Juan Güell y Ferrer (1800–72)

Juan Güell was one of the most important industrialists in nineteenth-century Spain. He developed a diversity of industrial enterprises, gained colossal wealth and, as an economist, influenced politics and government.

He was born in rural Catalunya, where his family were struggling tenant farmers. His father sought new opportunities in the Spanish colony of San Domingo in the Caribbean (now the Dominican Republic) and at the age of ten Joan joined him to help in his warehouse. After a few years, the revolt against Spanish rule ruined his father’s business. Joan returned to Barcelona to study at the Nautical School. When he completed his studies in 1818 he returned to the Caribbean and became a clerk in Cuba. By establishing a partnership and becoming director of the association of trading companies in Havana he made his first fortune, probably partly from the trade in enslaved African people.

He decided to return to Barcelona to invest his money in industry and travelled in Europe and the United States researching opportunities. In 1838, he started with partners an iron foundry that made textile machinery, and in 1840 he started a small textile factory at Martorell. In 1845 he married Francesca Bacigalupi y Dolcet, who came from a merchant family, and he inherited the cotton spinning factory of her brother in the Sants district of Barcelona. After studying the manufacture of corduroy cotton fabric in England he created a partnership with the engineer Domingo Ramis in 1846 to manage the factory, which was the first in the area to steam powered. The company of Güell and Ramis became one of the largest cotton producers in Spain, manufacturing corduroy and velvet fabrics. The factory was at the centre of labour revolts in the 1850s. In 1855 Güell’s iron foundry merged with that of Valentin Esparó to create the engineering company La Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima, which went on to produce hundreds of stationary and marine steam engines, locomotives and other machinery. He also invested in banking and insurance and the construction of the Urgel canal.

After this period, Güell retired from active involvement in his businesses, living at a large farm estate at Lleida, where he promoted improvements and wrote and campaigned on economic policies. He argued against the independence of Cuba and in favour of trade protectionism to enable the growth of Catalan industry. A prominent statue of him was put up on La Rambla in Barcelona. Güell’s son Eusebi took over the businesses after his death and was ennobled as Count Güell.