Monday 1 July 2019

Rebellious, Radical and Remarkable: Remembering John Tomlinson Brunner

This blog post was written by our volunteer, Megan Grainger, to commemorate the centenary of the death of Sir John Brunner. Sir John Brunner was a British industrialist and co-founder of the chemical firm Brunner Mond and Company. He was Liberal M.P. for Northwich from 1885-1909 and was a Privy Councillor in 1906. 

“….a career of almost unexampled prosperity’

This statement made by the Western Daily Press provides the most apt introduction to Brunner. It defines his continued significance; the reason he remains embedded in the History of the Northwest and why a hundred years after his death we continue to commemorate the life of Sir John Tomlinson Brunner. 

The quote itself is a direct reference to the enormous financial successes of Brunner, Mond and Co, and it was through this success that Brunner was able to fund his own philanthropic agenda. In remembrance of the centenary of his death on the 1st July, this posts seeks to commemorate not simply the financial and political success of John Brunner but his character, and his dedication to his workmen, to his locality and to progressive reform, as it is this that remains his greatest legacy.

The perseverance and dedication that went into Brunner's endeavours is evident in the projection of his career. Brunner held a clerical post at Hutchinson’s alkali works in Widnes for a number of years, a position that was fundamental to the course of Brunner’s life. It provided him with invaluable business acumen and was the meeting point for his friendship with German chemist Ludwig Mond, a friendship that would become the catalyst for the company that transformed Brunner into a powerhouse of the British chemical industry. By 1873 the works at Winnington had been purchased and Brunner, Mond and co. was in its infancy. By 1888 a memorandum between E J. Milner and Brunner includes a letterhead identifying the expansion and success of the business, listing works at Winnington, Northwich, Betchton and Sandbach.

c11221 Brunner Mond & Co. arch.
The motto on the arch reads: "Northwich thanks best friend Sir John."

However what was truly remarkable about Brunner is best demonstrated through his condemnation of a compulsory pension subscription for the working classes. Written in November 1888 between Brunner and his colleague the letters highlight Brunner’s commitment to fairness, he states, ‘such a rule to me is hateful.’ He found the scheme to be coercive, obliging his workers to sign over a percentage of their hard earned wage to the company and instead proposed sacrifices on behalf of the company would be better channelled into facilities, such as, societies and places to bath.

This example of altruism is not singular and a Northwich Guardian from 1899 identifies further the many ways in which Brunner sought to support his workers. It outlines the introduction of a sick and burial club, free medical care for those in service, a week’s paid holiday and also details the pride of Brunner in taking even further the employer liability of Act of 1881 by providing compensation for any death or injury at work regardless of fault.

As Brunner, Mond and co. expanded so did Brunner’s ability to give back and he did not restrict his benevolence to those in his factories. Compelled by his Unitarian beliefs imparted to him by his father, Brunner championed education; he funded schools, a free library at Northwich and endowed the chairs of economics, physical chemistry and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool.

c08335 Portrait of Sir John Brunner in the foyer of the Brunner Library

The courage and conviction Brunner demonstrated in business was no less fervent in his politics. Elected liberal MP for Northwich in 1885 he carried his progressive approach all the way to Westminster, earning recognition for his commitment to liberalism in 1906 when he became a Privy Councillor. During his time in politics Brunner championed home rule in Ireland, trade unions and welfare reform, he even braced the scorn of supporting a conciliatory approach towards Germany after WW1, so embedded were his beliefs to what was just. He was described as aggressively liberal, and perceived as radical but never was he apathetic.

There is much to remember Brunner for and in the vein of remembrance it is pertinent to end with a quote from Brunner himself. One that defines his beliefs, his forthright character and the humour he retained even in his disdain for those that refused to keep up:

‘The Liverpool Chamber of Commerce is a bunch of old toffies. They drive out of commerce any man who shows signs of a reformer in any direction and I do not consider them deserving of help.’

This blog post was written using the following items from the Imperial Chemical Industries collection at Cheshire Archives:
  • DIC/BM7/11 Original letters and enclosures from John Brunner and his secretary Thomas Ellis, chiefly to Edward Milner, relating to affairs at Winnington and Sandbach works, and within the alkali industry in general. 22 Aug 1885-1815 Nov 1888
  • DIC/BM15/43 Miscellaneous correspondence and other papers compiled by A S Irvine, Manager, ICI Alkali Division Information Service, relating to the life of Sir John Brunner (1842-1919).
  • DIC/BM7/2 Chiefly comprises letters written by Ludwig Mond to John Brunner during a visit to Belgium and Germany Aug-Sep 1876. Relates to business and family affairs. 1876-1877
Images are from Cheshire Image Bank

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