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John Grubb Richardson was born in 1813, the second son or James Nicholson Richardson and Alicia Richardson (née Grubb) who lived at Glenmore, near Lisburn. A Quaker family, the Richardsons had originally settled at Richhill in north Armagh and, like many Quakers settlers, became involved in the linen trade. By the late 18th century, the Richardsons had built up a significant linen bleaching and selling business centred on Glenmore Green, near Lisburn.

After being educated at Ballitore on County Kildare and Frenchay, the famous Society of Friends school in Gloucestershire, John Grubb Richardson had ambitions to become a barrister. However, he entered his father’s firm and became one of the most energetic members of the family business. Although, as linen merchants, the family business had expanded to Liverpool and America, it was decided that future development shouldbe based on linen manufacture. 

John Grubb Richardson (1813 – 1890) Newry and Mourne Museum
John Grubb Richardson (1813 – 1890) Newry and Mourne Museum

John Grubb Richardson did not wish to pursue such a venture in Belfast along with his brothers and decided to set up his own manufacturing business in a rural location. Shortly after his marriage to Helena Grubb in 1844, Richardson purchased a mill at Bessbrook, near Newry, which had belonged to his relative, Joseph Nicholson. Richardson decided to purchase this mill because of the good water supply, a large population in the area and the cultivation of large amounts of flax by local farmers. 

Not only did Richardson want to establish a new linen factory, but as an admirer of the ideas of the Quaker writer, William Penn in Pennsylvania, he also wished to create a community based on sound moral principals where the Quaker ideals of social control and service could be realised. At Bessbrook these ambitions were to be combined with the economic advantages afforded by the area.

The Quaker Meeting House and graveyard at Bessbrook. The Meeting House was built by John Grubb Richardson in 1864 and had 236 members in 1884. Newry and Mourne Museum
The Quaker Meeting House and graveyard at Bessbrook. The Meeting House was built by John Grubb Richardson in 1864 and had 236 members in 1884. Newry and Mourne Museum

Work on the building of the new mill began in 1846 and spinning started in the following year. The first “model village” in the British Isles, which was the inspiration for Portlaw near Waterford and probably for Bourneville near Birmingham, also began to take shape. The basis of the layout was one central street with a square, each with a green space, at either end. Houses were grouped around these open spaces. The houses for the mill workers, though small, were an improvement on contemporary standards and the village was designed to encourage social cohesion and a sense of community. As Richardson supported temperance, the village did not have a public house, pawn brokers or a police barracks.

John Grubb Richardson’s venture at Bessbrook continued to grow in subsequent years. In 1852, the mill became one of the first to use power looms. Richardson continued to invest in new machinery and damask weaving began in 1867. In 1878, the company was reformed to become the Bessbrook Spinning Co. Ltd with Richardson as Chairman.

Richardson’s Quaker ideals also extended to his ambitions as a landlord. In 1865 he purchased Lord Charlemont’s estate at Camlough and, being a supporter of Gladstone’s attempts at the reform of land tenure, set about improving social and economic conditions on the estate for the tenants. 

Helena Grubb, John Grubb Richardson’s first wife died around 1850, and in 1853, he married Jane Marion Wakefield of Moyallon, near Portadown. Richardson died on 28th March 1890 during an influenza epidemic and was succeeded by James Nicholson Richardson, his son from his first marriage.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Ken Abraham

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