Robert Gardner (1781-1866), of Chaseley was a cotton manufacturer, Tory and Evangelical Christian who was born into a farming family in Sunderland, Lancashire. As a young man Gardner established his commercial career initially in hand-loom weaving in Preston and as a warehouseman in London. Later moving to Manchester, he pursued various business interests which included textiles, investments in land, buildings, railways and glass manufacture.
Gardner family Robert Gardner had close links throughout his life with the Atkinson family of Knaresborough. William Atkinson, who for a time lived locally at Weaste, was a business partner and brother-in-law. Gardner married firstly Atkinson’s sister Anne who died in 1817 and was the mother of his two sons Richard, (1813-1856), Liberal MP for Leicester and also a cotton manufacturer and William Atkinson Gardner, a translator of German with strong business involvement in British railway companies, his father’s mill at Halliwell and a member of the legislature in Van Diemen’s land where he died in 1855 aged 41.
Gardner married secondly Anne’s younger sister Elizabeth who died in 1833 leaving two daughters, Annie and Elizabeth. Three of Gardner’s four children predeceased him, leaving his daughter Elizabeth as the main beneficiary of his will.
Business acumen The most successful cotton entrepreneur of his generation but today largely forgotten, Robert Gardner, along with many of his contemporaries, was well placed to capitalize on a developing textile industry and the increased economic activity it generated. The rapid technological change and endless improvements and adaptations in spinning, and calico printing during the period from 1793 to 1815 coincided with Gardner’s formative years in the textile industry when he was operating in the commercial world as a merchant and manufacturer.
Strong links between London and Manchester were a feature of the textile trade and it is not surprising that, from very early in his career, Gardner was known as ‘a merchant of London and Manchester’. Erratic trading conditions and acute shortage of capital in the early nineteenth century caused by economic slumps and the prolonged Napoleonic Wars came to an end around 1815. When questioned on the impact of the wars on the textile industry by a Parliamentary Select Committee on Hand Loom weaving in 1835 Gardner stated it was ‘before his time’ and this together with other responses suggests that Gardner’s active involvement as a manufacturer of yarn and cloth appears to date from around the early 1820s when he was in his forties. Starting out as a woven textile manufacturer he soon diversified into spinning.
In his responses to the Select Committee Gardner can be characterised as a moderniser with a clear progressive mind and awareness of his responsibilities both to his business and his workers, ‘anxious to benefit the weaver if I can. I should be second to no man in that’, but his answers to the select committee urge caution in using legislation and protection at this significant moment in the transition from hand-loom to power weaving. In favour of free trade he was, however, opposed to any direct action and agitation, giving measured responses to the select committee. Throughout the prolonged questioning his grasp of the minutiae of weavers’ wage rates, the cost of yarn and the profits realised from cloth production is considerable. This and his understanding of the fluctuations in overseas trade and the issue of design protection no doubt the reason he was deputed by Manchester manufacturers to represent them in Parliamentary enquiries. Ironically however, he revealed that his practical experience in weaving amounted to just two episodes when he had woven some calico ‘at a watering place’. We can therefore discount romantic notions of any direct involvement with textile production or apprenticeship in his early years. The transcript of the Parliamentary enquiry reveals much about Gardner’s attitude such as his preference for avoiding public exposure through committees, an aspect of his character in this and other matters, that has led to his relative anonymity despite a long and highly successful career. The answers he gives reveal he was independent and progressive of mind, acknowledging that the difficult issue of the advent of power-loom weaving was the future albeit, with the proviso that he was ‘concerned with the quality of cloth’, and the new power loom’s limitations in producing complex textiles, problems that technology would eventually solve as the power-loom evolved. It is clear, nevertheless, that Gardner and his fellow manufacturers were presiding over the death knell of handloom weaving and the demise of the journeyman weaver, so long a feature of textile production in Britain. The power loom also heralded a shift in the gendering of weaving with the inclusion of many more females in this branch of textiles than formerly.
Gardner’s spinning business produced fine yarns suitable for use in the lace making industry and sewing thread manufacture and his woven fabrics: dimities, cambrics and muslins are associated with medium to high value clothing items such as collars, neckerchiefs, handkerchiefs and dress fabrics. Gardner saw the clear advantages of producing his own yarn for his weaving business as well as for export, symptomatic of a pattern of diversification in his business activities which was to continue up to his death in 1866.
Barrowbridge, Bolton As Gardner’s business grew so did his interests in several large mills in Manchester, Preston, Oldham, Chorley and Bolton. In 1831 at Barrow Bridge in Halliwell, Bolton, Gardner and his partner Thomas Bazley undertook a major building and modernising project, adopting the latest mill construction methods, replacing the older mills with wider buildings built with iron frames to take the larger modern spinning and doubling machinery. It was here that his fine yarns were manufactured. The mill and surrounding village were visited by Prince Albert in 1851 and celebrated with a full account of its enlightened proprietors in The Illustrated London News with engravings of the Dean Mill doubling room and engine house included in the report. Characteristically Robert Gardner, took a back seat at Barrow Bridge on the day and the Prince was shown around by Thomas Bazley and Richard Gardner, his son.
Workers’ Housing At the surrounding factory colony Gardner and Bazley had followed the lead of earlier cotton manufacturers, such as the Peels and the Strutts, by providing housing as well as encouraging the establishment of a co-operative shop and an educational institute for the use of workers and their children. At Barrow Bridge the houses had allotments and drying and laundry facilities whilst the mill reservoir was stocked with fish for the workers. A mill kitchen was available for employees at mealtimes and bread was available at low cost. Whilst research about these colonies is incomplete it is clear when compared with urban workers’ housing that ‘the better kind of housing… could only be found at Bolton adjacent to the works of three progressive employers, Ashworths, Bazley’s and Arrowsmith and Slater’.
Benjamin Disraeli visited Barrow Bridge and it influenced the plot of his political novel Coningsby (1844). The character, Millbank, a cotton manufacturer, is thought to be based on Robert Gardner.
In the return of information to the factory Inspectors in 1844 the number of employees at Dean Mills was 691 on an average weekly wage of 8s 6d. Of these 224 were males and 461 female. Only 23 were unable to read. Today Barrow Bridge is a conservation area and whilst the mill and reservoir have gone the housing for mill workers, managers and the institute remain.
Van Dieman’s Land Gardner’s horizons were not restricted to Lancashire and England. In 1833 he appointed an agent, Philip Oakden, to travel to Van Diemen’s Land on his behalf with over £3000 worth of goods and letters of credit amounting to £15,000 sterling, to be used to buy land and property.
Gardner’s endeavour was probably influenced by the increasing wool imports into Britain from Australasia, the reasonable cost of land and the plentiful labour supply – a result of transportation. However, the major reason was probably the potential for cotton cultivation and the growing export market for Lancashire goods. Oakden left for Van Diemen’s Land on 8 June 1833 aboard the Forth arriving in mid-November. He made good use of the capital and goods and returned to England in 1836 having made a profit on the goods of £4136.8s 8d and fulfilling his aims of purchasing land and property. Oakden had also bought land on the mainland in the Adelaide area and shares were purchased in the Union Bank of Australia. An 1837 prospectus, advertised in the British press, noted that Robert Gardner was a Director of the Union Bank of Australasia and Van Diemen’s Land. Oakden returned to Van Diemen’s Land where he made a life for himself, becoming a prominent citizen and leader of the Methodist community.
In 1851 Robert Gardner made an agreement with his son William Atkinson Gardner whereby Robert Gardner’s estates in Van Diemen’s Land were exchanged for £20,000 of his son’s shares in the mills at Barrow Bridge. The estates in Van Diemen’s Land now included land, farms, cattle, crops and buildings. W A Gardner settled in Emu Bay with his wife and two daughters, immersing himself in the life of the island. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as he died there aged just 40 in 1855.
Robert Gardner’s Manchester assets, included his own business headquarters at Pall Mall and 12 Warehouses in Central Manchester which he leased to fellow manufacturers and merchants. The majority were still providing income to his trustees as late as the 1940s, when two were requisitioned during the Second World War for use as air raid shelters. Gardner’s Manchester warehouses were built to the standard plan with four storeys and a basement, usually of brick with stone dressings and Italianate windows. They were specifically designed for the delivery, storage, processing, packing and despatch of cloth as can be seen in the plans in the Gardner archives. Two warehouses on Lloyd Street were lost in 1867 when Manchester Corporation purchased them for £24,000, demolishing them soon after to make way for the construction of Waterhouse’s New Town Hall. Land overseas, including farms, quarries and mining interests in Van Diemen’s land was also included in his will of 1859. His final project in his eighties was at Lytham where he built large sea front houses, several of which survive.
Purchase of land at Pendleton and Chaseley From the early 1830s until his death Gardner’s main residence was at Chaseley, also known as Chaseley Hall, in Pendleton, on land between the two turnpike roads. From 1826, whilst living at the nearby Beech House, he had taken out a series of leases including 20 acres of land on the ‘south westerly side of the turnpike road from Manchester to Liverpool, bounded on the SW side by the turnpike road and on the NW by land belonging to Benjamin Heywood Esq … on N Easterly side land belonging to John Fitzgerald’. It is at this time that Chaseley Road, originally the carriage road to Claremont, is laid out with a gatehouses and entrance gates.
In the early 1830s Gardner commissioned designs from the Manchester architect, Richard Tattersall for Chaseley, ‘a house in the Grecian style’ on an 11-acre plot of this land. In 1836 Gardner purchased the 20 acres from the Fitzgeralds outright for around £3000 but only after some heated negotiations when Gardner demanded a full record of the Fitzgerald’s ownership of the land going back centuries. Today we should be grateful for Gardner’s attention to detail as it provides evidence of the previous tenants and landholders. Gardner must have added to his land at Pendleton as his final will gives a figure of 35 acres of land locally.
The Church Builder Gardner was a trustee of Christ Church, Acton Square, ‘a splendid ornament in that genteel and improving quarter of Salford’. He undertook much of the fundraising for the church and was also a major donor. The church was the first to be consecrated under the Church Trustees Act, for which Gardner actively campaigned, enabling individuals to found churches and hold the perpetual right to appoint the minister. Designed by the architect Thomas Wright the church was built for Hugh Stowell the fierce Church of England Evangelical. Newspapers report the laying of the foundation stone in 1830, with Stowell, Gardner and Wright in attendance, the subsequent opening ceremony in 1831 and Gardner’s loan when the building fund got into difficulties. The church, in the ‘Greek Style’, was something of an architectural curiosity. Interior photographs of the chancel reveal a large, central pulpit overshadowing the altar and dominating the East End, no doubt purpose built for Stowell’s long and fiery sermons. Gardner’s second wife, Elizabeth Atkinson died in 1834 and was an early interment in the vault which also became the resting place of Hugh Stowell in 1864 and Robert Gardner in 1866. The church was demolished in 1959 and is now the site of a car park.
Robert Gardner was a prominent advocate of the Association for the Founding and Building of Ten Churches in the Boroughs of Manchester and Salford believing that those who carried on successful commerce had a responsibility to support the spiritual welfare of the manufacturing classes. His was also the financial brain behind the initiative to provide churches in industrial districts where pews were in short supply. Money was raised from wealthy sponsors, including himself, William Atkinson and Wilbraham Egerton, and the funds used to build modest but robust churches and provide endowments which would pay the stipend of the incumbent. By September 1841 a sum of £25,000 had been raised in just five months. In all five churches were built before the fund dried up. St Bartholomew in Ordsall was one such church, as were St Matthias in Broughton, St Silas and St Barnabas in Manchester. The churches cost between £4,500 and £5,560 each. Sunday schools and day schools followed. The final church, St Philips on Bradford Road Manchester, was opened in 1846.
In 1864 Gardner rebuilt St Luke’s, Chorlton on Medlock and dedicated it to his first wife Anne Atkinson, who had died in 1817 and was buried in the churchyard. The earlier plain brick church of 1804 was replaced by a substantial Gothic structure in Yorkshire Pierpoint stone, built at Gardner’s sole expense, complete with costly fittings and furnishings, including an impressive organ and a stained glass window in memory of Anne. Gardner was patron of the living, bequeathing the advowson of St Luke to his daughter Elizabeth Bazley in his will. He also bought redundant churches in order to save them from demolition. In 1836, when the Tent Methodists left their chapel in Canal Street, Ancoats, it was sold to Robert Gardner for £3,200 and was reopened in 1837 as St Jude’s. In 1838 Gardner endowed the new church of St Peter’s, Halliwell, near to the Dean Mills, and laid the foundation stone. In 1850 he bought Christ Church, Moss Side and conveyed it to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.