Ashton, Thomas Gair, first Baron Ashton of Hyde 1855-1933, industrialist, philanthropist, and politician, was born at Fallowfield, Manchester, 5 February 1855, the eldest son of Thomas Ashton, of Hyde, Cheshire, by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Samuel Stillman Gair, who belonged to Rhode Island, U.S.A., and whose English residence was Penketh Hall, Liverpool. Thomas Ashton's second daughter became the wife of James (afterwards Viscount) Bryce [qv.]. The Ashtons were well known, during generations, for singularly humane treatment of the work-people in their cotton mills, and, after his education at Rugby and University College, Oxford (of which he was elected an honorary fellow in 1923), Thomas Gair Ashton was connected with the family business in Manchester and Hyde for forty years, carrying on this tradition, which coloured his whole life. He was liberal member of parliament for the Hyde division from 1885 to 1886 (losing the seat in the latter year and failing to regain it in 1892) and for the Luton division from 1895 to 1911. During that period he sat on various royal commissions, was chairman of the House of Commons Railway and Canal Traffic Committee in 1909 and of the Standing Orders Committee in 1910, and became notable in the House for his wide knowledge of finance.
Ashton's care for education was also displayed by his guarantee to make good any losses sustained in its first three years by the county secondary school at Hyde, and by his support of the Hyde Technical School and the free library, so that for a time both chiefly depended upon him. He was a governor of Manchester University, the first honorary secretary of the Manchester Technical School, and a member of the governing body of the Whitworth Institute. He also took a keen interest in the history and antiquities of Sussex, where he lived after 1902.
Ashton was raised to the peerage in 1911 as Baron Ashton of Hyde, and, during the war of 1914-1918, was chairman of the Cotton Exports Committee, which controlled the amount of cotton allowed to pass through the blockade to neutral nations bordering Germany. The work derived importance from the fact that cotton was then a raw material for munitions.
Ashton was sagacious, far-sighted, widely read, and widely travelled, with excellent judgement of men and affairs, and an immense capacity for work, but his extreme reserve and modesty hid his real capabilities from those not closely acquainted with him. He had a most exacting sense of duty in all public affairs, and was entirely incapable of self-advertisement, never pushing his own claims and interests. Nor for one moment did he support any views merely because of their popularity. For instance, he advocated home rule for Ireland before Gladstone pronounced in its favour. But, owing to his profound shyness, he struck even those knowing him well as curiously impersonal, a fact which militated perhaps against due recognition of his deep feeling for the causes which he served so faithfully.
Ashton married in 1886 Eva Margaret (died 1938), second daughter of John Henry James, of Watford, who belonged to a Cumberland family. They had two sons, the elder of whom died as a child, and two daughters. He died at his home at Robertsbridge 1 May 1933 and was succeeded as second baron by his younger son, Thomas Henry Raymond (born 1901).
Manchester Guardian, 2 May 1933
Contributor: Marion Wood.