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Sarah Clayton A Liverpool Merchant

Sarah Clayton of Liverpool
Clayton Square in the centre of Liverpool has an interesting history in terms of its connection to the Clayton family, after whom it is named.

Sarah Clayton, was Liverpool's most famous woman merchant, she was born in the city on 26 August 1712. Her father was Alderman William Clayton (died. 1715), he was one of the greatest of the Liverpool merchants during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Mayor of Liverpool in 1689 and an MP for Liverpool in six parliaments between 1698 and 1715. William Clayton died when Sarah was only three years old, at which time her mother Elizabeth assumed responsibility for the family’s affairs; these she managed with great skill until her own death in 1745. Almost immediately thereafter Sarah Clayton, who never married, turned her attentions to business. She successfully merged a Clayton family interest in the coal trade with that of her brother-in-law’s family, the Cases of Redhasles, until she presided over a considerable tranche of mines fortuitously situated with access to the Sankey Canal and became, during the late 1750s and 1760s, one of the most important coal dealers in Liverpool. It was of course quite unheard of for a woman to assume the place of a captain of industry in the mid-eighteenth century, and Sarah Clayton remains a most extraordinary figure, perhaps unique at that early date. Records of her business dealings show her engaging with all the vigour of her exclusively male rivals in business partnerships, price wars and competitions for transport and emerging with considerable success.

Clayton Square Liverpool

Clayton enjoyed a rich lifestyle and apparently lived a quite luxurious existence and exhibited a pretentious display of wealth. In the early 1750s, she was one of only four Liverpool residents to own her own coach. As early as 1752, Clayton began to map out her famous landmark in Liverpool – Clayton Square - named after her family. She named adjacent streets after other families with connections to her own, and designated the largest house in the Square for herself. Her house was to go through a number of transformations, becoming a theatre in the late 19th century and a cinema under various different names for most of the 20th century. The whole square was finally demolished in 1986 and on the site now stands the Clayton Square Shopping Centre. From the beginning, again, extraordinarily for a woman at the time, Sarah Clayton appears to have been civic-minded like her father and to have taken an active interest in the welfare and development of the city of Liverpool. Her name appears on a 1745 subscription list for the new Liverpool Infirmary with a gift of twenty guineas. She also erected a notable marble monument to the memory of her mother Elizabeth in St Nicholas’s Church

St Thomas, Park Lane, founded 1750
and closed in 1906.
As was the fashion, Sarah Clayton travelled frequently to Bath to take the waters. It was during one of her residences there that Clayton met the architects John Wood (father and son). In an important letter of June 1749 Sarah Clayton wrote to Alderman Thomas Shaw, Mayor of Liverpool in 1747-1748, who was then on the committee to select a plan for the new Town Hall for Liverpool, as well as the committee appointed to contract for a new altarpiece and the ornamentation of St George’s Church; Shaw also had been appointed by Liverpool’s Common Council to raise funds for the building of St Thomas’s Church in Park Lane. In her letter, Clayton wrote in glowing terms of John Wood’s character and talents, calling him a ‘great genius.’ Clayton indicated that she had been particularly impressed by the architect’s designs for Queen Square and the North and South Parades in Bath, as well as the Exchange at Bristol, and she recommended that the Woods be given the commission for the Liverpool Town Hall. John Wood and his son did eventually design and oversee the erection of Liverpool Town Hall in the first half of the 1750s, and all of the basic texts on Liverpool recount this chain of events and credit Sarah Clayton with being the lynchpin in the scheme. The letter also bears testament to Clayton’s evident concern to benefit Liverpool in its forward development. She suggested to Alderman Shaw that a stool John Wood had designed for a chapel in Bath might be of great use in St Thomas’s Church in Liverpool, and she even recommended a ‘stop’ Wood had designed for use on Liverpool’s warehouse capstans, believing that it ‘might prevent many accidents.’ She also advised Shaw that an altarpiece like that she had seen in Ralph Allen’s chapel in Bath might ‘complete’ Liverpool’s St George’s Church and be less expensive than a design already proposed.

In June 1778, Clayton was forced to offer Parr Hall estate for sale and, a month later, was declared bankrupt and her property was sold at the Golden Lion in Liverpool. Towards the end of that year she suffered further indignity when her household goods, books, china, and other personal effects were auctioned. Clayton's will of October 1778 bequeathed only a few mementoes to her nieces and the servant who she said,

"hath shown the greatest attention to me thro my misfortunes and the ill state of health they have brought me too".

She died at the house of her niece Elizabeth Case, in Liverpool, on 1 May 1779 and was commemorated by a small stone on the wall of St Nicholas's Church, next to the splendid monument erected in memory of her father. From the dizzying heights of her achievements and the lifestyle she had so conspicuously embraced, hers was a very steep fall indeed. Ultimately it may be that Clayton lived life as a woman too far ahead of her times to have fared well in the end, and she may to some extent have been a victim of her own precociousness, but her story such as it is known is a fascinating glimpse into the under-recorded world of female commercial endeavour in the 18th century.

The portrait of Sarah Clayton is the work of William Hoare, the celebrated pastellist.


T.C. Barker and J.R. Harris, A Merseyside Town in the Industrial Revolution :
 St Helens, 1750-1900, London, 1959
Stanley A. Harris, ‘Sarah Clayton’s Letter and John Wood of Bath,’
Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire,
Liverpool, 1948, pp. 55-72
John Langton, ‘Sarah Clayton,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
from the Earliest Times to the Year 2000,
H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, Oxford, 2004
Joseph Sharples, Liverpool, Pevsner Architectural Guide, London, 2005.

Robert F Edwards
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