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John Stowell Kenyon

Epithet: Businessman and local antiquarian (1908-1998)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

In 1998, Stowell Kenyon celebrated his 90th 'birthday. He loved a party, and was determined to share the occasion with friends all over the Isle of Man and northern England. He hosted three separate luncheons: in York with 100, in Ramsey with about 80, and in Douglas with some 50 guests. At each, he rehearsed a small choir of guests to lead the singing of 'Be present at our table, Lord' to the tune 'The Old Hundredth'. Stowell moved around the tables, speaking to everyone, and crowned his efforts with a ten-minute speech full of interest, humour and anecdotes. It was a tremendous shock to those same friends when he died suddenly soon afterwards, but it had been a wonderful farewell.

Stowell Kenyon was a true son of the rectory, his ancestry and environment. His mother was 'born into the Manx Church', her father having been Archdeacon of Man. When Stowell was born his father was the Lancastrian incumbent of a Yorkshire parish at Lepton, near Huddersfield.

After early lessons at home with his mother, Stowell was sent in 1916 to Rossall School but had to leave at sixteen to contribute to family income. He had already attained excellent examination results in Classics and science, a then unusual and demanding combination of subjects.

On 4th January 1925 he set off for Thornes Mill in Wakefield, where he started work at five shillings a week. From 7am to 5.15pm, he was an apprentice learning the processing of knitting wool, and also of company takeovers when his employers, Paton & Baldwin Ltd., amalgamated with John Alloa of Scotland. The firm was building up a successful connection in Tasmania and soon became a worldwide organisation.

After a few months Stowell was transferred to a mill in Hayley Hill above Halifax, ostensibly to further his skills in scouring, carding and combing, but possibly to liaise with two or three recently appointed French-speaking specialist machine fitters. Stowell got on well with them and was able to sort out the inevitable language problems. It must have been noted that he had managerial potential, as he was next appointed temporary replacement for the sick manager of the small Rutland Mill factory, Wakefield. There he met Francis Lowe, then developing a small branch in Shanghai, with whom he established an immediate rapport. Stowell accepted Lowe's offer to work for the company in China; he was only 20 years old, and still feeling in many ways a callow youth.

On his arrival in Shanghai, Stowell found that the branch was indeed a small one, consisting of Mr Lowe, himself, three Chinese typists and a general factotum or 'tea-boy'. But there were plans for a new mill to accommodate 800 workers to meet the business potential of20 to 30 million pounds weight of wool passing through Shanghai each year. Stowell's duties included vast amounts of train travel, throughout China, Hong Kong and Siberia. Lowe died after two years and a senior director travelled out to supervise the building of the new factory. He assured Stowell that whilst at 22 he was too young to be a manager, his turn would come.

One of the houses Stowell frequently visited in Shanghai belonged to a Mr King, vice-chairman of the Shanghai Business Council. It became apparent that he was cautiously regarded as a suitor for Diana, one of four daughters (years later he was to find that he had been described in the visitors book as John IV!)

With the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1932 and the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, some of the European families were evacuated. Part of the King family went to Singapore, but Stowell was able to visit, and he and Diana were married in St Andrew's Cathedral on 29th October 1937.

The births of their children Denis and Celia gave them great happiness, to be interrupted by World War II which enforced the evacuation of Diana and the children; they reached relatives in Australia, but were not reunited with Stowell for several years. In November 1942, Stowell was sent by the Japanese to an internment camp at Pootung where he spent the rest of the war.

On his release in 1945 he returned to the mill, and production on a small scale was re-started before he travelled home in 1946 for the first time in ten years to be united with his family. On 5th April 1947, he returned to Shanghai as the company general manager for the Far East, and he stayed for three more years, long enough to witness the fall of Shanghai to the Chinese Communists.

Stowell Kenyon returned to Britain in 1960, to Darlington, where the principal factory was now situated, and shortly afterwards became chairman of sales, travelling extensively in Europe, America and Africa, and also making nostalgic journeys to China and India. Paton & Baldwin was the largest concern in the woollen industry, but to survive the company had to agree to a merger with J. & P. Coats Limited, Cotton Threads. Stowell was managing director of Coats Paton, as it was now known, from 1965 until his retirement in early 1970, exactly 42 years after becoming an apprentice. In his last position, he had dealings with such prestigious trade names as Courtauld's, Jaeger and Christian Dior.

Stowell himself was always immaculately dressed, and whilst his speech was formal and eloquent, it was leavened with a sense of humour. The early lessons on having to maintain standards on limited resources stayed with him, and he combined personal prudence with generosity to family, friends and charitable organisations.

Stowell had always been proud of his close connection with the Gell and Gill families, and had met at least three of the Gells in China. On the death in 1964 of his cousin, Mary Gell, he bought her house at Cronk Mayn, Ramsey, and when he and Diana left Darlington they moved straight there. He entered the Manx scene with relish, taking on a number of responsibilities. He was choir-master and assistant organist at St Paul's Church, a member of Ramsey Rotary Club and of the golf club, founder president of the new Raven Club, helping with sponsorships, including amateur boxing, and an active committee member and sometime chairman of the Park Crest Residential Home, Bay View. He was also a director of Aristoc (subsequently Ramsey Textiles).

He was a member of the Church Commissioners, and sat on the Industrial Advisory Council and on the Income Tax Commission for three successive periods, each of three years. He was also a member of the Whitley Council.

His most lasting contribution to the community where he spent the last 24 years of a highly active life, was his work as a trustee of the Friends of the Manx Museum. He was treasurer for twelve years before becoming chairman. When the museum was building an extension it was important that a man was in the chair who, with his vast business experience, was not only able to husband resources, but was a tower of support to the museum authorities.

He was very familiar with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose words could well apply to him:

'He was a verray parfit, gentil knyght.'

After the funeral service at St Paul's, Ramsey, his ashes were interred in the Gell/Gill family grave at Malew.

Biography written by Henley Crowe.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.242-4.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: English

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 2 March 1908

Date of death: 30 April 1998

Name Variant: Kenyon, John Stowell, Mr


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