Arnott, Sir John , (1814–98), first baronet, businessman, philanthropist, and politician, was born in Auchtermuchty, Fife, Scotland, on 26 July 1814, the third son of John Arnott (d. 1878), JP, manufacturer, of Greenfield, Auchtermuchty, and his first wife, Elizabeth Paton. Educated at Auchtermuchty school, Arnott was apprenticed to James Russell, a draper in the nearby town of Cupar, before moving to Ireland in his early twenties. Having established with his brother-in-law a business that traded from Glasgow and Belfast, in 1838 he entered into partnership with the Irish drapery house of Cannock & White, based at Patrick Street, Cork. In 1843 the business of Cannock & White was sold and the original two partners opened a drapery store with the same name at 14 Henry Street, Dublin. In the late 1840s Arnott opened his own drapery store at Patrick Street, Cork, and in 1848, when Andrew White died, he became a partner in the Cannock & White Dublin venture. In 1850 he joined Cannock in taking over a Limerick drapery firm that became Cannock & Co. By 1858 the Dublin store had expanded to include numbers 11 to 16 Henry Street, and when Cannock retired in 1865 the business was renamed Arnott & Co. In 1865 Arnott held the largest proportion of equity in the partnership of the Dublin store, with £58,000, but this was reduced in 1876 to £15,000 on account of his other business commitments. In 1871 the Dublin store became a private company, and four years later it was floated on the Dublin stock exchange.
Despite his involvement with the Dublin business Arnott chose to manage his affairs from Cork. The one exception to this was in May 1894, when the Henry Street store was destroyed by fire, resulting in a loss of more than £30,000. Arnott rushed to Dublin and for the next six weeks chaired the board meetings that attempted to solve the short-term problem of where to trade from and the long-term problem of rebuilding the store. A temporary structure was constructed on the site and additional trading space was found at Fitzgerald, Cantwell & Co., wine merchants, in Abbey Street. The board was determined to rebuild the store and Arnott gave his consent to the designs in February 1895.
Although synonymous with the drapery trade in Cork, Belfast, Dublin, Newcastle, and Glasgow, Arnott also controlled other commercial concerns as far apart as London and the West Indies. Throughout his life he sought to advance the industries and develop the resources of Ireland. He was a pioneer in the development of Irish railways, through which he sought to promote the potential of Irish tourism, and was a founder and chairman of the Cork and Macroom railway (c.1860–1898), chairman of the Cork Steam Packet Company, and chairman of the Bristol Steam Navigation Company (1877–96). In 1872 he developed the docks at Passage, where he encouraged, at some initial financial loss, the development of fishing and shipbuilding. He suggested the establishment of a transatlantic steam packet station at Queenstown (Cobh), which came into operation in 1859.
One of the largest employers in the UK, in Co. Cork alone he employed 5,000 women in the manufacture of crochet needlework and also strove to revive the declining trade of cabinetmaking, incurring considerable losses. His enterprises also included a brewery at Glyntown, Cork, which was later taken over by James J. Murphy & Co. In 1861 he established the Cork Park races. For several years he was involved with Lord Howth in the Baldoyle race meeting and was largely responsible for the establishment of the Phoenix Park racecourse in Dublin. In 1873 he purchased the Irish Times for £35,000 from the widow of its founder, Major Laurence Knox, and a year later bought the Belfast Northern Whig newspaper for £17,500, though he disposed of the latter after it published an attack on catholics. He outlined his philosophy for the development of Ireland in a pamphlet entitled An alternative policy for Ireland, published in Dublin in 1886.
Arnott was an independent liberal MP for Kinsale from May 1859 to May 1863, during which time he also served as mayor of Cork for three successive terms (1859–61). His electoral campaign was marked by extravagant expenditure, local wire-pulling, and corruption all round. In 1858 he suggested the establishment of the reformatory school system. As mayor he conducted an investigation into the conditions of the children in the Cork workhouse, a report of which was published in 1859. This report and Arnott's work in the parliamentary select committee were instrumental in the passing of the Irish Poor Law Relief Bill of 1862, which led to the implementation of the practice of boarding out pauper orphans – a system which was introduced into 100 out of the 160 poor law unions of Ireland. During his mayoralty the modern St Patrick's Bridge, the main bridge over the River Lee at Cork, was opened (12 December 1861). The day his term as mayor was completed he was chaired through the streets by the United Trades of Cork proceeded by bands and banners, the most notable of which read ‘Hail Scotia's Son, We claim thee as our own’.
Arnott's immense popularity was due to his philanthropic generosity, which by any standards was prodigious. In 1861 he forced down the price of bread in Cork by 25 per cent by setting up bakeries in competition with the established bakers to help the poor and prove that profit could be made at his reduced price. This venture cost him £5,000, without any return, for when he had achieved his goal he made a gift of his bakeries to those who had helped in their establishment. He carried out the same practice in Limerick with the same result and threatened to do so in Dublin, but did not need to, as the bakers acceded to his point of view. In 1859, when Neapolitan exiles arrived in Cork, he was the first to come to their assistance with aid and shelter. In 1887 he distributed £1,500 worth of quilts and blankets to the poor of Cork. For the last thirty years of his life he gave on average of £1,500 per annum in public charity. Two years before his death he purchased for £250,000 the duke of Devonshire's Bandon estate, where he provided a stud farm for the benefit of his tenants and a public park for the burghers of Bandon. Although he was presbyterian by faith, his largesse was distributed without religious bias. In Dublin he established the Mansion House Coal Fund, built hundreds of houses for moderately paid clerks, and offered to clean the River Liffey.
In 1875 Arnott served as a magistrate, deputy lieutenant, and high sheriff for Cork, and in 1896 was created a baronet. He married 20 January 1852 Mary, daughter of John James McKinlay of Stirling, and the couple had three sons. The eldest, John Alexander Arnott (1853–1940), second baronet, became in 1900 managing director and chairman of the Irish Times, positions he held until his death. Mary died 29 July 1866, and on 7 November 1872 Sir John married Emily Jane, third daughter of Reverend Edward Loftus Fitzgerald, rector of Ardagh, Co. Cork, with whom he had five daughters and two sons, who assumed by royal licence the additional prefix surname of Fitzgerald. Sir John died 28 March 1898 at his home, Woodlands, Montenotte, Co. Cork, aged eighty-four, after six weeks’ illness. At the time of his death he was said to be earning £124,000 per annum, the value of his estate being £656,268. Arnott Street in Dublin was named after him.