Papers of the Beard Family

Scope and Content

An extensive collection of family papers relating in particular to John Relly Beard, the founder of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board, and his son the businessman James Rait Beard. It is made up of correspondence, official documents and extensive research into the family history carried out over the last hundred years. It also contains detailed modern transcripts of many of the older handwritten items which have been produced by members of the family.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Relly Beard

John Relly Beard was born on 4 August 1800 at Portsmouth to John Beard, a small tradesman, and his wife Ann (née Paine). He was educated at the local grammar school in Portsmouth until the trade depression following the Napoleonic Wars necessitated a spell working for the family firm. He later attended the Universalist Tabernacle in Portsmouth, from where he was able to benefit from the patronage of Sir James Carter, who funded his education at a boarding school in France during 1817. Following his return, he was tutored for entry to Manchester College, York, where he went in 1820. At York, he was taught by Charles Wellbeloved, William Turner and John Kendrick; contemporary students at York included James Martineau and Edward Tagart.

In 1825 Beard became the minister of Greengate, Salford. The congregation moved to new premises at Bridge Street, Strangeways in 1843 where he remained as minister until 1864, becoming the minister at Sale Chapel, Cheshire in 1865. In the early years of his ministry, in order to supplement his limited stipend he set up a school - Stoney Knolls High School - which he ran between 1828 and 1849. His most significant achievement was the creation, with William Gaskell, of the Unitarian Home Mission Board in 1854, despite opposition from prominent Unitarians, notably James Martineau. He was the Principal of the Board from its inception until 1874; he was also the Board's theological tutor. He was instrumental in mobilising wealthy supporters of the Board to subscribe to the building of the Memorial Hall in the centre of Manchester which was to become the Board's home for many years. Mission was clearly an overriding passion for him: among the many positions of authority he held he was the secretary of the Lancashire and Cheshire Unitarian Missionary Society, a founder member of the Manchester Domestic Mission Society, and secretary of the Manchester Village Missionary Society.

John Relly Beard published extensively: a catalogue of his publications ran to sixty titles. In the 1830s he engaged in a controversy against Manchester Grammar School, publishing The Abuses of Manchester Grammar School (1837) which argued that it had abandoned its founding commitment to the education of the poor. He wrote in support of national nonsectarian education paid for by taxation or local rates. He published a variety of educational texts including Latin Made Easy (1848) and Self-Culture (1859), as well as contributing to educational reference works, including seventy articles for Kitto's Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature (1845). He also published many theological works including: The Historical Evidences of Christianity Unassailable (1826),Voices of the Church, In Reply to Dr. D.F. Strauss (1845), Critical History of Rationalism in Germany, From the French (1848), The Confessional, A View of Romanism (1859), and Christ, the Interpreter of Scripture (1865). He contributed journalism to many Victorian periodicals as well as founding the Christian Teacher in 1835, editing The Foreign Quarterly Review between 1844 and 1847 and contributing to the foundation and editorial duties associated with the Unitarian Herald. In recognition of the quality of his written work, the University of Giessen awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1841.

As well as campaigning for educational improvement, he was also involved in political causes: he was a member of the Anti-Corn Law League and supported church disestablishment and franchise reform.

Reflecting on his thought in the context of contemporary Unitarianism, Herbert McLachlan, a later Principal of the Unitarian College who compiled an extensive biographical sketch of Beard, described him as 'conservative in cast of mind', but 'not unprogressive in thought'. He suggested that as a theologian he was not an original thinker, but praised him as 'a compiler, populariser, and above everything else, a translator'. Notably, Beard came into conflict with James Martineau when the latter questioned the denominational use of the term 'Unitarian'. Beard, writing in the Christian Reformer insisted that the term be used for both congregations and individuals.

Beard married Mary Barnes on 28 June 1826 and they had 10 children. He died on 22 November 1876.

James Rait Beard

James Rait Beard was born on 12 January 1843 in Manchester to John Relly Beard and his wife Mary (née Barnes). He was educated at home until 1853 after which he attended the school of J.R. McKee at Pendleton, moving a year later to Stony Knolls High School. He started work at the age of 16, and in 1863 was appointed by Lyell, Rennie and Co. as their representative in India on a four year contract. Serious illness forced him to return home early, arriving in Liverpool in January 1865. On his return he became a buyer and later a salesman in the cotton trade, entering into a partnership with Charles James Agate in 1869, the firm becoming Beard, Agate and Co. with the addition of a further partner in 1876.

James was a lay Unitarian, but held a variety of positions of authority and trust in the Unitarian movement including presidencies in the Manchester and District Association of Churches (1889), the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (1890-1), the Provincial Assembly of Lancashire and Cheshire (1892), and the National Conference of Churches (1897-1900). He was particularly associated with the Unitarian Home Mission Board/College founded by his father, becoming a member of its Committee in 1885, its Treasurer 1886-1914, and its President in 1900-1 and 1904-5. He was also a trustee of five Unitarian chapels.

He was an active participant in the public affairs of Manchester: a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society, a freemason, an active Liberal and a Justice of the Peace. He published an article on 'Religion and Trade' in an 1891 volume entitle Religion and Life, and in 1893 wrote a series of articles on life in Ireland forManchester City News. In 1907 he published a collection of poems: Secret Fancies of a Business Man.

He was married to Mary Wilkinson on 21 January 1868; they had a son and two daughters. He died on 4 March 1917 in Torquay.


These papers have been arranged into two series:

  • Original correspondence and other items.
  • Transcripts of correspondence.


H. McLachlan, Records of a Family 1800-1933 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1935)

Alan Rushton, Beard, John Relly (1800-1876),Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) .

Geoffrey Head, The Life & Times of John Relly Beard (1800-1876) (Bolton: Type-IT, 1997)