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Out of Time: The Life of Samuel Fox, Founder of Nottingham Building Society

1 January 21 illustrations: Natalie Owen

We take a look at the life of philanthropist, educator, anti-slavery campaigner and founder of the Nottingham Building Society, Samuel Fox...

How do you measure the achievements of a man’s life? In an increasingly secular world, where the here and now seemingly matters more and more, by what yardstick do we quantify whether a life is well lived, or whether a legacy is worth remembering? Kingdoms fall, buildings crumble and money goes to waste, so the only true measure of a man’s life, as John Galsworthy wrote, “is the sum of his actions, of what he has done, of what he can do. Nothing else.”

When Samuel Fox passed away aged 87 in 1868, a reporter from The Nottinghamshire Guardian, who had witnessed his funeral, wrote the following:

“During the last half century no name has been better known in Nottingham, or its possessor more generally respected, than that of Samuel Fox. His active benevolence, high principle, unswerving integrity, and honesty of purpose, caused him to be respected by men of all shades of religion and politics.”

Samuel Fox, known affectionately as ‘Sammy’, was born in 1781 to a devout Quaker family. His mother, Mary, was a flax dresser, while his father William had opened a grocer’s store in 1775, a business which Samuel would eventually take over. 

His religion heavily influenced the manner by which he ran his shop – queues were split into men’s and women’s, while all assistants were ‘tee-totallers and serious minded people’ who wore traditional Quaker dress consisting of a lavender gown, white shawl, low shoes and lavender silk bonnet. It was the Quakers who were the first to introduce the idea of fixed prices in their shops, where everyone paid the same, and Fox always insisted that customers should be served in order of arrival, regardless of their class or wealth. 

In 1798, Fox is credited with establishing the first ‘adult school’ on East Street in partnership with a Methodist named William Singleton. The impact of his actions cannot be overstated, as in the late 18th century, reading and writing comprehension among the labouring classes was incredibly rare. The only real opportunity a working-class adult had to learn to read or write came at the charity of such schools, and the host of dedicated voluntary teachers who manned them. Fox’s own passion for education saw him teach arithmetic three mornings a week, and all younger assistants from his store were encouraged to attend. 

The cholera outbreak of 1832 saw Fox align himself with The Nottingham Board of Health, an unofficial body that had assembled to help fight the deadly disease. That year alone there were over 800 cases out of a population of 50,000, of which 330 would be fatal. At a time of great civil unrest, just a year after the Reform Bill riots saw Nottingham Castle burned down, the city was home to some of the worst slums in Europe, including the Narrow Marsh and Broad Marsh areas, where many of the deaths occurred. If any proof were needed that history repeats itself, the powers that be were woefully ill prepared to handle the pandemic, and the city was soon out of places to bury the dead. It was Fox who purchased and provided land for a new cemetery, establishing the plot now known as St. Mary’s Rest Garden. 

If the value of a life is measured in altruism, philanthropy and bettering the condition of those around you, Nottingham never had a finer son than Samuel Fox

Eight years later, Fox attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention at Exeter Hall in London. Coming six years after the British Government passed the Slavery Abolishment Act in 1834, the convention’s mission was: “The universal extinction of slavery and the slave trade and the protection of the rights and interests of the enfranchised population in the British possessions and of all persons captured as slaves.” The cause inspired Fox to such an extent that, upon his return to Nottingham, he became one of the Secretaries of the Nottingham Anti-Slavery Society. 

1847 saw Nottingham hit by an economic slump, causing huge levels of unemployment as up to fifty shops in the town centre closed. Death rates rose sharply, due to under-nourishment and starvation, and the Mayor of Nottingham was distressed by a report in a national newspaper that “25,000 people in Nottingham were reduced to eating putrid horseflesh.” While that particular headline may have proven hyperbolic, the fact remained that Nottingham was facing a serious famine. Through the contacts he had made with his grocery business, Fox was able to obtain great stocks of maize flour, the cheap substitute for other cereals which, at the time, had never been seen in the city before. Deciding to sell the maize for less than he had bought it for, Fox sacrificed his own finances in order to save countless lives. Even during three years of famine, he steadfastly stuck to his rules of serving customers in the order they arrived. One story from the famine tells of a street merchant who, while passing by Fox’s store, stumbled and tipped his cart full of wares into the mud. With his only source of income spoiled, the desolate man was approached by Fox who, having witnessed the incident, immediately purchased the ruined stock. 

In 1849, Fox created perhaps the most lasting contribution to his legacy, leading a group to create the Nottingham Building Society. The purpose of the society was to promote the construction of a better class of dwellings, suitable for the working and middle classes. He’d been running a savings scheme since the 1830s for students in the Adult School, and this presented the opportunity to provide a reputable, secure place for small savings. The Nottingham Building Society now has 48 branches across eleven counties.

How do you measure the achievements of a man’s life? There are people from Nottingham who acquired more wealth, status and glory than Fox, but there are few that left a more lasting positive impact on those who needed help the most. He fed the starving, improved the conditions for the most desolate, provided a free education for the disenfranchised and, when his city needed him, answered the call with his own money. If the value of a life is measured in altruism, philanthropy and bettering the condition of those around you, Nottingham never had a finer son than Samuel Fox. 

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