THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Samson Fox (1838 – 1903)
Inventor, Industrialist, Benefactor
‘From Mill-boy to Millionaire’ was the headline when Samson Fox died in 1903. That old cliché summed up his romantic, phenomenal rise to wealth and power. But there is more to his story: he was an inventor whose innovative ideas helped transform shipping and railways across the world; a speculator who was accused of swindling thousands of innocent investors; and a hugely generous benefactor locally and nationally.
He was indeed a mill boy, following his father at age nine into the textile mills of Kirkstall where the family had moved from Bradford. But he had other ambitions: fascinated by machinery and how things work, at fifteen he was apprenticed to a firm of iron founders and tool makers in Holbeck, quickly rose to be foreman and patented some innovative improvements in tool design. In 1862 he was chosen as their representative at the great six-month International Exhibition of Industry and Art in London: a great chance to explore the latest engineering ideas and technology.
Back in Leeds he married, and with his brother set up a small tool-making firm at the Silver Cross works in Dewsbury Road, Hunslet. He travelled around, building up knowledge and making valuable contacts, particularly in Scotland and the Clyde shipyards – a preparation for his next daring step.
In 1874 he borrowed money to buy 18 acres of land from the Castleton Lodge estate at Armley, strategically placed between the railway and the canal, and set up the Leeds Forge to make ‘Best Yorkshire Iron’ for engineering, particularly marine. He persuaded his Scottish contacts to invest. Over the next decade, among his numerous inventions, he patented two which brought him fame and fortune. The first (1877) was his ‘Corrugated Flue’, which enabled steam engines to work at higher pressure so ships could go faster – the ‘greyhounds of the sea’. After rigorous trials his flue was adopted by the Navy and the great shipping lines, and production was licensed in Germany and the USA, on lucrative terms. Then, in the 1880s, he developed steel under-frames for railway wagons, lighter than before yet capable of supporting heavier loads. They sold world-wide, and in the USA Fox struck a smart deal with railway salesman ‘Diamond’ Jim Brady for manufacture in Illinois, in return for a hefty commission.
By the 1890s the Forge was at full stretch, employing some 2000 men. The money rolled in for Samson Fox, along with honours and status. But his enthusiasm for exciting new ventures led him into tricky speculation when he invested heavily in ‘water gas’, floating a company which attracted thousands of small investors at vastly inflated prices, who lost their money when the bubble burst. He denied all accusations of a swindle, and in 1897 sued Jerome K. Jerome, owner of the paper ‘Today,’ for libel. Fox won, but got just a farthing in damages, while the paper went bankrupt. Any lingering shadow was dispelled by his well-publicised public donations.
In 1885 he had moved to Harrogate with his wife Mary Ann and their remaining children – they had suffered the death of five of their nine children, so their life had had its tragedy. They lived in luxury at Grove House, with its ten live-in servants, grooms and gardeners. He patronised the arts, notably supporting the Croatian artist Vlacho Bukovac who painted many local and family portraits. He lavished money on numerous benefits for Harrogate people, including funding for the Royal Hall. Not surprisingly he was elected Mayor a record three times!
His greatest gift was to the Royal College of Music in London, which desperately needed a new building. He offered £30,000, later increased to £45,000 (over 5 million now). When the foundation stone was laid in 1890, he was the guest of honour. All his family and the great and good from Leeds and Harrogate travelled down to witness the great event, and the Leeds Forge Brass Band played. He addressed the Prince of Wales and handed him a trowel made from one of his famous flues. He got a deeply flattering royal vote of thanks. Surely a highlight in his life! His legacy lives on in the RCM‘s splendid building, where his bust stands in the entrance hall.
He died very suddenly in 1903 in Walsall where he was planning to stand for election as MP. Although he had married again after Mary Ann’s death – his new wife 33 years younger – he was buried at Woodhouse near Mary Ann and their lost children. Big and burly, magnificently bearded, he was remembered as a bluff, warm, hearty man, equally at ease in a Harrogate mansion as in a cottage in Kirkstall, where his remarkable story had begun.
Note: Samson Fox was an ancestor of the Fox acting dynasty