Samuel Gurney (1786 - 1856) - Forest Gate's most influential resident

Monday 4 December 2017

We have written, in passing, frequently about Samuel Gurney - who has probably been Forest Gate's most influential (both locally and nationally) resident. And here we touched on his literal and metaphorical monumental legacy.

This article presents a biography of the man, himself.

He was born on 18 October 1786 in Earlham Hall, Norfolk. The buildings - see photo - now constitute part of the University of East Anglia.

Earlham Hall - the family seat - today,
 as part of the University of East Anglia
The Gurney family can be traced back to the Norman Conquest, when ancestors were given areas of Norfolk as part of William 1's English control and pacification process.

The family had lived in Earlham Hall, as tenants, for over half a century before Samuel was born. Sixteen years before his birth, they established a local Norfolk bank - Gurney's.

As Quakers, the family were denied access to many of the traditional routes of the sons of the rich and famous - university, the army, some professions etc - but not banking. Like the Jewish community, many members were almost forced into the looked-down upon (by the upper class) fields of commerce and banking in order to make a living.

In 1800, aged 14, the young Gurney was placed in the counting house of his brother-in-law, Joseph Fry, in St Mildred's Court, Poultry in the City. Joseph was married to Samuel's older sister, Elizabeth - the prison reformer.  The "favour" by Joseph to Samuel was later returned - see later.

Samuel Gurney (1786 - 1856)
In 1807 Gurney joined the firm of Richardson and Overend, which, over the course of the next few years, became the most significant retail bank in England.

The following year, Samuel married Elizabeth, daughter of James Sheppard of Ham House (which was to become the family seat and provide the grounds 65 years later for West Ham Park - see here). Samuel inherited and moved in to the property on the death of his father-in-law (in the days before the Married Women's Property Act) in 1812.

Samuel and Elizabeth had two children by the time they took possession of Ham House and set about making alterations to it, that made it a Georgian house of distinction. At the time it had about a dozen live-in servants.

Ham House, pre- destruction
In 1809 he borrowed money from his father and father-in-law and bought into the bank in which he was working and had it re-branded as Overend, Gurney and Co.

During the financial crisis of 1825 his bank lent money to a number of other London banks in temporary financial difficulties. For the next 30 years it was to be the largest discounting house in the world. Thus, Gurney became known as 'the bankers' banker' and many firms began to deposit money with his institution in preference to the Bank of England.

Having impressively stamped his mark on the banking world, Gurney devoted much of the rest of his life to his two main passions - land acquisition and disposal in Forest Gate and a variety of (even today) impressively liberal philanthropic endeavours.


Chronologically, the philanthropic endeavours came first. They are worthy of - and have been recorded in - many histories. For brevity's sake, the more significant of them were:
  • Supporting, financially, his sister Elizabeth, the prison reformer and brother-in-law Joseph Fry - who had kick started his career. The Frys were hit in the financial crises of the mid 1820's and were forced to sell their grand house in Plashet - now host to Plashet Park and the borough's registration offices. Gurney rented them Cedar House, next to his own home of Ham House, in Portway. (This later became home to the Territorial Army - ironically for a property owned by pacifist Quakers).
Elizabeth Fry - reading to
prisoners in Newgate Prison
  • Supported another brother-in-law, Edward Buxton and his father Fowell Buxton - in the anti-slavery movement. He attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 - see picture (in National Portrait Gallery) - below, and was for a while chairman of the organisation.
Gurney, front row, far left at the 1840
 World Anti-Slavery Convention

  • Played a significant part in helping to established the African state of Liberia, as a home for slaves freed from Europe and America. Such was his contribution to the establishment to the country, that he had a town named after him there.
  • Was a staunch opponent of capital punishment; and was threatened with prosecution himself for refusing to prosecute a man who forged his signature, knowing that the result would be capital punishment for the offender.
  • Was patron of two non-conformist British and Foreign Society Schools (see here for details) in Stratford: one for boys and another for girls. He left an annuity of £150 - c£15,000 today - for the future development of the two schools in his will. This passed to West Ham School Board, on its formation - and now rests with Newham Council.
  •  Was the national treasurer for the non- conformist British and Foreign Schools Society from 1843, until his death in 1856. He left the Society £5,000 (c £500,000 today), on his death.
Samuel Gurney in 1840

  • Although a Quaker, he was non-sectarian in his approach to education. So, he also supported Church of England schools. In 1853 he donated land on the corner of Woodgrange Road and Forest Street to build Emmanuel (later St Saviours) National School.
  • Toured Ireland in 1849 and made many donations to those affected by the Potato HUnger of that decade.
  • Established the Poplar Hospital for Accidents in 1853, to look after injured dock workers, in the first instant.
  • In 1856, his will gifted £800 - c £78,000 today - for the "maintenance and winding up of clocks in public places" in Forest Gate, including one to be erected on Forest Gate Congregational Church. Since 1860 the income has been given to West Ham, now Newham, Council.

Local land acquisition and disposal

Having inherited the area of what is now West Ham Park from his father-in-law in 1812, Gurney was quiet on the local land acquisition front until his effective retirement from his successful banking career.

His transactions and their subsequent disposals, however, have shaped the area, making what is recognisably Forest Gate, today.

in 1851 he bought the 131 acres of Hamfrith Farm/estate for £17,710 - c £2,250,000, at today's prices - from the Greenhill estate. This was roughly the area between Romford Road and Wanstead Flats, to the east of Woodgrange Road, as far as Station Road, Manor Park.

Two years later he bought the 200 acres of the Woodgrange farm - most of the Forest Gate area to the west of Woodgrange Road.

He also acquired about 250 acres in what was then Little Ilford (now Manor Park) and acquired the Lordship of the manors of Woodgrange and Hamfrith.

He promptly resold much of the land he had acquired, to become the West Ham and Jewish cemeteries, as well as the Industrial School on Forest Lane (see here and here, for details).

Ever the astute businessman, he clearly saw the development opportunities with the arrival of the railways into Forest Gate (see here); and in the short period  remaining in his life, began to package some of the land up, with a view to housing development resale.

So, from 1855, development started on the Gurney and Dames estates - to the west and north of Forest Gate station (see here, for details).

He died on 5 June 1856 and was buried in the Friends' burial grounds in Barking. He was survived by 9 children and 40 grandchildren. His oldest son died soon after and the estate subsequently transferred to his grandson, John.

Within 10 years, however, the bank that Samuel Gurney established and built became mired in severe financial difficulties, by diversifying into greedy, risky projects (sound familiar?) and faced bankruptcy. Many shareholders, including members of the Gurney family, lost fortunes and faced financial ruin.

It was this crash that spurred the rapid building boom in Forest Gate, as grandson John disposed of land and property in order to stabilise family finances.

Most notable among the disposals was the sale of the family home, in 1872, to become West Ham Park (see here), for a knocked down price of £15,000 - c £1.5 million, today.

The grounds of Ham House, before being
 turned into West Ham Park, in 1874
Also, in 1872, he sold most of the north side of what had been the Hamfrith estate to the British Land Company, which, in turn sold some to the Manor Park Cemetery Company (see here) and enabled the development of much of which in estate agents-speak is now known as "The Forest Gate Village".

Thomas Corbett acquired much of the south side of the Hamfrith estate and developed it into what is now the Woodgrange estate, between 1877 and 1892 (see here).

The period 1870 - 1890 saw the development of the western end of Forest Gate, from lands that had been part of the Gurney estate. This lead to the construction of Hamfrith, Atherton, Sprowston (see here), Norwich and Clova Roads,. as well as Earlham Grove (see here).

So, Quaker, banker, philanthropist, land-owner, Samuel Gurney stands as the man whose property dealings lay the foundations of Forest Gate, as we know it today.

He is most visibly remembered locally not in Forest Gate, but by the obelisk and drinking fountain in the grounds of St John's church, in Stratford. It is interesting that there should be a monument to a Quaker in the grounds of a prominent CofE church - but such was the regard in which he was held locally.
An 1861 drawing of the Gurney
memorial, soon after its erection
The monument is 40 feet high and made of granite. It was unveiled in 1861, having been designed by Gurney's fellow Norfolk-man, John Bell.

The inscription reads:
In remembrance of Samuel Gurney, who died on 5th of June 1856. Erected by his fellow parishioners and Friends (Quakers) 1861.
When the ear heard him, then it blessed him.
 (ed: this is a paraphrase from the Book of Job
One final point. Although the bank that Gurney turned into such a success bombed a decade after his death, its entrails survive as part of what is now Barclays Bank. If only he had been around in 2008 to offer them his counsel, prior to the banking crash of 2008.


  1. A great Post. My only comment is that the Gurney Memorial is not in St Johns churchyard, it is west of St Johns in the High Street. The obelisk in the churchyard is the Martyr's Memorial.....

  2. Most entertaining and clear account. Thank you.


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