Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gurney, Samuel

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GURNEY, SAMUEL (1786–1856), bill discounter and philanthropist, second son of John Gurney, banker, Norwich, who died 28 Oct. 1809, by Catherine, daughter of John Bell, merchant, London, was born at Earlham Hall, near Norwich, 18 Oct. 1786, and educated at Wandsworth, Surrey, and at Hingham, Norfolk. His brothers, Joseph John and Daniel, and his sister, Elizabeth Fry, are noticed separately. At the age of fourteen Samuel was placed in the counting-house of his brother-in-law, Joseph Fry, tea merchant and banker, St. Mildred's Court, Poultry, London. On 7 April 1808 he married Elizabeth, daughter of James Sheppard of Ham House, Essex, a handsome residence that descended in 1812 to the young couple, and was their place of abode during nearly the whole of their married life. The wealth that came to Gurney from his father-in-law, as well as that bequeathed to him by his father, helped him to rapid progress as a partner in Richardson & Overend, with which firm he had become connected in 1807. Very soon after his entering this business it began to assume gigantic proportions, and it was for about forty years the greatest discounting house in the world, and the parent of all the other establishments in London and elsewhere. At first only discounting bills, it soon came to lending money on all sorts of securities. In the panic of 1825 the firm, which had then become Overend, Gurney, & Co., were able to lend money to many houses to tide over their difficulties; this brought them into favour. Gurney became known as ‘the bankers' banker,’ and many firms who had previously dealt with the Bank of England now commenced depositing their surplus cash in his hands. In 1856 it was calculated that his house held deposits amounting to eight millions of money. Gurney took a part in the efforts of J. J. Gurney, Fowell Buxton, and Elizabeth Fry for the improvement of prison discipline and the reform of the criminal code. He refused to prosecute a man who had forged his name, knowing well that death was the punishment for such an offence. He also interested himself in the Niger expedition, and in March 1841 entertained Captain H. D. Trotter, Commander W. Allen, and a large number of the officers of the expedition at a farewell dinner at Upton. In 1849 he undertook a tour of Ireland, where he made considerable gifts to poor people still suffering from the effects of the famine. He became treasurer of the British and Foreign School Society in 1843, and held that post till his decease. He was a very liberal patron of the infant colony of Liberia, kept up a correspondence with President Roberts, and for his many gifts was rewarded by his name being given to a town of Gallenas in 1851. In 1853 he accompanied a deputation sent to Napoleon III to express a desire for a long continuance of peace and amity between England and France. His wife died at Ham House, Essex, 14 Feb. 1855, and in the autumn of that year, his own health being much broken, he took up his residence at Nice. Getting worse in the spring of 1856, he hurried homewards, desiring to end his days in his own country among his kindred. He reached Paris, but could go no further, and died in an hotel in that city on 5 June 1856. He was buried in the Friends' cemetery at Barking on 19 June, when an immense concourse of people attended the funeral. He left nine children and upwards of forty grandchildren, but his eldest son, John Gurney of Earlham Hall, did not long survive, dying 23 Sept. 1856. Gurney was the author of a pamphlet ‘To the Electors of South Essex,’ 1852, in which he recommended the election of Sir E. N. Buxton.

The great commercial establishment, which Gurney had brought to a position of unexampled wealth and influence, after passing into less competent hands, was reorganised as a joint-stock company in August 1865, and failed on 10 May 1866, when the liabilities amounted to eleven millions.

[Geldart's Memorials of Samuel Gurney, 1857, with portrait; Bourne's English Merchants, 1886, pp. 467–81; Annual Monitor, 1856, No. 15, pp. 71–79; Illustr. Lond. News, 5 July 1856, p. 16, with portrait; Finlason's Report of the Case of the Queen v. Gurney and others, 1870.]

G. C. B.