Henry Birchenough

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Sir John Henry Birchenough, 1st Baronet, GCMG (7 March 1853 – 12 May 1937) was an English businessman and public servant.

Early life and education[edit]

Birchenough was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, the second son of John Birchenough, a silk manufacturer. He was educated firstly at Strathmore House, Southport, then subsequently at the University of Oxford, University College, London (BA, 1873; MA, 1876),[1] and the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, Paris.[2]


In the mid-19th century, Macclesfield had a thriving silk industry, and Birchenough joined the family silk business, John Birchenough & Sons, as a partner with his father and two brothers, Walter Edwin Birchenough (the father of the Very Reverend Godwin Birchenough) and William Taylor Birchenough. The latter was married to Jane Peacock, daughter of Richard Peacock MP, the locomotive manufacturer.

The Birchenoughs, who were Methodists, were a prominent business family in Macclesfield, and Henry's father, a Liberal, served as mayor of the town in 1876. In common with other silk manufacturing families in Macclesfield Henry Birchenough was engaged in supporting local charities and served variously as the chairman of the Technical School, the School of Art and the "Useful Knowledge Society" in Macclesfield.[3]

Later in life whilst Chairman of the Beit Railway Trust, Birchenough supported Ruzawi School in Southern Rhodesia. The school named a large dormitory block the Birchenough Building in recognition of the work he had done on behalf of the school, particularly in the field of raising funds for the new buildings.[4]

As well as being a partner in the family silk business Birchenough was also a director of the Imperial and Continental Gas Association and of British Exploration of Australia Ltd, and later served as president of the Macclesfield Chamber of Commerce.[5]

Birchenough became a close friend of Alfred Milner, the future Lord Milner, and the two shared lodgings in London prior to Birchenough's marriage.[6] Their friendship was to endure until Milner's death.

Birchenough was a member of the Reform Club, Brooks's,[7] the Ranelagh, and the City of London Club[8]

South Africa[edit]

After the South African War, and at the suggestion of Lord Milner, the British Government sent Birchenough to South Africa as Special Trade Commissioner in 1903 to enquire into prospects for British trade in the country in the aftermath of the war. According to a November 1903 New York Times article, Birchenough was optimistic about the revival of business opportunities for Britain in the country.[9] In South Africa, he also undertook a study of the activities of Britain's main trade rivals, identifying the United States and Germany as being the main competitors in the country. Birchenough also laid out a number of suggestions to be considered to increase the United Kingdom's competitive edge; these and the rest of his report were incorporated into a Blue Book.[10] For this work, he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1905 Birthday Honours.[11]

He became a director of the British South Africa Company in 1905 and soon became prominent in the company, being appointed Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the 1916 Birthday Honours for services to Rhodesia.[12] He became president of the BSAC in 1925 and held the post until his death. He was also chairman of the Rhodesia Railway Company and the Mashonaland Railway Company from 1925 until his death.[13] He was a Director of the Victoria Falls Power Company and the African Concessions Syndicate.[14]He was a Fellow of both the Royal Empire Society [13] and the Royal Geographical Society. [15]

Birchenough was also chairman of the Beit Railway Trust from 1931 until 1937. After his death, his ashes were interred in a pillar of the Birchenough Bridge, which had been constructed with the support of the Beit Trust and which spans the Save River in Zimbabwe.

He was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) in the 1935 Birthday Honours for services to the British South Africa Company and the Beit Trust.[16]

Government committees[edit]

By 1904, Birchenough was a member of the committee under Joseph Chamberlain that produced the Tariff Commission report on the steel industry and trade, and the textile industry and fabrics.[5] In 1906, he was appointed to the Royal Commission on Shipping Rings, and was also a member of the Advisory Committee to the Board of Trade.

He worked with the Board of Trade during the First World War, chairing the After the War Textiles Committee from 1916, the Royal Commission on Paper from 1917, and the Committee on Cotton Growing in the Empire from 1917, and sitting on the Central Committee of Materials Supply and the Committee on Commercial and Industrial Policy under Lord Balfour of Burleigh from 1916.[13]

From 1918 he chaired the Advisory Council to the Ministry of Reconstruction.[13]

In 1919, under the chairmanship of Birchenough, the Advisory Council to the Ministry of Reconstruction produced the Report of the Committee of Chairmen[17] on Electric Power Supply. The committee were asked to submit general comments or suggestions on the broad administrative and commercial issues arising out of the Williamson Report which had been produced by the Electric Power Supply Committee in 1917. The Birchenough Committee generally agreed with the Williamson Report but recommended that generation and transmission should be a single unified system with a state regulation and finance and that means should be found for including distribution as well.

This recommendation was very far-sighted but considered to ambitious for general acceptance at the time and was ignored. If acted upon it would have anticipated the Electricity Act 1947 by twenty-eight years.[18]

The Electricity (Supply) Act 1919, was based essentially on the Williamson and Birchenough reports and introduced central co-ordination by establishing the Electricity Commissioners, an official body responsible for securing reorganisation on a regional basis.[19]

Birchenough was also a government director of the British Dyestuffs Corporation.

For these war services, he was created a baronet in the 1920 New Year Honours.[20]

Contributions to contemporary imperial discourse[edit]

Together with Milner, Birchenough was a member of the Coefficients dining club,[21] founded at a dinner given by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in September 1902, and which was a forum for the meeting of British socialist reformers and imperialists of the Edwardian era.

He also contributed to two compilations of essays and lectures in the pre First World War period regarding imperial thinking. These included The Empire and the Century: A Series of Essays on Imperial Problems and Possibilities, published in 1905 by John Murray.

In 1911, he contributed to "The British Dominions", a lecture tour at Birmingham University in the winter of 1910–1911. The lectures were subsequently edited by William Ashley, the economic historian, and published by Longmans Green and Co in 1911.

Birchenough was also a member of council for the Royal Statistical Society,[22] and a councillor for the Royal Colonial Institute.[23]

The Patriotic Association of Macclesfield and the National Service League[edit]

In 1900, Birchenough joined with Thomas Coglan Horsfall to instigate the Patriotic Association of Macclesfield, which was envisaged as a feeder for the local Volunteer Force.[24] Subsequently, he became president of the Association whilst Horsfall became treasurer. In early 1902, the National Service League was formed in London. Birchenough sat on the executive committee of the League.[25]

Progressing with the same theme, in July 1904 Birchenough published an article in the Nineteenth Century and After entitled "Compulsory Education and Compulsory Military Training", where he linked compulsory military training with the need for creating national efficiency.

Suffragettes and women in society[edit]

On 24 March 1877, at the age of 24, having completed his MA, Birchenough appeared alongside Lydia Becker, Alice Cliff Scatcherd, and other early suffragettes to discuss women’s access to the vote in Macclesfield.[26] The chairman, J. W. White, addressed the meeting saying that "it appeared somewhat strange that whereas the British Parliament had been engaged from time to time for many years back in conferring rights and removing disabilities, there should still exist any large and intelligent section of society outside the electoral community. They had not yet found any good reason given for excluding from parliamentary suffrage women who had already voted in municipal and school board elections; therefore they intended to reiterate their demands until they were conceded". Birchenough and Scatcherd seconded the first resolution, which was moved by J. O. Nicholson. In the same year he is recorded as having given two pounds and two shillings to the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage.

Birchenough’s immediate family retained links to early women's rights activists and Emily Faithfull served as witness to the marriage of Birchenough’s brother William Taylor Birchenough. In her book Three Visits to America, Faithfull writes the following about the Birchenough silk mills:

"No one could desire to see women looking more healthy than the operatives in some of our factories in Manchester, Bradford, and, Halifax. I shall long remember going through Messrs.Birchenough's silk mills at Macclesfield.Certainly the occasion was an exceptional one.The eldest son had been married the day before, and the entire place had been decorated by the operatives to commemorate the event.The walls were adorned by appropriate mottoes, even unique representations of the bridal ceremony had been devised,and everything betokened the happy understanding existing there between labor and capital."[27]

In 1905, Birchenough became a member of the industrial committee of the Victoria League,[28] an Edwardian imperialist women's organisation. Founders of the Victoria League included Violet Markham, Edith Lyttelton, and Violet Cecil. After the death of her husband, Lord Edward Cecil, in 1918, the latter subsequently married Birchenough's friend Alfred Milner in 1921.

The First World War and the conscription debate[edit]

In 1915, Birchenough was a signatory with a number of other "distinguished men of all parties" including Admiral Lord Charles Beresford of a manifesto which appeared in the Morning Post calling for a "complete and organised effort to carry on the war requiring all men to either fight or be available for national service at home".[29] The manifesto followed a series of letters which had appeared in the Morning Post and attracted support from diverse figures including Neville Chamberlain, Sir H. Rider Haggard, and Lord Northcliffe. Subsequently the Morning Post included further signatories to the manifesto.[30] The manifesto did undermine the legitimacy of the National Service League which decided not to actively participate in the manifesto campaign.[29]


Henry Birchenough married to Mabel Charlotte, third daughter of George Granville Bradley, Dean of Westminster in December 1886. Alfred Milner was best man.[31] Mabel, like her sister Margaret,[32] was a writer and the author of The Popular Guide to Westminster Abbey (1885), Disturbing Elements (1896), Potsherds (1898), and Private Bobs and the New Recruit (1901). One of Birchenough's nephews, William Taylor Birchenough (son of William Taylor Birchenough of Gawsworth Hall), played in the famous Eton v. Harrow Fowler's match in 1910 and another, the Very Reverend Godwin Birchenough, became Dean of Ripon.

Birchenough had two daughters, but no sons, and so the baronetcy became extinct on his death.


  • "Do Foreign Annexations Injure British Trade?", article published in Nineteenth Century, 1897
  • "England's Opportunity", article published in Nineteenth Century, July 1897
  • "The Expansion of Germany", article published in Nineteenth Century, February 1898
  • "The future of Egypt: The Niger and the Nile, a warning", article published in Nineteenth Century, 1898
  • "The Imperial Function of Trade", article published in Nineteenth Century, 1899
  • "Local Beginnings of Imperial Defence: an Example", article published in Nineteenth Century, 1900
  • "A Civilian View", article published in Nineteenth Century, 1900
  • "A Business View of South African Pacification", article published in Nineteenth Century and After, 1901
  • "Mr Chamberlain as an Empire Builder", article published in Nineteenth Century and After, 1902
  • "Preferential Tariffs within The Empire – A Reply to Sir Robert Giffen", article published in Nineteenth Century and After, 1902
  • Commercial mission to South Africa: report received from Mr. Henry Birchenough, the special commissioner appointed by the Board of Trade to inquire into and report upon the present position and future prospects of British trade in South Africa, HMSO, 1903 [33]
  • "Compulsory Education and Compulsory Military Training", article published in Nineteenth Century and After, July 1904
  • "Some Effects of The War upon British and German Trade in South Africa", article published in the Journal of the African Society, 1915
  • Report of the Departmental Committee appointed by the Board of Trade to consider the position of the textile trades after the war, 1918 (Birchenough chaired the committee)
  • Report of the Empire cotton growing committee, HMSO, 1920 (Birchenough chaired the committee)


  1. ^ http://archives.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/resources/general_register_part_3.pdf
  2. ^ http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/edward-walford/the-county-families-of-the-united-kingdom-or-royal-manual-of-the-titled-and-un-fla/page-34-the-county-families-of-the-united-kingdom-or-royal-manual-of-the-titled-and-un-fla.shtml
  3. ^ Sarah Jane Griffiths PHD Thesis Liverpool University 2006
  4. ^ George Henry Tanser; Phillippa Berlyn (1967). Rhodesian panorama. G. H. Tanser and P. Christie. pp. 136–. Sir Henry Birchenough of the Beit Trust came to the rescue and the school was bought out by a company — Ruzawi ... New buildings were put up in 1937 to create proper boarding facilities for the ninety pupils, but these were still not enough. ... Intervention of the Second World War halted the drive of the country's progress, but did little to remove the numbers off the long waiting list for Ruzawi School. 
  5. ^ a b Volume 1 Tariff Commission Report, Steel industry and trade – England; Textile industry and fabrics, London, 1904
  6. ^ The Anglo-American Establishment Caroll Quigley 1981
  7. ^ Burke's genealogical and heraldic history of the peerage, baronetage and knightage 1914 page 2172
  8. ^ https://archive.org/stream/kellyshandbookto1897londuoft/kellyshandbookto1897londuoft_djvu.txt
  9. ^ "On The London Exchange". The New York Times. 23 November 1903. 
  10. ^ Platt, Milton J. (13 December 1903). "OUR SOUTH AFRICAN MARKET; Conclusions from the Report of the British Board of Trade Commissioner". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 27811. p. 4549. 27 June 1905.
  12. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29608. p. 5557. 2 June 1916.
  13. ^ a b c d Biography, Who Was Who
  14. ^ The Anglo-African Who's Who and Biographical Sketchbook, 1907
  15. ^ http://www.forgottenbooks.com/download_pdf/A_List_of_the_Honorary_Members_Fellows_and_Associate_Members_1000694638.pdf
  16. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 34166. p. 3597. 31 May 1935.
  17. ^ Viscount Haldane, Sir Archibald Williamson and Sir Charles Parsons
  18. ^ The Transmission of Electricity in England and Wales; land use and amenities, Goulty, George A, PHD thesis, Durham University 1969
  19. ^ "Electricity Supply in the UK: A chronology"The Electricity Council, 1987, ISBN 0-85188-105-X
  20. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31712. p. 2. 30 December 1919.
  21. ^ "Archives Catalogue – Coefficients". LSE Library. 
  22. ^ Who's Who of Southern Africa, 1911
  23. ^ http://scans.library.utoronto.ca/pdf/2/34/no4journalofroyalco39royauoft/no4journalofroyalco39royauoft.pdf
  24. ^ Sarah Jane Griffiths PHD Thesis Liverpool University 2006 Charitable work of the Macclesfield silk manufacturers, 1750–1900
  25. ^ http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56558776
  26. ^ http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/wmsuffpr8&div=5&id=&page=
  27. ^ Page 325, Three Visits to America, Emily Faithfull. Publisher Fowler and Wells, 753 Broadway 1884
  28. ^ Elizabeth L Riedi, PHD Thesis, University of St Andrews, 1998, Imperialist Women In Edwardian Britain: The Victoria League 1899–1914 http://hdl.handle.net/10023/2820
  29. ^ a b Matthew Hendley PHD University of Toronto 1998, Patriotic Leagues and the Evolution of Popular Patriotism and Imperialism in Great Britain 1914–1932
  30. ^ For full list of signatories and a copy of the Manifesto see Cambrian Daily Leader, Monday 16 August 1915: http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4099829/6
  31. ^ http://www.adshead.com/adshead/FONS-W54.pdf
  32. ^ Martha S. Vogeler, 'Woods , Margaret Louisa (1855–1945)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  33. ^ Bavarian State Library: http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/0006/bsb00068935/images/index.html?id=00068935&fip=qrsfsdreayasdasfsdrxdsydwewqw&no=&seite=2