A book, a grave and a great Victorian

Post date: Feb 20, 2011 6:22:16 PM

PONLHeritage is always interested to receive news items involving former staff and company history, but we are counting ourselves very fortunate to have been recently made aware of two stories which are intertwined by involving the same subject - Sir Thomas Sutherland, the great Victorian referred to in the title of this piece.

The story about the grave starts in 2002 when John Dawes, a former P&O staff member and SCARA member visited his local churchyard. John had learned that St Lukes Church, Milland was the last resting place of Sir Thomas Sutherland, the former chairman of P&O Steam Navigation Company and founder of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company, now known as HSBC.

Sir Thomas Sutherland was born in 1834 and started working for P&O in 1852 at the age of 18. The shipping company sent him to Bombay and then Hong Kong where he was the P&O Agent. In 1865, at the age of 30, he founded HSBC before returning to P&O in London. He was chairman of P&O SNCo for other 30 years.

Founding a bank and being chairman of one of the world's largest shipping companies would have been enough to make Sir Thomas famous, but he made his mark in history in other ways too. He was a member of parliament and played a key part in the development of the Suez Canal (he was a director of the Suez Canal Company and a major influence on the French and British governments which then controlled it).

John Dawes had spent a significant amount of his time in the Far East with P&O and Swire (he was in Hong Kong at the start of the containerisation for OCL), and was very well aware of the significance of Sir Thomas Sutherland's life and career. He had gone to the churchyard to seek out the grave of Sir Thomas and was very disappointed to find that its plaque was badly weathered and almost illegible. John took it upon himself to get this sorted out using his contacts at P&O SNCo and HSBC.

The work to get a new plaque placed on Sir Thomas Sutherland's grave took a while, but John was eventually successful and the replacement was unveiled in 2007. This plaque reads:

"In memory of SIR THOMAS SUTHERLAND, G.C.M.G., L.D., M.P., 1834-1922, resident of Coldharbour Wood and a benefactor of this church. Sir Thomas joined the P&O SNCo. in 1852 and served as Chairman from 1881 to 1915. He founded the H.S.B.C. in Hong Kong in 1865. Sir Thomas served as a member of Parliament for Greenock from 1884 to 1890 and was deputy Lieutenant for the City of London. He was knighted in 1891 and he was also a Knight of the Legion of Honour and of the Order of St. John. Also in Memory of Lady Mary Alice Morris Sutherland, his beloved wife of forty years."

And now to the book... Malcolm Sutherland (no direct relation) was in the process of writing a book - Sir Thomas Sutherland, A Great Victorian. He had been invited to write the biography of Sir Thomas by Mr and Mrs John Creighton. Marona Creighton is the only surviving great niece of Sir Thomas. The biography is Malcolm's third published book, and his interest came from his research on the history of his Scottish clan (the Clan Sutherland).

The book, which consists of 127 pages with numerous illustrations is fascinating to read. As you'd expect it covers his life from birth to death but it is far more than a biography of one man. Sir Thomas Sutherland lived through a period of major world change, and this book documents how he played a key role in many of the events and developments in shipping, global trade and economics that took place at that time. It is factual but in the opinion of this PONLHeritage writer extremely it has been written in a way that it captures the reader's interest and is definitely not a boring read!

Malcolm says that writing the biography was difficult because most of Sir Thomas's personal papers were destroyed. He was fortunate in tracking down the few remaining Thomas Sutherland papers and some family photographs. They are now held in the Tate Gallery Archives.

Malcolm says that Sir Thomas "had a keen, clear mind and a sharp sense of humour. When he was an MP he said that the speech of another Member 'possessed the great merit of considerable vagueness'." How often could that be said today?!

If you would like to purchase a copy of the book (which has a cover price of £10) then please contact the author - malcolm.sutherland@btinternet.com