From grocer’s son to billionaire businessman

Christopher Furness - a grocer's son who grew up to become a millionaire.
Christopher Furness - a grocer's son who grew up to become a millionaire.

This year marks the 121st anniversary of the award of a knighthood to Christopher Furness - the son of a Hartlepool grocer who grew up to be a millionaire businessman and politician.

“It was once said that he made Hartlepool, and Hartlepool made him. He was certainly one of the biggest employers in the North East at his death,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

Christopher Furness.

Christopher Furness.

Christopher, son of grocer John Furness and his wife Averill, was born in Hartlepool in April 1852 and grew up at 2 Lynn Street - close to where his father ran a busy grocery store.

As a teenager he entered the family firm, following in the footsteps of brothers Wilson and Alfred, but switched careers at 17 - working as a clerk for a small American produce firm.

“At 18 he was sent to Scandinavia on business. Here he ‘took advantage’ of a rupture between France and Germany to strike a great deal. As a reward, he was made a partner,” said Norman.

“There was no stopping him after that. One of his earliest successes involved setting up a transatlantic service for Thomas Furness and Co, a provision firm owned by one of his brothers.”

The service initially operated using hired vessels but, after Christopher became a partner, he purchased several steam ships from shipbuilder William Gray & Co in 1877.

“He realised it would be cheaper in the long run to buy rather than hire, and the profits of the transatlantic shipping business quickly led to much larger schemes,” said Norman.

“Indeed, in 1882 the Christopher Furness and Company was formed, with Christopher taking charge of the shipping fleet and Thomas keeping the wholesale provision merchants.

“Then, in 1891, came a merger with iron and shipbuilding firm Edward Withy and Co and, out of this amalgamation, grew the great prosperity of the Furness Line and other firms. By a series of mergers, Christopher’s firms became the main employers in Hartlepool.”

Christopher was not, however, just interested in business. Indeed, he was elected as a Liberal MP for Hartlepool in an 1891 by-election, and was re-elected the following year.

The year 1895, however, proved bitter-sweet for the businessman - for he lost his seat, but received a Knighthood instead. He was reelected again in 1900, and served until 1910.

“In 1909 he became an Honorary Freeman of West Hartlepool and in 1910 he was raised to the peerage, as Baron Furness of Grantley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire,” said Norman.

“By the time of his death in 1912 he was behind five of the largest shipbuilding works in the North of England, as well as three huge engineering concerns. He was an amazing man.”

* Christopher married Jane Annette Suggit in 1876. They had one son, Marmaduke, who was born at Brantford House, Rift House Lane, Hartlepool, in 1883. Christopher left £1million in cash after his death - almost a billion in today’s money.