Britain’s first Muslim mayor: Robert Reschid Stanley (1828–1911)

Robert Reschid Stanley, possibly with his grandson George Stanley seated next to him, in the first row behind Quilliam at the front. (Source: “Mahomedans in Liverpool”, The Sphere, Vol 11(153), 27 December 1902, p.319.)

The most ubiquitous question at Muslim community events about Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam often concerns the fate of his community and their descendants and what happened to them. Brian Longden in retirement decided to explore the family history. Unbeknown to the Longdens was a family secret about his great-great grandfather. A relative passed on a copy of The Crescent from 3rd April 1907, featuring a picture of Stanley wearing a fez, entitled “A Distinguished British Musselman”, alongside the selfsame fez (pictured below). Robert Stanley had converted to Islam in 1898 at the hands of Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam! What made this all the more remarkable for Brian was that his son Stephen had previously converted to Islam in 1991, having had no idea about his illustrious Muslim forebearer.

The fez of Robert Reschid Stanley, preserved and passed down by his descendants, the Longdens.

There is still much work to be done in uncovering the lives of the largely working-class members of Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam’s Liverpool Muslim Institute. To the efforts of Dr Jamie Gilham’s survey of its members’ backgrounds and occupations, Dr Timothy J. Winter on the Scottish poet and essayist Yehya-en-Nasr Parkinson, and Maulana Hamid Mahmood on Quilliam’s first woman convert, the courageous Fatima Cates, can now be added Christina Longden on Robert Reschid Stanley, who served as the Mayor of Stalybridge (now part of Greater Manchester) before converting to Islam in the late 1890s, building on the pioneering work of her father, Brian.

In 2019, Christina has brought out two books on Stanley:

“His Own Man” and “Imagining Robert”, two 2019 books on Robert Reschid Stanley by Christina Longden

His Own Man: A Victorian ‘Hidden’ Muslim, The Life and Times of Robert ‘Reschid’ Stanley (Past Truisms CIC: 2019), ISBN 978–0–9928792–4–2, an historical study of his life and times. Robert grew up near “King Cotton” or Manchester, the centre of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Influenced by his wealthy uncle, he was part of the tiny local Christian Israelite sect that lived strictly by Mosaic Law, led by the self-proclaimed “Prophet” John Wroe (1782–1863). Stanley was a successful businessman, as a grocer, tea trader and later publican, which he combined with public service as a magistrate (1867–76), local Tory councillor and later mayor of Stalybridge (1874–7). Being civic-minded, he sought to improve the water supplies to the town, commissioning a local reservoir. He was also consulted in Parliament about the extension of the electoral franchise and gained national coverage, mostly negative, for his refusal to pander to populist anti-Ottoman sentiment over the Bulgarian Uprising of 1876 by hosting a local rally when he was Mayor. Stanley’s interest in foreign affairs had been partly stimulated by his friendship with the Ottomanophile diplomat, writer and MP David Urquarht (1805–77). Later, Stanley would write directly to the caliph suggesting agricultural reforms to aid the Empire, which the sultan took on board, sending three Turks to train in Germany on agricultural techniques.

It is not known how Stanley came to know of Quilliam and his community, but Christina Longden posits that this may well have come through his connections with Syrian, Moroccan and Turkish tea traders in Manchester. Some correspondence from Stanley is recorded in The Crescent prior to his conversion. Moving to Manchester in 1897, he embraced Islam at the Liverpool Muslim Institute the following year. He played an active role in the life of the Institute, eventually becoming its Vice-President. He later retired to Stalybridge, passing away in 1911. For more details about his life, see the website dedicated to Stanley and even better go buy the book.

Christina Longden’s second book is Imagining Robert: Scenes from the life of Robert ‘Reschid’ Stanley 1828–1911 (Past Truisms CIC: 2019), ISBN 978–0–9928792–5–9, with fifteen scenes imagining key moments in his life, based on the historical research of the first book. This includes two scenes with Sheikh Quilliam, one about Stanley’s conversion in Liverpool at the age of 69 and one imagining a seafront excursion to Liverpool with his grandson where they meet the Sheikh. More details about the book are available here.

Christina Longden talking about Robert Reschid Stanley at the book launch in Stalybridge, 1 October 2019.

Currently Christina Longden is on a book tour, so do make a point of seeing her. She’s speaking across the North from October through to April, for dates and updates see here, and is actively seeking invitations from book tour dates in London and elsewhere.

The author Christina Longden, with her father Brian Longden (right), sporting Stanley’s fez, and Yahya Birt (left) at the Stalybridge book launch, 1 October 2019.

Community historian of British Muslim life