Henry Ford and the great £50,000 hospital riddle

When he first visited the Cork of his ancestors, Henry Ford was embroiled in a fascinating saga revolvong around an apparent bequest to charity. Dave Hannigan tries to seperate fact from fiction.

 

Henry Ford with wife Clara and son Edsel on the ship that took them to Cork in 1912.

In the summer of 1912, Henry Ford sailed to Europe for the first time with his wife, Clara, and son Edsel.

At the time, the early success of the Model T had made Henry one of the wealthiest and most respected businessmen of his age.

The family sailed on the sumptuous SS George Washington, launched four years earlier and the third largest ship in the world.

Just a few months before Henry’s trip, on April 14, 1912, the George Washington had passed a particularly large iceberg south of Newfoundland and radioed a warning to all ships in the area, including the Titanic.

Unfortunately, the liner apparently struck the same iceberg and sank later that day.

On July 8, 1912, when the George Washington docked at Plymouth on England’s south coast, a Rolls Royce was waiting to ferry the Ford family and their entourage around on their trip through England, the country from where Clara’s mother had emigrated in 1847.

Ireland, and specifically Cork, the land of Henry’s ancestors, was next on the agenda.

The family travelled from Fishguard to Cork on board the Inniscarra and checked in to the Metropole Hotel.

According to his son Edsel’s diary, on the morning of August 10, Henry took his first stroll around the city.

He went to the North Cathedral where he met Reverend O’Connor and asked for help tracing the lineage of his foster grandfather, Patrick Ahern, who had lived in Fair Lane between 1820 and 1840.

The reverend and the industrial magnate later corresponded on the issue and, eventually, an advert appeared in local newspapers seeking information that would help Henry trace the Cork city branch of his Irish family tree. An Anne Barry of Fair Lane was later awarded £5 for her assistance in the matter.

Also on the trip, Henry visited his father’s home townland of Ballinascarthy in West Cork. It has been claimed that he offered to buy land there, but the millionaire was quoted an astronomical price!

It was during his stay at the Metropole in Cork city, however, that Henry was involved in what became the strangest incident of his sojourn in Europe that year.

One evening, there came a knock on Henry’s hotel room door. When he opened it, he was met by trustees of a local hospital building project. They cut right to the chase.

“Mr Ford, we want to welcome you to Cork, the home of your father,” said the men. “We’re building a hospital and thought, perhaps, in memory of your dad, you’d like to make a donation.”

View of the Bon Secours Hospital, College Road, Cork in 1934.

Ford loved the idea so much that he went looking for his cheque book and immediately wrote out an order for £5,000.

To put that in perspective, it would be the equivalent of, with barely a second thought, handing over half a million in today’s money. It was an act of incredible generosity that quickly went a little awry...

In his book, Wheels For The World: Henry Ford, His Company, And A Century Of Progress, Douglas Brinkley recounts what happened next: “At breakfast the following morning, however, Ford was shocked to see the headline in the Cork Courier: ‘Henry Ford donates £50,000 to hospital’.”

A zero had been added to his cheque!

Brinkley wrote: “A few hours later, the same civic leaders reappeared at the hotel. ‘Mr Ford, we’re very grateful for the £5,000,’ they said. ‘We’re sorry about the mistake that the newspaper made, but tomorrow they will make a front-page correction’.”

Ford — an early master of marketing and advertising — had been long enough in the game to know that a correction like that could be a public relations disaster.

He asked the men for the original cheque back and then enquired about how much the construction of the hospital was going to cost in total. When the men told him it would amount to £50,000, Henry simply took out his pen and wrote another cheque, for exactly that amount.

This time, he handed it over and announced: “Have this in memory of my mother and father, on one condition. Over the portal of the hospital, I want an inscription — ‘I came among you and you took me in’.”

Of course, there are two ways of reading those four words ‘You took me in...!’

There have been many versions of this extra- ordinary story told over the decades. The sum involved occasionally changes and the circumstances of the visits from the trustees differ slightly too.

In some tellings of the tale, Ford is the innocent duped by the locals in league with the paper — and the wording of the inscription suggests he knew as much too.

In other versions, a simple journalistic error merely prompts a wealthy man to share out his largesse — and to back up that point, there were reports Henry also made a £5,000 donation to a local convent during his visit.

Interestingly, the then US Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen referred to the story in a speech in 1998, citing the fact Henry was paraphrasing a biblical verse from St Matthew: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

I quote Brinkley’s version because he is one of America’s most respected historians and his account of Ford’s life is regarded as definitive.

Another version is told by Tipp O’Neill, who was Speaker of the US House of Representatives for more than 20 years, and whose daughter, Rosemary, led the Mallow St Patrick’s Day parade this year.

In this version, sent to the Irish Examiner by reader Brendan Casserly, of Bishopstown, Cork, Henry is in the hotel dining room when he is tapped up by the local delegation and offers a more realistic £100. The newspaper headline states it is £1,000.

But there are a couple of problems with all the accounts of the story.

The first one is that there appears to be no record of a Cork Courier publication at that time, and no such headline in other contemporary newespapers.

The second problem is, which hospital was built on the back of Henry’s bucks? I’ve never seen one named in any rendering of the story.

Given that the Bon Secours Hospital on College Road opened three years later, in 1915, it looks the most likely candidate. Although the North Infirmary and even St Luke’s Nursing Home in Blackrock have been suggested on admittedly unreliable internet forums.

But did the inscription ever get put in place? Is there any other proof of this story?

Answers on a postcard please.

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