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date: 22 March 2023

Reynolds, Richardfree


Reynolds, Richardfree

  • Barrie Trinder

Richard Reynolds (1735–1816)

by Samuel Percy, c. 1810

Reynolds, Richard (1735–1816), ironmaster and philanthropist, was born on 1 November 1735 in Corn Street, Bristol, the only son of Richard Reynolds (d. 1769), iron merchant of Bristol, and his wife, Jane Dunne or Doane. He was the great-grandson of Michael Reynolds of Faringdon, Berkshire, one of the first converts to Quakerism. He was educated at Thomas Bennet's Quaker boarding-school at Pickwick, Wiltshire, and on 18 August 1750 was apprenticed to another Quaker, William Fry, grocer, of Castle Street, Bristol. He took up his freedom of the city of Bristol, which he claimed as the son of a freeman, on 14 May 1757. He married, on 20 May 1757, Hannah (1735–1762), daughter of Abraham Darby (1711–1763), with whom he had a son, William Reynolds (1758–1803), and a daughter, Hannah Mary (b. 1761), who married William Rathbone in 1786. His second marriage on 1 December 1763 was to Rebecca (d. 1803), daughter of William Gulson of Coventry, with whom he had three children, Richard (b. 1765), Michael (1766–1770), and Joseph (1768–1859).

Reynolds moved to Shropshire in October 1756 as representative of the Bristol merchant Thomas Goldney, who had investments in the ironworks at Coalbrookdale and Horsehay, in which his partner was Abraham Darby II. In 1757 Reynolds took a one-third share of a new ironworks at Ketley, 4 miles from Coalbrookdale, together with Darby and Goldney. After his marriage he initially lived at Ketley, but he moved to Coalbrookdale in 1763 on the death of his father-in-law. He returned to Ketley in 1768, but again removed to Coalbrookdale in 1789. Gradually he bought up the Shropshire interests of the Goldney family, and extended his own property holdings, buying the manor of Sutton Maddock in 1776, and the manor of Madeley in 1780. In consequence he became the principal landlord of the Coalbrookdale Company. The affairs of the company in the 1770s and 1780s are not well documented, but it is evident that there were times when only Reynolds's financial resources, derived from his interests in Bristol and elsewhere, kept it from collapse. In 1789 the partnership owed him £20,000 and in December 1793 he advanced a further £4000 to keep the company in business.

Reynolds encouraged the experiments in 1766 of the brothers Thomas and George Cranage, who attempted to forge pig iron into wrought iron in a reverberatory furnace, using coal as the fuel, a process similar to that developed successfully by Henry Cort after 1784. The railway network associated with the Shropshire ironworks was extended in Reynolds's time, and the first use of iron rails in 1767 appears to have been his responsibility. Reynolds was one of the first ironmasters to install Boulton and Watt engines at his works, making an agreement with Boulton and Watt in December 1777 to construct new engines at Ketley.

Reynolds maintained a curiously distant relationship with the project to build the Iron Bridge across the Severn at Coalbrookdale, allowing his brother-in-law Abraham Darby to put his capital at risk. Reynolds held five shares in the bridge for just a month in 1778, and in 1781–2, after the bridge had been completed, he bought the holding of Abraham Darby III, which in due course he passed to his daughter, Hannah Mary Rathbone.

In 1784–5 Reynolds was prominent among the opponents of a proposed tax on coal, arguing that it would have a detrimental effect on the iron trade, and in 1785 he became a member of the United Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain. He reputedly refused government orders for armaments, although some sources suggest that cannon continued to be manufactured at Coalbrookdale in the period of his management, as they had been during the 1730s and 1740s. He passed his shares in the Ketley and Horsehay works to his sons in 1789, and in 1794 the name of the Coalbrookdale partnership was changed from Richard Reynolds & Co. to William Reynolds & Co. He remained resident at Coalbrookdale, but on 30 March 1803 his wife died, and the following year he settled in James' Square, Bristol.

Reynolds's letters show that he was a seasoned traveller. He was often in London, Liverpool, and Bristol, and visited such sites as the duke of Bridgewater's canal and coal mines at Worsley and Josiah Wedgwood's factory at Etruria. Among his other friends were James Watt, John Howard, John and Mary Fletcher of Madeley, James Montgomery, William Roscoe, MP, and John Wilkinson. Reynolds showed signs of impetuosity in his youth, and even considered a military career, but in his twenties it was remarked that he 'dropped into the sober and steady rut of the Society [of Friends]' (S. Smiles, Industrial Biography, 1863, 85). He was nevertheless an enthusiastic horseman, and took a gun on country walks. His character in adult life was marked by caution and discretion. Joseph Banks described him in 1767 as 'a Quaker who seemed Particularly Careful of his Speech' (Trinder, 1988, 28–9). A memorialist commented that 'he held little conversation on trifling subjects as his mind was generally taken up with things of importance' (Excitements Held out to Mankind, 8). He was active in the affairs of the Society of Friends, attending the society's yearly meetings, wearing the traditional Quaker dress, and accompanying several American Quakers on tours of England. He was described by one former employee in Shropshire as 'a Quaker—not a thin, withered, crotchety disciple of George Fox, but a full-fed Quaker, fair and ruddy, with eyes of blue that gave back the bright azure of the sky and lightened up a fine and manly face' (Randall, 293).

Reynolds enjoyed rural scenery, and organized picnics on the Wrekin and Benthall Edge for his senior workers and their families. During the 1780s he laid out on Lincoln Hill on the eastern side of Coalbrookdale a network of ‘sabbath walks’ for the recreational use of his workers. Having a Quakerly concern for good works, he provided generously, but without ostentation, for many deserving causes and individuals and dispensed his philanthropy anonymously. During the grain crisis of 1795 he supposedly spent £20,000 in the relief of poverty. He took a prominent role in the anti-slavery movement, and also encouraged the foundation of Sunday schools in 1786. A Reynolds Commemoration Society was formed in Bristol on 2 October 1816 to continue his philanthropic works. Reynolds died during a visit to Cheltenham on 10 September 1816, following a biliary obstruction, and was interred in the Quaker burial-ground at the Friars, Bristol, on the 18th.


  • H. M. Rathbone, Letters of Richard Reynolds with a memoir of his life (1852)
  • B. Trinder, The industrial revolution in Shropshire, 2nd edn (1981)
  • Mrs E. Greg, ed., Reynolds-Rathbone diaries and letters, 1753–1839 (privately printed, London, 1905)
  • J. Randall, History of Madeley, ed. B. Trinder, 2nd edn (1975)
  • A. Raistrick, Dynasty of iron founders: the Darbys and Coalbrookdale (1953)
  • B. Trinder, The Darbys of Coalbrookdale, 4th edn (1993)
  • B. Trinder, ed., The most extraordinary district in the world, 2nd edn (1988)
  • N. Cossons and B. Trinder, The iron bridge: symbol of the industrial revolution (1979)
  • Excitements to beneficence, held out to mankind in the character and example of Richard Reynolds, esq. (1817)
  • M. P. Hack, Richard Reynolds (1896)
  • G. Pryce, A popular history of Bristol (1861)
  • private information (2021) [Sean Bottomley]



  • S. Percy, wax bust, 1810, NPG; repro. in European Magazine (Feb 1817) [see illus.]
  • W. Sharp, line engraving, pubd 1817 (after W. Hobday), BM, NPG
  • portrait, 1896; in possession of William Gregory Norris of Coalbrookdale, 1896
  • S. Bellin, engraving (after W. Hobday), repro. in H. M. Rathbone, Letters of Richard Reynolds with a memoir
  • Bottomley, engraving, repro. in Excitements to benevolence
  • W. Hobday, portrait; in possession of J. B. Braithwaite, London, 1896
  • G. Meyer, engraving (after wax bust by S. Percy)

Wealth at Death

under £60,000: probate, TNA PROB 8/209; lands and buildings in Bawdrip and Moorlinch, Somerset, Madeley, Shropshire and in Worcestershire: will, TNA PROB 11/1585/170

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