Sir Alfred James Newton

Have you watched the TV series ‘Mr Selfridge‘? It may interest you to know that Chislehurst can count an equally illustrious retailer amongst its Victorian populace. Whilst researching the true facts around the life of Sir Malcolm Campbell I came across this innocuous line in Webb’s history of Chislehurst in connection with Campbell’s second home here, Northwood. ‘Northwood was built by Alderman Newton in 1887′.
Interested to learn more about the man who had sold his home to William Campbell, Malcolm’s father, I checked the 1891 census. Sure enough, Alfred Newton was listed at Northwood and intriguingly his occupation was listed as ship owner and Alderman. Not one to let that go I googled the late Alderman and learned that he was also the first Chairman of Harrods.

Alfred James Newton (pictured right) was born in Hull in 1846. He started his working life at the age of 17 as a yeast merchant, and by the age of nineteen he was already working for himself. He extended his business to London and also joined his older brother in the steamship business. Hull local archives confirm that there was a company operating out of the Humber called Newton Bros, Ship Chandlers and registered ship owners.

With his wife, Elizabeth, and two children he moved south to Chislehurst. He became prominent in the Mendel Group, a syndicate of financiers identified with the idea of building a series of big retail stores. He was also Director of the Campos Syndicate, Colchester Brewing Company, London and Provincial Automatic Machine Company; Stratford-upon-Avon, Towcester, etc., the Railway Company, the Trustee Industrial Insurance Company, the Oriental and Sheba Valley United Gold Mining Company, the President Land Company, the British Commercial Corporation, the Empire Palace, the Gaiety Theatre, the Newbury Vautin (Patents) Gold Extraction Company, and the New Zealand Gold Extraction Company.

He was elected Sheriff of London in 1888. The Daily Telegraph in its obituary notice of him recalls his year of office as the ‘most brilliant in the annals of the Corporation’. The year was notable for granting the Freedom of the City to Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). As Sheriff, Sir Alfred also visited the Paris Exhibition in this year.

In 1889 Harrods was formed into a limited liability company and businessman Alfred Newton was selected to head the Board as its first Chairman. Newton is described in The History of Harrods as ‘shrewd’ and had on certain occasions to override his fellow Directors in strategic decisions.

He brought his business skills to bear when he entered the Corporation of London first as Master of Framework Knitters in 1895, then he became Master of Girdlers in 1898 and finally Master of the Worshipful Company of Fanmakers, and an Alderman in the ward of Bassishaw in 1890, a tiny ward in the City Of London based on Basinghall Street. He was made Lord Mayor of London in 1899-1900.

During his Mayoralty he was appointed Governor of The Irish Society. Even more significantly he launched an appeal for raising and equipping the City Imperial Volunteer Force. He obtained a grant of £25,000 from the Court of Common Council and persuaded the Livery Companies, bankers and merchants of London to contribute to the total fund of £120,000 for weapons and supplies. Given his position within Harrods, very little persuasion was required before the store provided massive support with items such as helmets, saddles, mules and provisions, sufficient for it to claim to have equipped the CIV almost single-handedly. The CIV went into action under Field Marshall Lord Roberts and captured Bloemfontein and Pretoria. One wonders if Sir Alfred was recalling the story of another Chislehurst Boer War connection, that of the fall of The Prince Imperial.

On the 18th May 1900 he was created a Baron in recognition of his services to his country in its hour of need. He became Baron Newton of The Wood, Sydenham; after the substantial home, which still exists (in flats and Grade 2 listed) today. This was where he moved to after selling up to William Campbell, in 1894.

Sir Alfred, as he was now known, also stood unsuccessfully for the parliamentary seat of West Southwark in 1900, probably as a Conservative,. He was a busy man!

Sir Alfred was well known for his interest in the well-being of his staff and he contributed to sports funds and summer camps for them. Following the legislation of another former Chislehurst resident, Sir John Lubbock, Sir Arthur was an enthusiastic champion of early closing and Saturday half day holidays for his staff.

In June 1921 Sir Alfred suddenly collapsed and died in his car outside the jewellery door of Harrods while on his way to conduct business. He was 75. Apparently, according to a Times report of the coroners inquest, his death was contributed to strychnine poisoning. A medical certificate had been produced to show that it would have been ‘dangerous’ for Lady Newton to attend the inquest: her son, Harry, commented that he did not think there were ever a man or woman who so loved each other. A bottle of medicine from which Sir Arthur took a single dose contained enough strychnine to kill about 60 people. Sir Arthur was said in any case to have been already a very sick man by this time.

If you walk along the Embankment today you will see, at Temple, a monument dedicated to the last visit of Queen Victoria to the City of London. Sir Arthur’s name is inscribed on the stone as it occurred during his Mayoralty. A fitting permanent memorial to an upstanding citizen of the city.

Notes by Joanna Friel