OBITUARY: Viscount Furness

Richard Fawkes
Thursday 11 May 1995 23:02 BST

When he succeeded to his viscountcy in 1940, at the age of 11, Lord Furness became known as the richest little boy in England. It was an epithet that brought him more than his fair share of fortune hunters. ''They soon disappeared when I told them all the money was in trust and there was absolutely no provision for a wife,'' he said.

Tony Furness only came into the title because his elder half-brother Dick was killed in action at Arras (and awarded a posthumous VC). His mother, Thelma Morgan, was an American society beauty and bit-part film actress whose twin sister Gloria had married into the Vanderbilt family. Thelma was the second wife of Marmaduke, first Viscount Furness, chairman of the Furness Withy shipping line and 20 years her senior. Tony was their only child.

It was frequently rumoured that he was the illegitimate son of the Prince of Wales, with whom Thelma had a long and celebrated affair, but this is something he always denied and indeed Furness bore a striking resemblance to his grandfather, the founder of the Furness shipping line.

When he was four his parents divorced and Tony never again set foot inside one of his father's houses. He was educated first in England, then in California, where he got to know many of the child stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall and Shirley Temple. But his English accent, poor health (for most of his life he suffered from diabetes, had problems with his eyes and was never permitted to drive a car), his dislike of sport and his mother's glamorous Hollywood lifestyle set him apart and created a sense of isolation and of loneliness he was never entirely to lose.

At 21, faced with a choice between settling in the United States or entering the House of Lords, he chose the Lords as the place where his duty lay. He volunteered for a number of Select Committees and took an active role in the work of the Inter- Parliamentary Union. Millions have had cause to thank him for sponsoring the Bill which permits travellers who have gone through customs to have a drink out of hours.

Away from the Lords he worked for American Express and the wine merchant Percy Fox. Then, together with the actor Alan Badel, he formed Furndel Productions which put on a number of interesting, but financially disastrous, plays in the West End including Ulysses in Nighttown with Zero Mostel (1959), and James Saunders's first stage play, The Ark (1959).

A visit to Mongolia to negotiate a possible London trip for the Mongolian National Theatre (a tour which never happened) led to his forming the Anglo-Mongolian Society in 1963 and, indirectly, to Mongolia's being recognised by the British government.

While at school he had become a convert to Catholicism and through Westminster Cathedral worked for a number of Catholic charities. When rising production costs and tax demands (as his money was in trust Furness could not benefit from tax-mitigation schemes and at one point he was paying 98 per cent of his entire income to the Inland Revenue) brought an end to his theatrical career, he contemplated entering the priesthood, but was advised against it. Instead, he decided to devote himself full-time to the religious order the Knights of Malta and went to live in Martigny, Switzerland, close to the Augustinian community of St Maurice.

Tony Furness was a restless man, never entirely at ease with the life into which he was born. He had many acquaintances but few close friends. When he asked me to help write his autobiography, it soon became clear that he was not really interested in seeing a finished book, only in having someone to talk to. His only proposal of marriage, made when young, was rejected, and he subsequently took a vow of celibacy. The title dies with him.

William Anthony Furness, businessman and theatrical producer: born Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire 31 March 1929; succeeded 1940 as second Viscount Furness; died 1 May 1995.

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