Richard Carreño 304pp.19 black and white illustrations. Camino Books, Philadelphia, 2021. Available from Amazon £18.69 hardback. ISBN: 978-1680980394.

I consider myself a reasonably well-read amateur Liverpool historian but confess that, until recently, I had never heard of John H McFadden. And, I suspect, neither had any of my fellow local history friends. This despite the fact that he and brother George headed up the biggest firm of cotton dealers not just in Liverpool during the late Victorian and early Edwardian era when the city was indisputably “King Cotton”, but on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Like John Howard McFadden’s life itself, this is a book of two halves covering his early and later years in Philadelphia and his two decades or so in Liverpool when he was at the height of his cotton dealing powers. In spite of his business success and the great wealth that went with it, McFadden largely lived his life under the radar. So, it is thanks to Carreño that he has managed to tease out so much of the detail of his life. Aside from dealing in cotton futures, McFadden had three main passions, and the money to indulge them: medical research (of which Liverpool was a major beneficiary), polar exploration (and in particular Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton) and assembling an outstanding private collection of 18th and 19th century British paintings by the great masters, including one by Liverpool horse painter George Stubbs. 

Whilst McFadden largely amassed his fortune during his days dealing cotton on Exchange Flags, and The Albany and the Cotton Exchange, Old Hall Street, it was his birthplace of Philadelphia that was the main recipient of his largesse. Having spent the greater part of his life buying British masterpieces, what to do with them with life drawing to a close? The answer was to donate them to his hometown. But the canny McFadden had one stipulation: the “City of Brotherly Love” must first build a fitting gallery in which to display them…and build it within a challenging timespan. And that is how the Philadelphia Museum of Art was born. Carreño has undertaken impressive research into this whole saga, which rightly takes up a goodly part of the book.

Whilst, as the title suggests, this book is principally about McFadden and his city of birth, it nevertheless contains much that will interest the Liverpool historian. Who knew, for example, that McFadden’s son, Jack, born at the family home, Worsely House, Croxteth Road (opposite Greenheys Road) Liverpool 8, in 1890, became President of the New York Cotton Exchange and an advisor to the National Cotton Council of America?

In other hands this biography might have resulted in a worthy but rather dull account of an extraordinary man leading a fairly ordinary life, but Carreño brings it to life, mainly because it is so well-researched and entertainingly written.

John H. McFadden, the American millionaire cotton broker and member of the Liverpool Cotton Association, as depicted by caricaturist J. Wallace Coop in the 1908 book “Bulls and Bears”. Courtesy Liverpool Athenaeum.