John Gulson – the Coventry Philanthropist

Riviere, Hugh Goldwin, 1869-1956; Alderman John Gulson (1813-1904)
Alderman John Gulson (1813-1904);

There is a school and a road named after him and there used to be a Library that bore his name. But who is John Gulson? .. and what did he do for Coventry?

John Gulson was born in Coventry on 23rd October 1813, to John Gulson senior, a leather craftsman and Elizabeth from a London Quaker family. John had three sisters and the family lived at 130 Spon Street, moving to 7 Priory Row in 1837. The rest of the family moved to Leicester in 1847 leaving John alone in residence in Priory Row.

John’s father seems to have ceased public life in about 1835 and John took over many of his interests. In 1835 he became Joint Secretary of the Mechanics Institute. During his time in this position a new Mechanics Institute was built in Hertford Street, where Lloyds Bank is currently located.

The Institute was the pride of the Gulson family. They hoped that Coventry workers would use it as a centre for education to help them in their careers. John’s family and friends raised most of the money to build the Institute.

In 1838 John went into business in the silk trade with a Mr Merrick, setting up Merrick and Gulson, with an office in Vicar Lane. When Merrick left the city to move to Manchester, Gulson continued the business and moved the office to High Street.

In politics John was a Liberal and in 1841 he raised a petition to ask the Council to support the repeal of the Corn Laws.

John Gulson’s public and voluntary service was honoured in 1847 when he was nominated as an Alderman of the City of Coventry, unusually without first being a councillor.

In 1850 Gulson went into partnership with Richard Caldicott and was later with the Coventry Machinist Company cycle manufacturers.

In 1862 John married Sophia Louisa Miller of Ireland and they had a happy, but childless, life together in Coventry, until her death in December 1895. They were both known for their philanthropy and kind nature. At that time Coventry was suffering a severe depression as a result of the collapse of the ribbon trade and the Gulsons gave the princely sum of £21 for the relief fund.

In 1867, under Gulson’s leadership, the Corporation adopted the Public Libraries Act. He opened the city’s first library in Hertford Street in 1868, during the time that he was Mayor. The building had previously been the home of the Coventry Library Association since 1791, which by that time was in serious decline. The Corporation purchased the building and all its books. The accommodation proved inadequate and in 1871 John Gulson presented to the city the site of the old gaol opposite Holy Trinity Church and the Corporation erected on it a new library which opened in 1873. In 1890 he added a reference library.

One of Gulson’s pastimes was sketching landscapes and buildings and along with his friend Nathaniel Troughton has left a legacy of drawings of the city and the county.

Alderman Gulson died on Christmas Day in 1904 at the age of 91. He is buried in London Road Cemetery. Amongst his legacies was the donation of his library of books, drawings and etchings to the City Council.


[Acknowledgement to Ian Wooley, A Victorian Resting Place for a Growing Industrial City: London Road Cemetery for much of the content of this article]

One thought on “John Gulson – the Coventry Philanthropist

  1. What a fascinating story behind the man with a road and a hospital names after him. Well done to Ian Woolley but congratulations to Coventry Society for producing this and distributing this piece. Well done


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