John Barran (1821 -1905)
Pioneer Industrialist and Leeds Benefactor

John BarranThousands of people visit Roundhay Park every year, enjoying its acres of green space, its lakes, woods and waterfalls – the largest urban park in Europe. It was John Barran who led the hard-fought, wounding campaign in 1872 for its purchase as a park for the people of Leeds. He made his mark on the city in other ways too: as the pioneer of the ready-made clothing trade, which brought great prosperity to Leeds, and as the patron of some fine buildings which remain landmarks in the city today.

John Barran was a Londoner in origin, the son of a gunmaker. At 21 he left home, sailed to Hull, and boarded the new railway to Leeds, looking for an opening in this booming industrial town. His first job was with a pawnbroker and clothes dealer, but he soon set up on his own as a men’s outfitter, with a shop at no.1 Briggate, popular with farmers and labourers coming to market in town. He married, and the family lived over the shop.  Energetic and dedicated – ‘like a spinning jenny, in constant motion’ – he made his shop into an ‘Emporium of Fashion’, with a range from dresscoats and satin waistcoats to moleskin trousers for ‘mechanics’ and sailor suits for boys. Alongside bespoke garments he offered affordable ready-made clothes, made in his own small factory. Here his interest in innovation and technology came into its own: in 1851 he was the first to use the new American Singer sewing machines in his works, making production faster and cheaper, and in 1858 he introduced the band-saw, which could cut through multiple layers of cloth. He had seen the saw operating with wood and grasped its potential. It revolutionised the clothing business.

As his business expanded he moved his home to Chapel Allerton Hall and his factory to Park Row, with his sons now as partners. In 1869 he took advantage of the scheme to improve and widen the narrow Boar Lane by buying land on the new south side and commissioning the architect Thomas Ambler to design a handsome range of buildings including a splendid new shop for his firm: ‘Number One’ Boar Lane. He employed Thomas Ambler again in 1877 to design a new factory and warehouse in Park Square. Eye-catching, fantastical, with minarets and parapet, it is still there, an echo of Moorish Spain in the middle of Leeds. This imaginative building was planned with care for his employees – good sanitation and lighting, a dining room. Barran’s had a reputation for good conditions and fair pay, unlike many of the sweated workshops and wretched wages in the clothing trade elsewhere in the city.

His business prospered, with a branch in London and new overseas markets, but he found time for public service: President of the Working Men’s Institute and of the Chamber of Commerce, a JP, a Liberal Councillor from 1865, and Mayor in 1870 and 71. In that year the huge Roundhay Park estate came up for sale. Many, including Barran, saw it as the ideal, much-needed park for smoky, industrial Leeds, but there was bitter resistance on grounds of the massive cost and the distance from town (no public transport then), and Roundhay residents objected to the prospect of mass invasion. Under Barran’s leadership the Council determined to buy over 770 acres of the estate, subject to parliamentary consent. Barran led the bidding at the auction, putting his money at risk, even re-mortgaging his house. For a time he had to suffer insult and abuse over this expensive ‘white elephant’, but he foresaw that ‘future generations will remember us with gratitude as they stroll along the pleasant walks..’

A life-long Baptist, he supported many good causes. He was a founder governor of the Yorkshire College (Leeds University) – technical education was close to his heart. So was the temperance cause. From the 1850s he and his family supported ‘British Workman’ pubs, offering tea and coffee instead of alcohol: by 1871 there were 16 in Leeds and the movement spread nationally. His kindness and generosity were well-known, and his modesty – when money was collected for a statue to him he politely rejected the idea! In 1876 he was elected Liberal MP for Leeds, and later represented Otley. When he lost his seat in 1895 his loyal service was rewarded with a baronetcy.

The firm of Barran & Sons flourished, and moved yet again in 1904 to a massive new factory in Chorley Lane, employing over 3000 people (now Jacob’s Well). John Barran himself died in 1905, aged 83.  Thousands lined the streets and followed the funeral cortege for this much-loved ‘Grand Old Man of Leeds’.


Eveleigh Bradford
April 2013