Sunday 6 November 2022

Laying the foundation stone of the Custom House 1817

On 2 May 1817 the foundation stone of the Custom House in Greenock was laid by Sir Michael Shaw Stewart.  A large procession of members of the different masonic lodges, magistrates, and important people of the town as well as “a very numerous assemblage of the inhabitants” met in the Mid Kirk.  After a “most excellent and appropriate” sermon by the Reverend Robert Steele, Grand Chaplain, the procession moved to the site of the building where there were bands playing “the King’s Anthem”.  

Greenock Custom House

After a prayer, the Grand Secretary read the following inscription from a plate which was also to be placed in the foundations:-

By the favour of Almighty God    

The Foundation of this Building erected by Government

For a Custom House and Excise Office

Was laid upon the 2nd day of May In the year of our Lord 1817

Of the Era of Masonry 5817 

And in the 57th year of the reign of our Most Gracious Sovereign George III

By Sir Michael Shaw Stewart Bart Provincial Grand Master of Renfrew and Dumbarton Shires

In presence of Quintin Leitch and Robert Ewing, Esquires Magistrates

And the other Members of the Town Council of Greenock

William Burn, Architect. William Spottiswoode, Superintendent

D Mathieson, A McFarlane and G Dempster, Contractors

Which undertaking may the Supreme God prosper.

 Also placed in the foundations was a bottle containing a current “coin of the realm” and a copy of the Greenock Advertiser and Greenock Herald.  After the ceremony the crowd gave three cheers and the band then played the Mason’s Anthem.  Sir Michael Shaw Stewart then gave a speech followed by another from Robert Ewing, Greenock Magistrate. 

From Caledonian Mercury 1817

It must have been a wonderful occasion and it is a credit to the architect and builders that Greenock’s Custom House is still standing and is one of the most striking structures in the town.

Saturday 5 November 2022

Mary Todd Lincoln at Greenock

In August 1869 Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882), widow of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) wrote to a friend, Eliza Slataper about a visit she had made to Highland Mary’s grave in the Old West Kirkyard in Greenock.  She wrote that she had “heaved a sigh” at the graveside, no doubt reflecting on the death of her own husband.  Highland Mary had been one of Robert Burns’ lovers who died in Greenock in 1786.

Mary Todd Lincoln

The Lincolns had been great admirers of Robert Burns – Lincoln himself was known to recite Burns’ poetry and it was said that there was a bust of the Scots poet in the parlour of their home.  It is thought that it was a Scottish schoolmaster, John (Jack) Kelso from Govan who introduced Lincoln to the poetry of Burns when he lived at New Salem, Illinois. 

Mary Todd Lincoln spent the summer of 1869 in Scotland visiting her old friend Rev Dr James Smith who had been the minister at Springfield, Illinois where the Lincoln family had once lived and had been a friend of the family.  Smith had invited the widow Lincoln to visit him.  

Tad Lincoln

Mary and her youngest son Thomas (Tad) Lincoln (1853-1871) accepted the invitation and toured Scotland, as well as visiting places associated with Robert Burns including the cottage where he was born.

 Rev Dr James Smith

Dr James Smith (1798-1871) was born in Glasgow.  His parents, Peter Smith and Margaret Bruce, died when he was very young and he was raised by his uncle Hugh Smith, a wealthy Glasgow merchant, and his wife Christian Gilfillan.  After attending Glasgow University, on reaching the appropriate age, in 1816 James Smith took charge of his inheritance from his father, married his sweetheart, Elizabeth Black and emigrated to America.  He tried various trades before becoming a Presbyterian Minister settling at Springfield from 1849 till 1856.

In 1861 Smith’s son Hugh had been appointed Consul at Dundee but had to return home due to ill health.  James Smith was given the post by the then President Lincoln (after some lobbying from Smith’s friends and family).  He seems to have enjoyed being back in Scotland but missed his family.

He died at Dundee in 1871.  A large procession of magistrates and officials from Dundee followed the hearse to Dundee railway station.  The local newspaper reported that the streets were lined with large crowds.  The coffin, guarded by a detachment soldiers, was taken to Glasgow.   The Rev Dr James Smith was buried in the family grave in Calton Cemetery, Glasgow.

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Andrew Millar, printer

The important London publisher, Andrew Millar was born in Port Glasgow in 1705.  He was the son of Port Glasgow's first parish minister, Robert Millar (1672-1752) and his wife Elizabeth Kelso.  He was apprenticed young to an Edinburgh bookseller, James McEuen.  Later he moved to London.

Samuel Johnston

Millar was one of the seven booksellers who in 1747 purchased (£1,575) and agreed to publish within three years Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.  The famous story is told that when Millar received the last page from Johnson (who was not known for his punctuality), he remarked "Thank God, I have done with him" to which Samuel Johnson is reported to have replied, "I am glad that he thanks God for anything"!

James Thomson, poet

He was also a friend of Scottish poet James Thomson  (1700-1748).  In 1729 Millar published Thomson's work "Seasons" and was later involved in a copyright dispute with another published Robert Taylor.  James Thomson is perhaps most famous today for his poem "Rule Britannia".

Thomson introduced the author Henry Fielding (1707-1754) to his friend the publisher, and in 1749 Millar published "Tom Jones".  He was also said to have lent sums of money to the author.  The work of Scots poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) were also published by Millar.  The pair had previously met in Edinburgh when McEuen published some of Ramsay's work.

These are just some of the important authors and works which Millar was responsible for publishing.  He was known to many of the well known authors and poets of the day.  One of his apprentices was Thomas Cadell (1742-1802) who later became his partner in 1765 and after Millar's death went on to become an important publisher in his own right.

Andrew Millar died in 1768 and was buried in the King's Road Old Burial Ground in London (also known as Dovehouse Green Burial Ground).  An obelisk marks his grave and is also a memorial to his three children - Andrew (died 1750 aged 5), Robert (died 1736 aged 1) and Elizabeth (died 1740).  Also buried here is his widow, Jane (1707-1788) who later married Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk, Aberdeenshire (as his fourth wife).  Jane was the daughter of Andrew Johnston an engraver of London.  Her grandfather was Alan Johnston who had been minister in Edinburgh.

Wednesday 14 September 2022

The Cartsburn thumbscrews

This unusual artifact once belonged to the Crawfurd family of Cartsburn.  It is a set of thumbscrews - an instrument of torture - ironically with a cross as part of the key.  Thumbscrews were also called thumbikins.

They were described in the Journal of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1890 who note that they "do not look like they have been used much". The unusual aspect of the thumbscrews is the key which is in the form of a cross which is attached by a chain to an egg-shaped pendant of ivory on which is engraved ihs - the monogram for the name of Jesus.  The Journal also states that "the ironwork does not appear to be of Scottish origin.  The introduction of the cross and the sacred initials might be said also to imply that it had been fabricated for ecclesiastical purposes."

It is doubtful that thumbscrews were used by the Crawfurd family.  They were supposedly given to a member of the family by a "Romish priest" in 1771.  Thomas Crawfurd (1746-1791), 4th Baron Cartsburn had travelled widely in Europe and these were probably acquired by him on his travels.  They were presented to the McLean Museum (Watt Institution) by Thomas McKnight Crawfurd.

However, there was another curious object collected by Crawfurd with the thumbscrews - a belt of penance.  This is in the care of the National Museums Scotland.  It is a belt made of iron links with small hooks or spikes attached.  It would have been worn around the waist and used as a form of penance.  Copyright prevents me from showing a picture of the belt but you can see the object here.

I'm sure these two objects were great talking points when in the hands of the Crawfurd family.  I wonder what Robert Burns would have made of them if he had accepted Thomas Crawfurd's invitation to Cartsburn House!

Thursday 8 September 2022

Kennedy's Mill

Looking at the Carts Burn in the east end of Greenock today, although mostly culverted, it is easy to see why there were once so many mills in this area.  The water gushes down this burn, and for a long time, its power was put to good use turning the waterwheel of a grain mill that used to stand on its banks.  The mill was popularly known as Kennedy’s Mill, also known as Cartsburn Mill and sometimes as the Easter Mill of Greenock.

View of Greenock from the east

While the facts and historic details of places that are no longer in existence give a good idea of what once stood, I think that poetry gives a much more meaningful insight into places as they are a personal view rather than a general description.  Published in 1845, a poem “The Road Round by Kennedy’s Mill” by Greenockian Allan Park Paton, writer, historian and librarian (to name but a few of the man’s talents) gives us his recollections of the area when he was young. 

The steam carriage now rushes angrily o’er

The fields, where in youth’s golden years I have ranged;

The streams where I tracked my flag-boats are no more,

And the dells where I lay reading ballads are changed;

But a few of the haunts of my boyhood can show

Those features, so dear in the past, to me still,

And one of the few, where I yet love to go

Of an eve, is the road round by Kennedy’s Mill

The quiet little road round by Kennedy’s Mill.

In 1792 the 99 year lease read:-  “that miln called the Eastern Miln of Greenock, with the miln-house land astricted multures, miln dues, services and sequels to the same with the water-dam and inlair belonging to the said miln, with power to the tacksmen any time within the said space to take down the miln and miln houses, and convert them to any use they please, they being obliged to leave buildings equal in value to the houses and miln standing on the miln lands, with are hereby declared to be worth at the commencement of the tack the sum of £25 sterling, and leave the same sufficiently habitable at the issue of this tack”.  The tacksmen could construct dams for collecting water from the burn. 

The mill passed through various hands and was used for various purposes until in 1805 it was converted back to a corn mill by Matthew and James Bryce, millers.  They also had a nearby mill called the Ingliston Mill.  A fire destroyed that mill and it was locally named the “Burnt Mill”.

Remains of an old wall beside the Carts Burn

The next owners of the mill were David Beath and John Maitland.  (The dam at Whinhill was sometimes called Beath’s Dam).  In 1830 Cartsburn Mill was once again for sale.  It was purchased (for £2500) by Sir Michael Shaw Stewart on behalf of Shaws Water Joint Stock Company (later along with the Whinhill Dam came into the possession of the Water Trust of Greenock.)  There was once a forge attached to the mill which was destroyed by a flood in 1835.  

The Kennedy family then became the millers at Cartsburn, thus the name “Kennedy’s Mill”.  However in the 1860s Alexander Kennedy left Greenock and with new, improved mills opening all around Greenock's hills, the mill fell into disuse.  It was demolished in 1893.

Allan Park Paton gives us a lovely, idyllic description of the mill itself in another verse of his poem:- 

The cot by the way, on whose front roses smiled,

And the tall mill itself, with its slow-going wheel,

Its high open doors where the white bags were piled,

And its many small windows, bedusted with meal,

Its dog, its gay poultry, its lamb tied above,

Near the green lane behind that led on to the hill-

Ah! These were the sights that I warmly did love,

As I strolled on the road round by Kennedy’s Mill,

The quick turning road round by Kennedy’s Mill.

In his first verse Paton noted how much the area had changed since his boyhood years.  I was going to say that he would not recognise the place now, but that would be wrong.  There is once feature of the area which still proudly (and loudly) winds its course down to the river and that is the Carts Burn.

The Carts Burn, Greenock

Sunday 28 August 2022

Greenock's Egeria

Oak Tree Nymph - Egeria.  This beautiful sculpture by Andy Scott can be seen at the west end of West Blackhall Street in Greenock.

There are also two inscriptions on the ground beside the sculpture.  One reads:-

"May Greenock like the Green Oak Tree still flourish 'neath the sun.  Her trade and commerce still increase for a thousand years to come."  This a quote from the song Green Oak Tree by Harry Linn (1844-1890).  You can read more of the lyrics here.

The other reads:-

"She has a body and cloak made from metal.  She wears a crown of oak leaves on her head.  She stands tall and brave.  She brings joy to Greenock.  When people pass by they smile at her.  She is happy that she brings joy."

Greenock has always been associated with the oak tree.  This stems from an old legend that the town's name derives from a green oak tree that used to stand near the shore.

This sculpture and Ginger the Horse (also by Andy Scott) at the east end of the town were both put in place at the same time - 2010.  Joining with Monday Mural.

An invitation to Cartsburn House

In March 1788, Thomas Crawfurd (1746-1791) wrote to the poet Robert Burns inviting him to come and stay with him for a few days at Cartsburn House in Greenock.  It is a wonderful, evocative invitation -

Cartsburn, 16th March 1788

My dear Sir – For congeniality of mind entitles me to the freedom of this appellation, and never did I use it with more cordial sincerity – through the medium of our mutual friend Brown I hazard inviting you to the participation of an agreeable rural retirement at a convenient distance from a town where there are many of your admirers (but, indeed, it is not distinguished from that by any town in Great Britain); a library I hope not ill chosen; a cellar not ill stored; a hearty cock of a landlord, whom his perhaps too partial friends regard as destitute neither of taste nor letters.  He has reached his eighth lustre untrammelled by the matrimonial chain; and having neither wife nor child to disturb his tranquillity or divide his affections, he can offer you a whole heart.  Halt!  This is going too far; he is not so forlorn a wretch as to be without a friend; but this does not hinder his having a very warm place in that same heart (for though the fellow’s person be little his heart is large) most cordially at your services!  How do you like the bill of fare?  Not amiss, provided it be not a vapouring sign to a wretched ale-house.  Good wine needs no “bush”.  Well-come (I must pun) and welcome; and I hope you will find it deficient neither in spirit nor flavour; but this sage reflection of yours prevents my proceeding to raise your expectations too high.  This much I will, however, in justice to myself, add, namely, that if you should be disappointed, I shall be much more so.  Shall I then be blessed with your society?  Answer me, my dear boy!

But I forget myself; you are no classic – no Latin one, I mean, though certainly to be classed (allow me a jingle) among the first Caledonian classics.  Tell me where you are.  God knows I would gladly come for you in person; but as this is not in my power, will you allow me to send a servant and a horse for you!  Do, my dear Burns, and bless me with your assent. – Your hearty friend,  T. Crawfurd.

Unfortunately Robert Burns did not visit Cartsburn House, Greenock - there were too many other things requiring his attention at the time.  Burns wrote to his friend Richard Brown (alluded to by Crawfurd in the invitation) in March 1788 commenting "I have to thank you for the ingenious, friendly and elegant epistle from your friend Mr Crawfurd.  I shall certainly write to him, but not now." 

Thomas Crawfurd of Cartsburn
Source - National Galleries of Scotland

Thomas Crawfurd was the fourth Baron Cartsburn having succeeded his father in 1783.  Cartsburn at that time was not joined with Greenock, but was classed as a separate area.  The family home was Cartsburn House in (what is now) the east end of Greenock (just west of the present St Lawrence Street) Street).  At the time of this letter it was surrounded by fields and gardens.  Thomas Crawfurd was a well educated and well travelled man.  As his letter states, he was unmarried and had no children.  He even offered to send a servant and a horse to convey the poet to Cartsburn.

Certainly I think most people would have found this invitation difficult to turn down.  Cartsburn House sounds like a very convivial place to visit.

Saturday 25 June 2022

Greenock's Wallace Monument

Situated at the very top of the main pathway in Greenock Cemetery (the Esplanade Walk), in a very eminent position, is this monument to Greenock's first Member of Parliament - Robert Wallace (1773-1855).  He was the son of John Wallace (1712-1805) and his third wife Janet Colquhoun.

On his father's death in 1805, Robert Wallace inherited the Kelly Estate in Wemyss Bay along with the Glasgow Estate in Westmoreland, Jamaica and the Cessnock Estate in Hanover, Jamaica.  He became a merchant in Glasgow and was a partner in the Greenock based firm of Wallace, Hunter & Co along with James Hunter, James Tasker and John Robertson.  Wallace, Hunter & Co were merchants (importing sugar and rum) and shipowners with premises at 38 Shaw Street in Greenock.  The company was dissolved in 1849. 

In 1804 he married Margaret Forbes (1783-1846), second daughter of Sir William Forbes of Craigievar (5th Bart) and his wife Sarah Sempill.  They had no children.

Robert Wallace, a Whig, strongly supported electoral reform and became Greenock’s first Member of Parliament after the passing of the Reform Act.  He is best known for his work with regard to postal reform and cheap rate of postage.  His efforts led to the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840.  In thanks for his endeavours, he was awarded the freedom of the City of Glasgow as well as Aberdeen, Paisley, Perth, Dingwall, Inverness and Dornoch.

The Greenock Advertiser described the postal system before reform – “The constant subterfuges to which people were compelled to have recourse to save enormous postage charges by giving their letters to friends to deliver – the pressure on Members of Parliament for franks – the tricks of the Post Office in opening and spying into letters to discover whether they contained enclosures, which were then individually liable to postage – all formed fruitful subjects of complaint in the House of Commons.”  Reform was greatly needed and very much appreciated.

Wallace ran into financial difficulties due to the loss in value of his Jamaican estates and had to sell the Kelly Estate.  He resigned from Parliament in 1845.

A popular man locally, a public subscription was raised in Greenock  and he lived his later days at Seafield Cottage, Esplanade, Greenock.

He died in 1855 and was buried along with other members of his family in Greenock Cemetery.  In 1857 money was raised and it was agreed that a monument to his memory should be erected over his grave.  The family burial plot is situated at the very top of the main pathway in the cemetery (the Esplanade Walk) in a very eminent situation.  The Gothic monument is 31 feet high and made from Aberdeen granite.  It is surrounded by smaller headstones marking the graves of other family members.  

On a red granite tablet is an inscription which reads “Here repose, side by side, the remains of Robert Wallace, late of Kelly, who died on the 1st of April 1855, in the 81st year of his age; and of his beloved wife, Margaret Forbes, who died on the 7th December 1846, aged 62.  Robert Wallace was the descendant and representative of the renowned champion of Scottish independence, and inherited no small portion of the patriotic spirit and indomitable energy of his ancestor.  He sat in Parliament as member for Greenock from 1832 to 1845, being returned four times in succession free of expense, and by his indefatigable and successful labours in the cause of legal and post office reform, he not only justified the choice of the electors, but established a title to the lasting gratitude of his countrymen.  His casting vote as chairman of the committee of the House of Commons secured to the nation the benefit of the penny postage.”  

The space beneath the inscription contained a heraldic shield bearing the Wallace coat of arms and the motto “pro libertate”, now difficult to make out.  At the very top of the monument are iron rods and painted thistles of brass.  The Wallace family claimed descent from Scotland's hero - William Wallace.

Greenock's Wallace Monument was designed by David McIntosh who also designed the Gabriel Wood Mariners Home in Greenock.  The sculptor was Alexander McDonald of the Granite Works, Aberdeen. It must have been a spectacular monument when it was first built.  Unfortunately it is rather sad looking nowadays.  There are several other gravestones around the monument marking the burial places of other family members.

Robert Wallace was highly esteemed not just locally, but throughout Britain.  He left a bequest of several items to the Watt Institution.

This included his freedoms to the various cities and towns he had been awarded, two "curious" arm chairs, one the chair of a Spanish admiral who had sailed around the world.  Another item was a picture of Sir William Wallace and a "curious" long chest with "strange looking" figures carved on it.  The items were on show to the public locally before they disappeared into the vaults of the Museum.  I wonder where these items are now?  

Wallace of Kelly is one of the names around the top of the Lyle Fountain in Cathcart Square, Greenock.

Saturday 18 June 2022

Greenock's Ghost Closes

A walk along Cathcart Street in Greenock gives glimpses of the many closes, or narrow lanes, that once led down to the River Clyde from Greenock's main street.

You can see where these closes once stood by the signs on the walls of the present day buildings. Once the busy, noisy, thronging heart of the town, many were also dirty, overcrowded and crime-ridden places.  However they do add a colourful side to Greenock's history and were where many ordinary people lived and worked. 

Sign showing where Broad Close once stood.

Broad Close was once one of the main lanes down to the River and, for its time, was considered wide!  The local gaol was situated here thus the depiction of the jougs (iron collar used as form of punishment).  You can read more about it here.

Another "ghost close" was the notorious Longwell Close - so called because it houses one of the town's main wells.  There's still a stone on the ground marking where the well once was.  You can read more about it on this blog here.

Drummer's Close still exists in part.  It once ran south from Dalrymple Street (at the Municipal Buildings) and has a very interesting history which you can read here.

Then there's the interestingly named Mince Collop Close - which once stood just off William Street.  Learn more here.

Many of these closes were destroyed during improvements to the town in the 1880s.  It is good to know that the ghost of their presence still remains in the street signs along Cathcart Street a reminder of an important aspect of Greenock's history and heritage.

Wednesday 15 June 2022

Greenock's Finnieston Crane

It is a well known fact that the Finnieston Crane can be found at Stobcross in Glasgow.  However, Greenock has its own cantilever crane at the James Watt Dock Marina.  By a curious coincidence, part of this area in the east end of Greenock was once called Finnieston.  You can see the crane clearly in the Greenockian Blog header.

A look at a local map from the 1840s clearly shows, just across the street from Garvel Park, at what was then called Archibald Street (now Macdougall Street), a few buildings which are labelled "Finnieston".

Greenock's Titan cantilever crane is an icon in the town, built in 1917 by Sir William Arroll & Co for the Greenock Harbour Trust.  The town's shipyards have all gone, but the Titan crane remains as a reminder of our proud shipbuilding and engineering past.

Click here for more reflection photographs.

A very strange coincidence that the area right across from where the Greenock crane stands was once called Finnieston - just like the Glasgow crane!

Monday 13 June 2022

Lyle Fountain Video

Find out more about the Lyle Fountain in Cathcart Square, Greenock - I've just uploaded a new video to the Greenockian's YouTube Channel.

Or you can look back at this previous blog post - Lyle Fountain - the 18 Names.

Tuesday 7 June 2022

Where has W S Graham's plaque gone?

In October 2021 I wrote about this lovely plaque to Greenock poet W S Graham down at the Beacon Arts Centre at Customhouse Quay.  It seems to have disappeared!

EDITED 18 June 2022 - I have been informed that the plaque is safe inside the Beacon Arts Centre building.

I asked at the Beacon but no one seems to know what has happened to it.

If anyone out there has any idea of its present whereabouts, could you please let me know.  (There's a "get in touch" item on the right hand column of this blog or get in touch via Instagram.)  Thank you!