Background and early life
William Langton was born on 17 April 1803 at Farfield, near Addingham, Yorkshire. He was the second son of Thomas Langton (1770-1838), formerly a merchant in Riga, and his wife Ellen Currer (1766-1846).
He grew up in Ormskirk, Liverpool and Switzerland, and returned to England in 1821 to work for merchant houses in Liverpool and London. For a while he traded in Liverpool on his own account, as agent to various Russian firms, but the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-9 disrupted the Black Sea trade and ruined his business.
In 1829, seeking alternative opportunities, Langton became cashier of the Manchester bank Benjamin Heywood & Co. Benjamin Heywood had recently been left in sole control of the bank, but was in failing health, and so responsibility increasingly fell upon Langton. Langton gradually built up the bank’s business. He planned the construction of a brand-new banking house in St Ann Street, begun in 1848. During these years Langton developed a close relationship with Heywood and his family.
All four of Heywood’s sons became partners in the bank during the ten years after 1847. The arrival of the next generation diminished Langton’s role and authority. Perhaps it was this that prompted Langton to look elsewhere, for in 1854, with Benjamin Heywood’s blessing, he was appointed managing director of Manchester & Salford Bank, a joint stock bank established in 1836 which was based in nearby Mosley Street.
Manchester & Salford Bank flourished under Langton’s leadership, building up its reserves and capital, opening branch offices and erecting a magnificent new head office in Mosley Street. In 1874 Langton negotiated the acquisition of the banking business of his former employer Heywood Brothers & Co.
The rapid industrial growth of Manchester and Salford during the early 19th century and the consequent growth of population caused massive social problems, including poverty, overcrowding, disease and crime. Langton had been associated with the District Provident Society inspired by Elizabeth Fry in Liverpool, and in Manchester gathered support to found the Manchester and Salford District Provident Society in 1833. The aim of the society was to relieve the poor and to teach thrift and self-reliance.
Not content to deal only with the results of poverty, Langton also saw the need to understand the causes of social problems by the collection and analysis of data for social purposes. In 1833, with his friend Dr James Kay (later Sir Kay-Shuttleworth), he founded the Manchester Statistical Society. It was the first organisation in Britain to carry out a house-to-house social survey. Benjamin Heywood became the Society’s first president and Langton its first secretary.
From 1834 Langton was on the board of Manchester Mechanics Institute (founded by Benjamin Heywood in 1824) and in 1836 also took a leading role in the foundation of the Manchester Athenaeum (with Richard Cobden and James Heywood), a facility for the education and recreation of young businessmen. He was also a founding member, later treasurer and secretary, of the Chetham Society (established 1843) and edited a number of the Society’s publications. Following the 1857 financial crisis he also wrote on monetary matters as well as later papers on banking which are reputed to have been influential in government circles. He was one of the first exponents of the concept of the decennial trade cycle.
In 1837 Langton helped establish the Manchester Society for Promoting National Education. A decade later, in 1846, he was secretary of a committee formed to obtain a university for Manchester. The committee was unsuccessful, but inspired John Owens to bequeath funding for Owens College (established 1851), later Victoria University.
On 15 November 1831 Langton married Margaret Hornby, daughter of a merchant from Ribby, Lancashire. They had nine children together:
- Ellen Josephine
- Katherine Elizabeth
- Thomas Leyland, born 20 April 1834
- Alice. In 1853 she married Arthur Henry Heywood, banker son of Sir Benjamin Heywood
- Anna Margaret. In 1858 she married Charles James Heywood, banker son of Sir Benjamin Heywood.
- Henry Currer, born 23 June 1840
- Marian, born c.1842
- William Heywood, born 17 September 1843
- Frances Amelia, born c.1847
Langton, as a result of his connection with Benjamin Heywood’s circle, was at the heart of Manchester society and used his social contacts to promote his charitable activities. The couple also inherited a large fortune upon the death of Langton’s father-in-law in 1832 which gave Langton the financial support he needed for his philanthropic work.
Later life and death
In 1876 blindness forced Langton to retire from the bank. In honour of his retirement £5,000 was raised to fund a memorial Langton fellowship at Owens College. A contemporary at this time noted that ‘He has been identified with almost every local movement that has aimed at the promotion on the behalf of the community of what is noble and useful’.
After retiring, Langton moved to Ingatestone in Essex, where he wrote verse in English and Italian and pursued his genealogical and antiquarian interests. He died on 29 September 1881.
Related publications and online sources
- Anon, ‘William Langton (1803-1881): Banker and Humanitarian’, Three Banks Review, no.59, September 1963
- Anon, portrait in the introduction to Remains Historical and Literary Connected with the Palatine Counties of Lancaster and Chester, vol.110 (The Chetham Society, 1882)
- Leo H Grindon, Manchester Banks and Bankers: Historical, Biographical and Anecdotal, 2nd edition (Palmer & Howe, 1878)
- ‘William Langton’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Summary of our archival holdings
- Business desk diaries of William Langton, 1862-5
- Miscellaneous correspondence of William Langton, 1866-9, 1874-5