Manchester Worthies

Sir Thomas Sowler (1818-1891)



The New Year’s Day elevation of  Thomas Sowler, Esq., of Manchester, Honorary Colonel of the 7th Manchester (19th Lancashire) Volunteer Artillery, and proprietor of the two Manchester Conservative Newspapers, to the rank of Knighthood, is the last imperial honour to Manchester citizenship. As such it is generally regarded. The numerous congratulations which the worthy Knight has received attest a widespread feeling of gratification at the recognition thus accorded by Her Majesty to valued public services and solid business capacity, such as in the practical city of Manchester always attracts admiration, especially when combined with decision of character and unflinching consistency of purpose. No one, however lacking in sympathy with Sir Thomas Sowler’s political principles, will deny to him these qualities ; and he therefore assumes his title amid a chorus of best wishes.

Our admirable portrait, taken from a recent photograph from Messrs. Taylors’ studio, presents Sir Thomas as he is to-day, and as his friends hope long to see him, fit and ready for the numerous duties which devolve upon him in his position of influence and responsibility as the head of a great firm, and for the numerous public duties to which he unsparingly gives his attention.

Sir Thomas has been so long before the public, both as business man and politician, that his career is familiar to the Manchester public. We find from authentic records that he springs from an old family tracing its descent to a Baron Sowler, of Normandy. Ninety years or so ago, the grandfather of the present Knight carried on business as a printer in Hunt’s Bank, Manchester. His only son, Thomas, father of Sir Thomas, succeeded to the paternal handicraft, and from his offices in St. Ann’s Square emanated the first number of the Manchester Courier, on the 1st January, 1825. Like the present proprietor of that influential journal he was a strong upholder of Church and State. He is described as in many ways a remarkable man, and considering the then tendency of local political opinion, and the great outlay of means which was requisite in those days to launch a successful newspaper, it may be recognised that the Sowler courage and determination are qualities cultivated from a good hereditary stock. Old Mr. Sowler had three sons, Robert, Thomas and John, and three daughters. The late Mr. Robert Sowler, the eldest son, was a Queen’s Counsel and Bencher of the Middle Temple, but was better known locally as the genial judge of the County Court for the Salford Hundred. The Courier, which was first published as a weekly newspaper, passed, on the death of his father, into the hands of Sir Thomas and his brother, Mr. John Sowler, who issued it as a daily newspaper on the 1st of January, 1864. It then, like the other Manchester newspapers, only consisted of four pages, but before long it was found necessary to permanently enlarge it to double that size. Occasionally it now extends to twelve or more pages, which barely suffice on Saturdays and other special occasions to compass its large advertisement demands and its copious reports of local and imperial events. On the death of his brother, Mr. John Sowler, in June, 1871, Sir Thomas became the sole proprietor of the Manchester Courier, and. ever ready to meet the requirements of the Conservative party in Manchester and the surrounding district. he in 1874 decided to commence the Evening Mail, the first number of which was issued on the 1st of May in that year. The two papers now stand in the foremost ranks of provincial journals.

Sir Thomas’s connection with the Volunteers dates from the beginning of the “Defence not Defiance” movement, which has had such a remarkable development. He joined the19th Lancashire (now the 7th Manchester) Artillery as a gunner, shortly after took the rank of Second Lieutenant, and successively rose to the grades of Captain, Major, and Lieut.-Colonel Commanding the regiment. This position he resigned in June, 1814, and in that year, on the decease of Colonel John Isaac Mawson, he received the appointment of Honorary Colonel to the regiment.

Sir Thomas (who was educated, as was his father before him, at the Manchester Grammar School) graduated in business at an early age. He made himself thoroughly acquainted with all departments of typographical and newspaper work, and acquired command both of the literary and commercial departments. It may here he mentioned that the first editor of the Courier was Mr. Alaric A. Watts; the present editor is Mr. Iwan E. B. Muller, M.A. The thorough knowledge which Sir Thomas thus attained in his youth proved afterwards of the utmost service to him in the journalistic enterprises he has so successfully conducted. His part in the daily production of his newspapers is not a perfunctory one. No one is more regular at the desk, or more exact in the performance of the everyday duties, and the minutest details of management do not escape his close observation. The highest respect for his judgment and administrative ability is therefore entertained by every member of the numerous staff. The respect in which he is held had been amply demonstrated by the presentations which have been made recently, and by the hearty enthusiasm with which he was received at a recent banquet at Belle Vue, celebrating the coming of age of his eldest son, who is a member of the present firm. A notable tribute to his’ high journalistic position was also paid to him last year, when, on the assembly of the National Association of Journalists in Manchester, he was unanimously requested to allow himself to be nominated as the First President of the Association under the new Charter which has been applied for. a request which he courteously complied with.

Sir Thomas’s services to his party are a political record which does not come within the scope of our paper. Suffice it to say that he fought a memorable party contest for his party in South Manchester in 1886. when he was less than 350 votes behind the present sitting member, Sir Henry Roscoe. He is still the accepted Conservative candidate for the seat, and the chance of his being returned to St. Stephen’s at the next election is deemed by good judges to be exceedingly promising. Though he makes no pretensions to oratorical power he is an earnest and effective speaker, possessing those qualities without which mere oratorical gifts are frequently delusive-clearness, conciseness, and thoroughness- so that his meaning is swiftly and easily comprehended, and the tendency of his thoughts is not confused or concealed by a vague cloud of words. He is therefore exceedingly popular among those who are guided, as he himself is, by real political convictions.

Sir Thomas manages to combine with the active discharge of journalistic work, numerous public and social functions. He is chairman of the Manchester Conservative Association, and of the Conservative Club. He is a director of the Manchester Royal Exchange; director of the Lancashire Insurance Company; chairman of the Plate Glass Insurance Company; a director of the Gentlemen’s Concert Hall, and has been actively associated with many Manchester institutions. He is also a Justice of the Peace for the City. Sir T. Sowler was married in 1866; the present Lady Sowler is a daughter of the late James Yates, Esq., of Manchester. They have four sons and one daughter.

Among the congratulations which have followed the elevation to the Knighthood, the most marked have been those which were tendered at a banquet given in Sir Thomas’s honour at the Conservative Club, on the 24th ult. The Right Hon. A. J. Balfour, M.P., Lord Egerton of Tatton, Mr. MacLure, M.P., Mr. F. S. Powell, M.P., the Right Hon. Sir J. Fergusson, Bart., M.P., Mr. E. Hardcastle, M.P., Sir W. Cunliffe-Brooks, Bart., M.P., Mr. J. W. Sidebotham, M.P., and many others who were prevented from being present, sent complimentary messages. “Never,” said Mr. F. S. Powell, M.P., “was an honour better earned.” Sir W. H. Houldsworth gave eloquent expression to the sentiments of the numerous guests present when he said -” After having borne the heat and burden of the day for fifty years, we are now reaping the fruit of the seed he has sown. Sir Thomas Sowler is a man who possesses many virtues in which some of us are deficient. I know no man who, when differences of opinion present themselves, sees his way more easily through all the difficulties, and goes straight to the main point. I know no one who so easily forgets injuries, personalities, and insults; this has borne its fruit, for Sir Thomas to-day is as much respected by his political opponents as by his friends. If I were to attempt to mention the virtues which belong to Sir Thomas Sowler, I should say, from a ten years’ close knowledge of his character and conduct, that those which have struck me the most are, in the first place, Consistency, in the second place, Independence, and in the third place, Perseverance. These three qualities go to make up a very fine man indeed, and when to these are added a kindliness of heart which can attach itself as closely as Sir Thomas’s has done to friends or opponents, I think we are fully justified in recognising the claims which he has upon our affections, and which go so far to justify the high honour which has been conferred upon him.” The cordial applause which greeted these sentiments testified the hearty concurrence of the assembled guests.

It is permissible to state from facts which have transpired, that nowhere has the honour been the subject of more hearty congratulation than among the numerous employés in the establishment in Cannon Street over which Sir Thomas presides.


Reprinted from Manchester Faces & Places Vol. 1 No. 5 10 February 1890