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From the Eastern Daily Press, Friday, Mar 3, 2000:

Private man with an affinity for Norfolk


John Gurney, who has died aged 94, was a fascinating blend of workaholic, benefactor, quiet eccentric and private individual. Eton and Oxford-educated Mr Gurney had impressive credentials in the business world, including rescuing the fine art publishers the Medici Society from bankruptcy and running its affairs for 65 years, and also being for a long time the largest shareholder in Barclays Bank - of which Gurney's Bank had been a predecessor. Mr Gurney of Walsingham Abbey, kept working in London regularly until he was 87 and only stopped when his eyesight failed and he found the regular train trips south too much for him.

Despite spending large parts of him time in the capital, he had a deep affinity for the Norfolk countryside and people. His impact on the county has been immense and much of the land now occupied by the University of East Anglia was given by him anonymously. He also supported many local charities over the years. And the habit of doing good by stealth was a mark of the man, who was born at Sprowston Hall in July 1905.

The Gurney name has been one of the best known in Norfolk for many generations, with a strong Quaker influence apparent. Well-known prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was born a Gurney. Frugality was also a key word for Mr Gurney, who loved the simple things of life and never entertained extravagance.

He lived in a very basic room during his time in London and he even removed the heaters from his early car to discourage spending long periods in the vehicle and "wasting" fuel. The fact that Mr Gurney was such a private person meant that many of the anecdotes about him have only emerged since his death.

He would often call on tenants and neighbours - generally unannounced - and they would find he had brought with him his own picnic which he would eat sitting in his car in their drive. He was a business man by accident, and if he had had his own way, would have used his chemistry degree to become a scientist. At 22 he inherited from his father Eustace Gurney the Walsingham Estate and took charge of the Medici Society.

He joined the Territorial Army in the Royal Norfolk Regiment and from 1940-43 he served in the West African Frontier Force, before being invalided out of the army.

Mr Gurney had a sense of duty to turn around the fortunes of the Medici Society and under his leadership there was a growth in scope and reputation.

He was a Patron of Living at Walsingham and was always sensitive to appoint clergy who would suit the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the parish church. Mr Gurney's faith led him to worship in a low-church surrounding and he preferred the simpler rites in the adjoining parishes of Great and Little Snoring.

Mr Gurney sat on the Bench for 45 years in Norfolk and played a great part in prolonging the court at Walsingham.

He married Ann Howard Ogilvy in 1932. She died in 1997. They had five daughters.


COMMENT [on the leader page}:

His Own Man

John Gurney, the head of a great Norfolk family, was born to wealth. But he made no show of it. Quite the opposite, indeed. Noticing his well-word clothes, a fellow passenger on a train once tried to give him some money.

He gave very generously himself, but also coyly, to good causes. A large part of the land where the University of East Anglia now stands was given by him - anonymously.

His eccentricities were numerous. The master of Walsingham Abbey lived in very modest accommodation in London, and re-soled his own shoes. Though anti-social he will be much missed. A great one-off.

© Eastern Counties Newspapers Transcribed by E.C.Apling, March 2000.

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