The Backhouse Family
The Quaker Backhouse family had many business interests. These included the Stockton and Darlington Railway, horticulture and botany and banking. Several were also active Quaker ministers.
Like many other Quaker bankers, their interest grew alongside their main business which was flax-dressing and linen manufacture. By integrating banking with manufacturing the family could both advance credit to their customers and receive it from their suppliers. In 1759 James Backhouse secured the agency of the Royal Exchange Assurance Company. In 1774 he formed a partnership with his eldest son Jonathan and four years later was joined by his nephew James in the banking firm of J and J Backhouse. This bank developed an extensive network in county Durham. After the death of James senior the title of the bank changed to Jonathan Backhouse & Co. As with other Quaker banking families inter-marriage strengthened their financial position.
The bank became involved in the financing of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first public railway to use steam locomotives. The first application to Parliament for permission to construct the railway failed because the Earl of Darlington, a great fox hunter, did not want the railway to pass close to his covers. The earl attempted to bankrupt the bank by accumulating the bank’s paper notes to the point where their value exceeded the gold stock. James Backhouse foiled this by sending a coach to London to obtain additional bullion stocks. On the return journey the coach lost a wheel but the bullion's weight proved to be a godsend - the chaise was balanced by placing the gold at an appropriate point over the rear axle. In 1821 the railway gained Parliamentary approval. Jonathan Backhouse was the first treasurer to the railway company, a position that he relinquished in order to become a full-time minister for the Quakers.
Under later generations the bank experienced mixed fortunes. In 1896 it merged with two other banks that had Quaker origins, Gurneys of Norwich and Barclays of London to form Barclay & Co of Lombard Street.
The Backhouse family were well connected with other Quaker families, strengthened by marriage. In 1811 Jonathan Backhouse junior married Hannah Chapman the elder daughter of Joseph Gurney, a private banker from Norwich. They were also closely allied with the Pease family through the marriage of Joseph Pease and Emma Gurney in 1826.
Several members of the Backhouse family were nurserymen and plant breeders. As a boy James (1794-1869) became fascinated with plants after he inherited his brother’s herbarium. In his youth he was apprenticed to a nursery in Norwich. Later he and his brother Thomas bought the nursery that belonged to the Telford family in York.
James was passionately interested in the welfare of his fellow man. After the death of his wife Deborah in 1827, as part of his ministry as a Quaker he undertook to go on a journey to Australia with his friend George Washington Walker. They set off in 1831 and were away for nine years. They inspected the conditions under which the convicts, who had been transported to Australia, were living and also those of the Aboriginal people and the settlers. Their visit marked the beginning of the history of Friends in Australia.
During this time James sent many specimen plants back to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He also kept detailed records about the plant species that they saw. His letters to the Director of Kew, Joseph Hooker, are now in the library of the Royal Botanic Garden. They also visited Mauritius and South Africa. He wrote about his experiences in two books ‘A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies’ (1843) and ‘A Narrative of a Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa’ (1844).
When he returned from his travels he set up a larger nursery in Holgate York. The family specialised in the breeding of alpine plants, for which they became world famous and had several species named after them. When James died the nursery passed to his son, also called James. The Backhouse family were associated with the nursery until it closed in 1955.
In 1964 Australia Yearly Meeting established the annual James Backhouse Lectures. They are public lectures on contemporary issues of significance to Quakers and the community at large.