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The Seventh Duke of Devonshire and his role in Barrow and Furness

Dr John D Marshall was a specialist in local and regional history at the University of Lancaster, 1966-80. He had regular contacts with Bill Rollinson whose wit and merriment helped to keep local studies on 'an even keel'.

Although the late Bill Rollinson was principally a lover of the Lake District, he was fascinated by his native Barrow and gave some arresting and brilliant lectures on the early history of the town, The writer had the privilege of enjoying some of these. This article is contributed by way of a gesture of warm if posthumous thanks to Bill, who understood the importance of primary sources, but, brilliantly used printed works as well. He was also a most valuable fellow-moderator of local history examination scripts at Charlotte Mason College. Above all, Bill often pointed out that local history must be readable. The following article sets out to apply Bill's rule.

One of the most important themes in local history is that of decision-making and that of the people who engaged in it.

Who started great industries in one's town or district? Who decided where building should take place? And who helped to develop the area's industries where there had been no such development before? And who rescued them from the consequences of hard times?

This is a brief study of one of the most important industrial decision-makers to appear in any locality, let alone in Furness. He influenced the lives of many thousands of people in Barrow, and he had a sense of duty to the Furness area. Many readers will know something about him, although few will know more than a few basic facts, he presided over the astonishing growth of Barrow.

The Second Earl of Burlington and Seventh Duke of Devonshire (1808-91), was intimately involved in the growth of the Furness slate industry, in Furness agriculture, in Barrow steelmaking, and in Barrow shipbuilding and in the town's attempts to establish international trade. It was he who managed to save its Victorian industries when all seemed lost. Much has been written about him, although most of the output is rather inaccessible in journals like the "Economic History Review" and the "Agricultural History Review," or tucked away in specialist sources which are in some cases not even in Barrow library or archives.

Furness local historians should be aware that the Seventh Duke's personal diary, stretching over more than 30 volumes, is now available in Barrow Record Office, albeit in the form of an unsatisfactory photocopy. Nevertheless, it is one of the most remarkable primary sources to enter our archives, and there is an immense amount of work to be done on it. This article merely scrapes the surface of the Duke's story, and if our local historians are looking for a worthwhile theme it is here.

The Second Earl of Burlington's predecessor was of course the first of that title, and he held the latter for only three years (1831 -4). The first earl was better known in Furness as Lord George Augustus Cavendish, and was the grandfather of the Second Earl, who settled at Holker Hall as a young married man at some time in the 1830s. The Second Earl committed himself to serious public service in Furness when he assumed the chairmanship of the newly formed Ulverston Board of Guardians in the late summer of 1836. This gave him an excuse to stay at Holker with his young family of three sons and a daughter for regular periods. He was then 28 years old, with the plaudits of a brilliant record at Cambridge still ringing in his ears. He had been a Senior Wrangler and the first mathematician of his year and retained the association with Cambridge over a lifetime, becoming the university's Chancellor in later years.

Burlington had also received some excellent training for this office by his experience as Chancellor of the University of London when still only 26. Holding comparatively advanced political opinions, he lost his seat at Cambridge as a consequence of his espousal of Reform but he was returned as the MP for Malton in 1831. It should be borne in mind that he was not committed, during the decade of the 1830s, to local activities over and beyond his work with the Ulverston Guardians, and he spent a large part of the years 1838 and 1839 touring Italy and Germany. However, this semi-idyllic existence was brutally terminated by the death of his wife, the former Lady Blanche Howard, on April 27, 1840.

This tragedy, with its attendant agony of spirit (well and painfully reflected in his diary) caused Burlington to retire to Holker Hall in a state of deep religious introspection. Here we can distinguish one of the visible and enduring strands of his existence; he found real solace in the Anglican Church, which also appeared as a special local interest. Grief never left him, as his diary volumes show. Fortunately, he was not yet responsible for the vast Cavendish estates, which occupied tens of thousands of acres in England and Ireland, although as a successor to the Dukedom of Devonshire he was well aware that that responsibility awaited him, and he was fully willing to act as an enlightened and conscientious landlord.

Holker Hall remained his favourite residence for the rest of a long lifetime. Its charms took precedence even over the glories of Chatsworth, or over the other Cavendish seats. Living at Holker, enabled the earl to concentrate on the supervision at the Kirkby slate quarries (originally worked by farmer-entrepreneurs) which were developed rapidly as a Cavendish possession from 1843. Almost immediately, these became known as the Burlington Quarries, and rapidly became the most extensive and productive in Lakeland.

Burlington supervised them conscientiously, and his careful observations find a regular place in his diary. It becomes clear that not only did he follow the quarries' work processes, he had a specially appointed mining engineer, Stephen Eddy, who also advised the Cavendishes on the working of lead in the family property at Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. As time went on, the Earl surrounded himself with knowledgeable advisers of this kind, both inside and outside Furness.

The Burlington range of quarries occupies the crest of Kirkby Moor, and as early as 1809 an iron railway carried slates down a long incline to a loading wharf. Ideas of a more elaborate railway, with steam traction, were longer in taking shape yet the notion of a railway outlet had been aired in Furness as early as 1825. However, it is worth noting that the earl was only partly the prime mover for what became the Furness Railway. A significant driving force was the Cavendish family's firm of solicitors, Currey and Co. of Great George Street, London.

Consequently Burlington was forced willy-nilly to pursue the idea of the railway as a means of breaking a transport bottleneck from the slate quarries. The Curreys appear to have been genuine enthusiasts for the railway and they even managed to draw the illustrious Joseph Paxton of Crystal Palace fame in their wake. Paxton, in turn, was a close associate of the Sixth Duke of Devonshire, a spendthrift whose activities were mercifully hidden from his successor and cousin, Burlington. Consequently, in January 1858, the newly inducted Seventh Duke of Devonshire confided to his diary that the Cavendish estates were heavily encumbered or indebted as a result of his late cousin's activities. By good fortune, the Duke, as Earl of Burlington, had already become established as chairman of the Furness Railway in 1848.

Engraving of the Barrow Iron and Steel Works in the 1870s


An early Furness Railway train.  The rear coach was built for the use of the Duke of Devonshire

An optimistic engraving of the Barrow jute works and employees

But for several years, Burlington was more interested in his slate quarries of that name than he was in other Furness industries, and, as for the railway, he nearly succeeded in selling it off! In the eleven years between the desperate first crisis of the railway in 1848, and his accession to the Dukedom, Burlington had in fact formed a picture of the Devonshire estate's finances, and he wrote resignedly that "This is a worse condition of matters than I had expected, although from knowing the (sixth) Duke's ignorance of business, I did not expect to find them very flourishing." The Cavendish estates remained encumbered by debt for at least a decade subsequently, but Burlington's Furness investments were crucial, and the development, following 1852, of a vast pocket of haematite iron ore at Park, on Cavendish land in Low Furness, was to make available eight and a half million tons of rich ore in 34 years. As Burlington knew, the F.R. was at first primarily a mineral line, but it rapidly became one of the most profitable in Britain. Barrow, at the ore-exporting end of the line, grew from 1847 into a flourishing port, and within another decade and a half it was mounting a (vainglorious) challenge to Liverpool.

This story is well known. But what was the new Duke's attitude to it? Unsurprisingly, that attitude, as shown in his diary, was somewhat distant, and Devonshire (as we shall now call him) became interested in Barrow mainly in the eighteen-sixties, when its steelworks did phenomenally well and when the town grew visibly and remarkably. Devonshire's view of this urban and economic transformation was largely restricted to the boardroom and the committee; even so, his impact on the management of the Furness Railway was considerable. Devonshire, from 1848, "headed a small committee of experts who succeeded in putting the struggling line back on its feet by rigorous measures of economy."

In the late fifties and sixties, the first real transformation in the district took place, and stemmed from the establishment of an ironworks on Cavendish land at Hindpool, near Barrow (1859), largely through the drive of H. W. Schneider, a freebooting metalliferous mining entrepreneur. At the side of Schneider, the Duke cut a shy and retiring figure, but together with the F.R. Board he encouraged the Schneider promotion. Nevertheless, his slate quarries continued to thrive. Paradoxically, Devonshire regarded the Furness Railway as a burdensome responsibility, and, as we have seen, he was associated with attempts to lease or sell it to other railway companies or individuals; fortunately, these attempts were in vain. Despite the Duke's reservations concerning it, the railway company was increasingly at the very heart of Furness economic development. After I860, the fortunes of the F.R. remained buoyant until 1874; the Furness Railway's dividends (at this time) were larger than those of any other major British railway company. Meanwhile, the Schneider and Hannay ironworks provided the basis for the construction of a great Barrow steelworks, promoted in 1863 and in full operation in 1865; the Duke was the chairman of this enterprise, but held only a small fraction of the Haematite Steel Company shares in the early stages of the works. Yet its dividends paid rarely less than fifteen per cent in these years.

From the mid-sixties, the economic history of Barrow and district becomes a crowded subject. Devonshire, at the heart of most of the important events, remained aloof from the population whose lives he was profoundly conditioning, much of the time enjoying peaceful withdrawal at Holker. In the mid-fifties he confessed himself bothered by railway speculators, whose efforts he saw as "cutting up the place".... "at present I have kept clear of all." We must remember that Devonshire was one of the greatest landlords in England or Britain, with nearly 90,000 acres in Derbyshire, nearly 20,000 in the W. Riding and some 13,000 in Lancashire (1883), of which a considerable part was in Furness. By the early sixties his net estate rental reached £100,000 a year, six or seven times his income from industrial dividends. A little scrutiny of these figures, however, shows that much of the Cavendish land cannot have been of high quality, as it lay in the mountainous or hilly north, and only in certain favoured areas, like Furness, did Devonshire actively pursue large-scale agricultural improvement. Much more income came from extractive industries (iron ore, mining, lead as in Yorkshire, slate quarrying).

By the early seventies, Devonshire had greatly increased his industrial investments, until the income from them outstripped the farming rentals from his massive estates. By 1874 the annual income from these two sources, dividends and estate rentals, amounted to a third of a million pounds - and much of this income came from Barrow industries. There was a huge upswing in the steelworks and other fortunes between 1870 and 1874. Devonshire had no doubt where this money came from - the steelworks (1871) dividend at 70 per cent. This astonishing record was the product of a mass of favourable factors in Barrow and Furness.

Exceptionally rich supplies of high quality non-phosphoric iron ore in Furness itself. A railway specially constructed to carry the ore to be smelted on the spot, a combined ironworks and steelworks designed to manufacture steel rails for the main railway routes in the world (like the Canadian Pacific and the Trans-Siberian railways).

A steadily enlarging market within the British railway networks, a smelting site with good nearby supplies of water and limestone, and fairly good rail access to other industrial centres like Sheffield.

The only palpable disadvantage to the Barrow entrepreneurs lay in their supplies of furnace coke, which had to be brought across the north Pennines from Durham - and the Duke of Devonshire had played a part in establishing a railway link over the moors, the South Durham and Lancashire Union.

Meanwhile, Barrow was beginning to grow at such a pace, post-1860, that it began to offer problems of town management and planning. These problems were by degrees taken on board by, at first, Barrow Harbour Commissioners and the Furness Railway, acting through the railway's chief engineer, J. R. McClean, The first three Barrow Building Societies played some part in laying out blocks of land, but the master-plan for the town, in essence adhered to from 1856, was the handiwork of James Ramsden, the General Manager of the Furness Railway, and he laid out large symmetrical portions of the so-called Hindpool Estate, a substantial part of which belonged to Devonshire, Ramsden evolved logically into the town's manager, and his role in this operation was never questioned. When in 1867 the new town was given borough status, he became almost automatically the town's first mayor.

Devonshire, closely associated with the administration of Barrow industries, seems to have left Ramsden to his own time-consuming devices, and the development of the Furness town was in the end the work of Ramsden and J.R. McClean, It is not generally known that other Ramsdens were operative in developing towns on the great Cavendish estates, like E.W.Wilmott in Buxton, and GAWallis in the spectacularly conceived resort of Eastbourne. Both of these Cavendish agents were political and administrative leaders in their towns, and were respectively the first mayors of the latter. But Ramsden, the earliest to reach the mayoralty, was not technically a Cavendish agent (the manager of the Furness Cavendish estates in the eighties and nineties was a Mr. Drewry, who concerned himself very little with industrial management), and he was also the only such functionary to be knighted (1872). Ramsden was allowed much freedom by his industrialist colleagues, and the stark social gap between the Managing Director of the railway and the Duke himself may have worked to the former's advantage. The evidence of Devonshire's diary indicates little cordiality (and considerable distance) as between the Duke and his employee, and the phrase 'paid man' was later used at election time.

When agriculture was thriving, as in the sixties and early seventies the Duke's net estate rental increased from £94,156 (1863) to £ 141,716 (1874). The development of Eastbourne and Buxton was not especially profitable. But, forgetting the sheer weight of lucre derived from Barrow, the promotion of these two centres was immensely successful. Of the two Victorian resorts, Buxton was old-established, but Eastbourne was virtually a clean-slate creation set a-growing near the Cavendish Sussex seat of Compton Place. Under the patronage of the young Earl of Burlington, and with the help of his agent Mr. Simpson, the new resort struggled to reach an identity, helped by the Furness Railway's engineer S. R. McClean, who looked after drainage and sewers. After twenty years, however, it commenced to grow with conviction. Large houses and rich incomers were encouraged to give the place a leisured, leafy atmosphere. Its population ballooned from 10,361 in 1871 to 34,278 two decades later. It is startling to discover that it grew nearly as rapidly as Barrow - but otherwise the contrast could not have been greater. Eastbourne exhaled elegance, wealth and peace; Buxton retained style and restfulness, but did not grow greatly. Barrow's story we know already.

The period of the greatest building activity in Eastbourne (1870-4) coincided with the great wave of profitability and company promotion in Barrow. Devonshire celebrated Barrow profits, but confined his record of success largely to houses built or about to be built. He approved of the affluent resort of Eastbourne of course, but he had shown very little interest in the human side of the borough of Barrow, apart from nominating its earliest council and bemoaning some high-church deviations on the part of the Vicar of St. George's, Barrow, who was a champion of the newly founded hospital in the town. Devonshire was ready enough to give subscriptions for the building of local churches (not only Anglican ones), and was himself deeply devout. Otherwise his moral and mental connections with turbulent Barrow were limited in the extreme, and his Diary makes few references to the town. Nevertheless, Devonshire did have a sense of obligation to Barrow, a very real one. He knew that the fate of Barrow's industrial infrastructure was almost a matter of life or death to those who worked there, As far as he was concerned, Barrow was not to be 'the Town that was Murdered' (the sensational title of Jarrow at a later stage in history), and when it fell on evil days he was there with succour.

By 1874, Barrow's industries had begun to take shape, although they were still in a half-finished state. The Barrow dock basins had of course been part-opened by 1867, but were largely empty. By the later year, Barrow's imports were beginning to fall catastrophically, and the downturn reflected the failure of Barrow's newest industries, like the Flax and Jute Works in Hindpool. The Barrow Shipbuilding Co. (1872) had hardly started operations; the Haematite Steel Co. lay at the centre of Barrow hopes and aspirations. It produced 250,000 tons of pig iron in 1873, and 100,000 tons of steel, using over 3000 workmen at that point in history. Fortunately for all concerned, the Barrow Haematite Steel Co. remained operative throughout the depression years. 1874-1893, and was Barrow's enduring achievement. The Barrow Shipbuilding Company and the Jute Works were, by contrast, failures by almost any measure, and there was a severe shortfall of managerial experience and skills in both these enterprises.

Devonshire had been induced to subscribe large sums to all these new Barrow industries, notably by James Ramsden but also by Schneider, and the Duke came to regard Ramsden with a measure of distrust; after all, it was not the latter's money that was at stake, and by 1878 the Duke concluded that the reorganised direction of the main Barrow enterprises would 'leave less power in Ramsden's hands', an outcome that he clearly regarded as desirable. Over several decades Devonshire had come to see the town manager, Ramsden, as an insatiable collector of expenses and investments, which inevitably the Duke viewed with distrust - this was so, for example, when the Barrow docks were first under construction in the sixties, and for many years subsequently Ramsden was blamed for extravagant over-investment by Furness Railway shareholders. Was this Vision' or over-ambitiousness? When record profits had poured from haematite mining and sale, Furness Railway operation and steelworks production, Devonshire had had no cause for worry; he had simply ploughed back the massive Barrow dividends when new investments had to be financed. But when the prolonged slump of the Great Depression made such stratagems impossible, he was obliged to support the ailing Barrow companies by extensive borrowing. By 1877, the Duke's Diary contains the following resigned remark: 'It will clearly be necessary for me to find a great deal of money to prevent a smash' (this with reference to the Shipbuilding Co.). During the period of depression, the Duke was always likely to encounter crises, and on the 26 July 1886, regarding the shipbuilding enterprise, he

remarked 'unless matters improve shortly a catastrophe cannot long be averted'.

Disaster was avoided by constant addition to the mortgage debt already incurred by Devonshire, which by 1888 stood at the immense figure of £2,000,000. By sheer accident, this was also the magnitude of the sum that the Duke had poured into Barrow, representing some 80 per cent of his total investments. It was fortunate for Barrovians that the Duke had a conscience about the large profits he had already drawn by 1874, a conscience that guided his conduct until the end of the eighties, when any remaining element of the Barrow boom finally burst.

Although the then Barrow shipyard was up to date and capable of building five vessels at once, it never managed satisfactorily to ensure a steady flow of work, and suffered severely from labour troubles, The Duke looked for a better future for Barrow in the 'sheltered and cartellised production of men of war' (1887), and the eventual appearance of the Naval Construction and Arms Company in Barrow in 1888, with the Duke's eldest son (The Marquess of Hartington) as chairman, in fact opened a new chapter in the history of Barrow. The Duke himself had concluded that 'it is almost certain that Barrow generally... will derive great advantages', this from the new naval (and submarine-building) connection.

The Cavendish identification with the Furness Railway continued, and the Marquess took over as chairman (1887), even though he was never to see ten per cent dividends paid by the company again. Meanwhile, the Duke had received another hammer-blow from fate with the assassination of his son Lord Frederick Cavendish in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in May 1882, and his misfortunes wrought their effects.

The writer, when visiting the Chatsworth archive some fifty years ago, was introduced to a member of the Cavendish family, an old lady who could just remember having seen the Seventh Duke at Chatsworth before his death in 1891. 'He looked a tired, grim old man', she said. He had helped to keep the family fortunes more or less intact, but he had paid most bitterly for his efforts. These were not negligible, after all; the Duke had steered the Furness Railway for nearly forty years, and Barrow remained as a great industrial centre

Much in this article is based on one vast primary source, The Diary of William, second Earl of Burlington and Seventh Duke of Devonshire' in 30 MS. volumes running from 1840 to 1891, i.e. the period of the Duke's death. The Diary was originally made available to the present writer at the Chatsworth House archives in 1952-3. He was then working in close association with the late Professor Sidney Pollard, who generously shared information from this voluminous diary, and who wrote a seminal article, S. Pollard, 'Barrow-in-Furness and the Seventh Duke of Devonshire', Economic History Review,

Second Series, vol. VIII, 1955, pp. 213-221. Dr. Pollard and the present writer also collaborated in a joint article on the effect of the Furness Railway: The Furness Railway and the Growth of Barrow' Journal of Transport History, I: 1, November 1953, pp. 109-206. The writer's 'Furness and the Industrial Revolution' then followed in 1958, and readers of this book will see many scores of footnotes relating to entries in the Seventh Duke's Diary. These can still be used by researchers requiring further information, but the Diary should be used with the Directors' Minutes of the Furness Railway Company, which are now, like the Diary itself, kept in photo-copied form in the Barrow Record Office. There is plenty of room for other work on these and similar sources, although the outline of the Duke's story is as given here.

Notwithstanding the importance of the subject, little more appeared for nearly two decades, perhaps because the story of the Duke seemed to have been thoroughly covered, But it was known that the Seventh Duke of Devonshire had other town-building interests, notably in Eastbourne and Buxton, and the rise of the specialised study of urban history prompted the appearance in the Agricultural History Review (Vol. 25, 1977) of the Review's Silver Jubilee Prize Essay. The Landowner as Millionaire; the Finances of the Dukes of Devonshire, c. 1800-c. 1926', by Professor David Cannadine. Professor Pollard had approached this subject primarily as an economic historian interested in the wielding of local power; Cannadine was concerned with the aristocracy as a social group. In 1980 his major work appeared: 'Lords and Landlords; The Aristocracy and the Towns, 1774-1967'. This dealt with the town-building propensities of the Cavendishes, but also those of the Calthorpes in Edgbaston, all in far greater detail than had ever before been attempted. The Seventh and Eighth Dukes of Devonshire are seen against a much wider social panorama, and the finances of the Cavendishes are examined minutely.

Thanks to Professor Cannadine, we know how rich, or apparently rich, the Seventh Duke was after the pursuit of his vast Barrow investments. The Cavendishes survived.

There is still room for a rounded study of the Seventh Duke, and these historians have provided an excellent launching platform.