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John Grubb Richardson (1813 - 1890):
Linen manufacturer

John Grubb Richardson was a linen manufacturer and philanthropist, scion and paterfamilias of one of the most prominent linen-manufacturing families in Ulster, known especially for his rôle in creating the model village of Bessbrook, County Armagh, in which work was carried on by employees who were housed more or less in situ and otherwise carefully looked after and overseen (these are not quite synonyms), by their employers. The Richardsons were a prominent and dedicated family of the Society of Friends, or Quakers; this inspired and directed these activities.

Richardson was born in Lisburn, County Antrim, into a family in which he had nine siblings (he was the second son) and at eleven was sent to the noted Ballitore school in County Kildare, which though not strictly a Quaker school  - that is, it accepted pupils from families of other Protestant denominations - was run along Quaker lines and later became exclusively Quaker; (two famous pupils were Napper Tandy, the revolutionary commemorated in pub names on both sides of the Atlantic, and Edmund Burke, the politician and political theorist who was no revolutionary), followed by attendance at a Quaker-run school, Frenchay school at Bristol, England (which still exists though now as a Church of England school). At around the age of twenty, he began to display very strong religious convictions which would strongly influence him throughout his life.

In 1844, he married Helena Grubb, a distant relative, and they set up home in Belfast, where the family had a business. This family concern had begun near Lisburn, at Glenmore, and as forenames in the family usually began with "J", and there were three of these at the time, the firm was known as "J, J & J. Richardson". The story is told that when a prospective client, visiting their head office in Castle Street, Lisburn, was confronted with an elegantly-produced name plate in very cursive script. He concluded that it read "111 Richardsons", and was most impressed. As early as 1841, one Richardson brother, Thomas, was installed in New York by John Grubb as a sales agent for Irish linens; they were among the first passengers to cross the Atlantic in a steamship.

In 1845, the Richardsons decided that the family mercantile business, which sold and distributed linen products but did not make them, should diversify into flax spinning and manufacturing, though they wished to avoid their future workforce having to endure living and working condition in Belfast, so purchased property at Bessbrook, County Armagh, over thirty miles away and near what is today the city of Newry. The site they chose belonged to relatives, the Nicholsons, and already contained a mill, though through serious financial difficulties suffered by the owners the mill was in a bad state of repair. However, the premises had potential, being near a river, the fast-flowing Camlough, which provided water and water power; (a nearby place name was Millbank); in fact, linen trade had been carried on in the district since the middle of the nineteenth century. The name Bessbrook apparently derives from the wife of John Pollock, who set up business there in 1760: his wife was called Elizabeth - that is, Bess - and they lived very near the Camlough river, that is, brook.

The Richardsons immediately set about improving the site. New manufacturing buildings were constructed, using local Mourne granite, dedicated housing for their workforce was provided, and eventually around 3,000 people worked for the Richardsons in Bessbrook and its satellite factory, Craigmore. The whole village was laid out to be as aesthetically pleasing for its inhabitants as possible, with attractively flowered central squares and with a regard to space which those who planned industrial housing in the United Kingdom more generally, clearly did not have. One thing Bessbrook did not have was a pub: the Richardson idea was that alcohol was bad for the health, physical and mental, was detrimental to  productivity, and led to other problems: the formula was pithily put as "three Ps": no pub, so no pawnshop, so no police. There was though a pub in nearby Millbank, which did have the occasional visits from Bessbrook.

By 1847, flax spinning had already begun and the firm was one of the first companies locally to introduce steam power looms from 1852, among the first in Ireland. By 1863, Richardson was Director of the whole Bessbrook enterprise, Richardson and Owden. This was a propitious time for the linen trade, not least because of the American Civil War, which seriously affected, not surprisingly, cotton exports from the Southern American States, provoking a much higher demand for linen. Damask weaving began in 1867.

A notable move in the firm came also in 1867, when Richardson's niece and ward, Anna Richardson Malcolmson, married Henry Barcroft, another member of Quaker circles and whom Richardson not only knew well; he took a keen interest in his niece's welfare and considered Barcroft not only a suitable husband for her, but also recognised his abilities and favoured him to be involved at Bessbrook. He even selected a resplendent house for them, "The Glen", in nearby Newry, and appointed Barcroft a Director of the firm. This was a prescient appointment as Henry was a talented designer and mechanical engineer, as we shall see. and In 1878 the company was reformed as the Bessbrook Spinning Co. Ltd, with Richardson as chairman.

In two respects Richardson instituted systems which seem far-sighted for their day. One was that he encouraged mixed-religion schools, which were not only practical but reflected his religious beliefs; the other was that he initiated a kind of social welfare system, whereby each worker paid a small sum form his wages - deducted at source - to fund a doctor and dispensary, though later his son complained that this system failed due to abuse of it: Richardson fils noted with regret that it ‘fell to pieces' as a result of ‘desperate and barefaced malingering' by some workers.

His other business interests included shipping, though he resigned from one company during the Crimean war in the 1850s, when that company allowed its fleet to used as troop transports; as a Quaker and therefore pacifist he would not be involved with this. At the same time, he bought over a bone-crushing enterprise which was failing. In 1860 it was expanded to produce industrial fertilizer, and though sold in 1891, the name was retained and Richardsons Fertilizers, as it later became, was still trading into the 21st century.

Bessbrook provided inspiration for other model villages - several of which were set up by Quakers, including Portlaw in Waterford - and for the Cadburys' Bourneville in England, and for garden suburbs worldwide.

Though Richardson employed many Quakers, some brought from England, Catholics and Protestants lived and worked together in Bessbrook. Richardson was one of the earliest supporters of the concept of national education, believing strongly that children should be educated together, and gave evidence to the Clarendon Commission, a Royal Commission, set up in 1861 to investigate the state of nine leading schools in England at the time. The Clarendon Report was published in 1864 with general recommendations on the subjects of curriculum. It gives a detailed picture of life in the nine schools. As a consequence of the Report, the Public Schools Act was passed in 1868.

In 1855, in payment of a bad debt, Richardson took over a bone-crushing business in Belfast, and by 1860 had converted this into a chemical fertiliser manufactury. By the 1880s it was producing over 6,000 tons annually; and though bought in 1894 by William Goulding, the name Richardson was retained until the end of the twentieth century, and became one of the best-known names in the fertiliser business in Ireland.

Richardson first married in 1840, but his wife died in 1846 due to childbirth. He remarried in 1863. His son James Nicholson Richardson, from his first marriage, continued the family business. In 1882, WE Gladstone wrote to John Grubb informing him of Queen Victoria's having assented to confer on him a baronetcy. Richardson wrote back declining, stating as his reason, that as a Quaker the only reward he expected or wanted for having helped his fellow man, was the pleasure it gave him.

He died at home in 1890.

Born: 1813
Died: 1890
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann

Dictionary of Irish Biography; KJ Franklin: Joseph Barcroft; Bessbrook: 1845-1995; Richard Harrison: A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Quakers