Samuel Gurney

Samuel Gurney and his family were at the forefront of the fight against slavery - just one of the many battles Samuel fought during his notable life.

Gurney was born at Earlham Hall near Norwich on 18th October 1786. He then went on to marry Elizabeth Sheppard, the daughter of James Sheppard who had bought John Fothergill’s estate in Upton. When James died, the two of them went on to inherit the estate where they lived most of their lives. His older sister Elizabeth Gurney married Joseph Fry and went on to become the renowned Elizabeth Fry. Another one of his sisters Hannah married Thomas Fowell Buxton who later went on to become an MP and led the campaign against slavery after William Wilberforce’s death.

Samuel was a hugely successful banker and acquired a great deal of wealth throughout his time, although he never relinquished his Quaker beliefs. He maintained high minded principles including personal integrity and prudence with other people’s money and considered financial recklessness something to be embarrassed about. Samuel throughout his life became more and more involved in philanthropic activities.

His wealth was essential in his family’s work for good causes. His concerns were not just focused on England, but all over the world. He made important personal contribution to the development of Liberia, an African country set up in the 1820s as a home for emancipated slaves from America. He attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery convention in London and in 1843 became chairman of the convention. He also interested himself in the Niger expedition of 1841 and hosted many at his house in Upton. He became the liberal patron of the infant colony of Liberia and became treasurer of the British and Foreign School Society in 1843.

In 1849 he undertook a tour of Ireland where he made considerable gifts to poor people. In 1851 Samuel gave £1,000 (£54,000 in today’s world) to buy the territory of Gallinas near the Liberian border where there was a large slavery border which was a threat to the Liberians. A town was built on this land and called Gurney in recognition of his contribution.

In 1853 he accompanied a deputation sent to Napoleon III to express a desire for long continuance of peace and amity between England and France. On his initiative, the Poplar Hospital for Accidents, the first casualty hospital for dockworkers was opened in 1855. His wife died in 1855, after which he moved to Nice. In 1856 with his health getting worse, he sought to return home. Unfortunately he could only make it to Paris and died in a hotel in that city in 1856.

The local authorities in West Ham have recognised his charitable work and erected a memorial to him in Stratford Broadway. He is less well remembered today than his sister Elizabeth Fry and his brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton but without his practical and financial support neither would have been so successful.

Image: Samuel Gurney, Courtesy of Newham Archives

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