Wednesday 23 August 2023

Alex Thomson of the Revenue Cutter "Alert"

The stone in Duncan Street Cemetery, Greenock marks the burial lair of Alexander Thomson and his wife Jean Kennedy.

The stone reads - "This burying place belongs to Alex Thomson, Commander of the Alert Revenue Cutter and Jean Kennedy his spouse 1816."

Alexander Thomson died in Dunoon in 1826.  So the date of 1816 on the stone was probably when he bought the lair for himself and his wife.  He would have been remembered in Greenock as the Revenue Officer who captured many smugglers over the years.  He seems to have been a fearless man, not afraid of getting into scrapes with the smugglers in order to carry out his orders of confiscating contraband and arresting the wrongdoers.

You can read some of Alex Thomson's adventures in my previous blog post about smuggling (click on link to read post).  Alexander Thomson and his wife Jean Kennedy had no children.  He left his estate to his wife and bequests for his sister Flora's children.

Monday 21 August 2023

Greenock men and their images

Like proud Roman senators, these eminent Greenockians are portrayed in very classical style.  The busts can be found in the vestibule leading to the council chamber of Greenock's Municipal Buildings. 


John Caird (1820-1898) - Born in Greenock son of John Caird of Caird & Co and Janet Young.  Principal of the University of Glasgow 1873-1898.  Died at Dungourney, Newark Street the home of his brother Colin Stuart Caird.

Duncan Hendry - (1824-1880) Councillor and Magistrate.  Shipwright and shipowner,  Married to Cochran McKerrow.  Lived at Broomfield, Esplanade.

John Duff (1832-1887)  - Councillor and Magistrate. A brassfounder, married to Jessie Biggar Adam, the family lived at Hazelwood, Eldon Street.  

Robert Shankland (1826-1889) - Councillor and Magistrate.  Provost of Greenock.  Shipowner who was married to Janet Gibson.  Lived at The Craigs, Newark Street, Greenock.

Alexander Murray Dunlop (1798-1870) - Legal advisor to those who formed the Free Church of Scotland at the Disruption of 1843. In 1844 he married Eliza Esther Murray (1818-1902) and took the name Murray Dunlop.  In 1866 he inherited his cousin’s estate and as a condition of that changed his name to Alexander Colquhoun Stirling Murray Dunlop. He became MP for Greenock in 1852 and retired from public life in 1868 to his estate at Corsock in Dumfries which he inherited through his wife. He died there in 1870.

Quite a collection of Greenockians.

Saturday 19 August 2023

Lord Cathcart's Women

Charles 8th Lord Cathcart (1686-1740) was an army man, rapidly rising up through the ranks to reach the top of his profession.  While his life as a soldier brought him acclaim and fame, the women in his life were also very interesting characters.

Portrait courtesy of Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum

Charles 8th Lord Cathcart fought at the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 as commander of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons.  At one time he was Lieutenant Colonel of the Scots Greys, and in 1730  was appointed Groom of the Bedchamber to King George II (1727-1760).  In 1732 his father died and he succeeded to the title of 8th Lord Cathcart and estates at the age of 46.  In 1734 he was elected one of the sixteen peers for Scotland at the British Parliament.  He also held other positions, he was Governor of Duncannon Fort in Wexford, Ireland, and by 1739 he was Commander in Chief of the British Forces in America. 

In this position he was involved in the war against the Spanish (expedition to Carthagena) which took place mainly in the Caribbean where many British subjects had business and financial interests.  The Spanish had control of many of the ports in the area and British forces had tried to seize them for Britain, but without much success and a great loss of life.  A joint venture by the British Army and Navy was planned with Admiral Vernon in charge of the Navy and Lord Cathcart leading the Army.  They left from Spithead in October 1840 after a long delay.  Unfortunately, Lord Cathcart died of dysentery at sea just before arriving.  (Many British troops died from disease either on the journey out or on their arrival in the Caribbean.)  Lord Cathcart was buried at Portsmouth, Dominica.  It was a few months before word of his death reached Britain.  

In February 1841 the ship Industry of Glasgow, Captain Adam Chisholm arrived in Greenock after a seven-week journey from St Christopher (St Kitts) with a letter giving – “the most melancholy news, that the Rt Hon Charles Lord Cathcart died at the Island of Dominica the 20th December, to the inexpressible Grief of the whole Fleet.

Another letter gives more, detailed information – “he was seized with a violent Flux 14 days before, which occasioned a Mortification in his Bowels, and surrendered his great Soul with a truly Christian Patience and Resignation, ordering his Remains to be interred by those of his first Lady in the New Church at Edinburgh”.  The newspaper continued – “It is not easy to express the deep Concern which surprized the Citizens, the Affliction was universal, People here justly regarding as a National Loss, his Death, whose extensive Benevolence and good Offices could never be confined to Party Views.”

He is described as a man of honour, a most affable man and that he was “trained up from his Youth in the Army, his known experience, Conduct, Valour and Prudence recommended him to his Prince as a very proper Person to lead out his Forces against the Enemies of his Country”.  He was succeeded by his son, Charles 9th Lord Cathcart (1721-1776).

While his illustrious military career is worthy of mention, it is the women in his life who have proved to be equally (if not more) interesting.  

Marion Shaw - Lord Cathcart's first wife 

It was through his wife Marion Shaw (1700-1733), sometimes written Schaw, only child of "the last" Sir John Shaw (1679-1752) and his wife Margaret Dalrymple (d1757) of Greenock that he acquired land in Greenock.  The couple married in London in 1718.  

The couple lived for a while at the Mansion House in Greenock.  They had ten children, not all of whom lived to adulthood.  Marion died in 1733, aged just 33, before her father who died in 1752.  However the bulk of Sir John's estate, due to terms previously set out regarding inheritance, did not go to Marion's children, but was left to the family of Sir John's sister, Margaret whose heir was her grandson, John Stewart of Blackhall whose family then took the additional name Shaw (thus Shaw Stewart).  However Marion and her husband did acquire some land and few-rights, mainly around the mansion house in Greenock.  Various streets in Greenock show this - Cathcart Square, Cathcart Street and Charles Street.  Marion Shaw’s mother was Margaret Dalrymple (daughter of Sir Hew Dalrymple) - therefore Dalrymple Street.

Their two elder sons, twins died young.  Third son Charles became 9th Lord Cathcart.  Their fourth son, Shaw Cathcart an Ensign in the Guards died at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745.  He was just 23 and unmarried.

Janet Dalrymple - Lord Cathcart's aunt (also related to Marion Shaw)

Lord Cathcart's mother was Elizabeth Dalrymple, younger sister of Janet Dalrymple whose father was James Dalrymple, 1st Viscount Stair (1619-1695) and his wife Margaret Ross.  In 1669 Janet Dalrymple secretly became betrothed to Archibald 3rd Lord Rutherford.  They "plighted their troth" in a secret, unofficial ceremony  "imprecating dismal evils upon whoever should withdraw from or violate the contract".  

However, her mother, Lady Stair had other ideas.  She had marked out "country gentleman" David Dunbar of Baldoon, Wigtonshire as a more appropriate husband for Janet.  She intercepted all correspondence with Janet's lover, Rutherford writing to tell him that her daughter wanted to break all contract.  Sure that this was not what Janet wanted, Rutherford demanded to speak personally to Janet.  A meeting was arranged, but it was to be in the presence of Lady Stair - a formidable woman,  who told the young man in no uncertain terms that there would be no marriage.  It was reported that Janet was "mute and overwhelmed" as her mother and lover argued and eventually returned to Rutherford a portion of the coin they had split as a mark of their love and betrothal.

The marriage with Dunbar was arranged and the usual ceremony and festivities took place.  The bride was described as "like one lost in reverie and who only moves and acts mechanically".  On the wedding night horrific screams were heard and when the door to the bridal chamber was unlocked and opened, the groom was discovered drenched in blood and wounded.  The bride was "cowering in a corner of the chimney, with no covering but her shift that was drenched in her husband's blood".  Dunbar recovered from his wounds, but poor Janet "pined away" and died less than three weeks later.  David Dunbar died in a fall from his horse in 1682.  Andrew Rutherford, the forsaken lover, died unmarried and childless in 1685. 

Naturally these events created quite a scandal which, James Dalrymple as an important politician and lawyer, could not have tainting his family.  Lots of alternative stories about what happened did the rounds, but as is usual with these sort of events, the story grew and became more outrageous as the years went by.  It was even said that Janet's mother, Lady Stair, dabbled in witchcraft.  However Janet's story would never be forgotten because in 1819 Sir Walter Scott further dramatised events in his novel The Bride of Lammermuir.

Elizabeth Sabine - Lord Cathcart's second wife

After the death of Marion Shaw, Lord Cathcart married a widow, Elizabeth Sabine of London in 1739.  Lord Cathcart was actually her third husband.  Born in 1691, Elizabeth Malyn (or Mailing) was the daughter of Thomas Malyn, a brewer of Battersea.  Her first marriage was to James Fleet (1686-1733), only son of Sir John Fleet, former Lord Mayor of London who owned the manor of Tewin in Hertfordshire.  James Fleet owned property in London, Southwark and Hertfordshire.  He died in April 1733 and there was a memorial to him in Tewin Church describing him as an “affectionate husband”.  The couple had no children, and Elizabeth was left Tewin Water House.

Within a year Elizabeth married again.  Her second husband lived in the same parish, was Joseph Sabine of Queenhoo Hall.  He was the younger brother of General Sabine Governor of Gibraltar.  Joseph died in 1738, leaving his wife as his sole executrix and legatee.  Once again, a year later in 1739, Elizabeth married Lord Charles Cathcart who had been a widower for five years.  He died just a year later, but Elizabeth had become Lady Cathcart and received a settlement on her marriage.

After Lord Cathcart's death in 1740, the widowed Lady Cathcart lived for a while at his town house in Dartmouth Street, Westminster.  Then, in May 1745, Elizabeth married for the fourth time (age 54) to the "handsome and dashing” Hugh Maguire (1710-1766) twenty years her junior.  He was from a family of loyal Irish Jacobites of Castle Nugent in County Longford.  Like many in his family he had fought overseas, and was said to have been in the Austrian army in the service of Queen Maria Theresa of Hungary.  Although they married in 1745, it is believed that Lady Cathcart bought Maguire a Lieutenant Colonel’s commission in the British army in 1841, three years before their marriage.  He became lieutenant colonel in Colonel De Grangue’s regiment of foot.  He sold the commission sometime later.  It was said that when they married she had a wedding ring engraved with the words “If I survive, I will have five.”

Elizabeth was by now a wealthy woman and her fourth husband had no fortune.  A marriage settlement was made ensuring that she had sole control of her property (and income she received from that property) inherited from her three previous husbands – property, jewels, household goods etc, as well as use for life of the Cathcart townhouse in Dartmouth Street.  After their marriage they lived together at Tewin for a short time.  Macguire was constantly trying to get more money from his wife.  He brought his mistress into his wife’s household and managed to acquire a copy of his wife's will.  It was said that, with a gun to her head, he tried to force her to change her will in his favour, but she refused.  He was determined to get as much of her money, jewels and property as he could and was prepared to take drastic steps to achieve his goal.

One evening when out for a drive, Elizabeth expected to return home in time for supper, but she found herself trapped in the carriage and on the road to Chester.  There were rumours that Macguire intended taking Elizabeth to Ireland against her will.  Some of her friends having heard of what was happening, sent an attorney to Chester to demand to see Elizabeth and find out from her own lips if she was going of her own free will.  The lawyer caught up with them at the White Lion Inn where he demanded to see Lady Cathcart.  Maguire, knowing that the man did not know what his wife looked like, sent his mistress to take her place and she confirm that she was going to Ireland of her own free will.  The lawyer apologised and made the journey back to London.  Macguire’s party then freely travelled on to Holyhead, and from there to Ireland. 

Once back in his homeland, Macguire lived the high life spending his wife’s money.  It was reported that “he was a great favourite with the ladies” and not a man to be argued with.  Lady Cathcart was imprisoned at Castle Nugent and then forced to sign papers entitling Macguire to a portion of her estate.  Maguire’s agent, Joseph Hickey took possession of Tewin Water House, rented it out, and sold as many of Elizabeth's possessions he found there.

Elizabeth was imprisoned for 20 years in Ireland.  When Hugh Maguire died in 1766 In his will he left what he had in trust for his nephews and allowed his wife “all the jewells and plate of which she was possessed at the time of her marriage”!  It was said that he died attempting to locate deeds to her property which she had secreted away at Tewin before he had taken her to Ireland.

Elizabeth quickly returned to England and began to take legal action to recover as much of her property as she could.  She ejected the tenant from Tewing House and lived there.  It was said that Lady Cathcart had told a friend that her first marriage was to please her parents, her second for money, her third for rank and her fourth for love but that had not turned out well.  Her experiences with her fourth husband would certainly have put her off having a fifth as engraved on her wedding ring!  She seems to have made the most of what was left of her life after returning to England attending balls and concerts and enjoying company, making up for her years of imprisonment in Ireland.

Elizabeth died in 1787 at the grand old age of 96.  She left much of  her estate to her godchildren, friends, servants and local good causes.  She was buried in St Peter’s Church vault in Tewin beside her first husband.  In the 1800 writer Maria Edgeworth wrote a novel Castle Rackrent which is said use some of Lady Cathcart's story.

Elenora Cathcart - Lord Cathcart's elder daughter

Elenora Cathcart (1720-1769) was, along with her younger sister Mary Ann (or Mainie Ann) brought up by her maternal grandmother, Lady Shaw (nee Elizabeth Dalrymple) after the death of their mother in 1833.  Their father died in 1840.  Elenora was educated to the standard of the day for women and had an exceptionally large dowrie or tocher as it is called in Scotland.  (Eleanora is also sometimes named as Eleonara, Helen or Eleanor.)

On 15 February 1744 she married Sir John Houston (Houstoune).  Sir John was reported to be “in bad health, of an irritable temperament, and had a high opinion of himself, both as regarded intellect and personal appearance”.  Eleanora was high spirited and seemed to irritate him.  She did not give in to his moods, and tried her best to make life tolerable. The marriage was a very unhappy one.  Sir John did not seem like a particularly good catch, but the Shaw and Houston families had been connected by marriage throughout the generations.  Sir John Shaw, Elenora's grandfather was Sir John Houston's cousin.

Another factor which affected the marriage was, as an article in a magazine (Notes & Queries 1866) coyly puts it “had it not been for an indisposition which his medical advisers were unable to overcome, but with the existence of which his wife was made acquainted before her marriage, he might have been regarded as a fitting candidate for matrimony”!  Shortly after the marriage, Sir John decided that a change of air would be good for his health and he and Eleanora travelled abroad.  Her younger sister, Mainie Anne accompanied them.

The friction between the married couple got worse as they travelled through England and was no better when they arrived in France and Italy.  In a letter she wrote to her grandmother from Calais in 1744, seven months after her wedding we get a glimpse of her life – “When I went with my dear Sir John, it was to be a nurse to him … “  She goes on to say that she had tried her best to be the wife he wanted, but “I looked sullen and would not eat; put on all kinds of airs, which he took the greatest pains to bring me out of, but in vain.”  However events would prove that she was trying to appease her grandmother.  The true state of their marriage was far more troubling.  In "Alienated Affections" by Leah Leneman (Edinburgh University Press, 1998 pp 302-308)) the author, who has read other letters and court documents, writes of  Eleanora's despair and fear as the petty quarreling turned to physical abuse.  Sir John spoke badly about her relatives and mocked her at every turn.  Many of those around them noticed his behaviour and commented on it. Eleanora knew that if Sir John heard that she had told her Grandmother the truth in a letter then it would be all the worse for her.  

Sir John’s behaviour became even more strange – he carried a monkey with him and had other animals which roamed freely around the house.  He also had a  snake from which the poisonous glands had been removed and he enjoyed tormenting his wife with with it.  Eventually, Eleanora's sister returned home.  Left alone with her abusive husband, life got even worse, to the point where he threatened to break every bone in her body

After a particularly vicious beating, Eleanora eventually left him seeking shelter with the authorities in Montauban before returning to Scotland.  She bravely took action against her husband, who denied all wrong doing, citing letters she had written in which she blamed herself for his behaviour.  Many of those who had witness his abuse and cruelty spoke in her favour.  In 1750 an official separation was declared, with Sir John paying a set amount for persecuting his wife.  Sir John Houstoune died in 1751.

Free from the horror of her marriage and well provided for, Eleanora took up writing, She wrote two comedies which were never printed.   The Coquette: or, the Gallant in the Closet, she sent to James Boswell, but nothing came of it, and In Foro, a Comedy.  Elenora died in London in 1769.  She had no children.

Mainie Anne - Lord Cathcart's younger daughter

Mainie Anne Cathcart (1727-1774) her name is sometimes given as Mary Anne, Manie Ann, or Marion.  Like her older sister Elenora was brought up by her maternal grandmother Lady Shaw.  Went abroad with her sister and her husband Sir John Houston shortly after their marriage in 1744.  Returned home and in 1754 married William Napier who, on the death of his father in 1773 became 7th Lord Napier.  He was in the army and in 1770 became a major in the Scots Greys (her father's old regiment).  He sold his commission 1773 because of ill health and was given the post of Deputy Adjutant-General of forces in Scotland.  He died in 1775.  

The couple had a son and heir, Francis, 8th Lord Napier (1758-1823) and four daughters.  Mainie Schaw Napier (1756-1806) married in 1779 Rev AndrewHunter of Barjarg (1744-1809) in Dumfriesshire.  He had been assistant minister at Dumfries,  in 1799 he moved to Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh and was also Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Other daughters were, Henrietta Hope Napier (born 1759), Mary Elizabeth Napier (1766-1778) and Jane Wilhelmena Napier (1769- 1779).  Mainie died in 1774 while her family were still very young.

It would seem that Mainie Anne led quite a normal life for a mid-eighteenth century woman.  But, there had been a hint of scandal.  During her sister Elenora's proceedings against her husband in the late 1740s, several letters from Mainie to her brother in law, Sir John Houston were read out in court.  The letters were described as love letters and this led to speculation that Mainie had been having an affair with Sir John.  Mainie was seven years younger than her sister and although that is no excuse, being abroad and being a romantic young woman, was perhaps "played" by the horrible Sir John.  However, that seems to have been played down and she did make a good marriage, although of course it is impossible to say what the conditions of the marriage settlement would have been and if any financial arrangements were made.

Lord Cathcart - Many of the interesting events surrounding Lord Cathcart's women happened after his death.  His reputation was not in any way diminished.  However, for two of the women their stories are still remembered in fiction - The Bride of Lammermuir by Sir Walter Scott and Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth.  Two of the other women's stories remain in the annals of the Scottish courts recorded during the separation proceedings of Elenora Cathcart and Sir John Houston.  What an interesting family!

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Concord of Greenock - captured by the Americans

The following is the first hand account of Captain James Laurie of the ship Concord of Greenock, of his ship's capture and his subsequent treatment as a prisoner during the American Revolution.  He obviously had a horrendous journey before his ship was taken and he did not think much of his captors.  It is a fascinating read.

The newspaper article starts - "A correspondent has favoured us with the following Journal of Captain Laurie of Glasgow."

I am happily satisfied with the sight of Old England once more, after eight months misery, from great losses and afflictions.  As I wrote you before, of my intended voyage, I sailed 25th September 1775, for Boston, with a cargo of coals, provisions, and sundry necessaries, for the use of the navy in America, after a very hard passage of ten weeks; four of which I beat on the coast, with strong gales and contrary winds."

You can read more about the Greenock ship Concord and her capture on my previous post - An Appeal to HeavenThe article continues -

"On sounding on the 2nd of December, about twelve leagues south east from Cape Anne, at six in the evening, was boarded and taken by a schooner, of six carriage and twelve swivel guns, manned with about sixty piratical vagabonds, headed by one John Manley styling themselves American Cruizers.  I was, with the most of my people, bundled on board the schooner, and my ship taken possession of by the above crew."

Cape Anne is about thirty miles northeast of Boston.  The Concord was captured by Captain John Manley, a very successful American privateer.  His ship was the Lee.

"By break of day next morning, made our appearance off Marble Head, where a large body of people, who were throwing up a battery for defence of said place, shouted with joy at our appearance.  From thence proceeded to Beverley, where the people came in numbers from the country, much overjoyed at Manley’s great success.  In midst of the crew, we were told not to be afraid, for we should be treated like gentlemen, and meet with the best usage, crying out, “That it was not private property they wanted, but to hinder supplies going to the Ministerial Butchers”, meaning the troops at Boston; and I, with many others, think it great scandal to the British flag, so many of us were made sacrifices, after so severe a passage to be taken by such vermin, right under their noses."

Marblehead is just north of Boston and Beverley is now a suburb of Boston.  The British troops were under siege at Boston and could only get supplies by sea.

"Myself, and one gentleman passenger, and nine of the sailors, were landed, and put under the guard of a parcel of fellows, with guns and bayonets fixed, who marched us with fife and drum to Salem, where we were stared on by men, women, and children, as villains, shouting out, “see the prisoners”!  Our guard were styled the Rangers, dressed in checquered home spun; the Captain of which, during my imprisonment, made me two pair of shoes, for the common price, as a customer.  So much for the Yankee Captain."

Salem during the Revolutionary War was a centre of privateering.  The Rangers were a force which once was loyal to the British, but during the Revolution many fought on the American side.  Laurie mocks them as wearing "checquered home spun", during the War there was a ban on British imports and loyal Americans chose fabric made by their own people.  There's a very interesting article - "The Hands that Spun the Revolution" on the Library of Congress Blog.  (Click the link to read.)

George Washington

"It was, with much difficulty, unable to walk from fatigue, I procured carriage to Cambridge, to appear before Washington, whom they styled General and Commander in Chief of the United American army; a very hard and disagreeable circumstance, that must be performed by all whom they make prisoners, let the distance be even a hundred miles from the headquarters.  From the lameness  of the sailers, we could not reach the first day; but, on the second, by ten in the morning, two or three vessels crews of us entered Cambridge, amidst thousands, of all nations, ages, colours, and dresses, from a cobbler Captain, to a brother Jonathan with his pickaxe and hoe, crying out, “You see what we Americans can do; you may as soon pull the stars from the skies, as subdue us free-born Americans by force of arms."

Cambridge is now a suburb of Boston and home of Harvard University.  During the Revolution, George Washington had his headquarters in Cambridge.  The Cobbler Captain refers to the Captain of the men guarding Laurie who made him two pairs of shoes. "Brother Jonathan" was used a term used to describe loyal Americans, an early Uncle Sam. 

"We were brought to the house where Washington lived, but was not admitted to his presence, at that time, being engaged in other business, but all sent to confinement; the sailors sent to gaols, and sundry masters of us sent to a house, all under guards." 

Longfellow House, as it is now named, was Washington's HQ for a few years during the siege of Boston.  It got its name because the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) lived there for much of his life.

Washington's HQ in Cambridge

"In three days time, we petitioned to know our destiny, as it was impossible for the men to live in the place into which they were crowded, not even having room to lie down to rest.  Offer being made, to give my parole, for self and sailors, to deliver ourselves up to a Committee of Safety at Concord, till further orders, we gladly accepted of the same, rather than be marched through the different towns, with such a gang.  After delivering ourselves up, we became much in want of necessary clothing.  I complained of such treatment, on behalf of self and people, as we had given them no cause of offence, without they made that one, of getting our daily bread; a doctrine very contrary to what they foolishly call their own (that is, liberty and property).  After begging and praying, and using every other interest I could, was permitted, by a fresh parole, to return to my ship for some clothing, for self and people; but how great was my surprise, after all that had been said, by people, who I thought from principle would not lie, to learn the cargo was taken out, and everything in the ship ransacked, chests, desks, etc broke open, and most of our things taken away, by an unlawful authority of men, calling themselves Agents for the Continental Cruizers.  What was remaining, was glad to put up with, and walk off."

Committee of Safety - during the Revolutionary War they were akin to local government.

"As there was no redress where rapine had taken place, in room of humanity and justice, after being marched and counter marched, sundry times to Cambridge and Concord, by several applications made, was permitted to the precincts of Salem, a prisoner on parole, without even bread or water to subsist on, but what I pay for.

I was not the only sufferer, sundry other masters will share the same fate; and what may appear very extraordinary, as I dare say unparalleled, a number of the poor sailors were marched, under guard, a hundred miles of the country, in frost and snow, and left to the mercy of the people, almost ready to destroy one another, much more prisoners, whom they looked on as enemies to their country and cause without the smallest means of support. 

After twelve weeks spent, and no views of recovering my employer’s property, or any provision made to subsist on, personal safety being daily in danger, I with several others, made application to Washington, who granted us a pass to get away the best manner we could, after giving our parole of honour not to go to Boston, or any other way where any of his Majesty’s ships were.

This letter from Robert Hanson Harrison (1745-1790) was in charge of Washington’s HQ during the war to William Bartlett who was Washington’s naval agent shows that Laurie and the others captured with him could have passage away from America.  It is interesting to note the statement that Washington  "would not wish too great a number of them should be in one vessel ... it is only right to guard against accidents."  The other men captured on the Concord of Greenock were, Archibald Templeton, James Crawford, Joseph Douglass, James Hamilton, and John McIver.

I took passage to Antigua, with John Bourke, Esq of said island, who had suffered the same fate, and was permitted to purchase a small sloop for that purpose and happy for us, we got away ere the advice of the restraining bill took place.  We left Salem 1 March 1776, arrived in Antigua 2nd April, where I took first opportunity for Britain, which was in his Majesty’s sloop of war Lynx; and got to Spithead on the 2nd June."

John Burke of Antigua had been travelling to Boston as a passenger in the ship Little Hannah, Robert Adams master, which, like Laurie's ship Concord, had been captured by John Manley of the ship Lee in December 1775.  The Little Hannah was carrying a cargo of rum and gineva.  Washington reported that the cargo was for "the use of the Army and Navy at Boston".  Sloop of war Lynx - more information here

"The manner of proceeding in America is almost beyond description; for instead of humanity, which the newspapers are filled with, some are compelled to enter their service, others have barely enough to keep life and soul together in gaols, and many left to shift for themselves or starve; men, women and children, suffer the same fate, whoever fall into their hands, as I to my woeful experience have seen; and was it not for some, who were not lost in their human feelings, the case of prisoners in America would be too shocking to relate; and what service they do is at the risk of their lives and fortune.  In some of my examinations before Washington, he seemed much dissatisfied, that I did not say the people of Britain were all in associations against Government, as he seemed to be advised to that purpose by private correspondence, whom they all depended much upon; but I took the hint, and excused myself, not being versant in politics.  Upon the whole, they seemed to be sickening of the frolick, as they called it.  None of them every expected that it would have come that length; and excepting those who keep their spirits up with Yankee rum, the rest appeared rather melancholy than otherwise, but they were all in hopes of their time of service being expired before the regulars landed from England, as they were only by the month till May".

So ended Captain James Laurie's woeful tale of his capture and imprisonment in America.  He does not give a positive description as to the morale of the people he meets during his time there.  As a first hand account, it makes very interesting reading.  However, there are factors which have to be taken into account.  Having lost his ship and his valuable cargo, he would have to face meeting the ship owners and merchants who had entrusted them to deliver the goods.  Not all of his crew would have made it home - perhaps still imprisoned in America or taken by press gangs to serve on other ships.  These and other factors give an insight into how he may have been viewing his capture.  It is not difficult to imagine that personal pride would also account for the tone of his writing.

Glad to be home, he went back to sea shortly afterwards.  This notice dated July 1777 from the Manchester Mercury shows that despite his ordeal, he continued to voyage across the Atlantic after his return to Britain.  

Sunday 13 August 2023

Was Robert Burns big-headed?

He's Scotland national poet and well known throughout the world.  However, is there any way of proving whether Robert Burns was big-headed or not?  Perhaps there is - read on!

The photograph below shows perhaps one of the more unusual items on display in the Greenock Burns Club’s Exhibition and Archive room in Greenock’s Custom House.  The alien-like object is (supposedly) a copy of a cast of Robert Burn’s skull!  The story of how the original cast of his skull was made is quite strange.

Copy of cast of Robert Burns' skull

Robert Burns (1759-1796) died at Dumfries in July 1796.  He was buried with full military honours as a member of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers.  His funeral was described as “uncommonly splendid”.  The cortege, accompanied by the military band of the Cinque Ports Cavalry, consisted of the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, in full uniform, the Angusshire Fencibles and a procession of friends and relatives.  He was buried in a simple plot in the north-east portion of the burial ground of St Michael’s Church in Dumfries.  His body remained there until 1815 when a grand mausoleum was built in his honour, by public subscription, in the same graveyard.  His body was exhumed from its original grave.  Before being reinterred in the mausoleum, several people saw his remains.

Robert Burns mausoleum, St Michael's Church, Dumfries

A newspaper report described in great sycophantic detail what happened – “On opening the coffin, a spectacle was unfolded, which, considering the fame of the mighty dead, has rarely been witnessed by a single human being.  There lay the remains of the great poet, to all appearances entire, retaining various traces of recent vitality, or, to speak more correctly, exhibiting the features of one who had newly sunk into the sleep of death.  The forehead struck everyone, as beautifully arched, if not so high as might have been reasonably supposed, while the scalp was rather thickly covered with hair, and the teeth perfectly firm and white.”  His body was then placed in a vault in the mausoleum.


However, the poet’s eternal rest would once again be interrupted.  In 1834, Jean Armour, Robert Burns’ widow died, thirty-eight years after the death of her husband.  Her remains were to be interred in the family vault alongside Burns in the mausoleum.  The vault had been opened to receive her body.  This was described as “a work of considerable difficulty and labour”.  Consent had previously been obtained from members of Burns’ family by some who were determined to retrieve his skull and have it examined by a phrenologist.  

The night before Jean Armour’s funeral, ten men proceeded inside the vault.  Andrew Crombie had witnessed the first exhumation and re-interment of the remains in 1815 and knew where the head would be - “a few spadefuls of loose sandy soil being removed, the skull was brought into view and carefully lifted.”  It was reported that the skull was in good condition.  Some small portions of black hair, with a very few grey hairs intermixed were observed …”.  All debris was washed off the skull, plaster of Paris applied and the cast taken by James Fraser, plasterer.  Some of the others present in the vault had known Burns and some were just observing - John McDairmid (editor of the Dumfries Courier), Adam Rankine (merchant) James Bogie (gardener) and Thomas Carlyle (author).  Also present was GeorgeCombe (1788-1858), a native of Edinburgh, the phrenologist who had been given the honour of examining and measuring Robert Burns’ skull.  In order to get an idea of the size of the skull, the men tried their hats on it, none of which fit, which was seen as “a sufficient proof of its extraordinary size”!  Once the cast had been taken, the skull itself was then placed in a lead box and returned to its place in the Mausoleum.

"The upper or cerebral part of the skull is very massive!"

In 1834 phrenology – the study of the shape of the skull as a sign of personality – was a popular “new science” and George Combe was one of its main exponents.  After studying Burns’s skull, Combe produced a report based on its shape and measurements.  The report confirmed the personality traits that would have been expected by those aficionados of Burns’ work.  

Combe's phrenology report

Over the years since that first cast was made in 1834, many copies of the cast were produced and distributed.  It is a story that is typical of its time.  What if the skull had turned out to be very small?  I'm sure the eulogists would have found a way to explain that.  Certainly from Combe's measurements it would appear that Robert Burns did have quite a big head!

The cast of Robert Burns’ skull is just one of the many interesting exhibits in the Greenock Burns Club’s room in the Custom House in Greenock.  The Exhibition and Archive room is open from 12 till 2 on Saturdays during the summer and when larger cruise liners are visiting.  Please check for opening times on the Burns Club website before visiting.

More Robert Burns links with Greenock and Port Glasgow - his close friend, Richard Brown, his official seal,  the love of his life, Highland Mary.  Click on the links to check them out.

Thursday 10 August 2023

James Watt - a year in London

In June of 1755 James Watt (1736-1819) and John Marr (the son of his former teacher) travelled to London by horseback.  The journey, via Coldstream, Newcastle, Durham, York, Doncaster, Newark and Biggleswade, took 12 days.  Watt in a letter home to his father, written at York states - “I like the country very well, but think the people are very sharp”.

James Watt was in London to find a place with a mathematical instrument maker.  Nautical instruments were something that the young James Watt, with his skill in mathematics and astronomy, was very familiar with.  His father, also James Watt (1698-1782) was in business in Greenock as a shipwright and merchant supplying ships.  James helped with the business.  However, his father had suffered some financial difficulties and Watt’s mother, Agnes Muirhead (1703-1755) had recently died.  Watt had spent the previous year in Glasgow living with his mother’s relatives.  Here he met Dr Robert Dick, a professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University who encouraged him to go to London to further his skill in making mathematical instruments.  He gave him that essential in those days, a letter of introduction to James Short, a Scottish astronautical instrument maker in London with a view to finding someone who would take Watt on and teach him the trade.

However, that proved more difficult than anticipated.  Watt wrote to his father soon after arrival – “I have not yet got a master; we have tried several; they all make some objection or other.  I find that if any of them agree with me at all, it will not be for less than a year and even at that time they will be expecting some money”.  Watt was anxious not to expect his father to pay out too much on his behalf. 

John Marr wrote to Watt’s father “your son began to divert himself in cutting letters and figures etc in the ship of Mr Neale, watchmaker, from whom I had the small patent globes.  Mr Neale is the frankest tradesman of any of the fraternity I have seen … In the meantime, I shall endeavour to see him employed at Mr Neale’s who inclines to have some of his work to show”.  That did not work out, but Watt soon found employment elsewhere.

Watt worked on the brass parts of Hadley’s quadrants for John Morgan, mathematical instrument maker in Finch Lane, Cornhill. Watt wrote of him as being “of as good a character, both for accuracy in his business and good morals, as any in his way in London … he can teach me most branches of the business, such as rules, scales, quadrants etc”.  Marr writes – “he could not have found a man better recommended for good nature and ingenuity than Morgan”.  With his father’s approval, it was decided that James would receive a year’s instruction from Morgan at a cost to Watt's father of twenty guineas. 

A hard worker, by August he was outperforming Morgan’s other apprentices.  In November he was working on azimuth compasses.  By the end of the year, he wrote to his father “I think I shall be able to get my bread anywhere, as I am now able to work as well as most journeymen, though I am not so quick as many".  Unfortunately, his health suffered as he strove to do his best for his master, his father and most importantly, himself.

Living in London, Watt paid eight shilling a week for food.  He writes home about the long hours and insufficient food, but was very aware that his father could not afford to pay out any more money.  He did not take much time out to explore the sights of London.  The French and Indian War was getting underway in America and there was a lot of rumours and unease around the country, especially in the city.  For Watt, an ever present danger was the threat from the press gangs who roamed the streets of London looking for men.  As Watt was a pupil, not an apprentice, he was particularly vulnerable.  He wrote to his father in the spring of 1756 – “I avoid a very hot press just now by seldom going out … they now press anybody they can get, landsmen as well as seamen, except it be in the Liberties of the City, where they are obliged to carry them before my Lord Mayor first; and unless one be either a ‘prentice or a creditable tradesman, there is scarce any getting off again.  And if I was carried before my Lord Mayor, I durst not avow that I wrought in the City, it being against their laws for any unfreeman to work, even as a journeyman, within the Liberties”.

At the end of his time with Morgan, Watt was looking forward to returning to Greenock.  His health had suffered, he described at various times “violent rheumatism” “a gnawing pain in his back” and “weariness all over his body.”  Before leaving London, he bought some tools and materials that would be useful in his career, along with two books “Bion’s Construction and Use of Mathematical Instruments” translated by Edmund Stone, a self-taught Scottish mathematician.


At the end of August in 1756 he set off for Greenock.  On his return, he worked for Dr Robert Dick at the University of Glasgow and eventually set up on his own as a mathematical instrument maker and repairer.

Friday 4 August 2023

The Wreck of the Orion

In December 1846 the steamship Orion, described as “the beautiful new iron steamer Orion of 900 tons, length of keel 215 feet”, was launched from the Cartsdyke Yard of Caird & Co in Greenock.  The launch itself went well – “She went off the ways in gallant style – the long run lending unusual effect to a spectacle always grand in itself.  Her model is of perfect symmetry, a high specimen of marine architecture.  This fine vessel is intended for the Liverpool trade, and is to be commanded by Captain Main, whose long sea experience, high capacity, and urbanity of manner, have justly rendered him an universal favourite with passengers.  We will be much disappointed if Orion does not eclipse every sea star in the firmament.”  A wonderful description from the local newspaper.

Orion was built for the Glasgow and Liverpool Steam packet Company.  Fitting out was completed in 1847. The main salon was described as “exceedingly spacious and the fittings are of the most gorgeous description.”  It was 40 feet long by 17 feet broad containing two rows of table which could set 80 diners.  The tables, state-room doors and panelling were of carved rosewood.  The sleeping apartments were described as “well-aired and well-ventilated”.  

George Burns

At a dinner to celebrate the completion of the ship, owner George Burns commended Captain Hugh Main who would have charge of the ship, stating that he had known him for over twenty years and held him in high regard.

By June 1850 Captain Thomas  Henderson was in command of the Orion.  At 3 o’clock on Monday 17 June the Orion sailed from Liverpool with approximately 200 people on board including passengers and crew.   About two o’clock in the morning, when most of the passengers were asleep, the ship suddenly struck a rock within 150 yards of the Portpatrick lighthouse.  Very quickly, the ship began to take on water and sink. 

There was great panic on board as the awakened passengers realised what happening.  Many ran on deck in their nightclothes.  One of the four boats on board was launched, but got caught under the paddle wheel and was swamped.  Two of the other boats were launched, each could carry just 10 people.  There was no time to launch the fourth boat.  The sinking ship was seen from shore and boats were sent out to assist, but she was sinking so quickly that they had no time to reach her. 

A newspaper report tells the story – “Cries of every description were heard … Around were thickly strewn the bodies of the living and the dead, the former clinging to floating spars and to the rigging of the vessel, which had sunk under about fifteen feet of water, carrying down both dead and living in her vortex, and causing the calm sea to heave into high rolling waves.” 

Those who were saved were taken to Portpatrick were attended to by Captain Hawes of the Coast Guard and the inhabitants of the village".  Next day the survivors were taken to Stranraer .  The Princess Royal, Captain Crawford, which was also travelling from Liverpool to Glasgow had managed to pick up 40 of the survivors.  Captain Henderson, the second mate and some of the crew, who were last off the Orion, had survived by clinging to the rigging.  The scene on the shore was awful as survivors searched for their relatives and friends.  Those who survived were aided and given shelter by the local people.  Later they were taken to Glasgow. 

A young Duncan Darroch, the son of Major Duncan Darroch of Gourock, aged just 14, and his tutor Richard Price had been travelling home to Gourock on board Orion.  When they realised what was happening, both ran on deck and jumped clear of the ship into the water.  Duncan Darroch would later describe his experience in a letter to a friend:- 

When I had swam about forty yards, I came to a chest, on which a man was supporting himself.  I made for it, and reached it; but the seaman was in such an agony of terror that he knew not what he did, and in foolishly endeavouring to get to the top of the chest he turned it round like a tread-wheel.  I could not shift my hands as quickly as he pulled it over, and so I was pushed right under the water for about two minutes.  At that awful time, I felt the water coming in my ears and nose and thought on home and my parents, and felt that I should never see them more, and was giving up; but just then I felt new vigour in my limbs, and determined not to relinquish life without a struggle.  I dived down till I got free of the man and chest, and swam to some things which were floating near, and got something like a desk under my arm and kind of a wooden grating under the other; with these I kept up a long while". 

He was spotted in the water and hauled on board a boat which had come from the shore.  He continued his narrative – “I sat down shivering like half a dozen drowned rats”.  Fortunately he got to the shore where he was given shelter at the home of Captain Hawes of the Coastguard.  His tutor also survived.  He describes his eventual homecoming – 

When I got home, I told mamma that the Orion was aground, not to alarm her; but she was so glad to see me that she never noticed my dress; but when she went into the dining-room, she told them, laughing, that I looked like a shipwrecked mariner.  Papa soon came home and told her, and she was most awfully frightened when she heard the dangers I had escaped”.

Others were not so lucky.  It was thought that about fifty people died.  Among the dead was Dr John Burns, brother of the ship’s owners J & G Burns, who had been drowned.  (George Burns would later be a partner in the Cunard Line.) 

Dr John Burns
At a later enquiry into the sinking of the Orion, it was discovered that at the time of the accident, Captain Thomas Henderson had been in his cabin having left the ship in the hands of the second mate John Williams.  This led to criminal proceedings being taken against the two men.  There was a lengthy trial in Edinburgh.  On sentencing, Lord Justice Clerk (John Hope) (1794-1858) stated – 

Thomas Henderson, you have been convicted by the verdict of the jury, of culpable neglect of duty as an officer on board ship, whereby the ship is wrecked, and many of the lieges deprived of life; and there can be no doubt … that had it not been for that neglect of duty this vessel would not have been wreckedThe sentence of the Court is, that you be imprisoned for the period of 18 calendar months.

The second mate John Williams was sentenced - 

you have been convicted of culpable and reckless neglect of duty, under similar circumstances.  The sentence to be pronounced in your case is no doubt one that must produce a great impression … The sentence of the Court is, that you be transported beyond seas for the period of seven years.”  (Transportation did not stop as a sentence until 1857 but effectively ended in 1868.)

The two men were taken to Calton Jail in Edinburgh.  It appeared that Williams accepted his fate quietly.  Henderson was later transferred to Perth Prison.  He called his sentence “unprecedented, disproportioned and cruel”.  He thought his punishment severe and that he was being used as a warning to other officers.

A collection was later taken and the proceeds given to the people of Portpatrick for their assistance to the passengers who made it ashore.  Several of those who drowned were buried in the churchyard at Portpatrick.  There is also a memorial in Glasgow’s Necropolis Cemetery to some of those who drowned.

Ship's bell from Orion

The ship was extensively salvaged over the years  and a curious relic – the ship’s bell, remains in the Watt Institution in Greenock.  A sad reminder of the Orion, a ship proudly built in Greenock.