The company Owen Owens and Son had its origins in a small concern set up in the 1790s by Owen Owens (1764-1844), who moved from his native Holywell in Flintshire to seek his fortune in Manchester sometime during the late 1780s. By 1804 his business premises were firmly fixed in Carpenter's Lane, Manchester, where the company remained until its closure in 1846. Initially, Owens manufactured and dealt chiefly in hat linings and trimmings, and from around 1810 he was also engaged in the manufacture of umbrellas. The company was pre-industrial in character, and most of the manufacturing work was carried out in the homes of its employees.
In 1815 Owens's son, John (1790-1846), became a partner in the business and the company was renamed Owen Owens and Son. John was the first and only surviving son of Owens and his wife Sarah. By the time he joined the company, it had expanded to become a firm of manufacturers and merchants, sending consignments of hatting materials, other textile goods and umbrellas to agents in North and South America. After 1815, the manufacturing side of the business and the home trade were increasingly subordinated to the foreign export business, and the firm became primarily merchants.
Through the 1820s Owen Owens and Son concentrated on their North American consignment accounts, exporting principally to Philadelphia and New York. By 1828 the company was well-established as a mercantile house, and Owen Owens retired from active business, leaving his son to direct the company's affairs and seek out new markets for their goods. Under his own initiative, John had already entered into partnership with a company of fine cotton spinners, Samuel Faulkner and Co., whose mill in Ancoats, Manchester, he assisted in financing; Owens was a sleeping partner and took a share of the company's profits until 1844, the investment proving a useful source of capital for Owen Owens and Son. George Faulkner, another member of the company, was John Owens's closest friend from his schooldays and one of the main beneficiaries of his will.
From 1831, Owens withdrew from the trade in hatting materials, concentrating instead on cotton and woollen goods. During this decade South America became the main destination for consignments, and the most profitable trade was carried out by agents based at Montevideo, in the Banda Oriental (Uruguay), and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Owens established a successful and enduring business connection with Hodgson and Robinson, merchants based in Buenos Aires; they offered competitive rates of commission, and worked for Owens from 1829 until their liquidation in 1844. From 1838 Owens also held a consignment account with agents in Bahia, Brazil, which turned out to be the only sizeable overseas market he still held at the time of his death. South America formed a useful market for the kind of coarse and cheap textiles which were no longer acceptable in North America. Payment for sales effected not only took the usual form of bills, but was also made in goods such as hides, furs, tallow, sugar and coffee, which sometimes produced additional profit for the company, but at other times led to uncertainty as the market for these goods in England could vary considerably.
Owens did not confine his exports to the Americas. He also looked east and forged links with agents in India and China. Bombay formed one of the company's most important markets during the mid to late 1830s, and Owens also carried on a small trade with Canton; the latter, however, was disrupted by the Opium War from 1839 and never fully recovered.
By the 1840s the overseas accounts of Owen Owens and Son had become generally less profitable and more uncertain, a situation arising from various causes: in America there was a depression in trade and a preference for home-produced goods; political instability, war and blockades in Buenos Aires and Montevideo made trading very difficult; South American currencies were very unstable, and remittances usually came long after sales had been made; some of Owens's agents also turned out to be dishonest or incompetent, in particular Gaskell Johnson in Pernambuco, Brazil, who owed Owens large sums when his company went into liquidation.
Gradually Owens's consignment accounts were closed, and his assets converted to cash. Being wealthier, he could now afford to concentrate increasingly on speculation: he imported produce from abroad and waited for price rises in order to make a profit on sales. Owens engaged in some speculation from 1835, although he did not begin in earnest until around 1839. His speculative ventures included the import of cotton from Egypt and America, flour from America and tea from China. He also employed the Liverpool firm of Lyon and Fynney to purchase wheat, corn, beans and oats for him. Owens did not, however, invest a large proportion of his wealth in the field of speculation, turning instead to railway shares and loans during the 1840s. He augmented his fortune considerably by making numerous loans on the security of railway shares as well as buying them on his own account.
By the time of John Owens's death the company of Owen Owens and Son was worth over £160,000, and although Owen Owens died only two years before his son in 1844, John had been effectively running the business for 15 years. The company never dominated any of its overseas markets, but it proved successful, adapting effectively to the shifting economic climate and trade fluctuations, and expanding from its origins in small-scale manufacture, to become a company of established export merchants, speculators and financiers.
John Owens, however, is probably best remembered for his role as the founder of Manchester University. He never married and eschewed extravagance, living moderately in Nelson Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, in the house purchased by his father. He died on 29 July 1846 aged 55. In his will he made bequests of varying sizes to friends, relatives, servants and local charitable concerns, but his greatest legacy was the generous endowment of £ 100,000 to found an educational institution for the instruction of young men not less than fourteen years old "'in such branches of learning and science as are now and may be hereafter taught in the English universities"'. (quoted in B.W. Clapp, John Owens: Manchester Merchant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965), p. 173). The establishment was to be open to all applicants, regardless of social rank, and there were to be no religious tests, reflecting the liberal ideal of social progress through education. Trustees were appointed to translate Owens's wishes into reality, and the result was Owens College in Quay Street, Manchester, which opened its doors in 1851. This was the first of many colleges built in the Victorian era which formed the foundations of the modern university system. Owens College moved to Oxford Road in 1873; from 1880 it was one of the colleges which formed the northern federal Victoria University; and in 1903 it achieved full independence as the Victoria University of Manchester.