Made in North Yorkshire: Thomas Richardson

We are proud to present the next Great North Yorkshire Sons and Daughters nomination, Thomas Richardson. Described as ‘Great Ayton’s greatest benefactor’, Richardson was a Quaker who dedicated his life to supporting the education of the working classes across the north, or children of Quaker couples who had married outside the faith.

Copy of the portrait of Thomas Richardson in the Friends’ Meeting House, Great Ayton
EF 486/015 Great Ayton Friends’ School, founded by Thomas Richardson in 1841

Early life

Thomas Richardson was born in Darlington in 1771, one of nine children of a humble family. Thomas’ 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.

In October 1799, Thomas Richardson married Martha Beeby, a Quaker from Allonby in Cumberland. They married in London, and had no children.

ZFA Thomas Richardson’s marriage certificate to Martha Beeby, dated 15th October 1799

The greatest benefactor

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. As such, upon his retirement in 1830 Thomas decided to move to Great Ayton. In the 1840s, Richardson built a home for himself in Great Ayton, Cleveland Lodge, which still exists today.

EF 486/013 Great Ayton with Roseberry Topping in the background

Great Ayton friends’ school 

In 1841, Thomas Richardson 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 purchase seventy-four 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.

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.

ZFA Photograph of students on a school walk to Roseberry Topping. Taken from the 1952 Great Ayton Friends’ School prospectus

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

Collection ZFA

The North Yorkshire County Record Office holds the Great Ayton Friends’ school archive (Ref: ZFA), the records of which detail day to day life at the Friends’ school.

The collection includes several copies of the Great Ayton Friends’ school magazine, ‘The Beckside’, which began in 1910, with an edition released on a quarterly basis. Each edition had a different front cover, some of the designs for which can be seen below.  

The ‘Beckside’ magazines are a great documentation of the events and changes to the school over its long history.

Other key events were recorded in the student diaries, where a student was nominated to write a daily account of school events. The earliest held at the North Yorkshire County Record Office dates back to 1886, some extracts from which can be seen below.

Some of the later diaries show how the school changed and adapted to world events such as the Second World War. They also give an account of the social history of the school and broader region.  Examples of extracts from the diary from the Second World War can be seen below.

Other donations

Alongside funding the Friends’ School in Great Ayton, Thomas Richardson also supported the Friends’ School in Wigton, the neighbouring town to Allonby in Cumberland, where his wife, Martha Beeby was from. Once he had set up the Friends’ school in Great Ayton, he tried to find ways to support the education of the children of the village outside of the faith. In 1842, he helped to fund the opening of the British School in Great Ayton, which focused on helping poor children from the village and surrounding area. He was also responsible for rebuilding the waterfall in Great Ayton.


We spoke to Ian Pearce, of Great Ayton History Society, to learn why Thomas Richardson was a Great North Yorkshire Son, he 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.”

Richardson had an undeniable impact on the village of Great Ayton and the wider region through choosing to invest his wealth back in his home county. Representative of the Quaker values of community and equality, Richardson’s greatest legacy is supporting the education of the children of North Yorkshire. Today, North Yorkshire’s education services are amongst the best in the country; pioneers such as Thomas Richardson paved the way for future generations.

We would like to thank to the members of the public, and particularly the Great Ayton local history group for their support and insight into the life of Thomas Richardson.

Further information

If you would like to find out more about Thomas Richardson and his importance in North Yorkshire, the North Yorkshire County Record Office holds two related collections: ZAO, Thomas Richardson’s papers and ZFA, Great Ayton Friends’ school. More information can be found on our online catalogue.

The Great Ayton local history society has a website with many useful articles relating to Thomas Richardson’s life in Great Ayton.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography also has a biography of Thomas Richardson.

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