Owen Owens and Son Archive

Scope and Content

Survival of the company's records is far from complete, and we have no records at all to document the earliest days of its existence. Items were doubtless lost or separated during the period after John Owens's executors wound up the company's affairs, and before the archive was rediscovered in the twentieth century. In addition, the firm itself was typical of the small-scale unlimited liability companies of its time in having somewhat unsophisticated and unsystematic record-keeping procedures. As there were no statutory obligations to create records for outside agencies, and Owen and John Owens were very much involved with the day-to-day running of the firm, there was limited need for internal documentation. The archive contains a fair number of financial and accounting records, however, most importantly a run of ledgers dating from 1805 onwards. There are also various books of prime entry from different periods in the company's history, and preliminary records of account such as loose bills and invoices, some of which relate to personal and household expenditure. There are some very rough records relating to operations such as buying, finishing and packing textiles for consignment overseas. Most extensive, however, is the correspondence: there are outgoing letterbooks dating from 1821, and loose incoming letters and papers from 1838 onwards, presumably reflecting a policy to keep incoming correspondence only for a limited number of years.

The archive provides an insight into the organisation, activities and changing policies of the company during its existence; it sheds a light on foreign trade and the world in which the nineteenth-century merchant operated, including first-hand accounts of foreign markets and political events from agents based abroad; it also reveals something of the activities of the financier, including material on loans and investments in railway shares at a time of great expansion in the rail industry. There is, in addition, a very small amount of material relating to John Owens's life outside the company - in the form of personal and household accounts, and papers relating to his will.

Administrative / Biographical History

The company Owen Owens and Son had its origins in a small concern set up in the 1790s by Owen Owens (1764-1844), who moved from his native Holywell in Flintshire to seek his fortune in Manchester sometime during the late 1780s. By 1804 his business premises were firmly fixed in Carpenter's Lane, Manchester, where the company remained until its closure in 1846. Initially, Owens manufactured and dealt chiefly in hat linings and trimmings, and from around 1810 he was also engaged in the manufacture of umbrellas. The company was pre-industrial in character, and most of the manufacturing work was carried out in the homes of its employees.

In 1815 Owens's son, John (1790-1846), became a partner in the business and the company was renamed Owen Owens and Son. John was the first and only surviving son of Owens and his wife Sarah. By the time he joined the company, it had expanded to become a firm of manufacturers and merchants, sending consignments of hatting materials, other textile goods and umbrellas to agents in North and South America. After 1815, the manufacturing side of the business and the home trade were increasingly subordinated to the foreign export business, and the firm became primarily merchants.

Through the 1820s Owen Owens and Son concentrated on their North American consignment accounts, exporting principally to Philadelphia and New York. By 1828 the company was well-established as a mercantile house, and Owen Owens retired from active business, leaving his son to direct the company's affairs and seek out new markets for their goods. Under his own initiative, John had already entered into partnership with a company of fine cotton spinners, Samuel Faulkner and Co., whose mill in Ancoats, Manchester, he assisted in financing; Owens was a sleeping partner and took a share of the company's profits until 1844, the investment proving a useful source of capital for Owen Owens and Son. George Faulkner, another member of the company, was John Owens's closest friend from his schooldays and one of the main beneficiaries of his will.

From 1831, Owens withdrew from the trade in hatting materials, concentrating instead on cotton and woollen goods. During this decade South America became the main destination for consignments, and the most profitable trade was carried out by agents based at Montevideo, in the Banda Oriental (Uruguay), and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Owens established a successful and enduring business connection with Hodgson and Robinson, merchants based in Buenos Aires; they offered competitive rates of commission, and worked for Owens from 1829 until their liquidation in 1844. From 1838 Owens also held a consignment account with agents in Bahia, Brazil, which turned out to be the only sizeable overseas market he still held at the time of his death. South America formed a useful market for the kind of coarse and cheap textiles which were no longer acceptable in North America. Payment for sales effected not only took the usual form of bills, but was also made in goods such as hides, furs, tallow, sugar and coffee, which sometimes produced additional profit for the company, but at other times led to uncertainty as the market for these goods in England could vary considerably.

Owens did not confine his exports to the Americas. He also looked east and forged links with agents in India and China. Bombay formed one of the company's most important markets during the mid to late 1830s, and Owens also carried on a small trade with Canton; the latter, however, was disrupted by the Opium War from 1839 and never fully recovered.

By the 1840s the overseas accounts of Owen Owens and Son had become generally less profitable and more uncertain, a situation arising from various causes: in America there was a depression in trade and a preference for home-produced goods; political instability, war and blockades in Buenos Aires and Montevideo made trading very difficult; South American currencies were very unstable, and remittances usually came long after sales had been made; some of Owens's agents also turned out to be dishonest or incompetent, in particular Gaskell Johnson in Pernambuco, Brazil, who owed Owens large sums when his company went into liquidation.

Gradually Owens's consignment accounts were closed, and his assets converted to cash. Being wealthier, he could now afford to concentrate increasingly on speculation: he imported produce from abroad and waited for price rises in order to make a profit on sales. Owens engaged in some speculation from 1835, although he did not begin in earnest until around 1839. His speculative ventures included the import of cotton from Egypt and America, flour from America and tea from China. He also employed the Liverpool firm of Lyon and Fynney to purchase wheat, corn, beans and oats for him. Owens did not, however, invest a large proportion of his wealth in the field of speculation, turning instead to railway shares and loans during the 1840s. He augmented his fortune considerably by making numerous loans on the security of railway shares as well as buying them on his own account.

By the time of John Owens's death the company of Owen Owens and Son was worth over £160,000, and although Owen Owens died only two years before his son in 1844, John had been effectively running the business for 15 years. The company never dominated any of its overseas markets, but it proved successful, adapting effectively to the shifting economic climate and trade fluctuations, and expanding from its origins in small-scale manufacture, to become a company of established export merchants, speculators and financiers.

John Owens, however, is probably best remembered for his role as the founder of Manchester University. He never married and eschewed extravagance, living moderately in Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, in the house purchased by his father. He died on 29 July 1846 aged 55. In his will he made bequests of varying sizes to friends, relatives, servants and local charitable concerns, but his greatest legacy was the generous endowment of £ 100,000 to found an educational institution for the instruction of young men not less than fourteen years old "'in such branches of learning and science as are now and may be hereafter taught in the English universities"'. (quoted in B.W. Clapp, John Owens: Manchester Merchant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965), p. 173). The establishment was to be open to all applicants, regardless of social rank, and there were to be no religious tests, reflecting the liberal ideal of social progress through education. Trustees were appointed to translate Owens's wishes into reality, and the result was Owens College in Quay Street, Manchester, which opened its doors in 1851. This was the first of many colleges built in the Victorian era which formed the foundations of the modern university system. Owens College moved to Oxford Road in 1873; from 1880 it was one of the colleges which formed the northern federal Victoria University; and in 1903 it achieved full independence as the Victoria University of Manchester.


The archive had become extremely disordered over the years; there were large quantities of loose and separated papers, although some signs of the company's original ordering remained, in the form of discrete bundles and original wrappers. This catalogue attempts to reflect original order as far as this is possible to ascertain, although it is necessarily a compromise. The Owen Owens and Son archive falls naturally into three major groupings of records which represent different functions within the company: accounting and financial records; rough volumes relating to the practical internal operations of the company, recording materials acquired and processed for consignment; and correspondence, reflecting the company's dealings with all their contacts in Britain and abroad. In addition, there is a very small amount of material which was generated after the death of John Owens by his executors and trustees. The archive is therefore arranged into four subgroups:

  • /1 Financial and accounting records
  • /2 Rough operational records
  • /3 Correspondence and papers
  • /4 Papers generated by John Owens's executors and trustees

Former reference numbers quoted refer to the outline list of the archive published by B.W. Clapp in his book, John Owens: Manchester Merchant.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PP.

Custodial History

The archive became the property of the trustees of Owens College on the death of John Owens on 29 July 1846 and remained in the college, presumably being transferred to the new site at Oxford Road in 1873. It lay forgotten in the roof of the Main Building of the University of Manchester until it was discovered by firewatchers during the Second World War. It was transferred to Deansgate after the John Rylands Library merged with the University Library to become the Department of Special Collections in 1972.

Related Material

Related archive material held at the John Rylands University Library, Deansgate, includes the archive of Hodgson, Robinson and Co. (GHR ), and the papers of the Fielden Brothers (FDN), both companies with whom Owen Owens and Son did business and who were active in the same export markets. Archives relating to Owens College (including some copies of John Owens' will) are held at the Main Library (OCA)


The archive was used as the principle source for B.W. Clapp, John Owens: Manchester Merchant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965), which contains a brief outline list of the archive in Appendix I.

The following works have proved useful in the compilation of this handlist: H.B. Charlton, Portrait of a University 1851-1951 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1951). B.W. Clapp, John Owens: Manchester Merchant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965). D.C.M. Platt, Latin America and British Trade 1806-1914 (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1972). Joseph Thompson, The Owens College: its foundation and growth; and its connection with the Victoria University, Manchester (Manchester: J.E. Cornish, 1886).