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Horsley, (George) Nicholas Sewardlocked

  • John Orbell

Horsley, (George) Nicholas Seward (1934–2004), businessman, was born on 21 April 1934 at Ferriby, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, the second of five children (three sons and two daughters) of Alec Stewart Horsley (1902–1993), businessman and social activist, and his wife, Ida Seward (Susan), née Howitt (d. 1994). He was educated at Keswick grammar school and Bootham School, York, and then studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Worcester College, Oxford. There he enjoyed student politics and fast living and graduated in 1957 with a third-class degree.

Nicholas Horsley's life was greatly influenced by his father Alec—a competitive and charismatic but dominating businessman—in whose shadow he lived and with whom he was frequently at odds. Alec Horsley was born on 1 September 1902 at Alfred Street, Ripley, Derbyshire, the son of George Horsley, a pottery clerk, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Watts. Like his son, he studied PPE at Worcester College, Oxford (to which he won a scholarship), and then entered the colonial service. He was posted to Nigeria in late 1925 but returned in the following decade to join his father in establishing a condensed milk business at Holme on Spalding Moor, Yorkshire, in 1936. During the Second World War the business capitalized on the dairy industry's dislocation by buying up small producers, rationalizing their plant, and in particular establishing a major retail presence with doorstep deliveries. The business, centred on Hull, grew to be the largest dairy in north-east England and as Northern Dairies Ltd was floated as a public company in 1956.

Alec Horsley combined a robust approach to business with a profound practical concern for peace and justice. Politically, he was at home on the left, joining Sir Richard Acland's Common Wealth Party during the war and serving as a Labour councillor in Hull between 1945 and 1949. In these circles he mixed with the great and the good and revelled in the company of well-known intellectuals. But Horsley's focus always remained the individual judged on personal merit alone, and his friends were drawn from a variety of social backgrounds. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected him greatly and in the 1950s he became a Quaker, played a prominent role in the Yorkshire peace movement, and was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Later he was a leading benefactor of Bradford University's pioneering School of Peace Studies, as well as of Worcester College, where he was made an honorary fellow. In 1970 he retired as chairman of Northern Dairies and was subsequently executive director and life president. He died on 11 June 1993 at Talbot Lodge, Woodfield Lane, Hessle, Yorkshire.

After Oxford and national service in Germany, Nicholas Horsley briefly tried his hand at journalism in the United States. In 1958, in New Orleans, he married his first wife, Valerie Anne Edwards, two days after the couple met; they later had two sons and a daughter. In the same year he returned to England and joined Northern Dairies as a management trainee at a time when the company's prospects had never seemed brighter. Although the Horsley family's ownership of Northern Dairies had been very greatly diluted through the issue of shares to fund acquisitions, it retained powerful influence and Nicholas Horsley made rapid strides through its management. He became a director in 1963, vice-chairman in 1968, and chairman and managing director in 1970 after leading the board in pressing for his father's retirement in order to make way for a younger man. As early as 1961 he had proved himself a consummate deal maker by buying a 50 per cent stake in the Mr Whippy ice-cream business, selling it a year later to Forte Holdings for a capital profit of £500,000, an amount that exceeded annual pre-tax profits by a fifth.

In 1970 Nicholas Horsley took charge of a business with a history of uninterrupted growth, a turnover of £44 million, and pre-tax profits of £1.7 million. Challenges, however, lay ahead. Northern Dairies, apart from its finance division, was locked into an increasingly slow-growth, small-margin milk business. Future progress depended on diversification and greater added value. He broadened the business, within three years buying up brewing and flour milling businesses, thereby creating two new divisions to add to dairy and finance, and renamed the business Northern Foods. Soon after, the finance business was replaced by a meat products division. Deal followed deal as Horsley transformed the 'ever acquisitive' Northern Foods into a broadly based food-processing group (The Times, 30 Sept 1978). At the heart of this strategy was the establishment of close relations with premium retailers, especially Marks and Spencer, and the supply to them of fresh and chilled-prepared foods for which the British middle class was developing a voracious appetite. Horsley, with Christopher Haskins, his brother-in-law, had been quick to identify this innovative opportunity which, inter alia, sustained Northern Foods' traditional dairy division by adding substantial value. By 1988 some 250 products had been developed for Marks and Spencer alone, predicting a major shift in British eating habits.

This strategy brought outstanding returns to Northern Foods, pushing turnover above £1 billion for the first time in 1982. But like so many other British companies, progress was now checked by major but ill-judged acquisitions in the United States. One was a ham producer (bought for $76 million), the other a supplier of hamburgers to the McDonald's fast-food restaurant chain (which cost $63 million in 1982); both were soon sold, causing heavy write-offs and the first dip in profits for ten years. Horsley admitted to a 'cock up' and certainly there was a prevailing sense that Northern Foods had grown complacent; it still commanded the City's respect but had 'left a nasty taste in the mouth' (The Times, 4 Dec 1986). Horsley was under no pressure to resign but, faced with increasing poor health which affected his mobility, he stepped down as managing director in 1985, as chairman in 1986, and as deputy chairman two years later. His illness, a rare genetic condition which wasted his thigh muscles, meant he spent the last twenty years of his life in a wheelchair.

Horsley was as cut and thrust in his deal making as any British businessman of his day; the buying up of businesses and the closure of their plant for greater efficiency had been a hallmark of Northern Foods since Alec Horsley's time. But, like his father, Nicholas also nurtured a distinctive policy of responsibility towards employees. According to The Times, Northern Foods 'flourished as an efficient and profitable dairy business' while retaining 'an aura of social responsibility which never seems to interfere with its growth' (28 April 1982). The origins of this dated to Northern Foods' early days and embraced pioneering profit-sharing and employee share-ownership schemes, welfare provision, training schemes, and joint worker/management councils. Almost alone among leading businessmen, Nicholas Horsley spoke up for the closed shop and saw its abolition by the Conservative government in 1982 as unnecessary, vindictive, and ultimately the work of a shopkeeper's daughter.

Though he never belonged to a political party he did admit to being a 'Tory wet' (Yorkshire Post, 25 Oct 1986) when it came to industrial policy. Horsley embraced liberal causes: he decried what he saw as the tories' demolition of a caring society in the 1980s and called for greater immigration as a spur to economic growth, labelling its opponents as racist. At Northern Foods he permitted the appointment of openly gay men to senior positions at a time when it would have been frowned on elsewhere. He wore his CND badge with pride. On resigning as chairman of Northern Foods, he was enlisted as chairman of News on Sunday, a new left-of-centre tabloid aimed at the young working class in Britain's industrial heartlands. Horsley was instrumental in raising nearly £10 million in funds, but the project was poorly thought out and collapsed after eight issues. It had eschewed the tabloids' staple of sex and sensationalism under the somewhat ambiguous slogan 'no tits but lots of balls'. Elsewhere Horsley was twice president of the Dairy Trades Federation (1975–7 and 1980–85), from which platform he attacked the common agricultural policy—a policy that made him a dedicated anti-European. He sat on BBC consultative groups and on the Yorkshire and Humber regional economic board. In his retirement he moved to Barbados, where he was a director of several local public companies, including an ice-cream manufacturer and a dairy.

Horsley was a blunt, no-nonsense Yorkshireman with a love of Yorkshire cricket and Hull City football. In sharp contrast to his father, he enjoyed good living and gambling and had an abundance of good humour. He was divorced from his first wife in 1975 and married Sabita Sarkar, writer, and 25-year-old daughter of Lartic Sarkar, a former air force officer, on 22 December 1975. Following their divorce in 1987 he married Alwyne Marjorie Law, daughter of Lawrence Evers, home furnisher, on 17 June 1988; she was forty-seven. He died on 18 January 2004 in Barbados and was survived by his third wife and his three children from his first marriage.


  • A. S. Horsley, report on a visit to USSR and China, 29 March – 7 May 1952, U. Warwick Mod. RC, MRC 157/3/MI/1695–8
  • A. Horsley, The story of Northern Dairies (1953)
  • A. Horsley, Russian journey, 1954: some impressions of a visit to the Soviet Union (1955)
  • The Times (25 July 1956) [prospectus for flotation of Northern Dairies]
  • The Independent (21 June 1993) [A. Horsley]
  • Port of Hull Journal, new ser., 1 (1962) [profile of Northern Dairies]
  • Intralink (July–Aug 1985) [profile of Northern Foods]
  • T. Ounsworth, Joy and woe: poems and drawings of an introvert convict, with an introduction and poems by Alec Horsley (1987)
  • Yorkshire Post (14 June 1993) [A. Horsley]
  • The Guardian (7 May 1994) [S. Horsley]
  • The Times (22 Jan 2004) [N. Horsley]
  • The Guardian (23 Jan 2004) [N. Horsley]
  • Northern News (Feb 2004) [N. Horsley]
  • WW (2004) [N. Horsley]
  • encyclopaedia of company histories,, 27 March 2007
  • private information (2008)
  • b. cert. [A. Horsley]
  • d. cert. [A. Horsley]
  • b. cert. [N. Horsley]
  • m. certs. [N. Horsley]


  • obituary photographs
  • obituary photographs (Alec Horsley)