The man behind the Thomas Ashton Institute for Risk and Regulatory Research
3 November 2022
The launch of the Thomas Ashton Institute in 2017 signified a major acknowledgement of the importance in ensuring the safety and health of a rapidly changing workforce. But who was Thomas Ashton?
When deciding on a name, it was important to not only choose someone who was synonymous with the ideals and values upheld by the Institute, but also someone who made a significant contribution to the development of Manchester as a major economic city as part of the industrial transformation that swept the country in the mid 19th century. Thomas Ashton was part of a family dynasty that valued the wellbeing and safety of their workforce. Thomas himself saw education as a medium for developing not only his workers, but also as a way of developing the nation’s prosperity.
Thomas was a substantial supporter in the development of the Hyde Mechanics Institute, and further provided scholarships for talented employees to attend Owens College and the Manchester Mechanics Institute (and later the Manchester Technical School), which formed the historical foundations of what we now know as the University of Manchester. Indeed, Thomas, in partnership with Samuel Fielden, (the son of social reformer and MP John Fielden) raised significant funding to allow Owens College to prosper. Interestingly, his long-term friend John Fielden was a major influence on the Factory Reform Acts, one of which established the Factory Inspectorate in 1833. This made a significant contribution to the safety and wellbeing of workers in the UK in that period, and very much in line with the research and policy related work of the Institute today.
He played a major part in local and regional politics, and his life in public service was equally as impressive as his contributions in commerce. He served as the first mayor of Hyde, as well as becoming the High Sheriff of Lancashire, as well as being a magistrate for Cheshire and Lancashire. His strong support for the National Education League in Manchester, helped foster a lifelong friendship with future prime minister, William Gladstone. The League paved the way for the 1870 Education Act, which set out the national provision of compulsory and free education for children. Thomas was passionate that the future prosperity of a nation would come through education of the population. To mark his contribution to the 1870 Act, Gladstone offered him a baronetcy in 1882, which he declined. He was awarded an honorary LLD from the Victoria University for his contributions to education through both Owens College and the Manchester Technical School, and was given Freedom of the City of Manchester in 1892.
Thomas Ashton was born in Hyde on 8th December 1818, into an already successful family of business owners. The Ashton family was a substantial employer in the region and were pioneers in combining both spinning and weaving in the same mill. His father Thomas senior and his uncle Samuel parted ways in 1823, both becoming successful in their separate endeavours. Both however maintained the emerging family values of upholding the responsibilities as employers for their expanding workforce. Indeed, Jane Bedford, in her biography of the Ashton family, referred to their mills as being ‘best in their class in the country’, being suitably equipped with the wellbeing and comfort of the workforce being paramount.
As a further testament to the benevolent nature he exhibited towards his workforce, during the Lancashire cotton famine of 1861-65, Ashton kept his mills open at great personal economic cost, largely financed from his own reserves. At the height of the downturn he put many of his employees to work in constructing a new factory complex in readiness for when the market for cotton goods rebounded. This proved to be a successful venture in the long run, but more importantly, kept his workforce in full paid employment while many of his fellow business owners closed down. His family innovation of combining spinning and weaving helped make their business more competitive than many of the other mills. This was indeed the work of a man who cared and who valued the wellbeing of his workforce.
Just as Thomas had inherited the benevolent social values of his father, so did he instil those values on his own children. He encouraged his daughter Margaret to pursue a life outside of the family business. She followed her father into a career in local politics and was the first female member elected to Manchester City Council in 1908. An ardent supporter of the suffragette movement, she campaigned for women’s rights and was a member of the Manchester Public Health Committee. She also helped found the Manchester Babies Hospital in 1914. Her brother Thomas Gair Ashton made the choice to seek a career in national politics as well as involve himself in the family business.
He was elected as Liberal MP for Hyde in 1885, and later for Luton. In 1911 he was raised to the peerage as the first Lord Ashton of Hyde. Like his father and grandfather, he continued their social and industrial paternalism. He carried on the financial support of the Mechanics Institute in Hyde as well as Manchester, and became the Honorary Secretary of the Manchester Technical School. He took an active part in the creation of the Victoria University, which was a federated institution created for higher education colleges in the North of England, with Owens College joining in 1880. This became the Victoria University of Manchester in 1903. Both Margaret and Thomas Gair Ashton maintained a lifelong involvement with the University throughout that transition and beyond.
In choosing a name for the new Institute in 2017, there were many alumni and prominent business people who would be both appropriate and worthy. Very few however can claim to have influenced national policies for educational reform, factory safety and the health and wellbeing of a growing nation as much as Thomas Ashton and his family. Even fewer can additionally claim to have been involved in the University at the very beginning of the story. As we head toward the University bi-centenary in 2024, it is perhaps most fitting that Thomas Ashton is remembered. The University of Manchester owes much to the foresight of a man who challenged the norm and provided a safer and more socially just world for the people he valued so much.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Ashton_(industrialist). Accessed September 2022.
- Thomas Ashton – Cotton Manufacturer. Jane Bedford - National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved September 2022.
- Annals of Hyde and District. Thomas Middleton, Longden Publications, 1973.
- History of Hyde. Thomas Middleton, Higham Press, 1932.
- https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/history-heritage/history/buildings/john-owens/. Accessed September 2022
- https://www.tameside.gov.uk/Towns/Hyde-Menu/Township-Information-Hyde. Accessed September 2022
- Ashton Brothers Archive – Tameside Library, Ashton. Accessed September 2022.