a leeds revolution

Climbing Society – the story of the Marshall Empire

April 25, 2019

Climbing Society – the story of the Marshall Empire

A new revolution in Leeds is happening; a new wave of development bringing opportunities, growth and a revived momentum to the South Bank area of Leeds. Enabling work for CEG’s Globe Point and Globe Square developments has already started, with archaeological digs currently taking place on the site, which was the location of John Marshall’s first two flax mills that kick-started the industrial revolution in Leeds.

I’ve written a lot about John Marshall and his importance to the economic, social, educational and architectural history of Leeds, and before we delve more deeply into aspects of his business and his legacy in Leeds, perhaps we should learn a bit more about him and the Marshall family? It is important to recognise and protect the memory of what he gave to Leeds, but as new prosperity comes to an area he first put on the map, what do we know about him and why is he still remembered today?

An obituary writer described Marshall upon his death in 1845 as “one of those men to whom England owes so much of its commercial pre-eminence”. And yet just forty years after his passing, Marshall’s grandsons had closed the great flax mills he built and retired from business altogether. The family legacy was intact and they could enjoy the comforts in life that their grandfather’s toil and invention had laid on a plate for them, their lifegoals were pretty much met at birth, their motivations now very different to the ambitions that drove John Marshall in the late 18th century.

The Marshall family is evidenced as far back as the 17th century, residing in Yeadon. Various family members were scattered around the area but one household acquired a large dwelling called the Low Hall, and they fast became influential in founding village schools and organising community groups. The family were of the non-conformist dissenter faith and built many relationships that shared an interest in religion, education and the clothing trade in Leeds.

In the 1740s, the youngest son of this Marshall family, Jeremiah, was sent to Leeds with £200 in his pocket. He was to serve an apprenticeship with a linen merchants called Cloudsley and Stephenson, who were also dissenters. Leeds was already a boom town, but concentrated almost completely around the wool merchants on Briggate and Boar Lane. By 1760, Marshall had served his apprenticeship, married into a reasonably wealthy family and set up a linen drapery business at No. 1 Briggate.   

John Marshall was Jeremiah’s third son, the first two both dying in infancy. Born in 1765, he spent much of his early childhood living with an aunt in Rawdon after falling ill following a small pox vaccination, but by the age of 17 he was well educated and had joined his father’s business.

Within two years, John had studied the linen trade and the possibilities within it. He was entrusted to oversee the building of a new Marshall family home along with business premises and a warehouse in Mill Hill. Jeremiah had developed a very successful business, but he died suddenly, aged 57, in 1787 and at just 22-years-old John was left as the controlling partner of the business.

Earlier that same year, John Marshall had visited a business in Darlington in the north east, where a group of engineers had developed a flax-spinning machine and patented it. Wasting no time and recognising an opportunity that was now open to him, in the same month as his father’s death, Marshall sought permission to copy the Darlington group’s patent. A month later in January 1788 he set up his Scotland Mill in Adel, where he partnered with Samuel Fenton – a junior partner in the drapery business – and an investor called Ralph Dearlove. They spent six months working on improving the Darlington machinery and in June they met an engineer from Stockton-on-Tees called Matthew Murray. And everything changed forever.

Marshall’s business grew rapidly as soon as Murray had developed a way to mass-produce yarn of a consistent quality on flax-spinning machinery, albeit this took months of frustrating, trial and error experimentation. Within five years Mill A and B were built on Water Lane (the site of the current archaeological work instructed by developer CEG) and Marshall was on his way to amassing a fortune.

The French war re-started in 1803 and Marshall benefited during it beyond his wildest dreams, seemingly through a practical and astute understanding of the principles of supply and demand where most other producers were the losers. His business had started well and at the beginning of the war he was worth around £40,000. But he accrued £400,000 into the business over the next ten years. By now, Marshall employed over 1,000 people, and exploiting high prices to create high margins, Marshall was able to apply skilled management and foresight in raw material supply and productivity techniques to master the turbulent conditions and reap the rewards. By the end of the period, and through his own enterprise, Marshall almost held a monopoly on the linen trade in the UK.

(John Marshall - a portrait by John Russell 1802 - credit to Cambridge University Press) 

Despite his later reputation as a benevolent and visionary man, Marshall was also reported to be domineering and something of a manipulator when it came to using and discarding people like puppets when they had outlived their usefulness. This was the case with Fenton and Dearlove, and to some extent the Benyon Brothers from Shrewsbury and numerous other investors who helped him out in the difficult early years. Other partners such as John Hives and John Atkinson were also discarded by Marshall, but inspired by him, set up their own rival flax mills in the Holbeck area.

Marshall hadn’t been born into wealth or societal standing, he was an outsider by birth and by religion. However, he felt he had a destiny and he wouldn’t be distracted from it. Shunning the niceties of social company, Marshall would spend every waking hour at his mills. “I set my shoulder to the wheel in good earnest” he declared, in attending to every minute detail of the business and its improving processes.

A cash crisis early on in 1793 proved to be a watershed moment, when Marshall admonished himself for “floundering and mismanagement”, and having set new standards for himself and everyone who worked under him, the future was only going one way.

Marshall married his wife Jane in 1795 and in 1802 they set up home on Meadow Lane, just a five minute stroll from the mills. But as soon as his businesses and production procedures were fully established, and a winning formula to accrue money rapidly was developed, Marshall was able to employ trusted people in key roles, who he chose carefully and paid well, before many other people realised how critical this was to a business. It allowed him to step away from the day-to-day running of the mills and pursue other interests.

In 1805 he had moved to New Grange, a substantial former abbey estate in Headingley formerly owned by a rich woollen merchant. He later built his own summer residence called Hallsteads, in Ullswater in the Lake District, to where he would eventually retire. He had soon spent over £10,000 on various forms of property, but made money from many of them through renting out adjoining farmland and livestock. He also gifted many of his properties to his children.

The first of the ‘second generation’ of the Marshall family to enter the business was John Marshall ll, who, like his father, joined at the age of 17 in 1815. The second was James Marshall, who arrived as a trainee in 1820 and became a partner five years later. Arthur and Henry had also joined the firm by 1828.

By the end of the French war, and at the age of 50, Marshall had realised many of his ambitions and had become a pillar of society; feared and respected, and  seen as an example to follow. His life changed accordingly and he aspired to a social standing above that of simply a successful mill-owner. He accumulated country estates and town houses while keeping the business ticking over for his children. But he also thought hard about problems in society and sought to change them, becoming an educational pioneer and a Member of Parliament, activities that brought him both influence and social recognition.

Marshall had always been something of an intellectual, studying science in his own time as a youngster, which helped him with development of bleaching techniques for linen and in the use of building materials for construction of his mills. He later developed an interest in geology and farming techniques, always appreciating that there was a rush of ‘modern’ knowledge he had to keep abreast of.

By 1820 Marshall had made inroads in to London society and was investing strategically in the stock market. He founded a Lancasterian School, a Mechanics’ Institute and a Literary and Philosophical Society in Leeds, and made the first proposal for what would later become Leeds University.

At this time, Marshall also spoke with other local mill owners in a bid to set up schools in the Holbeck area for the children of the mill workers, or in many cases, the children who were also mill workers. Marshall developed a system whereby children would work at his mills and then be sent to the school, which was built in 1822 on the site of what would become Temple Mill, and was later incorporated into the design of the landmark building. Within ten years, when a second infants school was built, more than 2,000 children had passed through the school. Until the introduction of compulsory education in 1880, mill schools made a critical contribution to the literacy of the urban masses, and in Marshall’s case, his work was a sincere attempt to make life in a rapidly developing town like Leeds more viable for the labouring classes; offering them some independence, some ownership over their own destiny and some opportunity, beyond simply employing them. 

Marshall’s life as an MP was short-lived, he was voted into office representing Yorkshire in June 1826, and received the honour of being the first mill-owner to represent the interests of the West Riding, but having fallen seriously ill, he retired from politics a year later and gave up his seat in 1830 when parliament was dissolved.

The ‘second generation’ did much to keep the Marshall empire alive while their father pursued other interests, but circumstances led to a series of fallouts which would eventually have a profound effect on the business. In 1827 John Marshall ll admitted to mistakes and errors of judgement which resulted in poor quality yarns being produced, which seriously impacted on trade at a time when the market had subsided significantly. He took the matter personally and never truly recovered his zeal for the business.

(The towering complex of Mills C, D and E on Marshall Street)

James Marshall, meanwhile, was on a roll. He developed some pioneering wet spinning techniques (to produce finer yarns and thus open up new markets) which would give the business a vital boost at a critical time, and effectively bought the longevity which saw it through to its eventual close. John Marshall ll had initially shown a reluctance to adopt the wet spinning techniques in the mills – which by this time included the adjoining u-shaped complex of Mills C, D and E on what is now Marshall Street (and the buildings now known as Marshall’s Mill) – but then embraced wet spinning. Enthused by this development, the founder John Marshall briefly returned to active service at the mills, but his son John Marshall ll felt undermined and lost faith and respect within the family from his dithering on the matter. He withdrew from active management of the mills in the early 1830s and tragically died in 1836.

From this point, Arthur ran the mills whilst James took on overall responsibility for the business, with their father now over 70. It was James who now foresaw the need for a final mill dedicated to wet-spinning in the form of the audacious Temple Mill, with his father John giving him the nod on the basis of a thorough business plan and forensic justification. Quite what prompted the architectural extravagance and the ground-breaking construction techniques is something to dissect in detail at a later date, but this was the zenith of the Marshall empire and the point at which the family demonstrated their clout in a fearless swipe of near-pomposity.

Within two years, and by 1840, Temple Mill was built and producing and the Marshall business saw out its last 46 years just about surviving in a declining industry, stung by prohibitive trading conditions and an increase in competition which had learnt how to close the gap on them.

James Marshall continued his father’s benevolent streak, campaigning for compulsory state education as an MP for Leeds, building allotments for the mill workers adjacent to Temple Mill and building St John’s Church in Holbeck, which was later demolished in the slum clearances of the 1930s. Henry became Lord Mayor of Leeds in 1843, but when their father and the business founder John Marshall died in 1865, aged 80, the outlook of the second generation changed.

While the ‘third generation’ of Marshalls took over the reins, James withdrew from political office when it became clear the mills were suffering. By 1857, he had given up hope, however, and retired from active business after several failed attempts to revive the Marshall Empire. Both he and Henry had died before the business closed in 1886, with the final years ravaged by industry-wide strikes, the Plug Riots and low morale.

The remaining partners when the business closed were Arthur (second generation) Stephen (third generation) and John lll (third generation). The business had run at a loss for 21 of the previous 40 years. Part of the business was relocated to the USA, but effectively the Marshall family had long since removed themselves from life in Leeds, and for many years their name was largely forgotten, particularly with their masterpiece bequest in the form of the re-named Temple Works, still a splendid architectural oddity, but now simply continuing to function in the hands of other owners. The Marshall family’s descendants are now living all around the globe and - like all families - include lives as diverse as entering the convent to leaving their inheritance to the communist party. They may not even know what they once gifted to the textile industry, and to Leeds, and how a city on the other side of the world still remembers them and reveres their bricks and mortar legacy. 

By the time the Second World War had changed the outlook of British people forever, the Marshalls’ various family homes around the Lakes had become hotels, schools and National Trust properties, and even though 100 year-old linen produced in or via Leeds was still being used, or at least folded neatly in a drawer somewhere awaiting ‘occasional’ use, the Marshall name had disappeared from everyday life. Except in Leeds; now a city, not a town, or a village, or an impersonal collection of hamlets, where communities had grown and the wheels of industry were still turning, even if the mills and factories and foundries were now an assorted landscape of other commercial enterprises. Leeds was going places, still. And once the ambition to become something and someone has been lit, you can do anything. John Marshall proved that, and even if his face is not recognisable and the trade that made his name doesn’t resonate in the 21st century, he’s still proving it.

(Temple Works interior header image credit: Liszt Society)