The name of Ferens is well-known throughout Hull. The city’s Art Gallery bears his name, and 'Ferensway' is one of the main roads through the city. He was a generous benefactor, successful businessman and MP in the city.
Thomas Robinson Ferens was born on 4 May 1847 in County Durham, the son of a miller. At the age of 19 he moved to Hull to work as a clerk to Mr James Reckitt. He progressed through the company of Reckitt and Sons, eventually rising to Chairman.
Ferens became very wealthy but his Methodist upbringing meant that he used his wealth for the benefit of others. He made gifts to the city totalling over £1m (equivalent to £45m today), funding a variety of causes including the city's art gallery and the formation of Hull University.
Ferens had a great love of art and he believed that it could have a moral and spiritual effect on the viewer. In 1905 he gave money to the city for the purchase of new works of art and started a campaign for the city to have its own dedicated art gallery.
In 1917 he gave £35,000 and the site of St John’s Church, Queen Victoria Square for the construction of a new art gallery and the Ferens Art Gallery was opened in November 1927. The following year he gave additional money for the purchase of new works of art and donated more than thirty paintings from his own collection.
Ferens generously gave £250,000 towards the founding of Hull’s new University College and also supplied the original 18 acre site on Cottingham Road. The foundation stone for the new University College was laid in 1928, by the Duke of York. Once the College was built, Ferens endowed a further £240,000.
Ferens served the city as Liberal Member of Parliament for East Hull between 1906 and 1918, having first stood for election in 1900 when he was defeated by 836 votes. However, six years later, he won with a majority of 2,362 votes and celebrated this by giving a sovereign to each Reckitt employee.
Recognition and Honours
In October 1911, Ferens was presented with the Freedom of the City of Hull. In the following year he was made a member of the Privy Council by King George V, and later in the year he became High Steward of Hull. Although Ferens was honoured in these ways, throughout his life he never sought recognition for his efforts.
Death and Tributes
Following a few weeks of illness, Ferens died on Friday 9 May 1930. Two funeral services were held at the same time in the city, one at Brunswick Church and the other at Holy Trinity Church. As his wife Esther had died eight years previously and they had no children, their home, Holderness House, was left to be used as a ‘home for poor gentlewomen’.
It is clear from sentiments expressed in Hull’s newspaper obituaries that Ferens had been held in great respect and affection. The Hull Times had the headline ‘Hull Loses a Lovable and Sterling Character’. The pages contained many tributes, one of them by the Principal of the Hull University College, who remarked that ‘Hull will seem empty without him’.
Although Ferens was not born in Hull, it was his home for over sixty years and it became his ‘adopted city’. It is said that when he first moved to Hull, he had only two shillings that his mother had given him. He amassed great wealth through ability and hard work and then used this fortune to help others. As a result, thousands of people in the city and the surrounding region have benefited over the years.