Rylands & Sons Ltd

Rylands & Sons was established in Wigan in 1819, from a partnership between John Rylands, his brothers Joseph and Richard and their father Joseph Rylands. The company manufactured and distributed linen. The family had traditionally been handloom weavers, producing fine linens.

The company opened its first warehouse in Manchester in 1822 and subsequently extended its operations into dyeing and bleaching in 1824, cotton spinning in 1830, and power-loom weaving in 1839. John Rylands became the sole proprietor of the business in 1842. The company opened a warehouse in London in 1849, and withdrew from linen manufacture in 1854 in order to concentrate upon the cotton industry. The success of the company meant that John Rylands was Manchester’s first millionaire, and from 1857 he was the greatest textile merchant in the land. The company took advantage of the crisis caused by the cotton famine to expand operations by buying up mills and machinery cheaply. In 1863-1865 the company built model mills at Wigan. In 1873 the firm was incorporated as a limited company, with a capital of £2 million. John Rylands retained control of the company but opened up shareholding to clients and employees, in harmony with the contemporary enthusiasm for ‘industrial partnership’. From 1872 the firm expanded into the manufacture of ready-made clothing, and from 1874 began to display its wares at international exhibitions in Europe, America and Africa, winning prizes at Cape Town in 1877 and at Paris in 1878. Between 1860 and 1877, its workforce increased from 2,000 to 12,000, employed across seventeen mills and forty-two departments within its warehouses. The company was recognised as the leader of the cotton trade in manufacture, finishing, and distribution.

Rylands & Sons was not a typical cotton-manufacturing firm. It stood apart from other business through its immense size, its integrated operations, its dependence on the home market, and its merchant functions. John Rylands was the driving force behind the company’s successful expansion, frequently working 12-19 hours a day over the length of his career. Rylands’ financial acumen meant that the company’s costs were strictly controlled and each department was expected to function efficiently and independently. The company had a high reputation for the quality of his wares. That reputation was maintained through the use of trade marks. After John Rylands’ death in 1888, the chairmanship of the board was placed in commission and was rotated during 1889–1900 between Rylands’ most trusted managers, Reuben Spencer (1830–1901), William Carnelley (1821–1919), and James Horrocks (1832–1895). The manner in which John Rylands had structured the company meant that it continued until 1989, a period of existence of 170 years.