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Robert Milligan

Robert Milligan 1786 – 1862

First Mayor of Bradford 1847 – 48 and MP for Bradford 1851 -57

Researched and written by Stuart Firth

Robert Milligan by Appleton & Co

Robert Milligan was one of the most prominent members of the Bradford community in the mid nineteenth century. The Bradford Observer suggesting he “probably contributed more than any other man of his time to the material prosperity of the town of Bradford.”1 Born in Scotland to tenant farmers John Milligan and Elizabeth Charters. He moved to Yorkshire in 1802, travelling the district as a travelling Scotchman before finally settling down in Bradford in 1808.

Initially establishing a retail drapery business in Westgate, he then launched a wholesale drapery trade before entering the more comprehensive business of stuff merchant from premises in Picadilly. As the business prospered Henry Forbes, Nathaniel Briggs and John Venimore Godwin were taken into partnership; the firm acquired a leading position in the merchant trade of Bradford.

Milligan & Forbes Warehouse built in the Palazzo style and opened in 1853.

Between 1837 and 1840 Milligan was involved in a development which, according to Gary Firth, completely transformed the Bradford trade.2 Milligan worked with Henry Ripley to develop a method of dyeing animal and vegetable fibres together, thus making it possible to use cotton warps and worsted wefts in a single fabric, ‘Orleans’ cloth. To Milligan and Ripley this development brought great wealth but to Bradford it brought the possibility for diversified product lines and skyrocketing profits.3 As Koditschek states “The ensuing revolution enriched the entrepreneurs who pioneered it and brought prosperity to the rest of the community with new products, new wealth, and new jobs.”4

Milligan married Phoebe Briggs on 17 August 1818 in Guiseley. She was the sister of his business partner Nathaniel Briggs. The couple did not have any children but did adopt Milligan’s niece Susan (1813 – 1886), Susan married Henry William Ripley. The Milligans lived at Acacia, Rawdon from 1833; an estate of 120 acres which had belonged to Richard Fawcett, a Bradford wool merchant. He had given a charge on the Acacia property to the Bradford Banking Company, of which Milligan was a founder and director, and when Fawcett defaulted, Milligan’s fellow directors offered Acacia to him. Initially he refused on the grounds that he could not afford the property, but the others suggested he was the one man who could afford it.5

By birth Milligan was a Congregationalist and it was his membership of this group in Bradford which saw him emerge as a civic and cultural leader. Bradford was a nonconformist town; the 1851 Bradford Census of Religious Worship states that 68% of worshippers were nonconformists, including 13.1% who were Congregationalists. Amongst the seven most nonconformist towns in England, Bradford had easily the largest proportion of Congregationalists.6 This group had emerged as the most powerful and prestigious religious group in the town and continued to hold that position in 1851. They had taken on and defeated the Reverend Dr Scoresby who despite his determination to levy Church Rates had conceded defeat to the group who had shown absolute defiance; Milligan and Forbes had their goods seized for non-payment of Church rates as did the Illingworth family. Their victory is described by Jowitt as the issue which “…bestowed a form of legitimacy upon the Liberal nonconformist elite.”7

Horton Lane Congregationalist Chapel

The focal point for this group was Horton Lane Congregationalist Chapel and analysis of the regular worshippers reveals the group who dominated Bradford in the middle of the nineteenth century; Robert Milligan was the first Mayor in 1847-8 and MP for Bradford 1851 – 57, Titus Salt was Mayor in 1848-9 and MP 1859-61, Henry Forbes was Mayor in 1849-50, William Byles was the Editor of the Bradford Observer, Samuel Smith was Mayor 1851 -4 and Henry Brown was Mayor 1856 – 9. Clearly this group, to which Milligan was a central and respected figure, were key to the development of mid nineteenth century Bradford. It has been suggested that their most impressive political achievement had been their successful campaigns for the incorporation of the borough and the suspension of local church rates.8

In 1867 the Bradford Review stated, “Their influence (the Congregationalists) very largely moulded the tone of the community9 One strategy was to establish a newspaper which could represent their views and further their influence. The Bradford Observer was founded in 1834 by a consortium of radical Liberals; led by Robert Milligan, Daniel and Titus Salt, Henry Forbes, Edward and Henry Ripley, James Cosens, Thomas Aked and Christopher Waud, who were all leading manufacturers.

The paper was a political as much as a financial venture. The managing Committee of the paper were representatives of a group who were starting to become politically, economically and socially important in Bradford. Radical in politics and dissenting in religion. “The newspaper was to be a means of reinforcing the influence which they felt their economic power befitted them.”10 William Byles, the editor, was to become a close friend of Milligan and when the paper began to struggle financially in 1838 Milligan, Forbes and other manufacturers subsidised the paper.

Milligan, like his friends Salt, Ripley and Holden enjoyed great success and amassed considerable wealth but showed no interest in adopting the life of a gentleman. Rather than retire to a life of leisure, this group remained in business long after their fortunes were made because they saw themselves as public benefactors performing socially useful roles.11 In Milligan’s case this role involved a range of activities; Chairman of the Caledonian Society formed in 1836, he was a director of the Mechanics Institute, was selected as a local delegate to an annual conference of the Anti- Corn Law League and became a member of its council, and was a member of the group that formed the Bradford Amicable Book Society in 1833. Milligan was one of the thirteen businessmen behind the idea for the Bradford Cemetery Company (Undercliffe Cemetery) and he donated £1000 towards the creation of Peel Park, to demonstrate his appreciation of the repeal of the Corn Laws by Sir Robert Peel. In Rawdon Milligan founded and financed a school which provided infant children with a basic education but also taught them skills in weaving, knitting and boot and shoe repairs, which it was hoped would help them eventually to make a living. Milligan and Forbes also financed the Congregational Chapel, Sunday School and manse (now Trinity Church) on New Road Side.12

In 1837 he took on a less successful role as a Bradford Guardian to the new Poor Law. The view of Milligan and his fellow Liberal manufacturers was summed up by the Bradford Observer, concluding that “the law was an inevitable concomitant of progress and would only be resisted by fools and reactionaries.”13 This was not a view shared by the workers, an angry crowd of six thousand gathered and attacked the courthouse. When this was repeated two weeks later the hussars were called and the Riot Act was read; the mob battled with the hussars for two hours and despite many injuries it was deemed miraculous that nobody was killed. In the Guardian elections of 1839 the ratepayers rejected the Liberal Guardians and replaced them with Tories who would hold those positions for the next seven years; the Guardians who were rejected included Robert Milligan, Titus Salt, Daniel Illingworth and Henry Forbes. Opposition towards the Bradford Observer over this issue saw the paper struggle financially and in 1838 Milligan, Forbes and others had to provide financial support to keep the paper in business.

Although he was not a native of Bradford, Milligan had made his fortune in the town and was a driving force in attempts to improve the town which resulted in the incorporation of the borough in 1847. William Cudworth suggesting “As a citizen, Mr Milligan ever manifested a practical interest in the well-being of the town and its various institutions”14 At the very first Council meeting on 18 August 1847 Milligan was elected alderman of the borough, representing the West Ward, and he was one of three gentlemen who were proposed for the role of Mayor. Evidence of his standing within Bradford is supported by the fact that the other two candidates, William Rand and Titus Salt, retired from the contest when they realised the strength of support for Milligan amongst the new town councillors.15 As Mayor Milligan also had the role of Chief Magistrate.

The first full year of Milligan’s Mayoralty was a difficult one for the town of Bradford. The new Council was eager to make progress on several fronts, but paramount was concerns about levels of pollution in the air and in the Beck. Action was urgently needed but the work of the Council was hindered by the number of Bradford residents living in poverty; in March 1848 5500 people were in receipt of weekly parochial poor relief and this figure included only 628 able bodied males and 929 able bodied females.16 The plight of working families was not much better with the poorest workers, the Woolcombers, living and working in dreadful conditions.17 The Woolcomber’s Report (1845) described conditions in Nelson Court; “The visitors cannot find words to express their horror of the filth, stench and misery which abounds in this locality…” 18 The population continued its rapid growth, increasing by more than 90 000 in the first half of the nineteenth century. The 1851 Census confirming that three quarters of the town’s population were born elsewhere. An increase which placed greater pressure on the fledgling council and Mayor. These were long term challenges with no easy solutions and Milligan and the council would be tested.19

The difficulties endured by the residents of Bradford would perhaps explain why there was so much support for the Chartist agitation of 1848. Whilst in many ways the Liberal elite of the town demonstrated a social conscience, the fact remained that their comfortable lives were far removed from those that lived and worked in the town, and the Woolcombers were heavily involved in this agitation. There was Chartist activity in February, May and June of 1848. In both May and June citizens of Bradford fought pitched battles with the police and military forces were needed to disperse the Chartists, who numbered 15 000 according to their leader George White.20

Milligan, who was also Chief Magistrate, faced strong criticism from the Tory magistrates who accused him and his liberal municipal authority of inaction. Milligan’s dilemma was a desire to maintain good relations with the workers whilst also demonstrating that they could fulfil their newfound responsibilities as a governing elite. A combination of police intelligence which warned of increased violence being planned, and a boast from White that he had no fear of an official crackdown in Bradford seemed to stir Milligan into action. On June 5 a force of 1500 marched from the courthouse, headed by policemen who were followed by special constables and a contingent of dragoons at the rear, to the slums of Manchester Road. Leading the charge were Tory magistrate Joshua Pollard and Mayor Milligan. After a pitched battle in which neither police nor special constables were able to gain control of the crowd, order was restored by the army and the Chartists disappeared down the warren of alleys that they knew so well.21 Few arrests were made and perhaps miraculously, no one was killed. The Chartist threat rumbled on for a while longer, but this was essentially their last hurrah in Bradford.

In November of 1848 Milligan’s term as Mayor came to an end and he was succeeded by Titus Salt. At the dinner held to commemorate his term in office at the George Hotel he was praised for his “virtues and excellencies as a private gentleman and as a public character”22. In the case of the latter the gathering were celebrating his contribution as both Mayor and Chief Magistrate. In response Milligan admitted that his duties in both roles had been difficult, irksome and arduous but thanked his friends present, and those across the borough, for their support and assistance. At his final meeting as Chief Magistrate HW Wickham Esq. stated “that during the whole time in which he has exercised his judicial functions, he has discharged them in a manner not only creditable to himself but extremely beneficial to the borough at large.23

His political career continued, however, when in 1851 he was elected as MP in place of the deceased William Busfield. He was re-elected in 1852 and served as MP until 1857, voting always with the Liberal Party, but he appears to have been one of the least active MPs in Parliament. According to Hansard records in the six years he served as MP he made not one contribution to debates in the House of Commons and David James has suggested that “Milligan proved unsuited to life at Westminster, had little talent for platform speaking and tended gently to lose the strong political views that had helped him get elected.”24

When Robert Milligan died on 1 July 1862 Bradford had lost one of its most prominent citizens. In announcing his death the Leeds Mercury described him as a “constant and liberal supporter of the useful and charitable institutions of Bradford, and by his removal the town has sustained a great loss.”25 Cudworth suggested that Milligan, more than any other man of his time, represented the growth of Bradford and feels that he deserved the distinction of a public funeral.26 All shops and businesses were closed, and the processional route was lined by mourning crowds of Bradfordians. His carriage was pulled by six black horses and was followed by representatives of Bradford Corporation, the Board of Guardians and local magistrates. Friends, policemen and employees came next. There were male relatives and several gentlemen. Following a long eulogy Robert Milligan was laid to rest.27 In the following week a poetic tribute to Milligan from Malcolm Ross of Manningham appeared in the Bradford Observer;

How rare to see so much of honour won In health and strength, amidst a world of strife! A rich example of a well-spent life, With heaped-up honour when the race is run.

This good man dies, ripe with benevolence, And leaves a name unstained by worldly cares, A goodly heritage to all his heirs, And still his passport on his journey hence.

Now that his labours here have reached their end, How sadly vacant seems the place to be He filled amongst us, while in him we see The upright citizen, the people’s friend.

Throughout the record of his life, which teems With patriotic and with Christian deeds, A lesson’s vouchsafed which sublimely pleads To those whose virtues fade away in dreams.

Not for his wealth, which grew by prudent care, And patient toil, and honest-hearted thrift. But for his gen’rous nature, crowning gift, The grief for such a loss so many share.

This is our boast: the world is blest with those Whose selfishness is buried in the shade Of noble actions: one such now is laid, Alas, where frienship’s term on earth must close.

Peace to his ashes! May we humbly tread The path he trod of rectitude and peace, So that our names, when our life task shall cease Shall rank among those of the honoured dead.28

Two years later his monument, a twenty feet tall pillar of polished granite which was described in detail by The Dumfries and Galloway Standard, having been seen in the granite polishing yards of William Keith Jr in Aberdeen.29

Delve into the history of mid nineteenth century Bradford and its institutions and the name which features as much, if not more than any other, is Robert Milligan. His is the story of Bradford in the period of its most rapid growth and change. It is fitting that he rests in Undercliffe Cemetery beneath a monument that demonstrates the success of a penniless Scotchman who became a very wealthy man, a staunchly religious liberal radical who contributed so much to his adopted town in one of the most challenging periods in its history. Robert Milligan was respected, and his life celebrated by his fellow citizens, a testimony to a great (adopted) Bradfordian.

The Milligan Monument contains this epitaph:

The Milligan Monument 30

In memory of Robert Milligan of Acacia Road, Rawdon. Born in Scotland he became a resident in Bradford in 1808. His talents and industry guided by integrity and honour raised him to high distinction as a merchant. He was the first Mayor of Bradford in 1847. He represented the town in two successive parliaments with fidelity and distinction. He was generous and warm hearted in his hospitalities, liberal in his support of religious and other benevolent institutions. He departed this life in faith and hope of the gospel July 1, 1862 aged 75.

You can find Robert Millighan’s monument using the what3words App and website. Follow this link and select satellite view.  Click Here.    If you are using the App on your phone type in crew.gravy.refers in the search box.


  1. Bradford Observer, July 3, 1862
  2. Firth Gary, The Bradford Trade in the Nineteenth Century in Bradford edited by DG Wright and JA Jowitt (Bradford Libraries 1982) p15 Victorian.
  3. Koditschek Theodore, Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society, Bradford 1750 – 1850 (Cambridge 1990) p231
  4. Ibid p231-2
  5. Willcock D C, A History of Rawdon, Person, Places and Prejudices, Aireborough and Horsforth Museum Society, 2000
  6. Jowitt Tony, The Pattern of Religion in Victorian Bradford in Victorian Bradford edited by DG Wright and JA Jowitt, (Bradford Libraries 1982) p45
  7. Ibid p42
  8. Wright David, The Second Reform Agitation 1857-67 in Victorian Bradford edited by DG Wright and JA Jowitt, (Bradford Libraries 1982) p168
  9. Bradford Review, 9 November 1867
  10. James David, William Byles and the Bradford Observer, in Victorian Bradford edited by DG Wright and JA Jowitt, (Bradford Libraries 1982) p118
  11. Koditschek Theodore, Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society, Bradford 1750 – 1850 (Cambridge 1990) p233
  12. Aireborough Historical Society website
  13. Ibid p334
  14. Cudworth William, Historical Notes on the Bradford Corporation (FB &c Ltd 2015) p113
  15. Ibid p106
  16. Ibid p112
  17. The Bradford Woolcombers Report, 1845
  18. Ibid p7
  19. Hunt EH, British labour History 1815-1914 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1981
  20. Bradford Observer June 29 1848
  21. Koditschek Theodore, Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society, Bradford 1750 – 1850 (Cambridge 1990) p560-561
  22. Bradford Observer November 9 1848
  23. Ibid
  24. James David, William Byles and the Bradford Observer, in Victorian Bradford edited by DG Wright and JA Jowitt, (Bradford Libraries 1982
  25. Leeds mercury 3 July 1862
  26. Cudworth William, Historical Notes on the Bradford Corporation (FB &c Ltd 2015) p114
  27. Clark Colin & Davison Reuben, In Loving Memory, The Story of Undercliffe Cemetery (Sutton Publishing Limited 2004) p90-91
  28. Bradford Observer 10 July 1862
  29. Cox Sheila, The Travelling Scotchmen: The Milligans of Dumfriesshire and Yorkshire (The Bradford Antiquary Vol 3 Series III 1987)
  30. Author’s own collection

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