Thomas Ainsworth (1814-1881)

Thomas Ainsworth

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupations: Industrialist and Landowner

Early Life and Family

Thomas Ainsworth was born in Preston, Lancashire on 21 March 1804 and baptised in Church Street Unitarian Chapel there eight days later. His family had for several generations been involved in the manufacture of cotton in that county and many of them were given the Christian name Thomas. His paternal grandfather Thomas Ainsworth (c.1739-1785) initially had his business in Blackburn and then from about 1782 at Backbarrow near Haverthwaite (now in Cumbria). In 1769 he married Sarah Barton (c.1745-1796) and they had three sons, Joseph who died young, Thomas Ainsworth’s father David (c.1772-1819) and his uncle Thomas (c.1777-1853). The cotton mill at Backbarrow and the modest house which stood near to it passed initially on the death of Thomas Ainsworth in 1785 to his younger son who then ran it alone before going into partnership with his own two sons. In 1823 he rebuilt the mill (and the adjacent Backbarrow House to a design by George Webster of Kendal) and the expansion made the mill highly profitable over most of the next half century. Known locally still as ‘Ainsworth’s Mill’, it became Reckitts Dolly Bluie Mill and is now the Whitewater Hotel. Thomas (died 1853) married Lydia Wells, daughter of Rev. William McQuhae (1737-1823), Moderator of the Church of Scotland, in 1804 and they had a number of children including Thomas Ainsworth (c.1807-1875), William Ainsworth (c.1808-1862) and David Ainsworth (1823-1907), all therefore cousins of Thomas Ainsworth.

Their two eldest sons Thomas and William ran the business in partnership with their by now ailing father until 1852 when the initial firm of T & W Ainsworth was dissolved. Thomas took the Backbarrow mill, a flax mill at nearby Penny Bridge and the trading name; William took the cotton mill in Preston which the family also still owned and ran this until his death in 1862. Thomas Ainsworth finally inherited both the house and the mill at Backbarrow as well as Penny Bridge Mill on the death of his father in 1853, but closed the former in 1861 before selling both mill and house in Backbarrow in 1871 because of financial difficulties which began when a fire destroyed a large part of that mill in 1867. In 1874 the latter Backbarrow firm of T & W Ainsworth was formally liquidated for the benefit of the creditors and when Thomas Ainsworth died in Torquay the following year, his estate was valued at under £100.

Their youngest son David however took a different and more providential course. Educated at Rugby School and Trinity College Cambridge (matriculated 1842, Civil Law Tripos, 1st Class 1847, LLB 1864), he was called to the Bar at Inner Temple in 1849 and became a special pleader and an Income Tax Commissioner. He was a JP for Lancashire and in time became a Deputy Lieutenant for the county. Alongside his legal career, David Ainsworth was also a Major in the 4th Battalion of the Lancashire Militia in 1874 and in 1881 was promoted to Lt.-Col. commanding 1st Volunteer Battalion Kings Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment. In 1880-1891 he rented Broughton Hall, Grange-in-Cartmel and he may have bought Backbarrow House when it was auctioned in 1871 but if he did, he seems never to have occupied it. David Ainsworth married in 1860 but had no children and he died in Hampshire in 1907, leaving an estate of £10,571.

Meanwhile Thomas’ father David Ainsworth had initially remained in Preston. He became a Capt.-Lieutenant in the Loyal Preston Volunteers in 1801 and carried on business as a cotton spinner (Watson, Ainsworth & Co) and machinery manufacturer (Watson, Kay, Catterall & Ainsworth) until he was bankrupted in 1807-1808 upon the failure of both businesses. Upon his discharge later in 1808 he founded Ainsworth, Catterall & Co., which carried on the manufacturing of cotton at Church Street Mill in Preston and also at Backbarrow, adjacent to the mill of his brother. In 1816 the mill in Preston became only the second factory in that town to be lit by gas. David Ainsworth died in 1819 aged only 47.

On 11th February 1801, David Ainsworth married Alice Hatton (1788-1827), the daughter of Richard Hatton of Park Lane, Great Harwood in Lancashire. They had four children of whom Thomas was the eldest and only son. One of his sisters died young and the other two, Anne Barton (1806-1865) and Sarah (1808-1875) never married but lived together in Leamington Spa until their respective deaths. Thomas was educated privately by Revd William Lamport (1772-1848) of Lancaster (the author of Sacred Poetry in 1825) and then by a Mr Currie of Birmingham. By about 1830 he was working in the cotton mill at Backbarrow belonging to his uncle. His fortune however lay further north and west.


The parish of Cleator in West Cumberland has a long association with industry, in particular the mining of coal and iron ore and the forging of iron, especially for spades. In 1800 Henry Birley started a flax mill there and it prospered initially before closing in the late 1820’s. It then remained derelict until in 1837/8 Thomas Ainsworth bought it and put it back into working order and the industry re-commenced. The works were at first driven by the old but powerful iron waterwheel; this was replaced in time by new steam-driven turbine machinery. Finally the mill was completely rebuilt in 1859 on a monumental scale when it was fitted with every modern improvement. Henry Birley had obtained his flax from Goosnargh near Preston but, as was common throughout the industry from about 1840 onwards, Thomas Ainsworth obtained his supplies of flax from Ireland. He also recruited many female Irish workers as spinners for the mill, thus continuing a trend under which a high proportion of the local population even today are of Irish descent and adhere to the Roman Catholic faith. The business was highly profitable and in time had offices in London and on the Continent. At the Paris Exhibition of 1867, the company had ‘…a very good show of yarns, sewing threads, a large assortment of machine sewing twists, boot webs, tapes etc. all well displayed.’ However greater riches still awaited him.

Nearby Cleator Moor had been enclosed in 1825 and large areas of common land were subsequently allocated to local businessmen such as Thomas Ainsworth. He found new veins of haematite ore under this land as well as the land adjoining his house and, with his characteristic zeal, he built the two earliest smelting furnaces of the Whitehaven Haematite Iron Company on the west side of the Moor in 1842, known thereafter as Cleator Moor Ironworks. It was the first modern-type smelting site to be set into use in the north-west of England. His decision to invest in this new technology and become an ironmaster was underpinned by the fact that a railway running down the west side of Cumberland was first planned as early as 1836, although in fact it was not until 1857 that the through line to the south was completed and much ore had to be taken to Whitehaven by cart until then.

Further Thomas Ainsworth knew from adjacent mining prospects that the seams were rich, so when he began to extract the ore in 1840, it was an immediately profitable enterprise. He was already aware from his flax business that he could obtain plentiful, cheap labour if he required it and so by 1846 he was the most productive mine operator in the district. His Class I haematite ore was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, alongside that of Harrison, Ainslie & Co of Newland near Ulverston, two of only three English exhibitors of this quality of ore, having an iron content of 60-65%. Indeed Henry Bessemer, the inventor in 1856 of the first effective means of mass-producing steel, is said to have relied entirely upon haematite ore mined and processed at Cleator Moor and Workington. The dramatic expansion of these businesses can best be viewed through the Census returns for Cleator Parish. In 1841 the population was 763 but by 1861 it had risen to 3,029 of whom 58% were Irish. The Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in Cleator Moor was built accordingly in 1869-1872 (designed by E.W. Pugin as ‘the third and most spectacular of his west Cumbrian trio’ according to Pevsner), in part financed by the ironmasters including Thomas Ainsworth. Further afield, from 1852 he was in partnership with Alfred Holt as part-owners of the Blue Funnel shipping line based in Liverpool. On the 1871 Census Thomas Ainsworth accordingly described himself as ‘linen manufacturer, iron master, mine proprietor, ship owner and farmer’. The mine employed 200 hands, the manufactory 500 hands and the estate was in excess of 500 acres.

The Flosh, Public Life and Philanthropy

In 1837 Thomas Ainsworth purchased The Flosh in Cleator Moor from the same Henry Birley as had owned the flax mill. It was then a modest house which he promptly substantially enlarged. In 1866 a neo-Elizabethan gabled south wing was then added as well as a castellated porch with gargoyles and a huge Gothic fireplace in the cross-hall (‘monstrously over-designed’ according to Pevsner). The east rooms acquired elaborately moulded and gilded ceilings and overlooked an extensive garden. It passed through the family after Thomas’ death until in about 1938 it was sold to Ennerdale Rural District Council who used it as offices. It is now the Ennerdale Hotel but many of the Victorian features remain. Its size may be gauged by the fact that on the 1881 Census there were twelve servants living in, together with a separate house for the land steward and his family and a further house for the gardener.

Thomas Ainsworth was an active Liberal and his mind was impregnated from an early age with the Free Trade ideas of Cobden, Bright and others of the Lancashire School. Throughout his connection with political affairs in West Cumberland, he remained true to these principles which had shaped his early life. He took a prominent part in the affairs of the local government of Whitehaven, being one of the leaders of the Trustee Board and a Trustee of the Whitehaven Turnpike Roads Board in 1857, was a very active Income Tax Commissioner and a member for Cleator at the Board of Guardians. He supported the Whitehaven Infirmary both financially and with his time. Furthermore he was a JP and High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1861.

Away from his public life in West Cumberland, Thomas Ainsworth was a Unitarian in religion but ‘reckoned all men his friends’. He was a Trustee of the Unitarian Chapel in Kendal from 1833 until 1868 and it is recorded that when he was at his other residence in Ulverston, Summer Hill, on alternate Sundays he rode or drove his carriage to Kendal to worship. He was President of Manchester Unitarian New College in 1860-1863 and gave money for scholarships for poor but clever students there amounting to £100 per year. A keen and able musician, he frequently played the organ in chapels in both Preston and Kendal.

Own Family

On 24th May 1836 Thomas Ainsworth married, in her father’s home church, Mary Laurie Stirling (1808-1867), the daughter of Revd. John Stirling DD (1746-1846) of Craigie in East Ayrshire and a Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Mary Stirling’s elder brother was also Dr John Stirling of Craigie and his son John Stirling (1820-1907) was similarly much involved in the Cleator industrial landscape. His mine at Montreal brought up both coal and iron ore in the same shaft. In 1880 John Stirling built a vast house called Fairburn near Strathpeffer in Ross and Cromarty and there Sir Angus Stirling (born 1933), a future Director-General of the National Trust, spent some of his childhood whilst staying with his grandfather. There is a huge granite fountain bowl memorial by Cleator Moor Library commemorating John Stirling’s golden wedding. Thomas and Mary Ainsworth had five children of whom one son Thomas Hamilton Ainsworth (born 1845) died in infancy and their daughter Mary Alice Ainsworth (1850-1896) married Dr Thomas Sutton Townsend MD (1847-1918) and lived with him and their family at Clifton Manor near Penrith and in London. It is said that her death at the age of only 45 was due to heartbreak at the tragic loss of her youngest brother William in 1891

Their eldest son was David Ainsworth (1842-1906). He was educated at University College, London and Manchester New College (matriculated 1861) before being called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1870. He never practised as a barrister however but returned to West Cumberland to become part of the family businesses of flax manufacturing, iron mining and iron processing. He became a Director of local railway companies in the area and in time he was both a JP and Deputy Lieutenant for Cumberland. He served as MP for West Cumberland in 1880-1885 and again for Egremont in 1892-1895. Like his father, he was an active Unitarian and with his youngest brother William he visited American Unitarian congregations in 1872. He was Treasurer of the British & Foreign Unitarian Association in 1874-1891 and was its President in 1881-1883. Between 1896 and 1900 he was President of Manchester New College. He inherited The Flosh on the death of his father in 1881 and in 1898 he bought Wray Castle near Hawkshead on the western shore of Lake Windermere from Edward Preston Rawnsley, the nephew of Dr. James Dawson (1799-1875) of Liverpool, who had built it in the 1840’s and the cousin of Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920), the co-founder of the National Trust.  David Ainsworth also retained a London household at Pont Street in Chelsea. In 1874 he married Margaret McConnel (1838-1920), the daughter of a Derbyshire cotton spinner. They had no children so upon his death in 1906 she inherited both the Castle and the associated patronage of the living of nearby Low Wray previously held by Canon Rawnsley. On her death in 1920 the estate was broken up and sold, the sale of the contents of the Castle occupying no less than eleven days in July-August that year. The Castle itself was bought by Sir Noton Barclay (1872-1957), shipping merchant, banker and MP, who gave it to the National Trust in 1929. They still own it today and it was opened to the public in 2010. David Ainsworth’s estate at his death on 21st February 1906 was valued at £155,118.

Their second son was Sir John Stirling Ainsworth (1844-1923). He was educated at University College School, London then University College, London (BA 1864, LLB 1866, MA 1868). He also then followed his father and elder brother as an ironmaster in Cleator and in time became a Director of Whitehaven (later Parr’s) Bank and Chairman of the Cleator & Workington Junction Railway until it was absorbed into the LMS in 1923. He was a Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, Border Regiment from 1898 until 1902, in which year he received the Volunteer Decoration. He made his Cumbrian home at Harecroft Hall in Gosforth, which he had built in 1881. He served as a JP for Cumberland, as Deputy Lieutenant of the county and was High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1891. He was a member of CWAAS from 1878 until his death and used his family expertise to the full as a Member of the Royal Commission on Mines in 1910, to the Report of which he was acknowledged to have made ‘a major contribution’.

Sir John Ainsworth also bought the Ardanaiseig estate on the shores of Loch Awe in Argyllshire in about 1880, after which he extensively re-modelled Ardanaiseig House which then became his main residence. There he served as MP for Argyllshire from 1903 until 1918 as well as being a Deputy Lieutenant for that county. On 12th January 1917 he was created Baronet as Sir John Ainsworth of Ardanaiseig. In 1879 he married Margaret Catherine Macreadie (1855-1918), the daughter of Robert Read Macreadie of New South Wales and they had five children, all born in London, although one died in infancy. On Sir John Ainsworth’s death on 24th May 1923, their eldest son Sir Thomas Ainsworth (1886-1971) inherited the title and it remains extant today, now held by the 5th Baronet Sir Anthony Thomas Hugh Ainsworth (born 1962) who however lives in Thailand. Sir John Stirling Ainsworth left an estate valued at £105,134.

Thomas and Mary’s youngest son was William McQuhae Ainsworth (1848-1891) who was educated at the University of London and called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1874. He however became a Unitarian minister firstly at Lancaster (1877-1883) and then Brixton (1884-1891). In 1891 he travelled to the Middle East and disappeared, believed accidentally drowned near Constantinople on or about 27th May of that year. A memorial collection of his sermons, prayers and travel letters was published later the same year. William McQuhae Ainsworth left an estate valued at £78,634. His stipend as a minister would have been modest so this demonstrates, alongside the estates of his brothers, the size of the inherited Ainsworth family fortune by the end of the 19th century.

Later Life

Thomas Ainsworth’s wife had died on 1st February 1867 and he had lived as a widower at The Flosh thereafter, although in delicate health. He was however sufficiently well in the early summer of 1881 to travel to London to visit his eldest son David. There however he fell ill and he died a few days later on 28th June 1881. His will was proved on 12th November that year and his estate was valued at £55,862. The Whitehaven News published a lengthy obituary on 30th June 1881 which described Thomas Ainsworth as:

‘…gifted with nervous, vigorous intelligence, with quick and even subtle apprehension as well as self-reliance. With much force of will and decision of character, by his energetic sympathy with every liberal feeling and movement of the day, he lent a powerful influence to the causes of his life. He was a man of culture and a gentleman.’ He was widely honoured for his ability and character and played a pivotal part in the development of West Cumberland in particular into an industrial powerhouse in the early Victorian era.


  • Bulmer’s History & Directory of Cumberland 1901
  • Burke’s Landed Gentry, Peerage and Baronetage 1924
  • Cambridge University Alumni 1261-1900
  • Census Registers for England 1841-1911
  • CAS(C) WDB 32/13 1920 Sale Catalogue of Capes, Dunn & Co, Auctioneers of Manchester
  • CAS (W) YAIN Ainsworth Family Papers 1819-1940
  • England & Wales Christening Index 1530-1980
  • England & Wales Civil Marriage Index 1832-1911
  • England & Wales Civil Registration Birth Index 1837-1915
  • England & Wales Civil registration Death Index 1837-1915
  • England & Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) 1858-1995
  • England & Wales Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers 1567-1936
  • England, Select Births and Christenings 1538-1975
  • England, Select Marriages 1538-1975
  • Lancashire, England, Electoral Registers 1832-1931
  • Mannix & Whellan History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cumberland 1847
  • National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland 1868
  • Scotland, National Probate Index (Calendar of Confirmations and Inventories) 1876-1936
  • UK City and County Directories 1766-1946
  • Who was Who (OUP Reprint) 2007
  • Davies-Shiel M & Marshall JD Industrial Archaeology of the Lake Counties (1969)
  • Hyde M and Pevsner N The Buildings of England - Cumbria (2010) 297 (Cleator) and 396 (Backbarrow)
  • Kingsley N Landed Families of Britain and Ireland (64) Ainsworth of Backbarrow, The Flosh and Ardanaiseig August 2013  accessed 8th November 2020
  •  Mansergh R The History of Harecroft Hall accessed 10th November 2020
  • Marshall JD Cleator and Cleator Moor: Some aspects of their Social and Urban Development in the mid-19th Century CWAAS Transactions 2nd Series Volume LXXVII (1978) 163
  • Marshall JD Furness and the Industrial Revolution (1981)
  • Advertiser 25 April 1896
  • Bell’s Weekly Messenger 27 October 1857
  • Carlisle Journal 25 June 1867
  • Illustrated London News 21 June 1851
  • Kendal Mercury 24 February 1844 and 18 August 1877
  • London Gazette 13 April 1917 p.3493
  • Times 29 August 1903, 25 May 1923 and 22 December 1923
  • Whitehaven News 26 November 1857, 30 June 1881 and 4 December 1902