John Marshall (1765-1845)
A Pioneer ‘Millocrat’

John Marshall (1765-1845)John Marshall began his working life in his father’s drapery business in Briggate but his sights were set far higher. This ambitious man, domineering and ruthless by reputation, led the way for Leeds to become the world centre of the flax-spinning industry in the early nineteenth century, and went on to amass enormous personal wealth and power.

He was born in 1765, the third and only surviving son of Jeremiah Marshall, a linen-draper who had a thriving business in town, member of the influential Mill Hill Unitarian chapel. Educated privately and at Hipperholme School near Halifax, John was always meant to follow in his father’s footsteps. He entered the family business at 16, but was on the lookout for more exciting opportunities. On a visit to Darlington he saw newly invented machines in operation spinning flax, and grasped their potential for future development and profit. When his father died in 1787 he sold the business, borrowed more money and risked it all to set up in Scotland Mill at Adel – you can still see the remains in Adel woods. Here he toiled away experimenting with new methods of mechanised spinning and weaving, finally achieving success when he took on the talented young engineer Matthew Murray, newly arrived in Leeds in search of work.

In 1790 Marshall moved his new enterprise to Holbeck, where labour was plentiful and transport good, and built a series of new mills. With the aid of various partners, he expanded and by 1803 he was employing over 1000 workers. He bought out his partners and took total control, making a fortune from the war with France, and diversifying into financial markets, into stocks and bonds, with a Midas touch.

Like most millowners, he had always lived close to his mills, but as conditions in town worsened he decided to move his family out to the still rural village of Headingley, a healthier place for his children to grow up in (his baby daughter had died in 1801). In 1905 he rented New Grange (now part of the Beckett Park campus), a fine mansion in spacious grounds, where he could play the part of a country gentleman, planting trees and raising sheep. The rent was high and a host of servants were needed to look after his expanding family (twelve children) but it gave him the status he craved. He was already a leading light in the influential group of wealthy dissenters in Leeds.

 But he had another love – he and his wife Jane, a childhood friend of Dorothy Wordsworth, had spent their honeymoon in the Lakes and visited often. In 1813 he bought ‘Hallsteads’, an estate on Ullswater, far from the smoke and hustle of Leeds. He gave up New Grange and in 1818 bought a smaller house nearby as his Leeds base - Headingley House, built around 1802 on land between Kirkstall Lane and Beckett Park (demolished c1910). He extended the house and bought more land, including the adjoining house, Headingley Lodge for one of his sons.

Four of his sons joined the business, allowing him more time for his many intellectual interests - education, social politics, geology. He was a founder member and first president of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, supported the Mechanics’ Institute, and backed the creation of the new University of London, open to dissenters like himself. He established schools for the children employed in his mills, though he was criticised for their treatment and the long hours they worked. A Liberal with a strong interest in reform, he briefly entered politics, and in 1826 was the first millowner to be elected MP for Yorkshire, representing its increasingly significant commercial life.

From 1830, as his health deteriorated, he spent more of his time in the Lakes, but he kept a hold on the business and in 1840 saw the opening of the firm’s magnificent and innovative Egyptian-style mill in Holbeck – single-storey, over an acre in extent, temperature-controlled, and lit by skylights in the huge roof, where sheep sometimes grazed on the turf covering: it was a wonder of the age. (Temple Mill stands sadly empty now, with part of its roof recently collapsed.)

John Marshall died in his Lakeland home in 1845. His sons remained in Headingley, though they too had other homes and great estates in the Lakes. Their interest in the business began to wane and Marshall’s failed to keep up with competition. The flax industry in Leeds stagnated in the 1870s and then declined, and John Marshall’s grandsons turned their backs on the business which had been the source of their wealth. The end came in 1886: the empire he had created collapsed, the mills and all the property in Headingley were sold, and the Marshalls left Leeds for good.

Eveleigh Bradford
August 2009