Industrialist who first opened Appleby Castle

Date: Saturday 26th October 2002

to visitors

to visitors

DENIS Vernon, the industrialist who bought Appleby Castle as a base for his business and then became the first owner to open the 17th Century attraction to visitors, has died at the age of 71.

Mr. Vernon, the retired chairman and chief executive of printing, plastics, packaging and publishing firm Ferguson Industrial Holdings, bought the castle in 1973 and created a major centre for the protection of endangered breeds.

He was always a keen conservationist and the centre housed many threatened species, including longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Wensleydale sheep and Bagot goats the rarest of all British goats.

His decision to throw open the doors of the historic building was a popular one and by the time he retired and sold the castle in 1991 it was attracting 40,000 visitors a year.

Mr. Vernon died at the Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle, on Saturday. The funeral service and interment will take place on Tuesday morning at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Edenhall.

Born on 11th February, 1931, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he was the son of Eric and Bessie Vernon and brother of Mick, who now farms at Darlington.


He was educated at Ascham House, Northumberland, and Rossall School in Lancashire and then at Kings College, Durham University. He returned to Newcastle and qualified as a lawyer in 1954 before completing two years’ national service. In 1956 he joined the solicitors’ firm of Nicholson, Martin and Wilkinson as a partner.

Two years later he was appointed director of Ferguson Industrial Holdings Limited, a builders’ merchants established by his great-grandfather in the 1880, and which at the time was run by his uncle.

To build on the business skills he acquired as a corporate lawyer, he attended the London Business School, graduating as a Sloane Fellow. It was in 1968 that he was appointed chairman of Ferguson and, during his time in charge, it became one of the most successful builders’ merchants in the North.

In February, 1973, it became a public limited company and later that year it was moved to Appleby Castle, which Mr. Vernon bought for a £110,000 freehold from John Coney, a Liverpool cotton merchant.

Mr. Vernon ran the castle as the corporate headquarters of the company, which gradually changed the focus of its business from builders’ merchants to printing, plastics, packaging and publishing.


He was always a scrupulously fair employer. He did not claim a “fat cat” salary, instead setting up a profit-sharing scheme for employees which, together with other astute management interventions, ensured that the business thrived.

He was also chairman of 10 subsidiary companies and was a director of Tyne Chemicals Limited.

When he retired from Ferguson in 1990 the company turnover had risen from £11.8 million a year to £120 million in just 17 years.

He was a strong advocate of management training, establishing a training centre at Appleby Castle which was then rented out to other companies, including bakery firm Greggs. This centre dominated much of the main building while Mr. Vernon and his family lived in a small flat on the site.

He was the first owner to open the castle to the public and made it even more of an attraction by filling in the dry moat with ponds and water features to which he added many varieties of water fowl.


His passion for animals also found expression in his establishment of a rare breeds centre on the 35-acre site. He became one of the first members of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, serving as chairman and then treasurer of the charity.

On retiring, he moved to Edenhall, retaining several company directorships including that of Barclays Bank Northern. Until earlier this year he was working as a non-executive director to an international company. He spent three years as chairman of the North Cumbria Acute Hospitals NHS Trust.

He was vice-chairman of the appeal for the children’s unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle and was chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Blind.


The holder of a private pilot’s licence, he was also a keen sailor with a boat on Ullswater and a 47ft sloop on the Turkish coast.

His focus in retirement was to pursue those and a host of other interests. He served as chairman of the Settle-Carlisle Railway Trust and enjoyed a wide range of hobbies which included archery, sailing his boat, skiing, photography, car rallying and wildlife conservation.

In 1996 he and his present wife, Nicky, decided to spend the British winters in South Africa, where he set up a wild bird sanctuary and supported his wife’s venture to bring employment opportunities to local people by helping her to create a small textile design and manufacturing business.

Mrs. Vernon said: “Denis was loved, respected and admired in both homes for his wisdom, wit and great sense of fun. He filled the ‘unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run’.”

He is survived by his wife, Nicky, and, from his first marriage to Sheila, sons Nick, who lives in South Africa, and Jonathan, of Brighton, and daughters Jane, of Canterbury, and Joanna, of Newcastle. He also leaves a brother, Mick, of Darlington, and 12 grandchildren.