Richardson, John Grubb (1813/15–1890), linen manufacturer and philanthropist, was second son among seven sons and three daughters of James Nicholson Richardson and Alicia Richardson (née Grubb); he was a grandson of Jonathan Richardson (qv) (1756–1817). The Richardson family belonged to the Society of Friends and had a long-lasting involvement with the linen manufacture of the north of Ireland. John Grubb Richardson was sent at eleven to the famous school at Ballitore, Co. Kildare. He also attended the quaker school in Frenchay, near Bristol, and, though he had wanted to become a barrister, entered the family business. He was the most energetic and ambitious of an energetic and ambitious family; all seven brothers were involved in the business – one in Liverpool and one in America – as agents for linen sales. When the family decided to expand its operations to include flax spinning and linen manufacture, John Grubb Richardson was unwilling to be responsible for a workforce in a large town like Belfast, so he sought a rural location where quaker ideals of social service, and the practicalities of exerting social control, could readily combine with economic advantage. A derelict mill at Bessbrook, on the Camlough river in Co. Armagh, was bought in 1845; it had belonged to relatives, the Nicholsons, one of whom, Joseph Nicholson, had received a grant from the linen board in 1827 to establish a spinning mill. In 1845 large factory buildings were built from local granite, housing was provided, and eventually around 3,000 people worked for the Richardsons in Bessbrook and its satellite factory, Craigmore. Spinning began in 1847, and the firm was one of the first companies locally to introduce power looms from 1852. Damask weaving began in 1867; in 1869 Henry Barcroft (qv) invented a damask loom called the Bessbrook machine, which tripled capacity. From 1863 John Grubb Richardson was the sole owner of the whole enterprise, and in 1878 the company was reformed as the Bessbrook Spinning Co. Ltd, with Richardson as chairman.
He had believed since boyhood that it was an employer's sacred duty to look after the welfare of those around him; consequently, though the provision of accommodation for one's workforce was not a novelty in Ulster, the seriousness with which the company took its responsibilities was. The workers’ houses, though small, were a great improvement on what had been available before for working people, and the village was consciously planned to optimise well-being and social cohesion, with central squares, gardens, and allotments. Richardson particularly disliked and feared the effects of alcohol on behaviour and prosperity, so no pubs were allowed; instead, over the years, facilities for various sports were provided. Other community amenities were supplied, both in Richardson's day and by his successors, and it was the village's boast for many years that they had no need of the ‘three Ps’; public house, pawnshop, and police. Bessbrook provided inspiration for other model villages – several of which were set up by quakers, including Portlaw in Waterford – and probably for the Cadburys’ Bournville in England, and for garden suburbs worldwide.
Though Richardson employed many quakers, some brought from England, catholics and protestants lived and worked together in Bessbrook. Richardson was one of the earliest supporters of the concept of national education, believing strongly that children should be educated together, and gave evidence to the royal commission of 1868–9. The company's anticipation of the provision of social insurance by the state, by making deductions from wages to pay part of the cost of a doctor and dispensary for the sick, was a radical development, though Richardson's son noted with regret that it later ‘fell to pieces’ as a result of ‘desperate and barefaced malingering’ by some workers. Richardson was involved with the Inman steamship company, but withdrew his support in 1854, on religious grounds; he disapproved of the vessels being chartered for use as troop-carriers in the Crimean war.
In 1855, in payment of a bad debt, Richardson took over a bone-crushing business in Belfast, and by 1860 had converted this into a chemical fertiliser manufacture. By the 1880s it was producing over 6,000 tons annually; and though bought in 1894 by William Goulding (qv), the name Richardson Brothers was retained until the end of the twentieth century, and became one of the best-known names in the fertiliser business in Ireland.
Richardson, so ambitious, so committed to his principles, and with such burdens of responsibility, was prone to suffer from stress, and particularly after the death of his first wife, Helena Grubb, daughter of Richard Grubb of Cahir Abbey, Co. Tipperary, who was a relative. They had married in 1844; she died around 1850, leaving a young son, James Nicholson Richardson, and a baby daughter. John Grubb Richardson married again in 1853; his second wife was Jane Marion Wakefield of Moyallon, Co. Down, daughter of Thomas Christy Wakefield. They had one son and seven daughters; the second Mrs Richardson was a powerful influence in the family and as a quaker minister. John Grubb Richardson supported Gladstone's attempts to reform land tenure in Ireland, but opposed home rule; he declined Gladstone's offer of a baronetcy in 1882. He died at home in Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, during an influenza epidemic, 28 March 1890.
His son James Nicholson Richardson (1845/6–1921) succeeded his father as chairman of the Bessbrook company; he was elected Liberal MP for Co. Armagh in 1880, topping the poll, and though he created a good reputation in parliament, did not stand again in 1885. He published family reminiscences and memoirs of the Society of Friends in Ireland, and several books of poetry, including a volume of humorous odes on the ‘Quakri’, written with his sister. Richardson was a committed unionist, but steadfastly opposed any plans to arm local protestants in the home rule crisis of 1912–14. He refused to allow the hall at Bessbrook to be used for drilling, or his car in gun-running operations. He sold 5,000 acres of his estate to tenants under the Wyndham acts. He married first (1867) Sophia, daughter of William Malcolmson, of Portlaw, Co. Waterford, and after Sophia's death secondly (1893) Sarah, daughter of Samuel A. Bell of Bellevue, Lurgan. James Nicholson Richardson died in Birmingham on 11 October 1921, after an operation. He had no children, and a relative, Richard H. S. Richardson, who had married a sister of James N. Richardson, carried on the business and was prominent in Northern Ireland business, charitable, and religious life. He was chairman for twenty-nine years of the ‘Portstewart convention’, a locally important annual summer gathering of evangelical protestants. His grandfather Jonathan Richardson (1804–94) was MP for Lisburn 1857–63. James Theodore Richardson (b. 1844), a nephew of John Grubb Richardson, was chairman of Richardsons’ Chemical Manure Co. (later Richardsons’ Fertilizers), a firm in existence since 1860. The family's involvement with linen manufacture ceased after the second world war.