The Forgotten Philanthropist
George Herbert Lawrence is a well known figure to the people of Derbyshire, especially those in the towns and villages that directly benefited from his produce and wealth. Having been brought up with his two sisters by his aunt – following his parents separation – George soon learnt the importance of kindness and hard work and began to take on jobs selling razor blades in newspapers in Sheffield.
Sheffield would play an important role in George’s life, from his childhood and marriage to Elsie Whitham to his profession and his death, and this was best seen in his work in the factories. Lawrence was responsible for the production of the Laurel razor blade at factory in Nursery Street. The brand attracted a lot of attention and this was no doubt due to elaborate marketing schemes where he launched the product with the help of Laurel and Hardy and later produced a gold plated razor. His success soon made him a wealthy man but he was keen to put plenty of money back into the community. He became the director of Sheffield United, where he provided the ground with a roof, and he could also be found refereeing games at an amateur level. Lawrence is quoted as saying “I have made my money in Sheffield and Sheffield shall have the benefits of it.”
George Herbert Lawrence’s impact on Hathersage.
George’s statement may have been well-meaning and sincere but Sheffield was certainly not the only place to benefit from the wealth and generosity of the Lawrences. George and Elsie moved to the nearby village of Hathersage after their marriage and soon began to transform it with gifts. When they heard that a Methodist Chapel was being planned they jumped at the chance to help by offering £5000 to help with the building and purchasing the church organ. There were also plans to donate £7500 towards a hospital in Hope Valley and a fund of £3000 towards a bowling green; however, the biggest gift that George Herbert Lawrence bestowed upon Hathersage was definitely the King George Memorial Field.
The field, which opened in 1936, was an impressive area of leisure with features including a sandpit, band stand and tennis courts but the highlight of it all was the large, stylish outdoor pool. The pool hosted an opening ceremony on July 25th that the whole village could all enjoy; it was attended by George and Elsie Lawrence and Sir Charles Clegg and held a number of swimming and diving displays to show off the new facilities.
The village of Hathersage clearly benefited enormously from the charitable nature of the Lawrences and George continued to help others wherever he could. He appreciation of sport took him away from the pitch at Sheffield to the Millhouse’s Cricket week, he was active in the war effort – playing a part in the Sheffield Newspapers War Relief Fund and giving half a million francs to French troops – and he took the time to look after his staff. He would readily pay for big staff outings, taking care of all the transport and food and providing fond, lasting memories for his workers. Sadly, however, this kind nature would end up playing a big part in his death.
The Sheffield Blitz and Lawrence’s legacy.
The German operation code named Crucible was a a series of deadly raids on the city of Sheffield between the 12th and 15th of December 1940. The planes deliberately focused on factories and places of manufacture to weaken the British effort and this meant that George’s business in Nursery Street was a target. On the second night, George and Elsie decided to do one more kind act for their workers caught up in the conflict and made them a hamper of food and drinks, which George himself personally delivered. It was while he was making this gesture that the air raid siren sounded and George and his staff were forced to hide in the shelter but, despite their apparent safety and prayers, the shelter received a direct hit and many of those inside were killed – including George Lawrence.
In the continuing years of the war, the generous spirit of George Herbert Lawrence continued to help the people of Hathersage through the efforts of his wife Elsie. She did not want the people to suffer because of his loss and vowed, despite her grief, to continue the work and trends that he had started. She became the chairman of G H Lawrence Ltd., carried out the same Christmas traditions as her husband and, three years later, donated a stained glass window to the Methodist Church they were so connected to, choosing a depiction of the ‘The Good Shepherd’ as a way of honouring his memory. It was not just charitable acts such as these that Elsie had to contend with, she also had the unfortunate business task of relocating and restarting production but, rather than shy away from the responsibility, she successfully moved the works and staff to Kelham lsland and sent the output to the armed services.
Remembering George Herbert Lawrence today.
With no children of their own, it was inevitable that the responsibility and inheritance would come down to Elsie and the people of Hathersage and Elsie continued to honour her husband’s nature until her own death. From there the physical reminders of his life and works were left to his young niece Olga and the towns he served. In recognition of this, George Lawrence was one of six people awarded a blue plaque by Derbyshire council in 2013. It was agreed by Hathersage council to put it in the parish rooms beside the map to represent the fact that the whole area had benefited, not just one single building and a member of the Elsie Lawrence Foundation was invited for the unveiling.
There may be few physical remains of his influence and work in Sheffield due to the bombing raids and subsequent demolition but there are reminders of his generosity and skill across the county and his efforts for his home, staff and the war deserve to be remembered.