Creating a cohesive society

July 29, 2020

The North East has been shaped by philanthropy for centuries and its crucial role is set to continue, as Alison Cowie finds out when she speaks to Professor Charles Harvey from Newcastle University, an expert in the history, impact and motivations of entrepreneurial benevolence in our region

Entrepreneurial philanthropy has played a pivotal role in the North East. It’s left an indelible mark on our cities and towns – from our schools, universities and hospitals, to our parks, art galleries and museums. The generosity of successful businessmen and women has impacted the health, well-being, education and livelihoods of North Easterners for generations and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Charles Harvey, professor of business history and management and director of the Centre for Research on Entrepreneurship, Wealth and Philanthropy at Newcastle University, knows only too well the impact generous entrepreneurs have made on the region, having dedicated much of his career to exploring the subject.

It is therefore fitting that I speak to this authority in the gardens of Newcastle University, surrounded by several bastions of local benevolence.

At one side is the university’s Armstrong Building – where Professor Harvey’s office is located – which was donated by a syndicate led by the famous industrialist, Lord Armstrong. At another are the university’s iconic arches and art school funded by the Bell family (derived from a coal mining fortune), while around the corner is the medical school, of which shipping magnate Sir Arthur Sutherland and Mary Easton, who inherited her brothers’ coal mining fortune, were major funders.

Had the weather been too inclement for our outdoor, socially distanced, interview, Professor Harvey had suggested we walk to The Catalyst at Newcastle Helix, which houses national centres dedicated to ageing and data research. The atrium of this new university building is named after businesswoman Helen McArdle who, last year, made a multi-million-pound donation to the innovative research taking place there.

Outdoors in glorious sunshine though, Professor Harvey tells me that entrepreneurial philanthropy dates back to the 14th Century.

“If you think of Dick Whittington, it’s not just a  myth or a story; he was somebody who put money earned through business into philanthropy,” the professor explains.

“In the North East, there was Roger Thornton who is memorialised at Newcastle Cathedral and made his fortune in lead mines. His great charity was the Maison Dieu, which was a hospital for down-at-heel men and women in Newcastle.”

It was during the Industrial Revolution, however, that entrepreneurial philanthropy came to the fore in the North East.

“In the 1820s/30s, Newcastle became a driving force of the Industrial Revolution and was fortunate to have many industries – coal, iron, steel, shipbuilding, steam turbines, railway engineering and later electrical engineering – that fed off each other, with professional services such as banking backing them up,” Professor Harvey explains.

“This generated huge wealth and where you have sufficiently large numbers of people with surplus funds – who can see a separation between them and the rest of society – you get philanthropy.”

The most famous North East philanthropist of the Modern Era was Lord William Armstrong who, along with his wife Lady Armstrong, gifted Jesmond Dene to the people of Newcastle along with its house, banqueting hall, Armstrong Bridge and Armstrong Park.

The industrialist was also the major donor of the Hancock Museum, now the Great North Museum, as well as several university and hospital facilities, with Armstrong’s legacy continued after his death by nephew William Watson-Armstrong.

Other prominent donors of this period included the Quaker solicitor, Robert Spence Watson, who helped fund the College of Physical Sciences in Newcastle alongside Lord Armstrong and others; businessman Alexander Laing who provided the funds to build The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle; and John and Joséphine Bowes who founded The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle.

After the Second World War, the establishment of the welfare state had a major impact on philanthropy with the state taking on much of Britain’s social burden.

“It pushed philanthropy into being a helpmeet rather than a necessity,” Professor Harvey adds.

But despite the shift, the North East philanthropy movement continued with numerous avenues still available for wealthy entrepreneurs to channel their wealth.

In the late 20th Century, for example, The Ballinger Charitable Trust and The Shears Foundation – based on the fortunes of Martin Ballinger and Trevor Shears, the former owners of the Go-Ahead public transport group, and their wives, Diana and Lyn – have supported many North East charities.

Meanwhile, fashion entrepreneur Dame Margaret Barbour and her daughter, Helen, have helped numerous causes via The Barbour Foundation, while Peter Vardy who ran a thriving motor dealership group, has developed many family-focused charities such as Safe Families for Children as well as the Emmanuel Schools Foundation.

Another philanthropic phenomenon to have impacted the region in recent times is the Community Foundation Tyne and Wear and Northumberland.

Community foundations began in America and provide a way for individuals, families, entrepreneurs, companies, charitable trusts and public sector bodies to donate to community-based activities in a defined geographical area. Since its inception in 1988, the Tyne and Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation has become the largest outside North America.

Reflecting on the causes for this, Professor Harvey says: “The foundation made the wise decision of asking Grigor McClelland to take the lead. He was an academic, businessman and philanthropist and was involved in the Washington new town regeneration and attracting Nissan to the region. He was known – and trusted – by everyone in the region and helped successful businessmen and women to recognise how philanthropy could help.

People also feel a very strong attachment to the North East region, and they recognise the considerable need that’s been created as a result of deindustrialisation.”

Moving into the 21st Century and philanthropy continues to make its mark on the North East. Alongside previously mentioned businesswoman Helen McArdle, who ran a string of care homes and nurseries, are the founders of Sage Software – David Goldman and Sir Graham Wylie – who have both given generously to local causes. Jonathan Ruffer, a City banker, has also donated a considerable amount of his own wealth to preserve Bishop Auckland Castle and establish a museum and Kynren, an outdoor show retelling England’s history near the town.

“Jonathan Ruffer is currently the single biggest giver [to the North East] and is deploying his cash in the most imaginative ways to create a focus of regeneration for Bishop Aukland,” Professor Harvey adds.

Among the many others who have used their success, status and considerable wealth for good in the North East are footballer Alan Shearer, Fiona Cruickshank (chair of the Community Foundation) and former City banker and now Middlesbrough Mayor, Andy Preston, who has established several charities to support the people of Teesside.

So, what exactly attracts entrepreneurs to philanthropy?

Professor Harvey co-wrote the academic paper ‘Identity, Storytelling and the Philanthropic Journey (2015)’ with Mairi Maclean, Jillian Gordon and Eleanor Shaw, which details several philanthropic rewards for entrepreneurs.

These include satisfying a desire to ‘give back’ and ‘make a difference’, having been financially successful, while also ‘absolving the self ’ from the guilt of benefiting disproportionately.

Other rewards include ‘joining an exclusive club’ of other philanthropists, as well as ‘personal fulfilment’ created by helping in areas that mean something to them.

At least one of these rewards can be attributed to all the local philanthropists mentioned here but, as Professor Harvey explains, the common denominator is a desire to see results the way they have done in business.

He explains: “They don’t want to see the money wasted. They want it put to good use to create opportunity for others and to create a more cohesive society,” he adds.

In an ideal world, philanthropy arguably shouldn’t exist. Communities wouldn’t need to rely on the generosity of a wealthy few and their personal agendas.

But, as Professor Harvey reflects: “Capitalism generates inequality. We can see that today with entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates, earning these mega fortunes. We need to have philanthropy as a way of redressing the imbalance.”

This expert in philanthropy also has clear views as to how the North East can harness more entrepreneurial giving.

“It’s important that the North East has a thriving entrepreneurial economy. More businesses that grow large here, that employ people and create good livelihoods and well-being for those who live here. Philanthropy is a natural counterpart to this,” he says.

The professor is also keen to see what affect the coronavirus pandemic will have.

“It’s still very early but I think for a lot of people, policy-wise, this will be a wakeup call to establish stronger businesses with stronger roots in Britain.”

It seems that for as long as we have a capitalist society, we will have philanthropy, and the stronger the North East economy, its identity and its connection for local entrepreneurs, the more the community will benefit.

The coronavirus pandemic may spark, at present, unknown changes in our society, but one thing is certain – Professor Charles Harvey will be monitoring it all from his office built as a direct result of North East philanthropy.

Philanthropy North East
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