Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Port Glasgow's tobacco trade

This simple memorial stone in the wall of a Port Glasgow church bears the name Robert Allison.  Born in 1721 in Glasgow, he was a baker in Port Glasgow, the son of Zacharias Allason, a master baker in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, and his first wife Janet Grahame who were married in Glasgow in 1718. 

On 16 April 1747, the Glasgow Burgh Records show that Robert Allason, listed as a baker in Port Glasgow, petitioned for a feu right to build on a piece of ground in the town lying -
            "…bewest of the church yeard dyke and on the south side of the Beggar Raw street, bounded  backward by the march or burn …".
He was awarded the land.  The church in question, the churchyard of which contains his memorial stone, was at that time the parish church in Port Glasgow and is now known as St Andrew's Church, the present building dates from 1823.  Beggar Raw (or Row) was situated behind Princes Street.  In 1752 Robert purchased an old house for 20 guineas on behalf of the Glasgow authorities in order that the one of the streets in the east end of the town could be extended.  In 1757 he applied to feu some land facing the West Quay in the town.  This purchase is probably in connection with his business partnership with his half brothers, the sons of Zacharias and his second wife Isabel Hall (married in 1827 in Glasgow).  His brothers were William and David Allason who were merchants in Virginia.

William Allason had gone to Virginia as a supercargo (the person responsible for selling a ship's cargo at the destination) on a ship belonging to Baird & Walker (a small firm of tobacco importers).  After selling the cargo and travelling extensively in Virginia, William, as an agent of Baird & Walker, opened a store (in around 1759) in the town of Falmouth on the north bank of Rappahannock River in Virginia.  Of course, he indulged in a little trading of his own with the help of his brother in Port Glasgow.

William Allason, like many of the tobacco merchants, worked a "store system".  Tobacco was bought from planters in exchange for goods such as tools, household goods, clothing, luxury goods, foodstuffs etc.  Credit (again in the form of goods) was often given to planters in advance of the tobacco harvest, which of course could often lead to debt if the harvest was not as good as expected.  The goods sent to William Allason's store in Falmouth would be sourced by Robert in Glasgow, using his contacts locally, and other parts of Britain.  The ship would be loaded and sent out, the goods deposited with William who would then load the ship with tobacco and other produce from his contacts in Virginia.  Once the tobacco ship arrived back in Port Glasgow, some of the cargo would be re-exported to Europe, or stored at Port Glasgow until a buyer, or better price could be achieved.  Many of the Glasgow 'Tobacco Lords' had storage facilities (cellars and warehouses) in Port Glasgow at this time.

source McLean Museum & Art Gallery, Greenock
The Virginia State Library holds a collection of William Allason's letter books and accounts.  Some of these have been published elsewhere and give a fascinating glimpse into his relationships with family members here in Scotland and also into how trade was arranged across the Atlantic.  Important news about the cost of tobacco and other produce as well as what goods were required on the American side could influence what was then sent in the next shipment out of Port Glasgow.  Family business relationships were an important part of many Scottish trading enterprises.  The Allasons were no exceptions.

William's letters to Robert in Port Glasgow and later, Glasgow contain not just trade news, but details of events going on in Virginia at this time.  In a letter to Robert dated 5 October 1758 he writes -

            "There never was so poor times in Virginia as is at present, there wonnt be above 5000 hhds Tobacco made this present Crop, … Inclosed is an accot. of a Battle between part of our Army and the French, in which the last got a Victory, it possibly may be the first accot. of it at your place …"

The quantities of tobacco refers to hogsheads - large wooden barrels which when filled with tobacco weighed 1000 pounds. The 'Battle'  probably refers to the failed British expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne. 

However, tobacco was not the only Allason export.  In 1762 William travelled to Antigua and St Christopher (St Kitts) in the West Indies sourcing a supply of rum.  In 1763 he wrote to Robert concerning a supply of pig-iron from the Tubal Works in Virginia.  He reports that he could not buy it for the terms Robert was offering and that it had fallen into the hands of "Hucksters" who could afford to offer a higher price. 

In 1765 the Stamp Act was the subject of  many of William's letters.  The Act, passed by the British Parliament in March 1765, required all American colonists to purchase (in British currency) and use special revenue embossed "stamped" paper for newspapers, wills, official documents and even playing cards.  As you can imagine this was not a popular move.  It was repealed in 1766, but there was continued dissatisfaction with British authority over colonial America which, just ten years later led to revolution.  William writes to Robert -
            "Tis but a few days since that a neighboring Town took the example from a northern Government and burn the effigy of the Person appointed for the distribution of the stamps here, tho' he is not yet arrived from England, and a native of Virginia …"

Stamped paper was scarce and William was concerned about ship's papers and port clearances -

            " … Ships are in danger in Crossing the Sea, notwithstanding all the Clearance that the Governour & Custom house officers can give them they are subject to be seized by the first Kings Ship they meet with, and also in the first Port they put into at home, for want of their Clearances being on stamped Paper, which is not now to be had …"

Greenbank House, Mearns
Later letters to Robert are mainly concerned with the tobacco crop and the various items he wants Robert to send to Virginia.  Robert using the profit from his business ventures, bought land in Flenders, Mearns (probably where the earlier Allasons originated as farmers) and built the magnificent Greenbank House (Clarkston).  He later lost his fortune and gave up Greenbank in 1773.  He died in 1785.  He and his brother John are buried at Port Glasgow.

The trans Atlantic links of the Allason family highlight a very important part of Port Glasgow's early trading history.  Tobacco and sugar from Virginia and the West Indies grown on plantations worked by slave labour provided profitable cargoes for merchants trading out of Glasgow's port.  The Allasons had links with many of the big names, like Robert Bogle, of the tobacco trade on both sides of the Atlantic.

Detail from Greenbank House

There were many merchants trading out of Port Glasgow (and Greenock) with links to the slave-worked tobacco plantations in America and also the sugar plantations in the West Indies.  Ships sailed regularly across the Atlantic from the Clyde supplying home produced goods to the colonies and returning with valuable cargoes for the home market and re-export.


  1. Very interesting history and lovely photos..

  2. Interesting piece of history which most of us would never have know about. Looks like greed got the better of him so maybe he should have stayed a baker

    1. I agree that he seems to have overextended himself. Building a house like that must have cost a fortune!


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