For king, empire and themselves 2014

Peter Lawrence talk on East Anglian families with influence

Gurney, Barclay, Repton, Fry – some of the East Anglian Family names that have rung down history. Peter painted a picture of their world of endeavour, good fortune and family networking. It was spiced with a soupcon of excess and exploitation, but ended with a legacy that enriches lives.

Mainly Methodist, they moved south to settle in quiet rural villages – West Ham and Walthamstow among them. On the horizon was the City of London, and there, as bankers, they created wealth beyond our dreams. On their rolling estates they threw up country houses to rival royalty and the best in the land.

 

On the left is Samuel Gurney in 1820.

When they had made their money, spreading across the British Empire they found new ways to become even richer. One family ran the East India Company, to all intents and purposes controlling the whole sub-continent. Others invested in the Caribbean, thinking of cotton but quickly switching to sugar – white gold, it was called. At least one lived a life of excess, lost the family fortune and saw his mansion sold-off as building material. Others employed black slaves brought from Africa.

Their link with our area? Norfolk was where they holidayed. The entire family, forty plus people not counting their servants; bags, baggage, horses and carriages, all loaded onto trains and transported to Cromer and Runton for picnics on the beach. There are lots of photos and the delightful diary of a daughter who describes a remarkably simple life – playing in the fields, running home for tea, and stories at bedtime.

As London grew the families left their southern estates and moved to their holiday homes and new houses built in Suffolk and Norfolk, where their descendants can still be found. Their grand houses were sold, even destroyed to be replaced by tower blocks and supermarkets. But in between they made sure that something was left for the local people. The City of London now cares for a whole series of lovely parks which were once their gardens. Epping Forest itself was preserved by their generosity.

 

One man was given a nickname, “The Liberator”, for the leading role he played in ending the slave trade. And then there was Elizabeth Fry, pictured to the left. Not just chocolates, but a lady who devoted her life to helping women in prison and became perhaps the greatest prison reformer we have known.

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