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Lord Ashton - the Lino King

Who was Lord Ashton?

James Williamson was born on the 31st of December 1842. He was the third of four surviving children born to James (Snr) and Eleanor Williamson, who had established a successful coated fabrics business in the town in the 1840's.

James (Jnr) was educated at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and worked all his life in the family business. It was James (Jnr) who transformed his father's works into a huge enterprise, specialising in Linoleum production, alongside its Leathercloth and other coated fabrics production.

In a publicity article in 1894, it was said that:

The present undertaking constitutes the largest manufactory of its class in the world; and further, we may say, without any fear of contradiction, that the mammoth works on the banks of the Lune, at Lancaster, are the most extensive in the universe, that are owned and controlled solely by one individual.

Who were his family?

James Williamson was married three times, firstly to Margaret Gatey in 1869, who bore him two daughters. Secondly to Jessie Hulme in 1880, who is remembered for sharing his political life with him and finally to Florence Whalley, later Lady Ashton, in 1909, who survived him. His daughters by his first wife were Eleanor (1871) and Maud (1876). Maud died unmarried at the age of 30. Ella married Viscount Peel in 1899 and their son, the second Earl Peel, was directly involved with and became Chairman of the family business. Lady Ashton died, in 1944, a few weeks after the company had celebrated its centenary.

Public office and honours

Williamson seems to have been an intensely private man, shunning informal or formal portraits and photographs, however, some do exist. Even in his grand gift of Lancaster Town Hall, no portraits of him were allowed and only his coat of arms was on display in the form of a stain glass window. The painting by Howard Somerville at the top of the main staircase was presented to the corporation, by Lady Ashton in 1932 and was created after his death from an original watercolour, now in the City Museum collection.

Despite his apparent shyness, Williamson held many public and high profile positions of authority, alongside that of Lancaster's major employer, these included:

Town Councillor for Lancaster (1871-80), Justice of the Peace (1881 onwards), High Sheriff of Lancaster (1885), Liberal MP for Lancaster (1886-95), he was elevated to the peerage and the House of Lords becoming Baron Ashton of Ashton (1895), Constable of the Castle (1921) and Freeman of Lytham (1923).

However, Williamson spurned the offers to become Mayor of Lancaster or an Alderman and he should not be confused with his father, James Williamson I, who was Mayor in 1864/65.

Lord Ashton had been elected as a Liberal M.P. for Lancaster, supporting free trade and Home Rule for Ireland. In June 1895, he declined to stand again for election and any mystery was solved the following month when it was announced that:

...on the official publication of the honours conferred by Her Majesty, on the recommendation of Lord Roseberry, it was found that Mr. Williamson, M.P., of Ryelands, the member for Lancaster division, had been raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom.

Eight thousand people turned out to welcome him, his wife and daughter, on their return home from London, a few days later. Nevertheless, the local press were uneasy about the circumstances of the peerage and Lord Roseberry found it necessary to issue a statement stating that:

...the slander, that he had created four new peers in consideration of their having contributed to the Liberal war chest at the current election, was too contemptible for notice.

That didn't prevent Sir William Marriott of the North Lonsdale division, continuing the rumours and Lord Ashton impelled to write to the Lancaster Observer said that the editor was:

...quite at liberty to say that the statement that I paid £40,000, or indeed any sum, for a peerage is absolute and entirely false.

There was even opinion voiced against Lord Ashton's chosen title, Baron Ashton of Ashton, with many locals saying he should have chosen 'Baron Williamson' instead.                                                                                                               

The business

In the 1870s, Williamson's coated fabrics business expanded rapidly and James Jnr. is credited with masterminding this period of growth and success, which included the addition of the vast new Lune Mills Factory, on the site of a recently bankrupted shipyard, along the quay from St. George's Works and the ventures into floorcloth, then blindcloth and finally, in 1887, cork linoleum.

Williamson bought further land from Lancaster Corporation in 1889 and the major development of the firm proceeded quickly. The works finally grew to cover twenty-one acres and included provision for embossing, rolling and measuring, block printing and drying, as well as warehousing, storage for all the supplies needed and his own power supply.

Cork was shipped direct from Spain and Portugal, in ships owned by him and his associate, James Helme and it arrived in Lancaster, from Heysham, by rail link, which Williamson had pushed to be built in 1883.

The new buildings were of red brick, which had been left over from a brickworks which had previously existed on the site. He invested in modern machinery, supplied goods at the bottom end of the market, where no supplier been previously interested, had a virtual monopoly in Britain of the lowest quality linoleum, negotiated cut price rail charges by playing one rail company off against another, paid low wages, discouraged unionism amongst his employees for all but the skilled trades and kept a personal eye on the detailed operations of the whole works, whilst developing a growing export trade to Scandinavia and South America, amongst others.

James Williamson I, was apprenticed to a man called Richard Hutton, master painter and decorator of Lancaster and for a short while, William Storey was apprenticed to Hutton too. Storey worked for Williamson for a short time, before the two parted company, with William Storey moving to premises on St. George's Quay, to start his own company. Storey Brothers, the firm William set up with his brothers became consistent business (and political) rivals of the Williamson family from then on.

A bitter price war on goods, waged between the two firms in the 1880's, enhanced by the political rivalry of their two owners. This was terminated by an agreement, which first included certain restrictions on advertising and secondly, that after 1890, Williamson's would concentrate on floorcloth production. Their personal relationships were also strained, with the two families having no more to do with each other than was socially correct, such as sending carriages to the other families' funerals.

By 1894, Williamson's were employing 2,500 men and Storey's about 1,000 men and by 1911, the firm employed around 25% of Lancaster's working men and with the busy cotton mills in the town, a similar proportion of the working women were on his books too.

Some assert that Williamson's business success was built on the exploitation of his workforce. Williamson however, claimed his skilled staff were paid Union rates, whilst his unskilled labourers received £1. 0. 3d (£1.01p) a week, with a bonus for good time-keeping. Aware of the importance of good publicity, Lord Ashton, as he had now become, let it be known through the local press that this was markedly more than his rivals, Storey Bros., who were reputed to pay 18/6d (92p) a week.

Lord Ashton was also known to keep employees on the payroll in periods when work was slack, he paid out sums to people who were to old to work, providing they were still able to reach his works and he carried out a number of private acts of kindness, especially to senior members of his firm. Whatever conclusions were reached on the labour issue, it is clear that with the Williamson family, Lancaster had a major contributor to local institutions and organisations.

Fortune and philanthropy

Unlike his father before him, James Williamson also became a landowner, buying property such as Ashton Hall in 1884, now Lancaster Golf Club, for £100,000. He also owned Ellel Hall in Galgate, Lune Villa in Skerton, Oakenclough Estate near Garstang, Alford House in Knightsbridge, London and finally The Bungalow in St. Anne's. Most of his time however, was spent either at his London residence or at Ryelands House, Skerton, which had been handed down by his father.

Lord Ashton was also following a path well recognised among industrialists and society figures, by donating large sums of money to good causes. His father had already supported local churches and schools and Lord Ashton's well known gifts included the Queen Victoria Monument in Dalton Square and Lancaster Town Hall. He also completed the works and renovation of Williamson Park, started by his father, with the building of the Ashton Memorial. This was one of his more controversial gifts, known locally as 'The Structure', it stands at the highest point of Williamson Park 497 ft above sea level, on a plateau known as 'the sixpence'. The forty acre park was first laid out during the cotton famine on the site of an old quarry, by James Williamson I, to relieve hardship at this period of mass unemployment. Subsequently, it was decided to make a fashionable drive and walks, which Lord Ashton completed after the death of his father.

The figure of Queen Victoria on the statue (above) is made from bronze, as are the 'faces' on the plinths. Included in the depictions are Prince Albert and artists, writers, scientists, reformers and entrepreneurs such as Watts, Millias, Ruskin, Darwin, Shaftesbury and Rowland Hill. Also included are Lord Ashton's father, James Williamson I, and his son-in-law, Viscount Peel.

The Ashton Memorial itself, is really a gigantic folly, but one which was labelled 'the grandest monument in England'. It's unknown for certain whether it was built in memory of Lord Ashton's second wife, as local tradition has it, or to his family in general. The building was opened to the public in 1909, just a few weeks before the Town Hall, at a cost of £87,000.

Some of Lord Ashton's gifts bore his name, like the Ashton Wing of the former Royal Albert Hospital, Ashton House at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, Ashton Hall within the new Town Hall complex and Ashton Gardens at St. Anne's. However, many of his gifts are less public.

Williamson gave almost £10,000 towards the building of Lancaster Infirmary in the 1890's and a much smaller sum to Morecambe's Queen Victoria Hospital Building Fund in 1901. Three years later he donated £1,000 for Lune Bank Gardens, or Skerton Park, to be laid out for local residents.

Not all his philanthropic works were building projects. In 1887, he bought out Corporation Tolls, payable by traders on goods bought for sale in Lancaster, to aid family budgets and in the same year he paid for 5,000 scholars to travel to the Manchester Jubilee Exhibition for their education and enjoyment.

He also supported local churches, providing a peal of bells and a four-dial clock for St. Mary's Parish Church, sports organisations, like the Cross Bay Swim and Lancaster Rugby Club, and he gave charitable donations too.

In his obituary, he is even credited for supplying water from his wells, to Morecambe and Heysham in 1929, in a time of acute drought. He was always particularly generous to the residents of Skerton, where he was known as the 'Uncrowned King', and gifts of coal and other goods were distributed as well as an annual party on his birthday. It was rumoured that he helped bail out Waring and Gillow, the well known furniture makers, when they ran into severe financial problems in 1910.

In 1885, when he became High Sheriff, he invited all male adults in Lancaster and the district for ten miles around to breakfast at Ryelands, with over 10,000 accepting and to mark the occasion, he gave Lancaster Priory a large four dial clock and a peal of eight bells.

It may seem strange that he only gave public or monumental buildings to the city. The only item of use to his workforce was the footbridge which he had erected on one side of Carlisle Bridge, so that people on the Skerton side of the river could cross direct to his works and despite all the land he owned in the city, he didn't build housing for them either.

Lord Ashton probably took for granted that his 'caring/father like figure' style of running his business would outlast his lifetime. For many years his word and wish in Lancaster went unchallenged and his money, power and influence was of a kind that no individual could hold on a city today. Despite this, outside pressures and especially the growth of the Independent Labour Party, meant his views were to be severely challenged. By 1907, the local Labour leaders were trying to introduce the recognition for unions representing the unskilled workers at both Williamson's and Storey's.

As he began to feel more threatened, his personal interest in his business and the systematic surveillance for which he was now notorious, became more obsessive. This even included a scrap book, which contained newspaper cuttings of union meetings, written records of conversations overheard in the street, public houses and dinner parties, anonymous reports about individuals and reports on confidential political meetings, which were usually pieced together by trustees and senior employees. This behaviour created an air of suspicion and distrust amongst everyone connected with him, which was not helped by his increasing reclusiveness.

Events came to a head in 1909, when Lord Ashton entered into discussions with the secretary of the Lancaster Independent Labour Party, James Hodkinson, a shopkeeper, who disliked another I.L.P. member, William Wall, so much he was willing to publicly support Lord Ashton's Liberal candidate at the forthcoming local election. However, Wall was much more defiant and had the support of the Trades Council. He stood for election in Skerton for the fourth time and came close to winning.

Lord Ashton began to feel that the attitude towards him, from local people, was also changing. This view was only enhanced when boxes of chocolates, that had been presented to the local school children by Lady Ashton, to mark the opening of the Town Hall, were thrown over the wall at Ryelands House. In Lord Ashton's eyes, this was seen as a mark of contempt towards himself.

Although William Wall was outspoken, he was persuaded to retract at least some of his criticism and there was an uneasy peace for a while. However, in November 1911, at another municipal election, there was a tied vote in Skerton between Wall and Lord Ashton's Liberal nominee, J. Turvey. The Mayor, who was the returning officer, gave the casting vote to Mr. Turvey.

The damage done by the tied vote was never to be repaired and less than a week later, notices were posted at the works, saying that advances in wages that had been agreed would not now take place. The notices also stated that: future employees would not be kept on at times of coal or railway strikes... (and) ...that when times were bad, only men loyal to the firm, would be kept on and we shall not, as in the past, keep those who are bereft of all sense of what is due not only to their employer, but to themselves.

Lord Ashton also declined to make any further contributions to Lancaster charities, buildings or public events. He felt that Lancaster and its citizens had spurned what he had to offer and wanted no further part in the town's public life, despite still being the town's largest employer. Instead, he donated money to St. Anne's, for the Ashton Gardens to be built.

For the final twenty one years of his life, from the ceremonial opening of the Town Hall in 1909, to his death in May, 1930, Lord Ashton remained a recluse. He did, however, continue to run his business from behind the high walls of Ryelands and tales were told of how ill-decorated the house became and how the clock-winder, who visited once a week was advised to be quick, as his Lordship would be timing him.

Lord Ashton died at Ryelands House, Lancaster, on the 27th of May, 1930, aged 88 years. His funeral was attended by over two thousand of his employees, who marched in a procession almost a mile long, past the priory, where the service had been held, to the cemetery where Lord Ashton was buried. The Bishop of Blackburn asked that:

...if there were, alongside his imagination, visions and remarkable organising ability, some misunderstandings, resentment and suspicion, let them today and forever, be buried in that grave, where we shall lay his tired body.

Despite his surviving family, his widow, daughter and grandson, he left no will. It took until March 1934 for his estate to be valued at over £10.5 million, with the state taking half of this in death duties.

The end of an era

The company celebrated its centenary in 1944 but two world wars, severe economic depression and foreign competition had changed the nature of the business forever. Williamson's continued to decline in the 1950's and 60's, with the remains of the once great company being run under the names or ownership of Nairn Williamson Ltd, then Nairn Coated Products Ltd, followed by Forbo Kingfisher Ltd and finally Forbo Lancaster Ltd.

Sadly, production ceased at the site in approximately 1999 and all that now remains of this once hugely successful business and Lancaster's largest employer, are derelict parts of the factory buildings. With many more of the buildings already demolished, the remainder of this once busy site now lies derelict, overgrown, vandalised or collapsed.

James Williamson II, Lord Ashton or 'Li'l Jimmy' as he was affectionately known, has left his mark on Lancaster for generations to come and even today his name is known throughout his home 'town', over a century since he assumed control of James Williamson and Sons of Lancaster.

* With grateful thanks, some of the above text is from an original text written by Sue Ashworth, which along with some of the pictures, is taken from a leaflet entitled 'Lord Ashton 'The Lino King', produced by Lancaster City Museums.

Last updated: 13 July 2016

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