The Richardsons of Bessbrook: Fr John Bradley

On Thursday 18 March Fr John Bradley, the former parish priest of Bessbrook, gave an interesting talk on the Richardsons of Bessbrook. The event was well-attended and was followed by the usual light refreshments and opportunity for social chit-chat.

The Richardson Family came to Ireland from Warwickshire in 1622, when Jonathan Richardson was appointed Rector of Loughgall. His elder brother, Zachary, followed him to Ireland and settled not far away with his family. It is from Zachary that the Bessbrook Richardsons are descended. Zacharyís son, Jonathan, joined the Society of Friends about 1660. The line of descent from Zachary to the Bessbrook Richardsons is complicated by the re-occurrence of some first names. For instance Jonathan occurs in at least four generations, and there were three James Nicholson Richardsons. One of the Jonathans who was father of James Nicholson Richardson I, was born in 1756 and founded the Glenmore Bleachworks, near Lambeg in 1800. At that time the firm was known as J. J. & J. Richardson (probably after James Nicholson, Joseph and John, the three sons of Jonathan). James Nicholson Richardson I (1782-1847) had seven sons. At least two of these sons, Jonathan and John Grubb, and their father, were involved in the expansion of the business to include the purchase of the property in Bessbrook.

Bessbrook had long been associated with the linen trade. As early as 1760 the Pollock Family had extensive bleach greens at Bessbrook. Other notable linen families at that time were the Hudsons and the Atkinsons. The Pollocks sold out to the Nicholsons who established a large spinning mill at Bessbrook in 1802. The Nicholsons were cousins to the Richardsons. Their mill was burned in 1839 and in 1845 when the Richardsons decided to move to Bessbrook then were able to purchase the derelict mill. More importantly was the mill pond, which at that time was about half its present size, and all of the associated mill-races and sluices. The second eldest brother, John Grubb Richardson seems to have been the driving force behind this move. He was born in 1815 and married his cousin, Helena Grubb, of Cahir Abbey, in 1844. She bore him two children, James Nicholson Richardson III, and Helena. Helena Grubb died in 1849 and in 1853 John Grubb Richardson married Jane Marion Wakefield, who bore him one son, Thomas Wakefield Richardson, and seven daughters.

John Grubb Richardson followed his Quaker ideals closely and was a great believer in temperance. He had observed the evils and temptations of the large mill populations in Belfast and Lisburn and decided that any factory which he established should be free of these evils. He selected Bessbrook firstly because of the availability of water-power and the fact that a large amount of flax was grown in the area. Secondly, Bessbrook was secluded. It was not on any of the major routes through the county. Therefore Richardson concluded that his workers would not be exposed to the temptations of the larger towns such as Newry. To this end he forbade the opening of a public house in Bessbrook. He reasoned that without the public house there would be no need for a pawnshop or a police-station. So for many years Bessbrook was the village without the three Ps. The police did not come to the village until shortly after Richardsonís death. In 1863 John Grubb Richardson bought out his brothers and became sole owner of the factory and the village.

When Richardson came to Bessbrook in 1845 he found a handful of houses and a small number of inhabitants. By the time of his death in 1890 Bessbrook had more than 400 houses and the population had risen to about 3000. Richardson was responsible for the construction of the huge linen mill which stands as his memorial. He also provided the village with a non-denominational school, a dispensary and the Institute (or Town Hall). Towards the end of this time the pioneer hydro-electric railway between Bessbrook and Newry was constructed. He encouraged the construction of four churches in the village. With all this building he succeeded in his plan of catering to the welfare of a large, sober and hardworking mill population which would not be influenced by the evils of a large town or city. That he did succeed was sufficient reward to him and he refused all other honours. For instance, when Gladstone offered him a Baronetcy in 1882, he politely refused to accept it. John Grubb Richardson was sole owner of Bessbrook and its mills from 1863 until 1878. At that time the Bessbrook Spinning Company was formed and continued in existence for another 100 years. J.G.Richardson was succeeded by his eldest son, James Nicholson Richardson III. He was elected Liberal M.P. for County Armagh in 1880. Although he was offered the post of Junior Lord of the Treasury he, like has father, refused all honours. He was widely travelled and had considerable literary gifts. Poor health cut short his political career. He succeeded his father as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Bessbrook Spinning Company and held that position until his death in 1921. Neither James Nicholson Richardson III, nor his half brother, Thomas Wakefield Richardson, had any children and after 1921 control of the Spinning Company passed to various cousins. J.N.Richardson considered himself to be a true Bessbrook man and he is buried in the cemetery beside the Friendsí Meeting House in Bessbrook.