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Harry Stephen Meysey-Thompson

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Harry Stephen Meysey-Thompson (1809-1874) of the North Eastern Railway


1875 Obituary [1]

SIR HARRY STEPHEN MEYSEY-THOMPSON, Bart., late Chairman of the North-Eastern Railway Company, was the eldest son of Mr. Richard John Thompson, of Kirby Hall, near York, and was born at Newby Park, Yorkshire, on the 11th of August, 1809.

(A biographical sketch of Sir H. S. Meysey-Thompson, by Earl Cathcart, appears in 'The Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England,' Second Series, vol. X., pp. 519-541. From a pamphlet descriptive of his career 'as a man of business' (printed for private circulation only in 1874, and of which a copy has been presented to the Library of the Institution), several passages have been extracted and incorporated in this notice.)

As a child his health was delicate, and he was in consequence educated at home, or under private tuition, until he went to Cambridge in 1828. Although he was by no means what is called 'a reading man' at the University, he established among his contemporaries the reputation of a man from whom good work was to be expected in after life. The anticipations thus formed were amply fulfilled, and if his name is not so widely known as that of others of his generation, few have excelled him in a career of usefulness.

On leaving Cambridge, he employed himself in completing his education, and for that purpose spent some considerable time on the Continent, until he finally settled down, some years before his marriage, in 1843, to farming occupations upon the family estate in Yorkshire, at that time in his father’s possession, but to which he succeeded in 1853. The improvements which he effected there can only be appreciated by those who have had an opportunity of comparing the Kirby Hall property as it is now with its condition thirty years ago. Lands and park, and even the house itself, are altered beyond recognition, save by those who have known them the most intimately, and who have themselves witnessed the beneficial changes produced by the hands and skill of one who was indeed a master.

In 1838 began Mr. Thompson’s connection with the Royal Agricultural Society. The society may almost be said to owe its existence to the combined efforts of Mr. Thompson and the late Mr. Pusey, and its Journal has been enriched by many of their contributions. Mr. Thompson’s last paper, which appeared in 1872, 'On the Management of Grass Land, with especial Reference to the Production of Meat,' is particularly valuable, and has been published separately.

To Mr. Thompson is largely due the discovery of the power inherent in the soil of absorbing and assimilating ammonia. The guiding idea ff ashed upon him when observing the escape of ammonia from manure heaps. In conjunction with the late Mr. Joseph Spence, of York, Mr. Thompson experimented as follows: A glass tube was filled with ground turf to represent a 4-feet section of earth. A solution of ammonia was applied at the top, and the percolation noted. The result was fairly Startling; it was not filtration, but a new chemical action. In the volume of the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society for 185012 Mr. Thompson gives a modest account of this discovery; but its importance can scarcely be overestimated. In the words of a great living.authority, 'It is remarkable that this slight experiment contains the germ of what I consider to be one of the most important, if not the most important, of all the scientific investigations connected with the practice of agriculture.'

But the most interesting part of Sir Harry’s life, as far as the general public is concerned, is that which was spent in the service of the North-Eastern Railway Company. He must ever be identified with the prosperity of that line, the third of the great English railways in point of size, and the first in point of success.

In 1849 he was elected Chairman of the York and North Midland Railway Company, which was at that time unable to pay any dividend. For five years Mr. Thompson devoted a large portion of his time to this company’s affairs, and while the results of his labours were most satisfactory to his constituents and honourable to himself, there can be no doubt that he was being educated for filling the much more onerous and responsible post of Chairman to the North-Eastern Railway Company, to which he was elected shortly after its formation in 1854.

In all the weighty and delicate negotiations which resulted in that important union between the principal railways in the north-eastern district of England, Mr. Thompson, as the chairman of one of the associated companies, necessarily took a leading part. For twenty years he was chairman of the resulting North-Eastern Company, and during the whole of that period, until failing health compelled him to relax his labours, he watched over and superintended all its affairs with the most unflagging devotion, and with consummate skill, discretion, and ability. Few companies have been more fortunate in their chairman than was the North-Eastern in Mr. Thompson ; and that the shareholders were conscious of this is evident from the fact that never, on any occasion during his chairmanship, did they fail to adopt any proposition which he put before them.

Under Mr. Thompson’s presidency the North-Eastern Company grew and prospered. Further unions were effected with other companies in the district, involving many prolonged and difficult negotiations, in all of which he took the principal share; so that when he resigned the chair, the company possessed intact a territory stretching from the south of the Humber to the Tweed as compared with its origin in 1854, it had much more than doubled in capital, mileage, and resources, and was then yielding to its proprietors a dividend larger than was paid by any other leading railway company in the kingdom, and greater, probably, than in his most sanguine moments he had ventured to anticipate. The company has not been backward in recognising these great services.

A magnificent testimonial was voted to him on his retirement, and, though he did not live to enjoy its presentation from the hands of so many of his oldest friends, he was yet enabled to see and admire in private the splendid fruits of their gratitude.

'But Mr. Thompson did not confine himself in railway matters to the North-Eastern Company alone. As the railway system extended, and the relations between companies became more and more complicated and conflicting, and the attention of Parliament and the public becoming at the same time more closely directed to railways and their regulation, he saw the necessity for some bond of union being formed amongst them, with the view of promoting internal harmony, and of taking measures for the protection of their common interests, more especially against hasty or hostile legislation. Accordingly, he suggested, and in 1867 ultimately organised the Railway Companies’ Association, consisting of representatives from all the railway companies in the kingdom who chose to join it. All the leading, and many of the smaller companies, did join the association, and Mr. Thompson was unanimously elected their Chairman, which office he held until compelled by the state of his health to resign it, in 1873. That he should have been considered worthy to preside over an association composed of the ablest and most thoroughly disciplined administrators in the railway world, sufficiently shows the opinion which was entertained of his character and business abilities ; and on accepting his resignation, which the association did with deep regret and sympathy, a resolution was unanimously passed, recording their high estimate of the eminent services which Mr. Thompson had so long and so effectively rendered in support of the important railway interests of the kingdom.'

Sir Harry sat in Parliament for Whitby from 1859 to 1865. He stood for one of the divisions of the West Riding in 1868, but was defeated by a small majority ; and in 1871 he declined, on the score of health, the offer of an uncontested seat for Whitby. He took an active share during the whole of his life in county business, and served as High Sheriff in 1856. The baronetcy was conferred upon him in 1874, only a few months before his death, which occurred in May ; and none are likely to dispute that it was an honour well deserved and worthily bestowed.

Sir Harry was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 10th of April, 1866.


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