The grand old man of Newbury was Mayor for three consecutive years at the turn of the century.
John Rankin was a prominent Newbury resident whose name lives on in the infant and junior schools in the south west of the town.
He was born in 1846, not in Berkshire, but in Ballywillan near Portrush in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, and until he was forty he farmed on land there, winning several silver cups for ploughing matches.
It is not known what brought him to the mainland to settle in Newbury in 1886, but having arrived, he threw himself wholeheartedly into commercial and civic life. He set about establishing the successful drapery and furnishing business of McIlroy and Rankin, at 42 Cheap Street. He was an early believer in the power of advertising. Every week for years while he was actively connected with the business, McIlroy and Rankin had a “special announcement”, always topical, on the same place on the same page of the Newbury Weekly News, next to the editor’s widely-read “Local chit-chat” column. He was quick to recognise good advertising is a factor in the success of any business.
A deacon in the Newbury Congregational Church, in 1894 he took his first tentative steps into the world of local government, standing for the Town Council at a by-election. He polled an impressive 421 votes, though the seat was won by his neighbour Edward Gould, with 555 votes. John seems not to have been too discouraged, as four years later, he stood again, upon the death of Councillor AC Bazett. This time he was elected, polling 200 votes more than his rival, pub licensee of the “Adam and Eve”, Frederick Wiginton.
John Rankin sat continuously on the council first as a councillor until 1912, then as an Alderman until his resignation in the summer of 1943, at the grand old age of 96.
He was chosen as Mayor in 1899 and was initially reluctant, believing the honour should go to longer-serving members, but he was persuaded to accept, and his tenure was so popular that he remained in the position for three consecutive years, including the period of the death of Queen Victoria and subsequent ascension and Coronation of King Edward VII. He proclaimed the peace after the South African Boer War and welcomed home the Yeomanry and Volunteers. He inaugurated the Whit Monday Cart-Horse Parade (a forerunner of the Royal Berkshire Show) and was responsible for the scheme to renovate the medieval Newbury Cloth Hall as a fitting memorial to the late Queen (it became Newbury, now West Berkshire, Museum). He also planted the splendid avenue of trees in Buckingham Road.
His hospitality was legendary. He and his wife gave a huge party in the garden of their home “Dalriada” in Andover Road (since demolished, near the junction with Fair View) in the summer following Edward VII’s coronation in 1902.
When his three years of Mayoralty came to an end later that year, he and his wife were showered with gifts, paid for by over 900 subscribers, at a presentation in the Town Hall. The NWN reported that “Never has a Mayor more enjoyed the friendship and confidence of the county residents , and certainly no Mayor has succeeded in being so genuinely esteemed and respected by all sections of the townspeople, as John Rankin, thrice Mayor of Newbury”.
In 1911 he was elected unopposed to the Berkshire County Council, retiring in 1922.
John Rankin was the first chairman of the Borough Education Committee, “a Gladstonian, a man of resolute character, with definite views”, according to the NWN of the time. He held the office for over 40 years. As well as his 45 years of unbroken council service, he served as a Magistrate, first for Newbury Borough, then for Berkshire, for 47 years.
He was also regarded as leader of the local Liberal party.
Additionally, he was the first president of the Newbury Chamber of Commerce, a member of the management board of Newbury hospital and a governor of both the girls’ and boys’ grammar schools.
On the occasion of King George VI’s silver jubilee, John was made Newbury’s first Freeman of the Borough. Despite then being 89 years of age, he remained in full possession of his faculties – his ceremonial speech described as “gracefully phrased and vigorously delivered.”
The grand old man died at his home on 22 November 1943, aged 97, having had, as the Rev John Wilding said at his memorial service “an unparalleled record of public service”.
The junior school bearing his name was officially opened in 1956, and two years later the infant school opened next to it.