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.