Until his recent biography was published, there were only two facts circulating in Hull about Zachariah Pearson: he was the philanthropist who donated Pearson Park to the population of Hull – which made him a ‘goodie’, and he was the Mayor who upset everyone with his spectacular bankruptcy – which made him a ‘baddie’. There were, however, many other aspects to this remarkable man who did so much for his beloved Hull.
Zachariah was born in humble circumstances, but when his mother died in childbirth he was sent, aged four, with his sisters to live with an uncle – a man of means. He ran away to sea aged 12, but was returned to complete his education at Hull Grammar School. Then, aged 16, he became a ship’s boy, proving himself so adept that he was captain by the age of 21. Acquiring his first ship, aged 25, he traded judiciously, eventually becoming one of the foremost shipowners of his day.
He married Mary Ann Coleman in 1844, and they had eight children, seven of whom survived infancy. Zachariah progressed from sail to steam, from captain to ship-owner, and from modest means to wealth. In 1854 he went into partnership with brother-in-law James Coleman, forming the firm of Pearson, Coleman and Co. with premises in the High Street. They combined a timber trade in the Baltic with transatlantic business, gradually adding more passenger income to their freight trade as they improved the standard of accommodation in their steamers.
In the mid-1850s the colonisers in Australia were in desperate need of infrastructure and more population, which provided a new opportunity for the family firm, and Edward Coleman, Zachariah’s father-in-law, settled there as his agent to import building materials. In 1858 the firm won a plum contract to carry mail between Australia and New Zealand, and the Intercontinental Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was launched, their coastal vessels also being the main source of passenger transport in countries without roads.
With his increasing prominence in Hull, Zachariah started his climb up the civic ladder in 1856 as Councillor for West Sculcoates, becoming Sheriff in 1858 and Mayor the following year. He had a burning desire to further the trade of Hull, and initiated the West Dock scheme to streamline the docks and make them efficient. Throughout his life he was a member of Trinity House, and was frequently sent to Whitehall to advise the government on maritime policy.
Coming from humble roots, he never forgot the poor, and became increasingly philanthropic with his money, endowing charities, contributing to the repair of Holy Trinity Church, and building the Beverley Road Wesleyan Chapel (now a Masonic Centre, since the front section was destroyed by bomb-damaged during WW2). He initiated the building of a new Town Hall, and ensured a supply of clean water to the town from the artesian springs at Stone Ferry. A contemporaneous sketch-writer depicts Zachariah as ‘one of life’s nice fellows’.
When he donated the land for Pearson Park, Zachariah had a double aim: to provide recreation space with fresh air for the mill workers, and to create an attractive residential area to seduce the rich merchants of Hull to stay in the town furthering its wealth rather than leave the polluted town. The council was to lay out the park, but Zachariah had a business plan to reimburse them when the villa plots were sold.
In August 1860 he threw a ‘Colossal Fete’ to hand over the deeds of the park. Special trains and boats were laid on, and 40,000 people from across the north of England converged on the plot of land just to the west of the Beverley Road to enjoy two days of entertainment and feasting.
As a shipowner, Zachariah had his fair share of disasters, but in terms of trading and running his shipping lines there were few to touch him – until he departed from what he knew. When in 1860 he chartered the paddle-steamer ‘Orwell’ to Garibaldi to help in the Reunification of Italy, she was hijacked and used for pirating in the Mediterranean – and Zachariah lost £7,500. Around the same time, he inadvertently bought six steamers he did not need on credit, due to some shady dealings by the unprincipled, and later discredited, bank of Overend and Gurney. His partner left him and, now trading as Z. C. Pearson and Co., he made his next disastrous decision when the American Civil War started in 1861.
Because the Confederate US ports were blockaded and unable to export cotton to the UK, the two Hull cotton mills closed causing mass poverty and hunger, so Zachariah, now Mayor for the second time, deployed some of his spare vessels to trade with the Confederates and bring back cotton with which to re-open the mills. But his were commercial vessels, not the sleek fast models needed for successful blockade-running, and he lost all 10 of his ships and their cargoes.
The Bankruptcy Commissioner who heard his case was sympathetic and threw out two of the four charges, but the result was still a spectacular bankruptcy of £646,000. Zachariah had not only upset his creditors, but also the town council, as his park business plan was now shattered – the assignees took all the money from the villa plot sales. Zachariah was now persona non grata, and airbrushed out of all proceedings.
He had commissioned the statue of Queen Victoria that sits in the park today, and paid the sculptor a handsome deposit, but it became the property of the assignees. Eventually, Mayor Moss bought it from them, paying the rest of the fee – but today only Moss’s name appears on the statue.
Zachariah spent the rest of his life living at No. 64 Pearson Park, gradually rebuilding his reputation as a man of honour and one of Hull’s great philanthropists. He died in 1891 and is buried in Springbank Cemetery.
Text kindly written by Marian Shaw, May 2017
Shaw, M., 2016, ‘Zachariah Pearson: Man of Hull – a tale of philanthropy, boom and bust’, The Grimsay Press: Edinburgh