Pioneer helped to establish North Yorkshire as a great place to learn

This story was published 20 September 2020

A man who rose from humble beginnings to financial success went on to have a huge impact on the village of Great Ayton and the wider region by investing his wealth back into his home town is being celebrated in the Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters

Photograph of Great Ayton Friends’ School, founded by Thomas Richardson in 1841

The campaign, launched by North Yorkshire County Council and drawing on its County Record Office archives and the work of local history groups, is searching for those figures from the past who define what it means to be Made in North Yorkshire.

Thomas Richardson was born in Darlington in 1771, one of nine children from a humble family. He is known as Great Ayton’s greatest benefactor. His father, Robert Richardson, was a brush maker, and Thomas himself began working as a greengrocer’s apprentice in Sunderland. In the 1790s, Richardson moved to London, and worked his way up from a messenger in the Quaker financial services to become one of the wealthiest bankers in the city.

Richardson put his wealth to good use in the North East; alongside supporting the construction of the Darlington and Stockton railway, becoming a partner in the establishment of the locomotive industry in Newcastle, and being one of the six founders of the Middlesbrough port, he also invested heavily in education and schooling.

Richardson had familial connections with Great Ayton through his father’s mother, Lydia Richardson, so when he retired in 1830 Thomas decided to move to Great Ayton. In the 1840s, he built a home for himself in Great Ayton – Cleveland Lodge, which still exists today.

Representative of the Quaker values of community and equality, Richardson’s greatest legacy is supporting the education of the children of North Yorkshire.

In 1841, he contributed £5,000 of the £6,500 needed to buy the land to establish what was then called the North of England Agricultural School. Richardson’s donation meant the school was able to buy 74 acres of land backing onto High Green in Great Ayton.

The purpose of the school was to provide an adequate education for the children of couples across the North of England who had married outside of the society. Actions such as these showed a shift in attitudes in the Quaker community towards acceptance of mixed marriages.

Ian Pearce, of Great Ayton History Society, said: “The people of Great Ayton owe a lot to the generosity of Thomas Richardson. After he had made his home in the village, he rebuilt the dam in our river after it had been washed away, set up two schools, and built four almshouses.”

Thomas Richardson continued to support the school both financially and through his advice on the curriculum until his death in 1843. He also left money in his will to support the education programmes of the Friends’ society.

In 1854, the school was renamed the Friends’ School, and by 1890 the agricultural element of the school had faded, although learning in the outdoors was still encouraged. As part of their learning and natural history classes, the students regularly went out on walks in the local area, including at nearby Roseberry Topping and Captain Cook’s Monument.

In 1991, the school was renamed Ayton School until its closure in 1997. The Friends’ School building still stands on High Green today, and has more recently been converted into flats.

Today, North Yorkshire’s education services are among the best in the country; pioneers such as Thomas Richardson paved the way for future generations. Richardson had previously founded Great Ayton’s former British School, which is now the Discovery Centre, and the Great Ayton Friends’ School.

The Leader of North Yorkshire County Council, Councillor Carl Les, said: “Thomas Richardson came from a humble background, but worked his way up in the financial services to become a successful banker. The fact that he chose to re-invest his wealth into the county shows much about his character and passion to invest in the future of thousands of children across North Yorkshire.

“We are approaching the end of our sons and daughters campaign, but are still keen to hear nominations for those influential figures who made the county the place it is today.”

Nominations for the Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters can be sent to MadeInNorthYorkshire@northyorks.gov.uk

Ten life stories will be featured in the series, after which the public will be invited to vote to find the greatest son or daughter.

Read more about Thomas Richardson and Made in North Yorkshire.