John Frederic Schwann, usually recorded 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.
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.
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."
His business partnership with Cornelius Charles Souchay of Frankfurt was dissolved in May 1832.
He married Henrietta Kell, daughter of the Rev. Robert Kell, on 13 November 1834 at Edgbaston. They had six known children:
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. He was the Treasurer of the society (often referred to as "Huddersfield College" in newspaper notices) until at least the early 1850s.
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:
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".
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.
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".
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.
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.
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:
[...] 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.