John Swire

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John Swire
Born 11 July 1793
Halifax, Yorkshire, England
Died August 12, 1847(1847-08-12) (aged 54)
Liverpool, England
Cause of death Cancer
Occupation Merchant


John Swire of Liverpool

Swire’s story begins with a young man setting off to seek his fortune as a result of family bankruptcy. While this is not a classic rags-to-riches tale, resilience in the face of adversity was a characteristic that was to stand the firm he founded in good stead on more than one occasion over the following 200 years.

The founder of the business, John Swire (1793–1847), was a Liverpool merchant, but he was descended from farming stock. The Swire family had owned land and a manor house at Cononley, a small village near Skipton in Yorkshire, for a number of generations.

In 1755, at the age of 18, John Swire’s paternal grandfather — also named John — was indentured to a textile merchant near Halifax. As a second son, it was expedient for him to earn his own living outside of the family land. Halifax directories describe him variously as ‘merchant’, ‘gentleman’ and ‘drysalter’ (a dealer in chemicals used in dyeing textiles). No evidence remains of his trading activities, but he did not, as many of his fellow merchants did at that time, get into textile manufacturing and mill ownership. His parents advanced him sums of money, which came off the small portion he was to inherit, no doubt hoping to help him ‘get ahead’. But this financial cushion apparently smothered the drive to succeed. Instead, he speculated quite heavily in real estate, saddling himself with large mortgages which undoubtedly contributed to his being declared bankrupt in 1795. The final chapter of John Swire of Halifax’s life was a melancholy one: in 1799, aged 62, he rode his horse into a moorland bog during a blizzard; it was some days before his body was found.

His only son, Samuel Swire (1764–1839), was also a Halifax ‘chapman’, or merchant — though even less is known about his business activities. Given that his mother died when he was just four years old and his father did not remarry, it is possible he spent at least part of his childhood at Cononley, in the care of his grandmother. For a while, he stood to inherit the estate, after a series of premature deaths in the family. However, two months after the demise of the married cousin to whom he was heir apparent, the widow gave birth to a healthy son — who, proving much more robust than his predecessors, ultimately put an end to these ambitions. Sam Swire also came unstuck financially — as later generations would recall, ‘thro’ extravagance of living and the luxury of large families’ — and followed his father into the bankruptcy courts in 1808. Cononley Hall was tenanted until the posthumous child reached the age of 21; he lived there for just five years before selling the family estate in 1823. It must have been a bitter blow for Sam Swire.

Young John Swire, the founder of the Swire group and the eldest of Samuel's ten children, determined to try his luck in Liverpool, moving to that port town (it was not yet a city) sometime in the early 1810s. He first appears in the Liverpool trade directories, listed as ‘merchant’, in 1816. At that date, we find him sharing business premises at 9 Coopers Row, near the docks, with a third cousin, Richard Swire. Richard, who was 18 years his senior, may conceivably have taken John under his wing and into his business (he and his wife were childless); however, he too had filed for bankruptcy a few years previously, so his ability to give a leg-up to a young relative is questionable. More likely, he leased office space to John to assist him to get started — and to help defray his own overheads. One account states that John Swire went to Liverpool to work for the merchant and ship owning firm of Jonathan Roose & Sons, the proprietor of which would later become his father-in-law. If that is true, then it is likely he was indentured to Jonathan Roose around 1811 — an introduction possibly arranged through cousin Richard Swire, whose family moved in much the same Halifax business circles as John’s father. Doubtless Samuel Swire would have been anxious to ensure his son did not repeat his own mistakes: that he learn the lesson that he must make his way in life through diligence and effort.

John Swire’s first recorded imports in 1816 are of quercitron bark (used in textile dyeing) and raw cotton from America and he built his business almost exclusively on imports from North America (flour, animal hides, turpentine and tar) and the West Indies (coffee, spices, sugar and rum). In 1822, he married Maria Louisa Roose, Jonathan’s daughter, and the couple went on to have five children, three of whom — Maria Louisa, John Samuel and William Hudson — survived to adulthood.

Inevitably, the financial ruin that had overtaken his forefathers had a profound effect upon John Swire of Liverpool and shaped his approach to business. He was prudent, hardworking, and risk-averse. From 1840, his business was largely weighted towards working as a shipping agent, which carried less risk than trading goods in his own right. In that year, he bought a share in a new sailing vessel, the 194-ton Christiana. This ship was lost off Haiti in 1841, perhaps confirming John Swire’s views on the hazards of such investments, as he made no further essays into ship owning.

John Swire died in 1847. He left his two sons capital of £1,000 each to carry on his business (close to £80,000 apiece in today’s terms). John Swire of Liverpool had built a successful, if small, business from nothing and his efforts left his family secure and comfortably off. However, he never forgot the hard lessons of the family losses he had left behind in Yorkshire, writing: ‘One word of advice to my dear children. Be steady, careful … & moderate in your expenditure, for if once you lose what I have worked hard to leave you, you may then perhaps know, like many others have done, the stings of poverty’.

To his elder son and heir, John Samuel Swire (1825– 1898), he wrote: ‘So far in the life of my dear son J.S. Swire I have formed the most favourable opinion of his steady, upright and religious character and may God Almighty bless him and make him worthy of the trust I thus place in him …’ Quite a weight of responsibility for a young lad who was 17 at the time of writing; however, John Samuel Swire was to more than justify his father’s high opinion.


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