Thomas Furness & Co was one of the largest grocers and provisions merchants in Britain.
John Furness (1808 – 1885) was a coal trimmer from Boroughbridge, Yorkshire. He married the daughter of a colliery owner, Averill Easter Wilson, and established a grocer’s shop in Hartlepool in 1850.
His son, Thomas Furness (1834 – 1905), served apprenticeships in Stockton and Manchester before opening his own grocery business on Church Street, Hartlepool in 1854. In 1861 the business employed two men and one boy. It was normal for grocers to work 90 hours per week.
A trade was soon established between Hartlepool and wholesalers in Denmark and Sweden. This venture was to prove immensely profitable.
In 1870 his brother Christopher (1852 – 1912) joined the firm as a sales representative. He was made partner in 1872.
In 1877 the firm bought its own ships. By 1878 the firm had become the first in the North East of England to directly import produce from America, initially with Boston, and also later New York.
Christopher left the partnership in 1883, in order to develop the shipping side of the business.
John Furness died in 1885, and his Northern Daily Mail obituary hailed him as “one of the fathers of West Hartlepool”.
Thomas Furness was a Methodist and a temperance advocate. A staunch Liberal, in 1891 he became the first native of the borough to become Mayor of Hartlepool. He was not considered a particularly gifted man, but he was hard-working, conscientious and shrewd.
By 1891 the business was one of the largest provisions merchants in Britain.
In the mid 1890s the firm acquired the Shipowners’ Stores Supply Association of London.
In 1895 the firm was established as a limited company called Thomas Furness & Company’s Stores Ltd, with a capital of £200,000. Sir Christopher Furness was chairman of the directors, and Thomas and John Thomas Furness (1861 – 1932) were joint managing directors.
By this time the firm had offices at West Hartlepool and Newcastle upon Tyne, and shops at West Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockton, Saltburn, Thornaby and Richmond. In 1899 a branch was opened at Castleton, North Yorkshire.
In 1897 the firm established a small manufacturing arm called Northern Counties Manufacturing Co. Based at Mainsforth Terrace, it produced jams, cakes and biscuits. Plant, machinery and edifice cost £15,000.
Thomas Furness & Co sales in 1902 were a “disappointing” £477,116.
In 1903 James Newton Reid (1876 – 1923) of Liverpool joined the firm, which from 1909 began trading as Furness Brothers & Reid.
Thomas Furness died in 1905 and his estate was valued at £26,478.
Northern Counties Manufacturing Co was liquidated in 1908. The Castleton branch closed in 1909.
J T Furness’s only son, Guy Haswell Furness (1887 – 1952) was placed in charge of the business.
In 1924 Furness Brothers & Reid was entered into voluntary liquidation.