Hand drawn plan on blue paper showing proposed new site of Owens College off Oxford Road.
Collections Founders and Funders

Murray Gladstone

A blog by Jaden Haynes as part of the Founders and Funders exhibition.

Manchester is known across the world for its rich history. It is the musical centre of Britain, having produced The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Oasis, to name but a few. It is home to two of the most successful football teams – and one of the fiercest rivalries – in the world in Manchester United and Manchester City. It became a 19th century metropolis as the central city in the global cotton trade and is now home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world: The University of Manchester. 

However, like so many other UK cities, Manchester has fallen short in retelling its full history – especially that associated with the enslavement of people of African descent. Whilst renowned for its status as ‘Cottonopolis’ (there is even a bar in Northern Quarter named Cottonopolis), the cotton produced by Manchester relied on enslaved people working the cotton fields. Merchants involved in the cotton trade actively endorsed, supported and relied upon the Transatlantic slavery economy. 

The University of Manchester has deep and direct ties to slavery, including buildings named for benefactors who acquired their fortunes from slave-produced goods. Other notable people who influenced the running of the University gained their positions using money and status acquired through their ownership of enslaved people as well as the supply and ownership of slave trading voyages to West Africa. One of the most important of these slavery-connected founders and funders was Murray Gladstone. 

The Gladstones 

Intimately associated with Owens College was Murray Gladstone. The Gladstone family were originally from Scotland. Its patriarch, Thomas Gladstone, moved to Leith in Edinburgh and set up a successful corn business there. His son, John Gladstone, also traded corn with his partner but sought other businesses he could run alone. He loaned some money to his brother, Robert, who invested in shipping on his behalf. [1]

Due to the Haitian Revolution against slavery, and the excessive cultivation of crops in Jamaica, Britain’s acquisition of Guyana on the northern coast of South America from the Dutch presented an opportunity. The decline in supply from Haiti and Jamaica had driven the price of sugar up in Europe so Robert and John invested in new sugar plantations, relying upon the forced labour of enslaved Africans in this new and profitable colonial frontier which hadn’t yet been cultivated as intensely. 

By 1820, John and Robert collectively held £250,000 worth of investments in the West Indies (just under £17 million in 2021). However, after a quarrel in 1821, their partnership was ended, and the assets of their enterprise were divided between them. Robert went on to found his own East India Trading Venture and was chairman of the Liverpool East India Association. [2]

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 provided for the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. British owners of enslaved African people were compensated in 1838 for their loss of human property, with the Gladstones receiving some of the largest pay-outs. Robert Gladstone was awarded £9,225 16s 5d; whilst John Gladstone, who owned over 2,500 enslaved people, received around £100,000 (the equivalent of £9 million today). The 800,000 formerly enslaved people of the British Empire received nothing. Robert died in 1835, followed by John in 1851, leaving Robert’s son Murray Gladstone to inherit some of his family’s wealth and significance, enabling him to assume an influential position in Owens College. [3]

Building Owens College 

Owens College first opened in 1851 thanks to the bequest of almost £100,000 (the equivalent of £10 million today) from Manchester merchant, manufacturer, and philanthropist John Owens. Its original site was in the former home of cotton printer and political reformer Richard Cobden on Quay Street. The Owens family had been investing in the lucrative cotton-spinning business for almost two decades in the early 19th century and importing slave-grown goods from North and South America, creating a fortune in the process. [4]

By 1864, Murray Gladstone’s prominent social and economic position allowed him to become one of the trustees of Owens College. In a meeting between trustees on 25th January 1865, the condition of the Quay Street building was questioned as overcrowding and inadequate spaces had caused inconvenience and even injuries. By the end of the month, a new buildings committee had been appointed, looking for ways to extend the college. A meeting two years later between trustees, professors and friends of the college, saw the scheme of the extension discussed and received favourably. Murray was a key member of this group, wielding the power to raise funds, plan the extension scheme, locate a site, and endow professorships. 

Minutes from a meeting on 28th December discussing Murray Gladstone’s donation of a plot of land bounded on three sides by Coupland Street, Oxford Road and Burlington Street (OCA/7/1/4/2)

The executive committee continued to discuss sites for the new college. A total of three were suggested but each was ultimately rejected throughout 1867. On 28th December 1867, Murray “Gladstone laid before the meeting a plan of a plot of land, bounded on three sides by Coupland Street, Oxford Road, and Burlington Street respectively, and gave details as to the cost of various portions thereof.” [5] 

Plan drawn of land donated to Owens College by Murray Gladstone upon which the Old Quad, Whitworth Hall, and John Owens Building stand today. From Meeting minutes for Owens College, 28th December 1867 (OCA/7/1/4/2)

By March 1868, Murray himself had “purchased secretly a large and cheap site of about 4 acres in his own name and at his own risk; it contained 19,164 square yards and cost £29,100 – £2.8 million today – forming an oblong plot with a frontage of 127 yards to Oxford Street and extending about 152 yards down Burlington Street on the south and 177 yards down Coupland Street on the north.” This is the location of the contemporary Old Quad, including the John Owens building. Murray was appointed one of twenty-one life governors of the college. [6] 

The Legacy in Today’s University 

The Gladstone family were one of the richest and most powerful in 19th-century Britain. They first amassed their fortune through the businesses of John and Robert Gladstone, who extended their profits in the ownership of plantations in the West Indies. This context underpins Murray Gladstone’s influence in Manchester. His wealth and status were built on the ownership of enslaved people and plantations in the West Indies. Given Murray’s essential financial role in the extension and relocation of Owens College, the now John Owens building is built on land directly funded by slave and plantation ownership. It is physical evidence of the legacy of slavery at the University of Manchester. 


[1] Roland Quinault, “Gladstone and Slavery”, The Historical Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 363-383 – https://www.jstor.org/stable/40264175 

[2] ‘Robert Gladstone’, Legacies of British Slavery database, http://wwwdepts-live.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/1648741604 S. G. Checkland, “John Gladstone as Trader and Planter”, Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1954), pp. 216-229 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2591623 

[3] ‘John Gladstone’, Legacies of British Slavery database, http://wwwdepts-live.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/8961 

[4] “The John Owens Building”, The University of Manchester History and Heritage – https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/history-heritage/history/buildings/john-owens/ James N. Peters, “The University Campus, 1872–1945”, University of Manchester Special Collections Medium blog, 20th September, 2020 – https://medium.com/special-collections/the-university-campus-1872-1945-bf5675c36da3 

[5] Joseph Thompson, The Owens College: its Foundation and Growth; and its Connection with the Victoria University, Manchester (Manchester: J. E. Cornish, 1886). 

[6] W. H. (William Henry) Chaloner and Leonard Behrens. The Movement for the Extension of Owens College, Manchester, 1863-73 Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1973 (found in John Rylands), pp. 8-9. 

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