The Papers of the Rattenbury Family

Scope and Content

The Papers of the Rattenbury Family consist of original correspondence and related documents produced by the Rattenbury family between the early 19th and mid 20th centuries.

The collection contains papers created by John Rattenbury and his two grandsons: John Ernest and Harold Burgoyne. The catalogues also contain eight letters written by Emily Ewins a colleague of Harold’s who would later become his wife.

John Rattenbury's papers relate to both personal life and ministry between 1827 and 1879. Several contain eyewitness accounts of the proceedings of the Wesleyan conferences of 1833, 1834, 1836 and 1849 and are particularly informative about the struggles between the supporters of Jabez Bunting and the Wesleyan reformers.

John Ernest’s papers include correspondence, press cuttings and printed tracts. It relates to anti-Catholic agitation organised by groups like the Protestant Truth Society in the years immediately after Wold War I. Rattenbury came in to public conflict with the leaders of the Protestant extremists because of his alleged Catholic tendencies.

Harold’s correspondence covers the period 1927-1947 while he was away in China on various extensive tours. The correspondence is mainly addressed to his wife Emily. Much of the collection is concerned with conditions in China at a momentous time in the country’s history. Rattenbury was an eye-witness to the end of the period of the War Lords and the beginning of the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. In addition to his commentary on political and social conditions, he provides a valuable insight into the daily life and work of the Methodist Mission at a time of widespread persecution. The subjects covered in the collection range from the treatment of battlefield casualties in makeshift hospitals to worry about his children’s employment prospects in an England experiencing severe economic difficulties. Also included are accounts of the Ecumenical Conference of 1931 held in Atlanta, Georgia, and the events leading up to the first Conference of a united Methodist Church of Great Britain in 1932. There are also two journals, one covers his Presidential year (1949) and is very much a personal rather than an official record, the other a tour he made of south China in 1934.

Emily Ewin’s letters were written in 1911-1912 - before her marriage to Harold, and while she was herself working in the Chinese Mission in Hankow. They cover the period of the 1911 Revolution in China led by Sun Yat-Sen which ended 2000 years of imperial rule and established the Republic of China. The correspondence is concerned with reports of the civil war and the attempts at the Mission in Hankow to nurse the wounded.

There are two bound books in the collection, a volume containing copies of Emily's letters and a biography of the Rattenbury family writen by H Morley Rattenbury, son of Harrold and Emily.

The letters written by Emily included in the collection (DDHb/11) were written from Hankow during 1911 and 1912 - before her marriage to Harrold. They are addressed to her relations in England. The bound version (DDHb/12) of these letters is entitled: 'An on the spot record of Revolutionary Events at Hankow and Wuchang, Central China, 1911-12'.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Rattenburys are one of the most distinguished ministerial families in British Methodism. Since 1828 four successive generations of the family have produced Methodist ministers, including two Presidents of Conference. Rattenburys have been prominent in foreign missions and the home ministry and have played an active and often important role in many of the pressing issues of their day. The Rattenbury collection contains papers created by four members of the family.

John Rattenbury (1806-1879)

John Rattenbury was the founder of the ministerial dynasty. He served as president of the Wesleyan Conference in 1861 and was one of the most effective evangelists and fund-raisers of his time. His papers formed part of the original deposit of the Connexional Archives by the Methodist Church at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester in 1977. There are three other family members represented in the collection. Two are John Rattenbury's grandsons - John Ernest Rattenbury (1870-1963) and his younger brother Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury (1878-1961). The third is Emily Ewins who was to become Harrold's second wife in 1914.

John Rattenbury was born in Tavistock, Devon the oldest of 7 children of a carpenter Henry Rattenbury and his wife Anne. While John was still very young the family was forced to move in search of employment to South Wales and then Cheltenham. After a few years John and his father moved once more to Manchester leaving the rest of the family behind. In Manchester John joined the Wesleyan Methodist Society and three years later at the age of nineteen began to preach. He commenced training for the ministry under the supervision of Reverend Joseph Roberts and before long was considered suitable to fill a temporary position in the Stockport Circuit.

John moved back to Cheltenham following the death of his father and after a short period of further instruction from Reverend George Cubitt, was appointed to his first circuit in 1828.

John was a highly regarded Circuit minister who achieved the unusual distinction of staying for a full term of three years in every appointment. He was an effective evangelist who was well known for his inspiring revivals such as the one that occurred during his ministry in Leeds in 1837.

In Sheffield in 1832, John married Mary Owen, daughter of Samuel Owen, coal merchant and prominent lay Methodist. They had six children, one of whom Henry Owen Rattenbury followed his father into the Wesleyan ministry.

John was appointed to membership of the Legal Hundred in 1851 and ten years later was elected President of Conference. He withdrew from circuit work in 1873 and spent the last six years of his life as an effective treasurer of the Worn out Ministers’ and Minsters’ Widows’ Auxiliary Fund. He toured the country preaching to raise money and in 1877 was able to announce to the Bradford Conference that his target of £100,000 had been passed.

Other funds which benefited from John's talent for raising money was the Relief and Extensions Fund, of which he was one of the general secretaries, and the Metropolitan Wesleyan Chapel Building Fund.

He died at Highbury, London, on 22 December 1879.

John Ernest Rattenbury (1870-1963)

John Ernest Rattenbury was born in Stanningley near Leeds. He was the grandson, son, brother and uncle of Methodist ministers. He was one of the six children of Henry Owen, son of John Rattenbury.

John Ernest was educated at Woodhouse Grove School and preached his first sermon in a nearby church at the age of sixteen. He subsequently trained for the Wesleyan ministry at Didsbury College in Manchester.

Much of Rattenbury’s ministry was spent in city missions including eighteen years from 1907 in the West London Mission where he established himself as one of the outstanding Nonconformist ministers in the capital. He was elected to the Legal Hundred in 1914 and served as a representative at the Methodist Episcopal Quadrennial Conference in 1930. From 1918 to 1922 Rattenbury was on the editorial board of the Methodist Times and in 1932 was Quillian lecturer at Emory University in the United States. In 1936 he served as the President of the National Free Church Council.

Rattenbury was one of the leading evangelists and preachers of his day. During his time at the West London Mission, he preached the Lyceum Theatre and was instrumental in the opening of Kingsway Hall. In Leicester, he founded the Belgrave Hall Mission and built Clarendon Park Church. He was also a founder member of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship.

Rattenbury’s popularity and status within the Connexion made him a formidable opponent of Methodist union in 1932. His opposition was grounded in his fears that union would damage the prospects for wider Christian unity. His opposition may have cost him the chance to emulate is grandfather and brother by becoming President of the Conference.

After superannuation from, the active ministry in 1935, Rattenbury was able to devote his time to writing. His books included The Conversions of the Wesleys(1938) and The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (1948).

Rattenbury was married to 1898 to Edith Mantle. they had two children Grace and Robert.

Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury (1878-1962)

Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury was born at Witney in Oxfordshire. He was the son, grandson, brother and father of Methodist ministers. He was one of eight children and like his older brother Ernest he was educated at Woodhouse Grove School near Leeds and was employed there for a time as a pupil teacher.

Rattenbury trained for the ministry at Headingly and in 1902 was appointed to the China Mission. He was to remain in China for thirty two years, the last thirteen of which were spent as Chairman of the Wuchang District (reorganised as the Hupeh District in 1932).

In 1932 he attended the last Wesleyan Methodist Conference and was elected to the Legal Hundred. His ministry in China came to an end in 1934 when he was appointed to a Secretaryship at the Mission House in London. He did however return to China and other parts of the Far East on several extensive tours, the last of which was made in 1947. Rattenbury was elected President of Conference in 1949 and superannuated immediately after serving out his Presidential year.

Rattenbury as the author of many books about China including The Seven Churches of China (1935), China my China (1944) and Let My People Know (1947). He was a regular radio broadcaster on Chinese affairs.

Rattenbury’s first wife was Edith Brewer, who died after childbirth in November 1912. His second wife was Emily Ewins, a colleague in the Women's Work of the Chinese Mission in Hankow.

Emily Ewins (1886-1973)

Emily Ewins was born in 1886 and became a founder member of the Women's Fellowship of the Methodist Church, she became a colleague of Harrold Burgoyne Rattenbury's in the China Mission at Hankow.

Emily was one of only three of the women involved in the 'Women's Work' who were allowed to stay on in Hankow during the 1911-12 revolution to help nurse the wounded.

She was also the only foreign woman present at a victory parade in Wuchang on October 12th 1912 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Revolution.

In 1914 she married Harrold (his first wife had died in childbirth in 1912).

Emily returned to England on furlough with her husband in 1927 and remained when he returned to China. The following year she joined him in China again until 1930 when she returned to England to supervise the education of her children.


The collection has been catalogued as three subgroups:

  • PLP 86.28 - The Papers of the Rattenbury Family: John Rattenbury (1806 -1879).
  • PLP 87.1-7 - The Papers of the Rattenbury Family: John Ernest Rattenbury (1870-1963).
  • DDHb/1-12 - The Papers of the Rattenbury Family: Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury (1878-1962).

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive 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 Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The papers of John Rattenbury and John Ernest Rattenbury were part of the original Methodist Connexional Archive. Those of Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury and his wife Emily were deposited by their son Rev. Morley Rattenbury in January 1995 (MA 9375).


Rattenbury, H. Morley, Rat-Rhyme (WHS Yorkshire Branch)

Family Names