John Frederic Schwann (c.1799-1882)

John Frederic Schwann, usually named as Frederic or Frederick Schwann, was a cloth merchant and exporter who was instrumental in establishing an educational institution which eventually became the University of Huddersfield.[1]


He was born in Germany circa 1799.

His younger brother Sigismund Schwann had established a business in Huddersfield in the early 1820s whilst John Frederic travelled Europe to make trade contacts. On the evening of 30 August 1828, Sigismund was riding from Halifax to his home at Spring Grove Terrace, Huddersfield, when his horse "took fright at a [wooden] post covered with hand bills" by the Edgerton Toll Bar and bolted out-of-control down the New North Road towards Huddersfield. As he passed Highfield Chapel, Sigismund was flung from the saddle but managed to throw his arms around the horse's neck. An eye-witness saw him cling on for a short distance before the horse stumbled and fell, rolling over the rider several times — "before the man who saw him could get up to the spot to assist the unfortunate gentleman, he was a corpse." He was buried on 4 September at Holy Trinity, Highfield.[2]

Word was sent to John Frederic who travelled to England to take over the running of the business, despite being "unacquainted with the language." However, his "indomitable perseverance enabled him speedily to acquire a competent knowledge of the English language, and likewise to grasp and retain all the necessary details of manufacturing and mercantile transactions."[3]

His business partnership with Cornelius Charles Souchay of Frankfurt was dissolved in May 1832.[4]

He married Henrietta Kell, daughter of the Rev. Robert Kell, on 13 November 1834 at Edgbaston.[5] They had six known children:

  • Frederick Sigismund Schwann (1836-1902)
  • Edward Henry Schwann (1837-1861)[6]
  • Theodore Schwann (c.1839-1909)[7]
  • John Frederick Schwann (c.1841-1925)[8]
  • (Dame) Mary Catherine Barbara Schwann (1842-1940)[9]
  • (Sir) Charles Ernest Schwann (1844-1929)[10]

The 1841 Census records the family residing at Priestroyd House, off Commercial Street, along with four servants and Henrietta's sister Caroline.

In 1841, Schwann helped establish the Huddersfield Young Men's Mental Improvement Society, later to become the Huddersfield Mechanics' Institution and eventually the University of Huddersfield.[11] He was the Treasurer of the society (often referred to as "Huddersfield College" in newspaper notices) until at least the early 1850s.

In February 1844, he spoke at a Huddersfield Peace Society meeting and "gave a graphic and affecting account of the army of Napoleon Buonaparte, which he, when a boy, saw marching through Frankfort on its route to Russia, and its shattered remains on its return from Moscow."[12]

His wife, Henrietta, was instrumental in the founding of the Huddersfield Female Educational Institute in 1846.

A poem by January Searle published circa 1850 described a procession of the Huddersfield Mechanics' Institution from the Railway Station to Kirkless Hall, and contained several lines about Schwann:

Then with his rosy boys, brown-haired and dark
As sun-burnt Cretans, one in either hand,
The noble Founder of the Institute,
With all the sunshine of the solar worlds
In his great heart and brain, leads on the way.
Thrice happy man! beloved, and loving all.
Last night I saw upon his warehouse stair
Dusk lazars, while their sunk and hollow eyes,
Glaring athwart the gloom ; crutched beggars pale,
In looped and drooping rags ; and widows lone,
Hooded in sorrow, with their little ones,
Who, but from him and God, were fatherless.
He, with kind words and liberal hand, supplied,
As is his weekly custom, all their wants,
And sent them home in gladness, blessing him.
I bless him too ; and hail him here to-day,
As who does not? with a most loyal heart.

The lines refer to the fact that as a result of migrations caused by the Irish Famine, Schwann had set up a weekly poor relief facility in one of his warehouses, "personally enquiring into their circumstances, and regularly distributing aid to them with the assistance of his trusted employees".[3]

Following the death of Sir Robert Peel in July 1850, a committee was formed with the intention of raising funds to erect a statue of the former Prime Minister in the town centre. Although it would taken a further 20 years before the plans came to fruition, Schwann was involved with the initial fundraising as the treasurer.[13]

By the time of the 1851 Census, the family had moved to a property at Clare Hill, where they had been joined by Henrietta's unmarried sister Mary.

In 1859, the Huddersfield Improvement Commissioners erected several drinking fountains in the town, including ones at Chapel Hill, outside the Cloth Hall, Bradley Spout and at Seed Hill. Schwann wrote to the Waterworks Commissioners and "volunteered [to fund] the erection of a fountain, to be placed on any site selected".[14]

Henrietta's health began to decline, prompting a move away from Huddersfield. By 1861, the family had moved to the North Houghton Manor at Stockbridge, Hampshire. The 1871 Census records them residing at Gloucester Square, London.

Henrietta Schwann died on 25 March 1877, aged 67.[15]

John Frederic Schwann died on 22 April 1882 at 23 Gloucester Square. His estate was valued at £317,428 12s. 9d., of which £500 was bequeathed to the Huddersfield Mechanics' Institute and Technical School. He was buried on Wednesday 26 April at Kensal Green Cemetery, London, alongside his wife and his second son, Edward Henry Schwann.[16]

The Huddersfield Chronicle reported on a speech given by the chairman at a prize-giving ceremony at the Mechanics' Institute which took place a few days after Schwann's death:[17]

[...] he had that day heard the sad tidings of the death of Mr. Frederic Schwann. Now they might say, who was that gentleman? He would tell them. He was president of that Institution 40 years ago ; he was a teacher of one of the classes ; a gentleman who had taken his share and more than his share of the work of that Institution in its earliest stages. With a large and extended foreign business which was carried on during a time of revolution and turmoil in the Continental States, he found pleasure in teaching in the classes and helping on the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society, which was the seedling of the Mechanics’ Institution. He was a pioneer in the cause of education. He (the speaker) deemed it as one ol the greatest blessings of his life that he was brought to work with Frederic Schwann in the early part of it. He taught them that whatever their hands found to do, to do it with all their might. He did not wait to see what part Parliament or Government would take in the matter, or to consider the contentiens between the Church and dissent, but put his hand to the plough and worked with all his might to promote the education of the working man. He (the speaker) would like them to bear in mind that Mr. Schwann did all that in him lay to leave the world better than he found it. It would have been, he believed, one of the greatest pleasures of his life to have stood here he (the speaker) did, and distribute those beautiful books, and his face would have been lit up with a ready smile as each of them came forward to receive their prizes. He asked them to think of them not only as gilts from the Institution, but as a memento of the life of Frederic Schwann.

In 2016, the University of Huddersfield renamed the Central Services Building the "Schwann Building" in honour of both Frederic and Henrietta Schwann, in recognition of their vital contribution to education in the town.[18]

Further Reading

Notes and References

  1. Most records do not include the name "John", but he is recorded as widower John F. Schwann in the 1881 Census and a report of his marriage in the Worcester Journal (20/Nov/1834) gave his full name. One unverified source gives his birth date as 29 March 1799.
  2. "Melancholy and Fatal Accident" in Leeds Intelligencer (04/Sep/1828). Disturbingly, it was reported that blood flowed from Sigismund's wounds "for some days after death", his head swelled to double the normal size and his body turned "as black as ink".
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Death of Frederic Swann, Esq." in Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (24/Apr/1882).
  4. Leeds Intelligencer (10/May/1832).
  5. "Married" in Worcester Journal (20/Nov/1834). The Rev Kell was at that time residing at Hagley Grove, Edgbaston.
  6. Born 5 September 1837.
  7. Worked as an agriculturalist (1871 Census). Married 1896 in Germany to Johanna Frederika Henrika Weller. Died 11 December 1909 at Munich, Germany. Estate valued at £249,085 10s. 2d.
  8. Worked as a commission merchant (1871 Census) and merchant banker (1901 Census). Married 1869 to Margaret Anne Holland. Died 17 March 1925 at Wimbledon, Surrey.
  9. Named often recorded as Barbara Swann. Married 1868 to Sir Arthur Holland. Died 19 April 1940 at Wimbledon, Surrey.
  10. Born 25 January 1844. Worked as a general merchant (1881 Census) and importer/exporter of metal produce (1911 Census). Married 20 September 1877 to Elizabeth Duncan, daughter of David Duncan of Manchester, at Brook Street Chapel, York. Changed his surname to "Swann" in 1913. Died 13 July 1929. See also Wikipedia.
  11. "Special celebrations to mark 175th anniversary of the University of Huddersfield" in Huddersfield Daily Examiner (21/Mar/2016).
  12. "Huddersfield: Peace Society" in Leeds Times (24/Feb/1844).
  13. "The Peel Monument Committee Final Decision" in Huddersfield Chronicle (31/May/1851).
  14. "Huddersfield" in Leeds Mercury (05/Mar/1859). A further brief note in the Leeds Mercury (07/Apr/1859) implies that Schwann funded the drinking fountain at Chapel Hill.
  15. Some newspapers reported her age as 66.
  16. "Death of Frederic Schwann, Esq." in Huddersfield Chronicle (29/Apr/1882).
  17. "Huddersfield Mechanics' Institute: Distribution of Prizes" in Huddersfield Chronicle (29/Apr/1882).
  18. University of Huddersfield: Building name changes.