Obituary: Alec Horsley

Alec Horsley, businessman: born Ripley, Derbyshire 1 September 1902; Founding Chairman, Northern Dairies 1936-70, Executive Director 1970-72; Executive Director, Northern Foods 1972-87, Life President 1987-93; City Councillor, Hull 1945-49; married 1932 Susan Howitt (three sons, two daughters); died Hessle, East Yorkshire 11 June 1993.

ALEC HORSLEY, founder of Northern Foods, was an energetic and determined businessman of vision who created a huge and successful enterprise, Northern Dairies, out of a small condensed-milk factory which he set up at Holme-on-Spalding Moor in 1936. He remained Chairman until 1970, 14 years after it had gone public and two years before it changed its name under his son Nicholas's chairmanship to Northern Foods. Under the new regime he continued to sit on the board until 1987.

It was always fascinating to hear Alec Horsley talk about his business and why it had grown. Intensely competitive, he believed in fostering a spirit of co-operation. Opening up new markets, he was suspicious of market philosophies. His sympathies were always on the Left, and he always warmed to causes. Above all, he believed in struggling to create a future that would be better than the past. His vision was wide-ranging but always international.

It was no surprise that he joined Sir Richard Acland's Commonwealth Party during the War and that during the 1950s he became a member of the Society of Friends. In between, he had served his local community, Hull, as a Labour Councillor from 1945 to 1949 and as Sheriff in 1953. Local service and international service were to him quite compatible.

The Society of Friends focused a sense of concern that had been keen and active long before he joined it, but Horsley learnt much too from his own friends who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. He liked that. He also liked to talk to them and to test their own sense of commitment. One man who mattered greatly to him, for instance, when he was building his food business was the biologist John Boyd Orr. He could talk to him about food and politics. He liked to talk to me about education, from the late 1940s onwards. Horsley was a graduate of Oxford University, one of the first Worcester College students to read PPE, and he was proud to be made an Honorary Fellow of the college under my Provostship. He was a substantial and above all a caring benefactor.

His friendships were never segregated, and like his other friends I talked to him, sometimes pinned down in my chair, about matters as different as prison reform (an abiding Quaker concern and one which took Horsley into prisons); about his support for peace movements which had drawn him into founder membership of CND and which led him to support Bradford University as enthusiastically as Worcester College; and about the problems and opportunities of China, Russia and not least, in recent years, Barbados. He liked action more even than talk and set up a small dairy in Barbados.

Horsley was not an intellectual, and it was the human side of issues that attracted him. His life was indeed many-sided from the time that, after leaving Oxford, he entered and abandoned the Colonial Service. An essential element in his life was sport. When he was in Nigeria he played tennis for Nigeria, and when years later he ceased to play tennis he took up golf. He was devoted to bridge too. His competitive side was as strongly expressed in sport as in business.

There was always a family side too, for there were as many members of his numerous family as there were friends. Susan, his wonderful wife, an indispensable partner, was always the mainstay. Last year both family and friends alike gathered together in Hessle, where they had long lived to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

There were five children, 15 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, as different as Alec's own social concerns, but coming, it seemed, from all parts of the world, from a domestic universe almost as big as the public universe to which Alec had devoted so much of his imagination, effort and, above all, spirit. The spirit will surely survive.

(Photograph omitted)