Rathbone Papers

Scope and Content

The Rathbone Papers in the University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives are the records of several generations of the Rathbone family of Liverpool, incorporating papers relating to their works of social and political reform, their business ventures, and their family life; dating from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Rathbones of Liverpool were a family of non-conformist merchants and shipowners, whose sense of high social consciousness led to a fine tradition of philanthropy and public service.

The family origins are traced to Gawsworth, near Macclesfield, where the first William Rathbone was born in 1669. It was his son, William Rathbone II, born on 22 May 1696, that left Gawsworth for the growing port of Liverpool where he worked as a sawyer and, it appears, established a timber business. His son, William Rathbone III, developed the business during the eighteenth century, whilst also establishing an international merchanting concern. These early business ventures were the beginnings which led, after a series of partnerships, to the creation of Rathbone Brothers and Co. in 1824, an illustrious Liverpool merchanting firm, trading during the nineteenth century in a variety of commodities including American cotton, China tea and silks and Brazilian coffee, and involving the energies of several members of the Rathbone family, through the generations, as partners.

William Rathbone II had joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers, soon after the death of his wife, Sarah, in 1726, and passed its teachings on to his son, William III, who took an active role amongst the local Quaker community. His son, the fourth William Rathbone, in turn became a member of the Society, but felt impelled to take a stand against what he perceived to be intolerance in its doctrines, finding the teachings of the Unitarian church more acceptable. Certain particularly Quaker and Unitarian traditions of industry and the zeal to correct social wrongs pervade generations of the Rathbone family: examples can be found in William Rathbone IV and his son Richard and their stand against the slave trade in a town at its hub, in the fifth William and his fight to reform a corrupt system of municipal government, and in the many good works of William Rathbone VI and his daughter, Eleanor - amongst them the establishment of District Nursing by the efforts of the former, and of Family Allowances by those of the latter.

In 1788 William IV had leased a residence near Liverpool, Greenbank, to house his family in a country environment, which was bought by the family in 1809. It was to remain the Rathbone family home for over a century, visited by many notable figures in the fields of politics and social reform, the Unitarian faith, and the arts. The estate and buildings were presented to the University of Liverpool through the 1930s-40s, in an act of generosity which continued a long tradition of service, in many forms, to a city close to the familys heart.


The arrangement of the papers dates from the creation of the original catalogue of the collection, completed in 1959, chiefly grouping the papers by individual family members or family groups, although it must be noted that papers relating to a single family member may naturally be found in several different groups. The groupings are as follows:

  • RP I: Papers of William Rathbone III (1726-1789)
  • RP II: Papers of William Rathbone IV (1757-1809)
  • RP III: Papers of Hannah Mary Rathbone I (1761-1839)
  • RP IV: Papers of the Reynolds Family
  • RP V: Papers of William Rathbone V (1787-1868) - includes some papers of Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841)
  • RP VI: Papers of Elizabeth Rathbone (1790-1882)
  • RP VII: Papers of the family of Richard Rathbone (1788-1860)
  • RP VIII: Papers of Theodore Woolman Rathbone (1798-1863)
  • RP IX: Papers of William Rathbone VI (1819-1902)
  • RP X Papers of Emily Rathbone (d.1819) and the Lyle Family
  • RP XI: Papers of Samuel Greg Rathbone (1823-1903)
  • RP XII: Papers of Elizabeth Paget
  • RP XIII: Papers of Hannah Mary (1816-1872) and John H. Thom (1808-1894)
  • RP XIV: Papers of Eleanor Florence Rathbone (1872-1946)
  • RP XV-RP XVA: Papers of Hugh Reynolds Rathbone (1862-1940) and Emily Evelyn Rathbone (1865-1954)
  • RP XVB: Papers of Reynolds (1891-1962) and Sybil Rathbone
  • RP XVC: Papers of Henry Gair Rathbone (1857-1945)
  • RP XVI: Papers of Theodore William Rathbone (1832-1890)
  • RP XVII: Papers of Maria Mary Payne Rathbone (née Johnstone) (d.1913)
  • RP XVIII: Papers of May Rathbone
  • RP XIX: Biographical and genealogical material
  • RP XX: Property records
  • RP XXI: General records - Autograph collection
  • RP XXII: General records - Personal records
  • RP XXIII: Business records - early partnerships
  • RP XXIV: Business records - Rathbone Brothers and Co.
  • RP XXV: Papers of William Gair Rathbone VII (1849-1919) and descendants - includes papers of William Rathbone VIII and his sister Elena Richmond, and William Rathbone IX

Access Information

Access is open to bona fide researchers

Acquisition Information

The original collection of the Rathbone Papers was deposited with the University of Liverpool in 1954 by Lady Warr, Richard Reynolds Rathbone and Hugo Ponsonby Rathbone following the death of their mother, Emily Evelyn Rathbone; and to these records have been added a series of further gifts by family members, including the deposit of commercial records of Rathbone Brothers from the late 18th - the 20th centuries; a series of political papers of Eleanor Rathbone, M.P.; a large deposit made in 1987 of the papers of Hugh and Emily Evelyn Rathbone and their son Reynolds; and a large group of material deposited by William Rathbone X in 1993 incorporating the records of his great-grandfather, William Gair Rathbone VII and his descendants and including a large collection of family photographs. In addition to these deposits a number of smaller deposits have been made, a complete list of which is held in Special Collections and Archives. Lists of new deposits are integrated with the original catalogue.

Other Finding Aids

A handlist is available for consultation in the reading room

Alternative Form Available

Reproduction and licensing rules available on request.

Archivist's Note

The Rathbone Papers were originally listed in 1959 by Mrs Olga Radcliffe Evans, with assistance from Joan Flood (typing) and Mrs Edna Roberts who created an initial summary report of the collection. The list was further revised in 1980 by Mrs Olga Radcliffe Evans with new additions included and some re-numbering work. The list was encoded into EAD using EAD ProCite output style by Emma Challinor in October 1997. Additional deposits have been listed by Katy Hooper in 1997 and 2005. This finding aid was extensively edited by Roy Lumb for inclusion on the Archives Hub in 2005 and 2007.

Separated Material

Liverpool Record Office hold correspondence, family portraits, photographs and printed material of the Rathbone Family dating from 1726-1938. An on-line catalogue of this deposit is available.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction and licensing rules available on request.

Appraisal Information

All of the material accessioned with the Rathbone Papers has been preserved.


It is anticipated that there will be regular accruals.

Related Material

The Archive of the University of Liverpool contains records relating to the Rathbone Family, including the following:

  • Ref no. S3235 Photographs of members of the Rathbone Family of Liverpool, [mid 19th century - ?1910]
  • Ref. no. D14 Papers re Greenbank, the Rathbone family, Sir Sydney Jones, the University Appeal and Profs Edward Jenks and J G Wright
  • Ref. no. P12/5 Correspondence of William Rathbone and Sir Oliver Lodge


RATHBONE, Eleanor Florence, William Rathbone: a memoirMacmillan, London, 1905

RATHBONE, Emily Acheson, Records of the Rathbone family, Privately printed by R. & R. Clark, Edinburgh, 1913

NOTTINGHAM, Lucie, Rathbone Brothers : from merchant to banker, 1742-1992, Rathbone Brothers, London, 1992

ROBINSON, Joy, Relatively Rathbone, Trotman, Richmond, 1992