Rylands and Sons Archive

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 RYL
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      5.7 linear metres. 2 subfonds; 81 items.
  • Location
      Collection available at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

The Rylands and Sons archive is sadly fragmentary and seemingly the product of haphazard survival. The most substantial and valuable components of the archive are: an unbroken set of directors' minute books, which document the strategic development and changing fortunes of the firm over almost a century, 1873-1956 (RYL/1/1/9-19); and extensive legal records consisting mainly of title deeds for various properties owned, leased or mortgaged by Rylands and Sons, as well as photographs and records of damage sustained by Rylands and Sons' premises due to bombing in World War II, and details of trademarks, agreements and licences, 1734-1969 (RYL/1/5).

Other corporate records include the Memorandum and Articles of Association dating from 1873 (RYL/1/1/5), and John Rylands's personal governor's minute book, 1873-88 (RYL/1/1/20). Sadly there are no production records, and only a handful of accounting and financial records, which give an incomplete picture of the firm's profitability, 1847-98 (RYL/1/2). The small quantity of promotion and marketing records comprises brochures and illustated catalogues, which provide valuable evidence of the company's products and premises, 1908-39 (RYL/1/3). There are very few records of staff employed and their wages, with only a single wages ledger, 1870-80 (RYL/1/4/1), and four employment agreements for individual employees, 1927-39 (RYL/1/4/2-5).

The archive also contains several items relating to the Rylands family itself, including genealogical notes, memorial volumes, addresses presented to Enriqueta Rylands and posthumous publications, [1877]-1955 (RYL/2).

Administrative / Biographical History

John Rylands (1801-88) was one of the outstanding figures of his time. When he died on 11 December 1888, he was the undoubted king of the Manchester cotton industry, due to both 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.

John was born in Parr near St Helens, Lancashire, in 1801 to Joseph Rylands (1767-1847) and his wife Elizabeth née Pilkington (1761-1829); he 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.

John was so successful in this undertaking that in 1823 he was able to cease travelling and, on behalf of Rylands and Sons, open a warehouse in New High Street, Manchester. Despite the move away from the traditional haunts of Wigan manufacturers (who produced solely for Chester), the timing proved to be excellent, 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.

John 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 attempted to provide for the future of the business, following the demise of his son and heir, William. On 25 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 himself). John continued to preside over his company as if nothing had changed, and the board met only rarely.

Until John's death in 1888, and for 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 two decades 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.


The archive is divided into two subfonds:

  • RYL/1: Business records, 1734-1969;
  • RYL/2: Rylands family papers, [1877]-1955.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

This finding aid may contain personal or sensitive personal data about living individuals. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The John Rylands University Library (JRUL) has the right to process such personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the JRUL to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the JRUL has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately, according to the Data Protection Principles.

Individuals have the right to make a request to see data relating to them held by the JRUL which falls under the provisions of the DPA. Access requests must be made formally in accordance with the provisions set out in the DPA and all enquiries should be directed to the University's Data Protection Officer.

Acquisition Information

The archive is believed to have been discovered in a warehouse in Leeds, and was donated to the Library by Family Hampers Ltd, of Leeds, in 1984 through the agency of the Business Archives Council.

Other Finding Aids


Conditions Governing Use

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

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 Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Related Material

Archive sources relating to Rylands and Sons held at the John Rylands Library include the Carnelley Manuscripts (ref. GB 133 WCC) relating to William Carnelley (1823-1919), a senior director and chairman of the company; two volumes containing the personal business files of John Rylands (ref. GB 133 Eng MS 1185); and the Orford Papers (ref. GB 133 ORF), which include some personal papers of Enriqueta Rylands.

Wigan Archives and Local Studies holds accounts, stock sheets, machinery purchases and sales, deeds, and correspondence of Rylands and Sons, 1830-66 (ref. GB 132 D/DX El).


For a detailed account of the life of John Rylands and the history of the firm, see D. A. Farnie, 'John Rylands of Manchester', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 75.2 (1993), 2-103, which contains a useful bibliography.

Corporate Names