A Victorian entrepreneur.
The subject of this short biography began his life in an England that was still largely rural, a country of small towns each with its own constellation of villages connected by roads mired so deep in mud in winter that they became impassable. The country night was one of an almost impenetrable darkness, accentuated by the occasional faint pinprick of light. He lived into the age of railways and gas lighting, a new England which he had played his part in bringing about. When he was born, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, the loss of the American Colonies was a recent event and Englishmen lived in fear of contagion from revolutionary Europe.
He was born in 1790, at Parkgate Farm, Winlaton, Northumberland, now all but absorbed into Greater Newcastle. His ancestors had emigrated to England from Scotland in the previous century, at a time of great religious upheaval. Evidence suggests that they were Catholics. Later members of the family became members of the Church of England, though with High Church sympathies. By the time the subject of this article was born good Scottish Catholic Christian names (the same recurs generation after generation in the eldest son of the family) had given way to more solidly English ones.
His father died very soon after he was born. The boy's mother must have been a woman of character, whose family were connected with the ironworks of Crowley, Millington and Co. of Winlaton. She supervised his education until, at the age of ten, he was sent to the Reverend R. Simpson at Tanfield, head of what was then thought of as one of the best boarding schools in the North of England, before returning home to take over the family property. There appears to have been no question of completing his education at University. As Catholics his forefathers would have had to go to Europe to do so. There is no record to suggest that they did. In any case he was needed at home.
He was clearly an active and intelligent young man and soon became involved with his paternal grandfather and uncle in the ownership of the Derwenthaugh Brickworks, Collieries and Ammonia Works. He became their sole owner on his uncle's death. Under his direction the works expanded to include coke making, manure works, malt houses and bone mills. During this time he continued to farm, increasing the acreage under his control by purchase or renting. His energy and perseverance enabled him, before long, to acquire the mineral rights at Blaydon where he sank Blaydon Main Colliery. To do this he had to dig deep into his own pockets. The names given to the pits - 'The Speculation', 'The Hazard' speak for themselves; clearly no venture capital was to be expected from outside sources.
Luck was with him. In addition to the famous seams of good quality coal which ran throughout the royalties leased by him, valuable seams of cannel coal and fireclay were discovered. Side by side with his mining operations he extended his activities to the production of firebacks and other articles for use in building operations where resistance to great heat was required, notably blast furnaces. It says something for his energy that he succeeded in keeping all these operations under his personal control while finding time for laboratory experiments and, later, extensive correspondence with industrialists and scientists in Europe. He was clearly a man who believed in keeping ahead of the times. He was known as the 'father of the fireclay, coke and artificial manure manufacture' in the North of England, and was the first to use fireclay in the manufacture of sewage pipes, a venture which he began after studying epidemiology. At the time of his death fireclay pipes and fittings were in almost universal use, having replaced the old-fashioned iron pipes, as populations burgeoned during the nineteenth century. It is impossible to say how much this innovation might have contributed towards helping to check the spread of major epidemics in the overcrowded cities of the time. Fireclay was also used to manufacture gas retorts, which were cheaper and more durable than the old iron retorts and thus allowed gas companies to operate more efficiently. On the mining and marketing of fireclay alone he became a rich man.
The ordinary coal from Blaydon was used in the manufacture of high quality coke for smelting and refining purposes. Produced under his own patent, it was said to be unrivalled for its lasting and heat producing qualities. It was exported throughout Europe, notably to the lead mining districts of Spain, where it was used for the extraction of silver.
It was, however, with cannel coal that the mine registered its greatest success. It came from a pit which was named 'The Content', which shows how far Blaydon had come from the days of 'The Speculation' and 'The Hazard'. Cannel coal is especially valuable for its lighting qualities. True to the adage that 'a prophet is without honour in his own country', there was no interest shown when it was first advertised in England, though a small market was found in Scotland. The first ship's master contracted to take the cargo there at first flatly refused to carry 'they stanes', astonishingly for the master of a vessel operating in and out of Newcastle. In Europe, however, and in Latin America, sales prospered, Paris, St Petersburg, Dresden and Buenos Aires being among the cities the gas for whose street lighting was produced by cannel coal from Blaydon. It was to get his coal across the Atlantic more cheaply that he was instrumental in building the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, getting the project through despite strong opposition from landowners in the North West. A similar mixture of altruism and self-interest also enabled him to play a leading part in building the Scotswood Road. The ubiquity of Blaydon products was such that the old saying that a traveller visiting any city in the known world would be sure to find 'a rat, a Scotchman and a Newcastle grindstone' had 'and Blaydon coke' added to it. In 1878 his achievements were recognised by the award of a gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition.
As if this were not enough he remained actively involved in agriculture all his life, being a landowner and landlord himself, and renting land from others such as the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Durham, in addition to the farms which came to him with the royalties and wayleaves he negotiated for his mining operations. He was the first in the North of England to use bone meal as a fertiliser, both from his own manufactories and others, though he had to overcome a good deal of local resistance first, based on the belief that the bonemeal was produced by emptying churchyard graves. Bone meal was especially valuable as a fertiliser for turnips as winter feed for cattle and it was for stock rearing that he achieved his reputation, the Prince Consort being among those who bought breeding stock from him.
He was a noted judge of pedigree cattle and played an active part in the formation of the Royal Agricultural Society. His feet were planted very firmly on the ground and his instincts remained those of the practical farmer, not averse to experimentation but content to leave 'fancy farming' to those who could afford it. His undeviating rule appears to have been to breed high quality pedigree stock and to feed them from his own resources. Intensive farming with a high content of artificial feeds and fertiliser was not for him. His invariable comment, on being told that so-and-so had made exceptionally high prices with his cattle at a sale was, 'And how much did it cost to feed them?' For him good husbandry, which meant, among other things, planting hedges and trees as shelter and shade for his stock, was an end in itself. Above all it depended on careful and sympathetic management of the soil. Since his wealth came from below as well as above its surface he presumably had a better appreciation of it than most. Though not an innovator to rival Coke, Berwick, Bates or Culley he was, in his day and age, described as an equal benefactor to agriculture. As with his industrial interests he corresponded widely with the leading experts of the day in Europe about farming and land management.
In politics he was described as a 'Whig of the old school', meaning that he was of the party of Lords Grey, Melbourne and Durham. Durham and Grey were neighbours and there were no doubt interlocking obligations between them, though the former were grandees and landowners on a scale far above his as well as active politicians, which he was not. He is said to have been something of a radical at heart. To balance this he remained a staunch member of the Church of England and a firm believer in the indissoluble union between Church and State. He was active in the support of religious education and on the boards of trusts connected with it. His pastimes were game shooting and breeding gundogs and he used to wait impatiently each year for the opening of the grouse shooting season on 12 August and the start of partridge shooting on 1 September. He was a good shot and a blackcock, killed outright at extreme range when out shooting with the Duke of Northumberland when in his eighties, was for many years exhibited in Keilder Castle. He enjoyed messing about in boats, owning a 'trim built' wherry, the Saint Agnes, which became something of a household word locally and employing a well known family, Harry Glasper and his two brothers, as watermen. He was a Justice of the Peace and a Magistrate and earned a reputation for fairness. He is said to have had 'little law but much commonsense and kindness'. He occasionally quarrelled with his fellow justices over what he described as the 'quirks and quiddities' of the law.
He personally negotiated every contract signed by him and would inspect his mines and properties every day on his way to his office in Newcastle. Employment under him was regarded as a job for life. He looked after his many employees and their families in sickness and in retirement. When over forty he married a brewer's daughter, Miss Mary Taylor of Swalwell. They had eight children, of whom seven survived. He was a sociable man and a popular figure in Newcastle, fond of a gossip on the Quayside or at the Exchange on Sandhill. He is described as a man 'who went through life with his eyes and ears open' and this socialising was undoubtedly part of it.
In person he was of hale and vigorous in appearance and seems to have been quite indefatigable, spending much of his day on horseback, riding round his properties, to within a few days of his death. His manner was sometimes a little brusque, though a letter written to his prospective daughter-in-law on the occasion of her engagement to his eldest son wants for nothing in warmth and tenderness of expression. The fact that she was the daughter of an old banker friend who had died recently clearly made him especially happy. He was quick-witted and a good raconteur. The Paris Gold Medal apart he neither sought nor received any honours, notwithstanding his friendship with the Earl of Durham and others, and his very real contributions to industry and agriculture in the North of England. One suspects he regarded them rather as he regarded 'fancy farming', not for him, and was content to be as he was, leaving his achievements to speak for themselves. He was rightly proud of them, secure in the knowledge of his Scottish antecedents but considering himself a Northumbrian through and through. If anyone can be said to have lived up to the family motto Ora et Labora--the same as that of the Benedictine Order--he did.
He died quite suddenly at the age of 89 in 1879. His obituary covered two and a half columns of the Newcastle Daily Journal which concluded that 'there is every probability of a long continuance, by members of the family, of the various works so long and successfully created and conducted by their founder'. In two generations it had vanished, proof, if it were needed, of the truth of the saying that fortunes are made and lost in three generations. He seems to have had enough energy for several, and that perhaps was the nub of the problem: he exhausted the family genes by his endeavours and his progeny by his example. He was described as a 'thorough gentleman', in the eighteenth-century sense of the term, meaning that he treated high and low alike, without distinction or affectation. Later generations tended to confuse it with gentility. Unlike him they all went to university, his granddaughters included, to Cambridge; food for thought, perhaps, in the current debate on higher education.
His name was George Heppel Ramsay. He was my great-great-grandfather. I do not think his life has any particular lesson for the vastly changed circumstances of today, except perhaps in one respect: his accessibility. He was immediate, approachable, always close to hand. He had an identity, his own, not one projected by the media. There was clearly nothing impersonal or remote about his management of affairs. It was very much hands on, witness his invariable rule of negotiating contracts himself and the personal interest he took in his employees. He had no qualifications except boundless energy, courage, a capacity to take risks and an enquiring mind. He achieved what he did by unremitting hard work. He operated on nothing like the scale of later generations of Northern industrialists, who made fortunes from shipbuilding and armaments. Whether by luck or judgement he seems to have achieved an industrial Golden Mean. In the opinion of all, he was a model employer.
Unlike his heirs he never left the North East of England and there is no evidence that he ever wished to or was tempted to speculate or invest abroad. Yet the products of his mines and factories were exported throughout the world. He took no holidays. What leisure he had was employed in local pursuits, his only known extravagance being the Saint Agnes. He appears never to have expected anything from the government in the way of subsidies, inducements, tax breaks or start-up funds. The temper of those times was different and he had no need to, a reminder how far two World Wars, social reforms and a managed economy have changed the landscape since his time. If his family links with Newcastle bankers and brewers stood him in good stead that was normal practice for the time, indeed for all time. He provided steady employment and the list of his benefactions was long. He thoroughly deserved his long obituary, the tone of which is almost adulatory in parts, even allowing for the deferential standards of the time.
What comes through the hyperbole is the portrait of a humane man, though one who knew his own mind and spoke it, perhaps a little forcefully at times. It is unlikely that he was the sort of man to suffer fools gladly, though much would have depended upon the fool. Within the relatively narrow compass of Northumberland and Durham--as it must seem to us today--it might even be said that he was a great one. He was, above all, utterly self-reliant, prepared to 'win or lose it at all'. But he was not unique; there were men like him all over England at that time, though perhaps not all enjoyed his reputation for benevolence and altruism. They lived when the 'cold shade of the aristocracy' still covered much of the land and they made it rich. Their heirs today are men of very different stamp, operating in a different world. It is questionable how far the reputation they leave behind them will equal his or whether their obituaries will read half so well a century and a quarter later.
Sir Allan Ramsay was Ambassador to Lebanon, Sudan and Morocco.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2004|
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