S Pearson & Son Ltd

Public works contractors

The Pearson family firm was founded by Samuel Pearson in 1844 as builders and contractors at Bradford, Yorkshire. The manufacture of bricks, tiles and piping was a major concern of the company at the time. In 1879, Samuel Pearson retired and gave his share of the firm to his grandson, Weetman Dickinson Pearson (1856–1927), making him his father's sole partner. Subsequently, Weetman expanded the firm's business outside the north of England, especially into London, where he moved the headquarters in 1884. After the move to London, he effectively ran the business, and in 1894 became the sole partner. The company became world famous as a civil engineering company under his management. For his various services, Weetman Pearson was created baronet in 1894, and raised to the peerage in 1910 as Baron Cowdray, of Midhurst, Sussex. Cowdray was created a viscount in 1917.

Under his leadership, the company rapidly emerged as one of Britain's leading contractors. During the 1880s, the firm undertook major construction works in Britain and overseas; these included major dock construction projects at Milford Haven (1885–90), the Empress Dock at Southampton (1886–91), and Halifax, Nova Scotia (1886–9). In 1889, Pearson won two major contracts in the United States and Mexico, which secured his leading role as a British contractor. The first was to build the Hudson River tunnel to connect New York with Jersey City, and the second was construction of the Grand Canal to drain the swampy plateau on which Mexico City stood. Successful completion of these projects was followed by construction of the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames between 1891 and 1897, building of the four East River tunnels connecting New York with Long Island for the Pennsylvania, New York, and Long Island Railroad Company in the 1900s, and a considerable number of railways, port and other infrastructure projects in Mexico.

Other major works included Sheffield Main Sewer, Dover Harbour, reconstruction of the Tehuantepec railway in Mexico, and building of the Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile.

Cowdray’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to become the pioneer of the Mexican oil industry. This remarkable development grew out of S. Pearson & Son's extensive construction work in Mexico, and he created a large business that controlled oil production, refining, distribution, and selling. Concerned about the deteriorating political situation in Mexico, and anxious to pursue new business activities, in 1919 he sold the majority of his equity in the Mexican oil business to the Shell group.

Cowdray, however, continued to be involved in the oil business, and his drillers searched for oil in a range of countries, including Britain, where they had discovered oil in Derbyshire in 1917. The only long-term and commercially viable discoveries were made in the United States, where in 1919 Cowdray participated in formation of the Amerada Petroleum Corporation. He also continued to be closely involved with contracting, especially the huge Sennar Dam project in the Sudan, designed to irrigate the Gezira plain, an area in the triangle between the Blue Nile and White Nile to the south of Khartoum.

Some of the nine associated companies include: S. Pearson & Son Incorporated, New York; General Works Construction Company, Limited; S. Pearson & Son Sucesores, South America; Wouldham Cement Company, Ltd.

Weetman John Churchill Pearson (1910–1995) became third Viscount Cowdray upon his father's death on 5 October 1933. When succeeding to the title in 1933, he took over responsibility for two large estates—Cowdray Park in west Sussex, and Dunecht in Aberdeenshire—as well as a controlling interest in S. Pearson & Son, which was run at that time by his uncle, The Honourable Bernard Clive Pearson, Chairman of S. Pearson & Son Ltd., 1927–1954. Weetman John Churchill Pearson took over as chairman when his uncle retired in 1954, serving until 1977, and became President of Pearson Plc in 1983.

Sir Edward Ernest Pearson served as Chairman S. Pearson & Son (Contracting Department) Ltd., Contractors for Public Works.

The company, still wholly owned by the Pearson family, was in a difficult situation at the time of the takeover by the third Viscount Cowdray from his uncle. Pearson's main aviation activities had been nationalised, as had its coal mines and electric utilities. It had a controlling interest in Lazards, the merchant bank, and a variety of other financial and industrial investments, including Westminster Press, a chain of provincial newspapers. Cowdray's achievement over the next twenty-three years was to transform the company, by acquisition, into a broadly based and highly profitable industrial group. In 1957, it bought the Financial Times and acquired a 50% stake in The Economist, and in 1968 it purchased the publisher Longman. S. Pearson became a public company in 1969, known as Pearson Plc, comprising five divisions: Banking and Finance, Investment Trusts, Newspapers and Publishing, Oil, and Industrial. It went on to acquire Penguin Books in 1970, and Ladybird Books in 1972. During the 1990s, Pearson Plc rid itself of most of its non-media assets. Cowdray died in 1995, and was succeeded as fourth viscount by his son Michael, who served as chairman of Pearson Plc until 1997.