James Garth Marshall (1802-1873)
Industrialist, politician, reformer, landowner.

What connects the crumbling magnificence of the Egyptian-style Temple Mills in urban Holbeck with the glorious landscape of Tarn Hows, one of the most visited beauty spots in the Lake District? The link is James Garth Marshall, who used part of the massive wealth generated by the Marshall flax business in Leeds to fund spectacular improvements to his fine country estate at Coniston. A second-generation millionaire, a ‘millocrat’ accused of exploiting his workers, he was nevertheless a thoughtful man with a social conscience, committed to political reform and in touch with the important men of ideas of his day.

He was the third son of entrepreneur John Marshall who had amassed a huge fortune using new factory methods to spin flax, cashing in on the booming wartime demand for cloth. His great mills at Holbeck employed over a thousand people, mainly women and children, working 12-hour days for a few shillings a week. James followed his elder brother into the business at eighteen, after a private education in Edinburgh. He was to become a leading figure in the firm, responsible for significant improvements in machinery and working practices. When a new larger mill was required it was he who recommended the unique single-storey plan finally adopted, with its vast two-acre space, its innovative ventilation and lighting system – and famously sheep grazing on the roof! Temple Mill opened in 1840 and was a wonder of its age.

Concerned about the conditions of the poor, he believed that extending the vote would lead to improvement. In 1841 he helped to found the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association and offered Temple Mill for a mass meeting. Some 7000 supporters crowded into the vast space, under a huge banner claiming ‘Justice for each and all’ in flaring gas-lit letters. But talk did not satisfy the activists. Just a year later James had to fight off a terrifying attack on the mill by Chartist rioters who tried to shut down the boiler and halt production. He hated the violence, but remained dedicated to extending the vote, including to women. His novel ideas on proportional representation won approval from his friend, the philosopher/economist John Stuart Mill.

Like his father James saw education as the key to progress. He supported the mill schools and founded a new school himself in Holbeck, with a library – essential he said ‘for giving an early taste for reading and acquiring useful knowledge’. He helped to found a Mutual Improvement Society in Headingley, where he also gave land for allotments for the poor. On the national level he was a strong advocate of the state provision of education rather than the current voluntary system. This issue bitterly divided the Liberal party. In 1847 he agreed to stand as MP for Leeds on this platform, following in the footsteps of his father and brothers. But he was basically a shy man and a poor public speaker; he retired in 1852, though he continued to take an interest in politics in support of his beliefs.

James divided his time between the family mansion of Headingley House, on the fringe of Beckett Park (demolished c 1910), his London home, and the Lake District where his father and brothers had bought estates, well away from smoking mill chimneys. In 1836, on advice from the Wordsworths, James bought an estate at Monk Coniston which he later extended and improved, joining three small tarns into one spectacular lake: Tarn Hows. This was to become his favoured home after his marriage in 1841. His younger brother had married well – the daughter of Lord Monteagle, Chancellor of the Exchequer – and James married another daughter, Mary Alice Spring-Rice, in what the papers called a ‘High Life’ wedding in London. The two families were to become even more entangled through further marriages. The Marshalls were moving now in high society.

By the 1850s James was senior partner in the business in Leeds alongside his younger brother Henry, but the two frequently fell out over business decisions. As competition from cotton increased, profits fell away, but by then the family wealth and social status were assured. James now spent more time in the Lakes where he could pursue his life-long interest in geology, and travelled abroad with his wife and four children. They enjoyed a padded life, entertaining eminent friends like Thomas Carlyle, Adam Sedgewick, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin.

When James died in 1873 he was buried at Coniston where his estate is now owned by the National Trust and enjoyed by thousands of visitors. In Leeds the business struggled on until it finally closed in 1886. Over recent years the once magnificent Temple Mills have lain derelict, reportedly sold recently for just £1, their future in question.

James Garth Marshall (1802-1873)
James Garth Marshall with his wife and daughter (right) with Alfred Lord Tennyson and his son Hallam, photographed at Monk Coniston by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1857

Eveleigh Bradford
April 2018