John Rylands

The Philanthropist who changed the face of a town

A Victorian businessman who dedicated his life to helping people in the Stretford area has been honoured with the unveiling of a plaque at his former home.

John Rylands moved to Longford Hall in 1857 and his money provided the people of his adopted home town with a town hall, a public baths, homes for elderly women and a coffee house.  When his widow, Enriqueta, died on February 4, 1908, Longford Hall was left to the people of Stretford and books from its extensive library joined the collection at John Rylands Library, the institution set up in her late husband’s memory.

The blue plaque at Longford Hall was paid for by Trafford Council, which was approached about the idea by the campaign group the Friends of Longford Park.  More than 100 people attended the unveiling ceremony last Sunday.

John Rylands was born in St Helens on February 7, 1801, the son of a manufacturer of linen goods.  After completing his studies at the local grammar school he started his own Wigan-based weaving business, and by the age of 18 he was running the operation with his two brothers, Joseph and Richard.  Joseph senior joined the firm in 1819, and “Rylands and son” was born, but by 1847 John was running the concern by himself.  By the 1860s, Rylands was presiding over the largest firm in the cotton industry and his business empire stretched all over the north west.

Although he was an astute businessman - he purchased £50,000 worth of shares when the Manchester Ship Canal was in its infancy - he had a deep-rooted social conscience born out of his Christian faith.  According to the book John Rylands of Manchester by DA Farnie, Stretford was a fashionable destination for Manchester’s well-heeled merchants in the 1850s, and the place where they went to establish what the book describes as their “country residences”.

Rylands built a new mansion in the Italian style and was able to indulge his passion for gardening.  He employed a team of 19 gardeners who lived in Longford Cottages, homes their master had specially built for them behind the hall.

When John Rylands died, on December 11, 1888 at the age of 87, his widow was determined that an institution bearing his name should be built.  The couple had no heirs, with John Rylands outliving the seven children he had by Dinah, his first wife.

When Rylands dies, he left the majority of his £2.5 million estate to his widow.  Enriqueta achieved her dream of a lasting memorial to her late husband when the John Rylands library was built.  It stands on Deansgate, and was opened in 1900.  It was designed by Basil Champneys and to mark the opening if the neo-Gothic style building, Mrs Rylands was given the freedom of Manchester.

When Mrs Rylands died she left an estate worth £3.4 million.  Numerous charities and the library established in her late husband’s name were among the institutions to benefit from her generosity.  Longford Hall was left to the people of Stretford.

The above article was written by Rick Bowen and published in The Messenger newspaper on March 11th, 2004.