Thomas Stuart Kennedy (1841-1894)
Engineer, Mountaineer, Music Lover

THOMAS STUART KENNEDYThere was plenty of conspicuous wealth on show in Leeds in the mid nineteenth century. The entrepreneurs who had built Leeds’ great industries, like Kitson, Gott, Marshall, Fairbairn, often from humble backgrounds themselves, passed their fortunes on to the next generation, who grew up with wealth and privilege and could indulge their expensive passions. Thomas Kennedy was one of this favoured group, and his story still resonates.

 He was born in Lancashire in 1841, the son of Peter Kennedy from Glasgow, one of the many enterprising Scots who left their homeland in the early nineteenth century to seek their fortune: he had settled in Feldkirch in Austria, where he established a lucrative textile business. He retired in his forties with a substantial income. He admired the education system in Austria (where he reported all his workforce could read and write, unlike in Britain) and the high standard of European technological training, unavailable here. So, when Thomas was 15, interested in everything mechanical, he was sent to Geneva and Hanover to study engineering.

 A year later he was apprenticed to Sir Peter Fairbairn, his uncle (by marriage), at the booming Wellington Foundry in Leeds, which made machinery primarily for the textile trade, but also cranes and other heavy equipment. He spent six years learning the business in Britain and Europe before being taken on as a partner, responsible for the machine department and in charge of up to two thousand men. Peter Fairbairn was another talented Scottish incomer, who had made his fortune in Leeds (knighted after playing host to Queen Victoria on her visit to open the Town Hall). After his death his son Andrew and Thomas ran the Foundry together.

Thomas had time and money to pursue his sporting interests: riding and hunting; polo (he belonged to the exclusive Hurlingham Club); and above all mountaineering. This was a time when wealthy young men (and women) were discovering the thrills and challenges of climbing in the Alps. Contemporary photographs show intrepid British climbers, in everyday clothes and with minimal equipment, tackling terrifying ascents. The prestigious Alpine Club was founded in London in 1857, and Thomas was a founder member.  In 1862, with two others, he was the first to conquer the Dent Blanche, one of the most difficult of the summits, and he made a brave attempt to climb the Matterhorn. Climbing and walking in the mountains remained a constant pleasure.

In 1865, Thomas married Clara Thornton, daughter of a wealthy Kent millowner, in Canterbury Cathedral. They shared a love of music and, it seems, of romantic architecture. The following year Thomas commissioned the distinguished architect Edward Welby Pugin, known for his Gothic churches, to design a huge, elaborate house for them in a country setting in Meanwood. He produced a fantastical design, with gables, gargoyles and soaring chimneys. Known first as Carr House, then Meanwood Towers, it still survives, peeping above the tree-tops, but converted now into flats, its chimneys reduced, hemmed in by modern housing. It was a grand family house, but there were to be no children.

Thomas and Clara were both keen amateur musicians and Clara had taken up the organ, so Thomas had the idea of commissioning a full-scale organ for her – an ambitious, expensive, romantic project. In 1866, with his old friend, the physician (Sir)Thomas Clifford Allbutt, Thomas visited the organ works of the famous Schulze brothers in Paulinzelle, Germany, and Edmund Schulze agreed to build a ‘house’ organ to Thomas’s specification. Letters flew to and fro over the next two years, while Thomas’s ideas changed and developed, until in 1869 the organ parts were tenderly transported to Meanwood, and Edmund Schulze arrived to spend several months installing the massive, complex organ in the new organ house – a picturesque wooden building large enough to seat 800 (no trace of it now). The famous organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley was persuaded to give the first recital, but insisted that only the Kennedys and Dr Allbutt should be there! Over the next few years Clara played the organ for her own pleasure and for guests – while Meanwood people listened outside – but sadly she became too ill to play. Meanwhile the organ was deteriorating, and in 1877 Thomas had to sell it.

Thomas retired in 1882, on the strength of a huge inheritance from his father. He and Clara moved to Wetherby, where he kept a stud of horses and had his own private engineering workshop. He died in 1894 aged 53, after years of heart trouble, while Clara lived another 18 years. Their magnificent organ, after a brief period in Harrogate, was resold and donated to St Bartholomew’s Church at Armley where it remains today, one of the city’s musical treasures.

Eveleigh Bradford
January 2014