THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
(Colonel) John Thomas North (1842-1896)
Millionaire Adventurer – Donor of Kirkstall Abbey
Ruthless opportunist, lovable rogue, heartless swindler, generous benefactor – just some of the views of John Thomas North, who made his fortune thousands of miles away in Chile but never forgot his home town of Leeds.
North was born on 30 January 1842 at 7 Bywater Street, Hunslet, a narrow street of back-to-backs in an area of railway sidings, coal staithes, and huge foundries belching out smoke. His father, a coal dealer, died when he was 14 and his widowed mother took over a pub in Grape Street, where the family lived, among huddled terraces overshadowed by the vast Airedale Foundry (all swept away since in slum clearance).
Nearby in Hunslet Road was John Fowler’s Steam Plough Works, where after an apprenticeship North found a job as a millwright, a machine engineer. He married in 1866 and began a family. Then, around 1869, Fowlers offered him the chance to go to Chile, an important export market for their booming business. He seized the opportunity for a new life. He stayed there thirteen years, soon leaving Fowlers and working for himself. He finished up a millionaire, mainly from the processing of nitrates which were then in increasing demand as a fertilizer. His multiple schemes included supplying fresh water for the arid desert area of the nitrate fields (the Atacama desert), building railways for transport, and setting up a bank to provide financial backing. A bold opportunist and gambler, he profited from the war between Peru and Chile over possession of the nitrate region by buying up concessions at a knockdown price which subsequently made him a fortune.
North returned to Britain in 1882 to promote his business interests and with his brash persona, lavish spending and gift for publicity set off a nitrate boom. People queued up to invest in the numerous companies he launched, following the dream of a quick profit. He was set on making his mark in high society, hobnobbing with royalty and the rich and famous. Known everywhere as ‘The Nitrate King’, he added ‘Colonel’ to his title by joining the local Volunteers. He bought a mansion at Avery Hill near London and spent huge sums extending and refurbishing it in spectacular style – his opulent lifestyle, fabulous parties and expensive sporting interests made him the media celebrity of his day.
But he never forgot his Leeds roots and family and was always ready to back worthy causes, making substantial donations to the Infirmary and the Yorkshire College. His most spectacular gift came about in 1889, when he heard by chance that Kirkstall Abbey and its grounds were up for auction and were at risk of being bought by a group of Manchester businessmen as an amusement park. He promptly promised to buy the Abbey himself, with extra land, and hand it all over to the citizens of Leeds. The purchase cost him £10,000. In return he was honoured as the first Freeman of the city. When he arrived in Leeds for the ceremony he was mobbed and cheered. His huge popularity led him to stand as Tory candidate for West Leeds in 1895, a campaign he fought with supreme showmanship but not the slightest concern for political issues. He lost by only a few votes.
Colonel North returned to Chile in 1889, when British nitrate concessions were under threat from the nationalist president of the time. How far he was involved in exploiting the political tensions in Chile remains an open question. In any case he saw that the future for nitrates, particularly with the development of artificial fertilizers, was looking bleak. He quietly got rid of most of his nitrate interests and diversified his investments into a wide range of businesses at home and abroad.
Suspicions and accusations of financial misconduct were beginning to beset him when in 1896 he suddenly died of a heart attack at a business meeting in London, after a lunch of oysters and porter. His death made headlines across the world. Today he is mostly forgotten (though he is the subject of a recent book) but his gift of the Abbey and its grounds – where he told people he had fun as a child, playing ‘kiss-in-the-ring’! – is there for everyone to enjoy.