping industry, and he bought a number of boats, which formed the nucleus of the famous Furness Line of steamers, whose flag has since been rendered familiar in every navigable part of the globe.

Business Career.

In 1877 he severed his connexion with the family business, having at this time, it is stated, a capital of fully £100,000. In 1891 he founded the first of the larger undertakings associated with his name, Furness, Withy, and Company (Limited), by the amalgamation of the Furness Line of steamers with the business of Edward Withy and Co, iron and steel ship builders and repairers, of West Hartlepool. The share capital of the new company amounted to two millions sterling, and Mr. Furness became the first chairman. Under his direction this great undertaking was still further extended by the acquisition of a controlling interest in the shipbuilding firm of Richardsons, Westgarth and Co (Limited), marine and electrical engineers and boilermakers at Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland, and in Irvine's Shipbuilding and Dry Docks Co (Limited). Furness, Withy and Co also acquired substantial interests in the Chesapeake and Ohio Steamship Company (Limited) and the Manchester Liners (Limited), of which companies Mr. Furness also became the chairman.

In 1898 he was associated with Mr. W. C. Gray, of West Hartlepool, in the purchase of the Moor Steel and Iron Works, Stockton-on-Tees, the Stockton Malleable Iron Works, and the West Hartlepool Steel and Iron Works, which were converted into a single undertaking, the South Durham Steel and Iron Co (Limited).

In the following year he acquired by purchase from Messrs. Barings another big business, which he converted into the Weardale Steel, Coal and Coke Co (Limited). Another of his undertakings, the Cargo Fleet Iron Co (Limited), was considerably extended in 1904, the share capital being enlarged to a million sterling. A couple of years ago he acquired the interest of the late Sir Charles Mark Palmer in Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Co (Limited), where he signalized his appointment as chairman of the company by acquiring for Palmers a lease, with an option of purchase, of the new graving dock at Hebburn-on-Tyne belonging to Robert Stephenson and Co (Limited).

Another of his companies was the Broomhill Collieries (Limited), formed in 1900 to take over the Broomhill Coal Company (Limited), the Radcliffe Coal Company (Limited), the steamers of the Broomhill Shipping Company (Limited), and the whole of the debentures of the Warkworth Harbour Commissioners. He was also one of the principal owners of Wingate and Easington Collieries. He was a director of the North Eastern Railway Company (Limited), and one of the largest proprietors of the North Mail, a Liberal halfpenny daily paper in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Besides his vast financial commitments in the North of England he was interested in several undertakings in other parts of England, and among his other directorships was the vice-chairmanship of the Metropolitan Railway Company.

Personal Characteristics.

Nobody could be closely associated with Lord Furness, either in business or public life, without being impressed by the restless energy and insatiable desire for thoroughness which he carried into every task to which he set his hand. A new invention or a new process of manufacture always found him on the look-out, and plant and machinery, however recent in installation, were unhesitatingly scrapped the moment they appeared out of date or inferior to those at the disposal of business competitors. His presence at the head of an undertaking usually made itself felt in a series of drastic changes and improvements, and if the way to financial success was sometimes long and arduous, at any rate the fault never lay in a lack of initiative and enterprise. He brought something of the same largeness of outlook to his treatment of the relations of capital and labour. His address on mining unrest at the annual meeting of the Broomhill Collieries (Limited) in September, 1911, was a characteristically courageous attempt to reconcile the interests of employers and employed in face of an industrial crisis. But perhaps the best example of his methods was the famous co-partnery scheme which he put forward in the autumn of 1908. In the course of an address on "Industrial Peace and Industrial Efficiency," delivered before a large gathering of representatives of the shipbuilding and allied trade unions at West Hartlepool on October 7, 1908, he made two definite offers ; either the trade unions could take over as going concerns his firm's shipyards at West Hartlepool on a valuation, or his employees could become limited co-partners in the undertaking. This second offer, which was ultimately accepted, enabled the men to take up shares in Furness, Withy, and Co. (Limited), to be paid for by a deduction of 5 per cent. from their weekly wages. The shares carried guaranteed interest at the rate of 4 per cent., plus their proportionate share of all profits made by the company after the payment of 5 per cent. to the Ordinary shareholders. The scheme also involved the establishment of a works council composed of equal numbers of representatives of the men and the management, with the recognition of the trade union officials. On the employees' side there was a strict obligation that there should in no circumstances be a strike, and the firm undertook not to lock out the men. The result of the experiment was the payment of 9 per cent. on the limited shares, in addition to full wages for the 12 months, and there was every prospect of a continuance of full work, the firm now being in a strong position for securing orders by reason of its ability to guarantee delivery of ships by a fixed date. There was, however, much trade union opposition to the new scheme, and when in April, 1910, the co-partners were balloted on the question of a continuance of the experiment the proposal was rejected by 598 votes to 492. Some of the Labour leaders did not conceal their satisfaction at this result.

As a Politician.

In politics he was a consistent Liberal, following Mr. Gladstone faithfully in his Irish policy and Mr. Lloyd George in his budget of 1909. At the General Election of 1886 his native constituency of the Hartlepools was won for Unionism by the late Mr. T. Richardson, who had formerly held the seat as a Liberal but had seceded on the introduction of Mr. Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill. Mr. Richardson died in 1891, and at the ensuing by-election Mr. Furness defeated another well-known Hartlepool shipbuilder, the late Sir William Gray, converting a minority of 912 votes in 1886 into a majority of 298. In the general election of the following year he was opposed by another fellow-townsman, the late Sir (then Mr.) Thomas Richardson, whom he defeated by the narrow margin of 76 votes. Home Rule was, however, by no means popular in the Hartlepools, and it scarcely came as a surprise when in 1895 Sir Thomas Richardson turned the tables on his old opponent, defeating him by 81 votes. In 1898 Sir Christopher Furness — as he now was — came forward in the Liberal interest to contest a vacancy created in the representation of York City by the death of Sir Frank Lockwood, who had at the election of 1895 come second on the poll to Mr. J. G. Butcher, K.C. On this occasion Sir Christopher had a redoubtable opponent in Lord Charles Beresford, who won the seat by the narrow majority of 11 votes. In 1900 Sir Christopher again stood for the Hartlepools, and was returned with a majority of 1,876 to his credit, one result of which was that he was unopposed in 1906. In January, 1910, when he was opposed by Mr. W. G. Howard Gritten, he carried the seat by a majority of 777, but was unseated on petition. His elevation to the peerage as Baron Furness of Grantley a month later had been generally anticipated, and was well received throughout the North of England.

Lord Furness was a Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for the county of Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire. He was lord of the manor of Cundall and Grantley in the county of York, and owned about 30,000 acres. He married in 1876 Jane Annette, daughter of the late Mr. Henry Suggitt, of Brierton. He is succeeded in the title by the only child of the marriage, the Hon. Marmaduke Furness, who was born in 1883 and married in 1904 Daisy, daughter of Mr. G. J. H. Hogg. Lord Furness's nephew, Mr. Stephen W. Furness, M.P., succeeded him in the representation of the Hartlepools.

The funeral will take place at Winksley, near Ripon, on Wednesday. A memorial service will be held in London, particulars of which will be announced later.

We are asked to state that since the last public engagement of Lord Furness on July 27, although he was suffering great bodily pain, he insisted upon visits from responsible heads of his numerous concerns with whom he kept in close touch until a week ago, when his illness assumed its more serious form. Throughout the whole course of his illness Lord Furness exhibited the most conspicuous courage and his mental faculties continued clear and alert until, as the end drew near, unconsciousness supervened.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Motoring Annual and Motorist’s Year Book 1904
  2. The Times of on November 11th 1912