Owens, John (1790-1846) (DNB00)

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OWENS, JOHN (1790–1846), merchant, and founder of Owens College, Manchester, the first and for four years the only college of the Victoria University, was born in Manchester in 1790. His father, Owen Owens, a native of Holywell in Flintshire, went to Manchester when a young man, and started in business as a hat-lining maker, ultimately becoming, with the aid of his son John, currier, furrier, manufacturer, and shipper, he married in his twenty-fifth year Sarah Humphreys, who was six years older than himself; and he died in 1844, aged 80. John was the eldest of three children, the other two also sons dying in childhood. He was educated at a private school (Mr. Hothersall's) in the township of Ardwick, Manchester. He was admitted early into partnership with his father (1817), and the business greatly increased. According to his principal clerk, 'he was considered one of the best buyers of cotton in the Manchester market. A keen man of business, it was also his custom to purchase calicoes and coarse woollens, which were packed on his premises and shipped to China, India, the east coast of South America, and New York, importing hides, wheat, and other produce in return. He opened agencies in London and some of the provincial towns, and in Philadelphia, U.S.A. He also speculated in railway and other shares, and lent money on them as security.' Owens's health was delicate, and he led a private and almost secluded life, taking no ostensible part in public questions. He had, however, from his youth upward deeply interested himself in the subject of education, and strongly disapproved of all university tests. Accordingly, when, towards the end of his life, he offered his fortune to his friend and old schoolfellow, George Faulkner (1790?-1862) [q. v.] (with whom he was in partnership as a producer of cotton yarns), the latter made the generous suggestion that, instead of leaving it to a man who had more than enough, he should found a college in Manchester where his principles might be carried out. He died unmarried on 29 July 1846, at his house, 10 Nelson Street, Chorlton-upon-Medlock in Manchester, aged 56 years, and was buried in the churchyard of St. John's, Byrom Street, Manchester, where the whole family rest. By his will, dated 31 May 1845, he bequeathed the residue of his personal estate (after bequests to relatives, friends, charities, and servants amounting to 52,056l.) to certain trustees, 'for the foundation of an institution within the parliamentary borough of Manchester, or within two miles of any part of the limits thereof, for providing or aiding the means of instructing and improving young persons of the male sex (and being of an age not less than fourteen years) in such branches of learning and science as are now and may be hereafter usually taught in the English universities, but subject, nevertheless, to the fundamental and immutable rule and condition that the students, professors, teachers, and other officers and persons connected with the said institution shall not be required to make any declaration as to, or submit to any test whatsoever of, their religious opinions; and that nothing shall be introduced in the matter or mode of education or instruction in reference to any religious or theological subject which shall be reasonably offensive to the conscience of any student or of his relations, guardians, or friends under whose immediate care he shall be. … Subject as aforesaid, the said institution shall be open to all applicants for admission without respect to place of birth, and without distinction of rank or condition in society.' The net amount realised from the legacy was 96,654l. 11s. 6d. Accordingly Owens College was founded, and was opened in 1851. The first premises, which were in Quay Street, Deansgate, had formerly been the residence of Richard Cobden. They were at first let to the college by George Faulkner, the first chairman of the trustees, and were in 1854 presented by him to the institution. In 1871 the Owens College was incorporated by act of parliament, and in 1873 the college was installed in the fine buildings in Oxford Street, which were erected by public subscription from the designs of Mr. Alfred Waterhouse, R.A. Owens's generous bequest has been largely increased by later endowments.

[Thompson's Owens College, Manchester, 1886; personal information.]

J. T. K.