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Saturday, 8 August 2015


I realise that I have unwittingly been following a family tradition in not ever writing here about the Norfolk branch of my Gurney antecedents. My father, who in matters of ancestry spoke with pride only of Gurneys, never spoke of the Norfolk Gurneys, only of “our” Bedfordshire ones.

The Norfolk Gurneys (with whom the Bedfordshire ones fell out around my 7x great grandfather’s generation in the early seventeenth century) were the senior branch of the tree. They produced all sorts of interesting people, including some of the most powerful Quaker banking families of England (the Barclays for example). Others reflected the Quakers’ more spiritual side, and those include the social reformer Elizabeth Fry (née Gurney) (1780-1845) and her brother who lent his name to Gurneyite Quakerism in the US, Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847).

In keeping with tradition I am writing today not about the latter but about his namesake, who was born a year before the Gurneyite’s death. “My” Joseph John was a mechanical engineer, the nephew of my 2x great grandmother Emma Gurney (1815-1893) and son of Joseph Gurney (1804-1879) who headed the family firm of parliamentary shorthand writers in London.
 Joseph Gurney (1804-1879)
Father of Joseph John Gurney (1846-1903)

Shorthand Joseph and his sister’s husband my great great grandfather Rev William Augustus Salter(1812-1879) were lifelong friends and died within weeks of each other. It’s interesting that they both had sons, Joseph John Gurney and Frank Salter, who followed not their fathers’ callings but instead the very modern world of mechanical engineering. Both sons, moreover, worked on steam engine design.

Frank and Joseph must have known each other quite well through their fathers’ friendship and it’s tempting to imagine them in boyhood comparing notes on mutually understood mechanical problems. In the 1860s Frank trained in the locomotive workshops of the London & North Eastern Railway at Crewe, while Joseph moved to Gateshead on the ship-building Tyne to learn his trade. In 1870 Joseph and a friend, Joseph Watson (another Joseph!) went into partnership with William Clarke, a manufacturer of steam winches. When in 1872 Frank was looking for a new apprenticeship after serving his time with LNWR, it was the firm of Clarke, Watson & Gurney that took him on.

William Clarke (c1832-1890)
with whom Joseph John Gurney formed a partnership and Frank Salter served an apprenticeship

Frank moved on in 1874 – I’ve written about his career elsewhere in this blog – but Joseph John remained on Tyneside for the rest of his life. It wasn’t just the work that held him there. In 1870, the year he and Watson went into partnership with William Clarke, Joseph John also formed (in Rye Hill Baptist Chapel) a lasting partnership with Watson’s sister Helen.

That union produced a daughter, Helen Mary Gurney. Joseph John’s business partnership saw the firm expand from winches into boiler-making, and from steam power to oil-fired and electric motors. The innovation by which I am most impressed was the company’s 1882 decision to employ women as draughtsmen. I don’t know the scale of this “experiment” (the company’s word), but it was long enough and large enough for Clarke, Watson & Gurney to build a separate building to house the draughtswomen in.

Clarke, Chapman & Gurney steam winch, 1882

Joseph John Gurney resigned from the firm in 1882 at the age of 36. Watson had by then also departed, and the firm continued to grow with William Clarke’s remaining partner as Clarke, Chapman & Co. It survives today as the Clarke Chapman Group with operations throughout the world in virtually every area of civil engineering, and still has its headquarters in Gateshead. Why either Joseph left I don’t know; but Joseph John’s father had recently died, and perhaps the provision of his will meant that JJ no longer had to work.

He seems genuinely to have retired from the field, and to have lived out his days in comfort: first at Rodsley House on Alexandra Road in Gateshead (demolished in 1931) and then in the White House, north of the River Tyne, on Grainger Park Road in Newcastle. Frank died too young, only 40, from pneumonia caught in the line of his work on water pumps in 1888. The White House with its 32 rooms was only demolished in 2011, and the site developed as the stunning new Newcastle Central Mosque.

The White House, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 2009, and an artist's impression of the Newcastle Central Mosque which replaces it


  1. Hi, I am descended from this branch of the Gurney's (the Norfolk branch) I had no idea they had fallen out! Our shared ancestry is absolutely fascinating!

  2. Hi. It was a very long time ago and I'm sure we're all friends now! Both branches have extraordinary histories. Get in touch privately via my website (link above right) if you want to compare notes and share information.
    Colin Salter


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