The story of the man 'who captured sunlight' - philanthropist and former Mayor of Harrogate Samson Fox

People flocked from far and wide to witness how Samson Fox, the Mayor of Harrogate, had ‘bottled the sun’. The spa town witnessed the first thoroughfares in the world lit with his invention – Fox Water-Gas. Now, the spotlight is firmly on the man, thanks to a new play.

“Maybe I’m being a little over the top here, but there’s a sort of Elon Musk quality to him,” the actor Freddie Fox, and great, great grandson of Samson, says. “Somebody who is a totally self-made man. Who has used his money for the community of not just Harrogate, but the world.”

Born into poverty in Bradford in 1838, Samson Fox worked in the mills from the age of nine. A true ‘rags to riches’ story, Samson went on to help spearhead the industrial revolution with his inventions.

Gavin Collinson, the writer of the new play, The Man Who Captured Sunlight, says: “His projects were all big and bold, and at the heart of them was his desire to make life better for everyone. He was all about safer transport, better public lighting, cheaper rail travel. To be honest, we could do with a Samson Fox in the UK right now.”

Samson Fox, pictured sitting second from the right, is the focus of the play. Photo: The Man Who Captured Sunlight

A philanthropist, Samson provided for the poor in Harrogate and was a major donor to the arts, integral to building London’s Royal College of Music, as well as Harrogate’s Royal Hall.

“These are things that have benefited millions of people over the course of history.” Freddie says. “Sure, there was the burning, rugged individualism of someone who wanted to succeed and create inventions, but also there was this altruistic tenor to everything he did. How do we make the world a better place for people? How do we make people’s lives better?”

He was a visionary. “Samson was the early forerunner of hydrogen power, which is what everyone is turning cars on to now. It’s quite remarkable how ahead of the curve he was.”

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The play was the idea of sisters Clair and Ann Challenor-Chadwick. Photo: Gerard Binks

Gavin agrees, describing him as a ‘Northern dynamo of a man’. “Samson hauled himself and his family from poverty to be become one of the most successful and famous men of his day.”

This remarkable legacy also includes his descendants, the acting dynasty that includes Freddie, son of actors Edward Fox and Joanna David, and the younger brother of Emilia Fox.

The idea for the play began with chance encounters. Two sisters, Clair and Ann Challenor-Chadwick, run the ethical Harrogate creative agency, Cause UK. The pair promoted the Harewood Proms headlined by Alfie Boe in September 2021, and had gone along to help out backstage.

Freddie, whose uncle was a close friend of the late great David Bowie, was there. “Alfie asked me if I wanted to come and do some Bowie numbers, and Bowie is one of my great heroes, so I leapt at the opportunity.”

Clair was tasked with picking up Freddie from Harrogate station. Freddie says: “It was immediate how interested she was in the history of my family. We started throwing ideas around in the car on the way to the gig about things we could do. She said, well, let’s be in touch with some ideas, maybe a play about Samson’s life that the Fox family could be involved with? And I said, yeah that sounds amazing. I didn’t really necessarily think anything would come from it. Then within about six months, she sent over a play, which was not only a play, but a really good play, about Samson’s life.”

The sisters had met with local historian Malcolm Neesam and commissioned him to write Samson’s life story. The next step was to hire author Gavin Collinson, who the pair had worked with on previous creative projects.

The thrilling story is centred on a dramatic legal battle that befell Samson in later life against the literary figure, Jerome K Jerome, overseen by the same barrister who prosecuted Oscar Wilde. The initial hope of the Fox family acting in the play became impossible with their various acting and filming schedules.

“That wasn’t a problem for Clair,” Freddie says. “It was just a small hurdle on the way to getting this amazing play produced.”

She approached the North of Watford acting agency, who cast the play. Samson will be played by Joe Standerline, who has appeared in TV shows such as Victoria (ITV), The Full Monty (Disney Plus) and Safe (Netflix), and directed by Sian Murray.

Samson is Freddie’s middle name. Growing up, all he really knew of him was from a photo that sat on the piano in his parent’s house. “The photo is now in Dorset where mum and dad live,” Freddie says. “I’m there quite a lot, so I always see him there looking very Victorian, and very imposing, dressed up to the nines, looking amazing with this enormous beard.

“So, I always had this image of my middle name from when I was little, looking back at me from the piano, and imagining what he sounded like, and how he spoke. Dad told me from when I was very young that he had the loudest bark in Yorkshire. Somebody must have said that anecdotally. So, I had an image of the guy in my head, but only latterly I found out the breadth of Samson’s genius.”

At just 33, Freddie has made his name in Channel 4 series Cucumber, as Jeremy Bamber in the crime drama White House Farm, and as Mark Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown. He’s next in the second series of the Emmy-nominated satirical comedy, The Great. The play however is special, as theatre is his love.

“It’s where it began for me, and probably where it will end. I like the thought of doing plays up to the age my dad is. He’s about to do another play now and he’s nearly 85.” he says.

How does he explain the theatrical gene? “We had the most wonderful actors and people round for dinner all the time, telling stories and silly anecdotes, so growing up I thought, this sounds like fun. I guess it’s that combination of early experience, natural inclination towards doing plays, and knowing it’s a bona fide career through your parents. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, so there must be a genetic inclination towards showing off,” he laughs.

Staging an original play on Samson he believes is “incalculably important”. “Regardless of my connection with the Royal Hall, which I just think is the most amazing building anyway, the notion of celebrating great new theatre work there, particularly as the story of Samson is so intrinsically tied to Harrogate, is utterly vital. It’s not just informative and entertaining, it’s part of our cultural history.”

Malcolm Neesam sadly died this June, and the play is now very much in his memory. Freddie says: “When Emilia did the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? it was such a joy.

“It was Malcolm on that programme who showed me who my great, great grandfather is.

“That’s when I got to know all the details of Samson’s life. So, I’m delighted the play will be in his memory.”

The Man Who Captured Sunlight, incl. Q&A with Freddie Fox after the matinee performance (subject to filming commitments) is on 2.30pm and 7pm, Friday September 23, at Harrogate’s Royal Hall.

Tickets £25 + box office fees.