John Rylands was one of the outstanding figures of his time. When he died in 1888, he was the undoubted king of the Manchester cotton industry, due both to the economic climate and his own genius. His estate was the largest left by any cotton manufacturer, and the first in Manchester to exceed a million pounds (£2,574,922). His fortune stood as testimony to his success, and the firm he created was to last for 100 years after his death.
Born in Parr, near St Helens, in 1801, to Joseph Rylands and his wife Elizabeth Pilkington, John was the youngest of the three Rylands sons. Joseph was a manufacturer in his own right, but in 1819 he joined forces with his sons (Joseph, Richard and John), who had their own thriving business, and the resultant firm was known as Rylands and Sons. This small business undertook the hand-weaving of coarse and coloured linen and calico goods for the Chester trade: John's role was as a commercial traveller and marketer of those goods.
He proved so successful in this that in 1823, he was able to cease travelling and, on behalf of Rylands and Sons, open a warehouse in New High Street, Manchester.
This proved, despite the move away from the traditional haunts of Wigan manufacturers (who produced solely for Chester), to be excellent timing, as Manchester's commerce was growing faster than its industry, due to postwar trends.
Rylands and Sons went from strength to strength, entering into other aspects of the cotton business, such as the finishing and spinning of yarn. The 1830s saw the firm's emphasis shifting towards cotton rather than linen, and they began to buy and lease mills, and sell goods other than their own by becoming merchants for the Scots and Irish markets. The Wigan estates, purchased in 1825 for the erection of the Wigan Linen Works, also proved to have valuable coal seams, and from 1839 onwards, the Rylands family became colliery masters.
In 1836, Joseph, the eldest son, retired from the firm and established the Hull Flax and Cotton Mill Company. Six years later Joseph Senior agreed to dissolve the partnership, leaving John Rylands in control of the business. The original name remained, but John, always the most talented member of the family, was now in sole control.
He further expanded the firm in the following thirty years, acquiring more mills, opening more departments in the Manchester warehouse, setting up offices and warehouses in London, Liverpool, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Glasgow, and employing various partners and managers, such as John Cross, William Carnelley and Reuben Spencer.
In 1873, John Rylands attempted to provide for the future of the business, following the demise of his son and heir, William. On the 25th of October, Rylands and Sons Ltd was incorporated as a joint stock company, with a nominal capital of £2,000,000 in £20 shares, 9 directors and a governor. John Rylands continued to preside over his company as if nothing had changed, and the board met only rarely.
Until his death in 1888, and a period afterwards, the firm continued to expand and make profits. However, the market had been unstable for some time, due to changes in the textile trade and the growth of the ready-made clothes industry, and Rylands and Sons Ltd now lacked the strong leadership required to transform either the marketing strategy or the structure of the business. There were attempts throughout the last 20 years of the century to withdraw from unprofitable ancillaries, such as coal mining and the social aspects (schools, shops) of the factories, and expand the export trade, but the firm grew steadily less and less profitable.
This decline was not immediately apparent, and until the 1920s, under the guidance of three men, Reuben Spencer, James Horrocks and William Carnelley, who held the chairmanship in rotation, the standard of prosperity was maintained. It was in 1921 that the unwillingness to develop and change the firm's outlook led to substantial losses in stock value due to the collapse of the post-war boom, and dividends began to wane. Despite economies, nil dividends were declared in 1932 and 1939. The centre of the textile and fashion trade was now London, and likely to remain so. Various outsiders were appointed to the board in a vain attempt to rejuvenate the failing company, but, despite a brief post-war boom in the 1940s, Rylands and Sons suffered the same fate as much of the British cotton industry, recording its first absolute loss in 1953. In the same year, the firm was taken over by Great Universal Stores Ltd, established in Manchester in 1900, and in 1971 active trading was ceased. The name of Rylands and Sons was removed from the Register of Companies in May 1989.