Areas with fast flowing rivers especially around the Lancashire and Cumbrian side of the Pennines have provided a power source and ideal places for the building textile mills. Inventions made in the Midlands sought to improve the quality of the raw material being spun to manufacture as cloth. In 1779, Crompton’s ‘Mule’ proved capable of spinning cotton thread better than any other machine and Boulton and Watt’s 1781 steam engine made it increasingly easy to use within cotton factories. It did not need running water, if there was a supply of coal. The 18th century middle class favouring greater personal hygiene and the changes fashion in society brought about, created a demand for readily washable colourful fabrics. Cotton was versatile and when combined with linen could be made into velvet. It was cheaper than silk, taking printing better than wool and so patterned dresses could readily be made available for ladies. The growth of the British commercial empire at this time meant that the cotton industry expanded greatly. British cotton products were successful in European markets, reaching 40.5% of exports in 1784–1786. The French Revolutionary Wars reduced British access to continental Europe and from 1794 to 1796, British cotton goods were reduced to being 15.6% of Britain’s exports with the United States becoming an important consumer for British cotton, because it did not have a large manufacturing base for processing cotton at that time.
Against this background of unstable growth, John Wood (born 23 June 1772) learnt his trade and became a successful cotton merchant. He was a member of an old well-to-do dissenting Presbyterian/Congregationalist family in Cockermouth. He was born to Jonathan Wood (b 1753) and Ann Winder (b 1754), being the eldest of 8 children – William b. 1774), twins Jonathan and Jane (b either 29 January or June 1778), twin girls Ann and Sarah (b. 1 June 1780), Hannah (b. 16 February 1783), Joseph (b.1785) and Elizabeth (b. 6 June 1789). The family had connections in the town, viz cousins William Wood a local solicitor and Richard Bell a local doctor. They would later be among those who commissioned John’s son Sancton for work in the town. Members of the Sancton family also lived locally. John Wood’s contemporary John Sancton (b 1771) became like him a London cotton merchant and later his brother in-law. As a young man, John Wood is likely to have served an apprenticeship in one of the Cockermouth textile mills before he left Cumberland to enter into business in London as a ‘Manchester’ merchant’ i.e. is dealing with cotton goods. In the earlier predecessor of the present St Pancras church on 28 December 1794, Wood married Harriet Russell of Holborn London b.1775. John her father had to give his consent as she was a minor of 14 years. He and John Sancton were the marriage witnesses. The Russells were a well established Holborn family, who later moved to Hackney. Their children pursued a variety of professional careers. Harriet was in addition through her aunt Elizabeth a niece by marriage to the eminent painter, Robert Smirke, R.A. also The Smirkes like the Woods were Dissenters from Cumberland, coming originally from Wigton. 15 miles north east of Cockermouth. Six children would be born to the Woods over the next 20 years. They initially lived in Holborn. Harriet Jane the eldest girl was born there in 1796 being christened on 9 November 1796 in what was Wren’s largest parish church, St Andrew’s Holborn.
After that there was an eight year gap before the live birth of the next child. They also change their place of residence like Harriet’s family, moving to the semi-rural Georgian development within the more genteel village of Hackney, namely to Nursery Place at the eastern end of Hackney Terrace, where the next child was born. The cotton business must have been successful enough to allow John Wood to move his family to this healthier suburb. In addition there may have been an outbreak of one of the prevalent urban infectious diseases such as typhoid, tuberculosis, diphtheria or smallpox which had affected the Woods directly or indirectly. All the subsequent children were baptised in St John-at-Hackney and registered at Dr Williams Library, a centre for study for Dissenters such as Congregationalists/Presbyterians. The next four children were Ellen Ann (born in 2 June 1805). the next two daughters, Sarah (b. 1807,) Hannah (b 1809) and Elizabeth (called Betsey) (b. 1811). The last child and only son, Sancton was born on 27 April 1814. He was given his forename presumably because of his father’s partnership and relationship with his brother-in-law John Sancton, especially after he had married John Wood’s sister Hannah at St John’s-at-Hackney in 1805. The younger children, viz. Ellen Ann, Hannah and Sancton were registered at Dr William’s Library then at Red Cross Street, Cripplegate by Rev. Thomas Morgan a minister and librarian of the Theological College. the 2 girls on 22 May 1816 and Sancton on 10 March 1818. The fact that 2 local surgeons gave witness to the registrations these children shows the standing of the family. The family moved on to nearby Shore Place, Hackney sometime after this. A continuing relationship with the extended family is shown when Betsy, daughter of Ann Wood, John’s sister (and Joseph McDermott, who lived at Sackville Street Dublin) stayed with her uncle. but while there died aged 11 in 1821. Sancton’s father was able to afford to send him to a small private preparatory school in Devonshire. When when he was older, he was sent to another private school for older pupils called Hazlewood on Hagley Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham. This had been designed and was run by Rowland Hill, (the later reformer at the Post Office). He had continued the educational reform work his father Thomas Wright Hill had initiated as promulgated in Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience (1822) This argued that kindness instead of caning and moral influence rather than fear should be the predominant forces in school discipline. A swimming pool and warmth derived from forced air-heating helped to support these principles in a more physical way. The school curriculum had art and science hence such innovations as a science laboratory. Hill’s original prospectus hopes that a benevolent teacher will make it his study to excite [his pupils’] reasoning powers, and to induce in them habits of voluntary application. Students were expected to be selfgoverning. A committee of boys elected by their fellow pupils, made school rules, which were enforced by their own law court. Wood (tongue in cheek) often declared he fully entered into its spirit by volunteering to do the minimum possible by way of serious study. Wood’s father died on 1826; the executors of his will being John’s brothers William and Jonathan from Cockermouth and his brother-in-law John Charles Russell, an engraver.