Henry Rowland Marsden (1823- 1876)
Industrialist, Inventor, Philanthropist – ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’

Henry Rowland Marsden (1823- 1876)On a corner of the untended side of Woodhouse Moor a tall statue stands among the long grass and litter. It commemorates a forgotten popular hero, Henry Rowland Marsden, twice Mayor of Leeds, universally loved for his generosity and kindness, admired for his energy and self-made success. Thirty thousand Leeds people contributed to the statue. When it was unveiled in 1878 in Woodhouse Lane, close to town, great crowds of eager fans broke through the police barriers and swamped the celebrations, some injured in the crush. Now its once white marble is dirty and pitted, its pink granite base stained by graffiti, and one of its three carved panels hacked out.

Henry Marsden’s life was a classic rags to riches story. He was born in 1823 in a small back-to-back in Edwin Street, Holbeck (gone now). His father was an ex-soldier, a Waterloo veteran, on a miserably small pension. His mother took in washing to help feed the family, and as soon as their two boys were old enough they had to earn. Henry got his first job aged 7 and over the following years worked in various mills, including as a ‘heckler’ in Marshall’s flax mill – dirty, ill-paid work. He remembered later those hard times when ‘the factory bell was a death knell to tender younglings’.

His only schooling was at the Sweet Street Wesleyan Sunday School. He learnt to read when he was 12, and taught himself the elements of mechanics and engineering. At 15 he found an opening as apprentice to a tool-maker, where he had scope to develop his skills and inventive imagination. But the pay was poor, nine shillings a week, and when he invented a machine for use in flax-spinning his employer took the credit and the profits. Even when Henry wanted to marry he was refused a pay rise, so he left, but was persuaded back and stayed until the firm closed. Then his thoughts turned to the New World, the land of opportunity.

He had borrowed some money and married – Sarah Hawling, a butcher’s daughter. With their baby daughter they embarked in 1848 on the great adventure of the long transatlantic voyage. After a period in New York they settled in Connecticut where he joined a firm (Blake’s) which had launched new stone-crushing machinery – the start of his journey to success and fortune. He developed improvements to the Blake machines and later patented his inventions. In 1862 he returned to Leeds (was he homesick?) to set up in business at the Soho Works in Meadow Lane, manufacturing stone and ore-crushing machinery, winning international recognition. As industrialisation boomed, his patented machines were in demand across the world for road-building, mining, and railway construction, replacing slow, back-breaking manual labour. (The Blake/Marsden names are still in use today.)

He was now a very wealthy man and the family lived in some style, first in Wortley Grange, then De Grey Terrace, and finally in a grand detached mansion called Avenue House in Woodhouse Lane (not there now). But his wealth could not protect them from tragedy: in 1865 newly-born twin babies and an older son died within months of each other. Henry never forgot the poverty of his youth, donating large sums to charities for the poor, and helping many individuals in need. The story goes that he would sit in a small office at his Works every day, handing out bread and shoes to anyone down on their luck. His reputation for benevolence and kindness spread. He was elected as a Liberal councillor, and in 1873 and 1874 as mayor, hugely popular not only for his cheerful generosity but also for his ‘wondrous rise from poverty and obscurity’. As mayor he initiated the ambitious project to hold triennial Music Festivals, and he celebrated the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh's marriage by organising a tea for 1,000 elderly citizens at the Town Hall – a grand gesture imitated by his successors.

In 1876, when he was about to be presented with a splendid testimonial to his time as mayor, came the shocking news of his sudden death, aged 53. His funeral was a massive affair, attended by all his workpeople. He was buried in the elaborate family vault which still stands in Holbeck cemetery. A fund was immediately set up for a memorial statue by the Leeds sculptor John Throp, and contributions, small and large, poured in. A prominent site in Woodhouse Lane (next to the St John’s Centre) was chosen and there his statue stood for 72 years until road-widening banished it to storage and in 1952 to the Moor. The panels on its base represented education, industry, and benevolence (missing now) – all three dear to his heart.

Eveleigh Bradford
July 2016