A rambling by Malcolm Bell 2016
The recent celebrations of our Wigton Friends’ School centenaries of various kinds caused me to read the 1815 to 1915 History. It contains many fascinating insights into the complex and full life of our first hundred years recently excellently précised by Arnold Snowball but also, the reason for this short note, clues almost in passing to a history of a modest man that is almost totally lost and which I find extremely exciting and important as part of the social history of the nineteenth century, the century in which Britain changed the world. Brookfield with its Quaker founders were integral within those changes. “We” were not just a remote country school but in fact part of a remarkable web of enterprise, vision and creativity with a social vision from which much should be learned today. Who is all this about?
The key is first that after preliminary approvals from Yearly Meeting a plan was established and appeals for funding made. Locally around £1200-00 was raised and another £2800-00 from “Friends in other parts”. Who were they? On page 19 a new name appears, a Mr Thomas Richardson of London. He gave two valuable globes, a telescope and then, under the nom de plume of “anonymous” he cleared the school’s debts on more than one occasion. It would seem that he was the source of the balance foundation funding. Later Mr Richardson is critical in the process of buying land to move to Brookfield and makes several very substantial gifts which together amount to £1000-00. Opposite page 22 we find a picture of our patron.
It is clear that he is the man without whom neither the original foundation at Highmoor nor the new one at Brookfield would ever have happened nor survived. So who was he?
By the time he appears in our life he was about forty years old and immensely rich. He started life in Darlington the son of a brush maker and served an apprenticeship as a grocer. This may well have taught him the basics of mathematics and trade that would prepare him well for his future profession. Darlington at that time was a strong Quaker centre and young Thomas and his family were members of the Meeting there. That was lucky because also in that Meeting were the powerful and rich Pease family, headed by the great Edward Pease. “Great”? Certainly; he owned a great deal of the Tees Valley and developed the coal mines in that area which fed the hunger of London desperate for fuel. His son Joseph Pease led the family investment in railways and importantly became the first Quaker MP, and friend of Thomas of course. Edward Pease’s problems soon became that of transport. Over the early decades of the 1800s his mines produced much more coal than horse drawn carts could manage over rough country roads. At this time however he and his fellow directors were developing the docks and river entrance for hugely growing shipping traffic.
Old man Pease must have seen something very special in our young Thomas and gave him the Stage-Coach fare to go to London, one guinea pocket money and a letter of introduction to a bank – a Quaker bank of course – in Lombard Street. There he prospered and married Martha Beeby from Allonby (our Allonby) who was working as a maid for one of the partners. How I wonder did she find her way to London?
Then, in the first decade of the 1800s Thomas teamed up with a John Gurney and a John Overend to create a completely new kind of Bank. This was called “Bill Broking” which is not important for our story except that they traded in the very Quakerly manner of simply charging commission and a share of the profits on the money that they loaned out. (Not quite like that but it gives a flavour of their business). They called their Bank Richardson, Gurney and Overend. It quickly became the biggest in the world and established London as the world centre of financial dealing. It should be said that the Gurney family were already moderate bankers in Norwich.
Thomas and Martha built a house in Allonby near her home. It remains there today. Actually it is a house in the middle and had on either side two smaller houses for those in need in the community. This cements Thomas’s connection with Wigton and his recognition of the need of better schooling in the area thus he funded the Wigton enterprise. So, we need also to remember to be grateful to the Beeby family for making that connection for us, they are still there in Allonby and still have aspects of the Richardson house in their care.
About this time many seismic events were happening in England. Goldsworthy Gurney, a distant cousin of Thomas’s partner, was working on developing steam powered road coaches that some years later lead briefly to an omnibus service from Bath to London, the first in the world and although short lived were very successful. Some important technical features of these vehicles were later to be found also in George Stephenson’s railway locomotives. Thomas became convinced of the value of steam for locomotion.
At a colliery in the Tees valley another young man was working on locomotives running on rails. In parallel Mr Pease and his partners were becoming desperate to solve their now huge transport problem over the hills and along the steep river sides from his mines to the new docks at the end of the Tees valley. They planned to build a canal. That was going to be slow to build and require large investment and risk. They explored several kinds of railways (in the early days they covered a range of types from simply being boards laid end to end along the wheel ruts of normal carts to poles, like rails, with one of several ways of keeping the wheels on the poles including the obvious flanges to guide pegs and others, plain iron strips laid down or most promising, and expensive, cast metal rails with side fences to keep the wheels in place). All hauled by horses of course. The debate went on for some years and many famous engineers were called in for advice and guidance. Richardson, Gurney and Overend were also called in for their opinions.
Thomas was keen to try steam and he met the young man building colliery engines, George Stephenson of course, to see his work with locomotives. George was already in the North famous by this time as the inventor of the miner’s lamp – months before Humphrey Davy invented his version. In gratitude the local miners gave George a prize of £1000-00 and everyone in the area became a “Geordie” (according to some). With Thomas; John Gurney and Joseph Pease, were impressed. The first serious step for railways changing the world was taken. Thomas Richardson backed building the Stockton and Darlington railway with his own money and was the biggest share holder.
This was all happening, after Highmoor had opened, up to 1825 when the railway opened. It was also when plans were being made to move to Brookfield. Thomas must have been riding, how else, back and forth from Darlington to Allonby on a very regular basis and seen the land often and then seeing it for sale invested accordingly. Tough people.
But, let me take you back a step for a moment. To build his locomotives for the S&D railway George Stephenson at this time just an employee at the mine needed to set up his own factory. He had his £1000-00 prize but his new locomotive works needed £3000-00. Richardson, Gurney and Overend made him a loan of £2000-00. Notice that this was a loan, not a gift. At the same time Thomas was gifting well towards £5000-00 to Wigton School for Highmoor, the debts and now the building of Brookfield. More was invested in building Brookfield than in building the world’s first purpose built railway engine factory!
Soon afterwards Thomas retired from business and built a house in Great Ayton, after renting one there to be near his parents. Sadly he and Sarah Beeby had no children but he clearly retained his keen interest in eduction. Conseqently he again gifted generously towards building another Friends’ boarding school in Great Ayton plus a day school for the children of the village.
Thomas made many more gifts to the school including substantial shareholdings in the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Apart from money, Thomas brought other gifts to the school in the form of support and friends. The sister of John Gurney was Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer and philanthropist who is believed to have visited the Allonby house and so inevitably our school. What a gift she must have brought to the children in what she had to say. John Dalton was also a colleague of Thomas and became involved in the school, gifting considerably, but more modest sums that Thomas of course, and making at least one formal inspection.
So, Thomas Richardson, thank you for making our heritage possible, you gave us a great gift of a school and its special culture. You gave to me the environment of the first seventeen years of my life and, the Quaker community anchored in it, a philosophy of life that has served me well and supported me in many dark times.
These notes were prepared from anecdotes from Wigton Old Scholars, also
“A History of Wigton School 1815 to 1915” published by WOSA
from extracts for the Great Ayton Website
“The Stockton and Darlington Railway” K. Hoole pub David and Charles 1975 and many other sources including Wikipedia.
Post Script for completeness.
Richardson Gurney and Overend sold out to another group of Bankers, although some next generation Gurneys remained. Not Quakers and cast perhaps more in the mould of modern bankers they drove the business hard leading to a total collapse in 1866. There was an overwhelming run on the bank and Lombard Street was jammed with dense crowds and coaches for several days. This was the biggest bankruptcy in the world to date and caused a huge hike in the bank rate to record levels not seen since the South Sea Bubble and over two hundred other companies failed as a consequence. The financial impact was long lasting and profound on the entire British economy.
Fortunately none of the founder partners Thomas Richardson, John Gurney nor John Overend lived to see it.