George Furness (1820 - 1900) was a prominent public figure, he built sewage systems and railways and ran a brick brick factory which providing building materials for many buildings in Willesden and Harlesden.
Willesden's Greatest Resident
George Furness is arguably Willesden's greatest resident. He was a contractor of public works - one who estimates costs, bids for and arranges finance for civil engineering contracts, and if successful, engages and controls the work force. Furness worked on the construction of London's sewage system and railways, as well as on a number of projects abroad. He owned and developed large plots of land in Willesden and run a brick making factory here. Furness was a prominent public figure, leading local government and church affairs.
Born at Great Longstone, Derbyshire, on 31st October 1820, George Furness established his career before coming to London. First he lived in Westminster, but in 1856 Furness bought Roundwood House in Willesden and lived here until his death in 1900.
The first half of the 19th century saw the birth and rapid growth of railways in Britain. From 1842 onwards George Furness 1842 worked on major railway construction contracts in the Midlands, Western and Southern counties of England (such as the Abingdon Railway, opened in 1856, and the Redditch Railway, opened in 1859 - 1868, West Somerset Railway, 1862, the Isle of Grain - Port Victoria, Kent, 1882)
At this time Britain was in the forefront of railway construction and engineering, and her specialists were in great demand overseas. Furness took advantage of this and took part in construction projects in France and Brazil. His other specialty were public works, and over the period of 30 years Furness undertook extensive dredging contracts in Italy (Spezia, Ancona, Livorno and Palermo). King Victor Emmanuel made Furness a Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Italy.
However, his greatest contract abroad was in Odessa. The Russian Government needed skilled men to renew the public works there, devastated by the Crimean War (1854 - 1856). Furness carried out the drainage, paving and general restoration of services. The works cost £750,000.
In the middle of the 19th century the population growth and poor state of public works ??? caused great pollution of the River Thames. In 1856 Metropolitan Board of Works was created and put to tender the construction of London's sewage system. George Furness bid for the major section of the Thames Embankment (Westminster to Waterloo Bridge) and won the contract for £520,000. Work got under way in 1864. Despite slow progress caused by friction with his partner, problems with materials and financial difficulties the Embankment was complete by 1870.
His other, somewhat smaller contract was the Northern Low Level Sewer Isle of Dogs Branch (1865), valued at £75,456.
George Furness married in his early forties, to Rebecca Green. The family lived in the magnificent Roundwood House which had been built for Lord Decies about 1820. Their three children died in infancy, but five survived.
Gradually George finished his overseas work and confined his labours to England, then to Willesden and spent more time with his family. His eldest son, George James attended the Crystal Palace School of Engineering and qualified as an engineer to help his father.
The family also kept the old Croft House in Great Longstone, in Derbyshire.
Bricks and Houses
The 1870s saw an explosion of house building in Willesden and surrounding areas. George Furness foresaw the demand for bricks and formed the Willesden Brick and Tile Company in Chambers Lane. Soon a 145 foot high swauer chimney carried steam and smoke from several kilns over Willesden Green. The machinery was powered by a steam engine. The plant manufactured high quality durable red bricks and cheaper brown stock bricks. Many are still housing Willesden residents (for example, some houses in Ashford Road, Cedar Road, Cricklewood Broadway Harlesden Road, Ivy Road, Larch Road, Lonstone Terrace Mora Road, Pine Road and Taylors Lane). Furness bricks were used to build St.Andrews Church and Schools in Willesden Green and a number of other churches and a school in the surrounding areas. The plant also produced vases, flower pots, drain pipes, glazed bricks and roof tiles.
Furness became one of Willesden's major employers. Company houses were provided for employees to rent, for example those in Parkfield Road.
George Furness bought large plots of land in the area which were developed from pasture land into residential premises, providing houses, roads and drainage.
A Prominent Public Figure
George Furness had a keen interest in local affairs. When Willesden Local Board was formed in 1875 (before the district was administered by the local Vestry meeting), Furness was elected to represent West Willesden and became the first chairman. Later he represented South Kilburn and East Willesden.
For three years be was peoples' churchwarden at St.Mary's, making good use of his practical knowledge.
In 1889 Furness was elected one of the first representatives to the Middlesex County Council. H also sat on the Hendon Board of Guardians for many years, and was one of the original members of the School Board.
Furness supported financially the Willesden Cottage Hospital and was a governor of St.Mary's Hospital.
In 1892 George sold the 26 acres of Knowle Hill to the Local Board for a bargain price of £14,500. This became Roundwood Park.
A tragedy struck George Furness in the last year of his life. His youngest daughter, Agnes Sophia was killed by her husband in India in 1899. George's health started to decline and having suffered from bronchitis and influenza George Furness died at Roundwood House on 9th January 1900. He was buried in the churchyard of St.Mary's Church, Willesden.
In May 1902 George's wife, eldest daughter and son were killed in a boating accident in Ireland, where they were visiting the eldest daughter. George James carried on the tradition of his father in Willesden. He sat on Middlesex County Council and was a JP, MP and High Sheriff of Middlesex After his death in 1963 his family moved out of Willesden. Roundwood House was sold to Willesden Council and, in an act of civiv vandalism, destroyed. The brick works was also sold and also disappeared.
The Furness legacy remains in the fine public works carried out at home and abroad, and in the many streets and houses they built in Willesden.
The book George Furness. Willesden's Greatest Resident? by Cliff Wadsworth is available from the Willesden Local History Society.
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© Brent Heritage website 2002