A Victorian Entrepreneur

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, March 2004 | Go to article overview

A Victorian Entrepreneur


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


IN these days of the world village, of the global economy, of megabuck deals between multinational conglomerates, of takeovers and asset stripping, when men and women are classified as 'human resources' and 'units of production', management is 'targeted' and the language of commerce and industry becomes increasingly rarefied, impersonal and coded, it might be worth casting a glance back at an age which carried Britain from the Industrial Revolution to its primacy as the world's leading manufacturing power.

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. …

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