John Rylands (7 February 1801 – 11 December 1888) was an English entrepreneur and philanthropist. He was the owner of the largest textile manufacturing concern in the United Kingdom, and Manchester’s first multi-millionaire.
After having learned to weave, Rylands became a small-scale manufacturer of hand-looms, while also working in the draper’s shop which his father had opened in St Helens. He displayed a “precocious shrewdness” for retailing, and in partnership with his two elder brothers expanded into the wholesale trade. So successful were they that in 1819 Rylands’ father merged his retail business with theirs, creating the firm of Rylands & Sons. At its peak, the company employed a workforce of 15,000 in 17 mills and factories, producing thirty-five tons of cloth each day.
Rylands was the third son of Joseph Rylands, a manufacturer of cotton goods, of St Helens, Lancashire, and his wife Elizabeth (née Pilkington). He was educated at St Helens Grammar School.
He married three times: first, in 1825, Dinah, daughter of W. Raby of Ardwick, Manchester (by her he had six children, none of whom survived him); secondly in 1848, Martha, widow of Richard Carden; and thirdly in 1875, Enriqueta Augustina, the eldest surviving daughter of Stephen Cattley Tennant.
From 1857 John Rylands lived at Longford Hall, in Stretford, an Italianate mansion he built on the site of an earlier house. In 2009 the local council placed a “blue plaque” at the site of Longford Hall to commemorate John and Enriqueta Rylands.
Ryland’s aptitude for trade quickly manifested itself; before the age of eighteen he had entered into partnership with his elder brothers Joseph and Richard. Their father joined them in 1819, when the firm of Rylands & Sons was established. Based in Wigan, the company manufactured ginghams, checks, ticks, dowlases, calicoes and linens.
John, the youngest partner, was in charge of sales until 1823, when he opened a warehouse for the firm in Manchester. Business increased rapidly, and in the course of a few years extensive properties at Wigan, along with dye works and bleach works, were purchased. Valuable seams of coal were discovered under these properties, and proved to be a great source of wealth for the Rylands.
In 1825 the firm became merchants as well as manufacturers, and at about the same time they erected a new spinning mill. The Ainsworth mills, near Bolton, and other factories were subsequently acquired. Joseph and Richard retired in about 1839, and the death of their father in July 1847 made John Rylands sole proprietor. The business continued to expand and in 1849 a warehouse was opened in Wood Street, London.
A great fire occurred at the Manchester warehouse in 1854, but the loss, although very large, was speedily made good. By 1864 the warehouses were seven storeys high and extended all the way along New High Street (now High Street) in Manchester: “they had become the summit of the firm’s hierarchical organization, the seat of its central power and the goal of all ambitious employees”.
In 1873, Rylands converted his business into a limited company, but he retained sole management control. The extra capital thus acquired led to the purchase of more mills, and the company opened up new worldwide markets. With a capital value of £2 million, the firm became the largest textile manufacturing concern in the UK, and made Rylands Manchester’s first multi-millionaire. The 15,000 employees in his 17 mills and factories produced 35 tons of cloth a day.
Rylands was a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Curriers.
Rylands was retired and reserved except in the company of his friends, and always shrank from public office of any kind, although he was not indifferent to public interests. He was politically liberal in his enterprises. When the Manchester Ship Canal was mooted, and there seemed a doubt as to the ways and means for the enterprise, he took up £50,000 worth of shares, increasing his contribution when the project appeared again to be in jeopardy. Rylands was a Congregationalist, with leanings to the Baptist form of faith. He was of an ecumenical spirit and hoped that sectarian differences would tend to decrease: a number of Union Chapels (including one in Stretford and two in Manchester) were supported by him.[a] His charities were numerous but unobtrusive. Among other benefactions he established and maintained orphanages, homes for aged gentlewomen, a home of rest for ministers of slender means, and he provided a town hall, public baths, library and a coffeehouse in his home town of Stretford. He also built an institute for the benefit of the villagers of Havenstreet on the Isle of Wight, where Rylands passed some of his later years from 1882, having built a house named Longford there after his mainland estate. His donations to the poor of Rome were so generous as to induce the king to decorate him in 1880 with the Order of the Crown of Italy.
For many years he employed the Rev. F. Bugby, John Gaskin, and other scholars to prepare special editions of the Bible and religious works, which he printed for free distribution. These included:
- The Holy Bible, arranged in numbered paragraphs, 1863, 4to, 1272 pages, with an index in a separate volume of 277 pages. Two subsequent editions were printed in 1878 and 1886.
- Diodati’s Italian Testament, similarly arranged and indexed, printed for distribution in Italy.
- Ostervald’s French Testament, arranged on a similar plan.
- Hymns of the Church Universal, with Prefaces, Annotations, and Indexes, Manchester, 1885, pp. 604, royal 8vo; a selection from a collection made by Rylands of sixty thousand hymns.
Death and memorials
Rylands died at his home, Longford Hall, on 11 December 1888, at the age of 87. He was buried in the Southern Cemetery, Manchester; a large tomb was erected over the vault, in which his widow was also buried following her death in 1908. The tomb was designed by C. H. Heathcote and completed in 1892. The elaborate superstructure of the tomb, which included four angels, was taken down in 1927 after being vandalised, and the bronze railings were stolen in 1967.
Rylands’s widow erected a permanent memorial to her husband in the form of the John Rylands Library, inaugurated on 6 October 1899, when she received the Freedom of the City of Manchester; the library was officially opened on 1 January 1900. A posthumous grant of arms to John Rylands was granted in 1893, in which the arms of Tennant – his wife’s family – are impaled with those of Rylands.
- The chapels in Manchester were at Oxford Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock, and Wellington Road, Fallowfield.