John Owens, the son of Owen Owens, was born in 1790. John's father came from Holywell in Flintshire who set up business in Manchester as a hat-lining maker. After being educated privately at Ardwick, John joined his father in the family business in 1817. Together they built up their company to be one of the most important in the cotton industry.
The Owens purchased calicoes and coarse woollens from local manufacturers such as John Fielden and Thomas Ashton and then shipped them to China, India and North America. The company was also involved in importing cotton, hides, wheat and other produce from these countries. When Owen Owens retired John Owens continued to expand the business and became a major investor in the emerging railway system.
Owens held strong views on education and religion. A Nonconformists, Owens objected to the dominate role that the Church of England played in education. Owens, who never married, decided that he would leave most of his wealth to help establish a further education college for men that would not have: "to submit to any test whatsoever of, their religious opinions".
John Owens died at his house in Chorlton-upon-Medlock on 29th July, 1846. In his will he left £96,654 for the establishment of Owens College. His Unitarian friends, John Fielden and Thomas Ashton, were amongst those involved in purchasing the former home of Richard Cobden, in Quay Street, Deansgate, the college's first premises. Owens College was opened in 1851.
The bequest is for the foundation of an institution within the parliamentary borough of Manchester, or within two miles of any part of the limits thereof, for providing or aiding the means of instructing and improving young persons of the male sex (and being of an age not less than fourteen years) in such branches of learning and science as are now and may be hereafter usually taught in the English universities, but subject, nevertheless, to the fundamental and immutable rule and condition that the students, professors, teachers, and other officers and persons connected with the said institutions shall not be required to make any declaration as to, or submit to any test whatsoever of, their religious opinions: and that nothing shall be introduced in the matter or mode of education or instruction in reference to any religious or theological subject which shall be reasonably offensive to the conscience of any student or of his relations, guardians, or friends under whose immediate care he shall be. The institution shall be open to all applicants for admission without respect to place of birth, and without distinction of rank or condition in society.