Saturday 25 May 2024

Gregory Watt - the other son

Gregory Watt (1777-1804) was the younger son of Greenock born engineer, inventor and all round genius, James Watt (1736-1819) by his second wife Anne Macgregor (died 1832).  Gregory graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1795 and was cited for “Exemplary Diligence, and Propriety of Conduct, during the Session”.  During his time at the University, he also won prizes in mathematics, Greek, composition and for his essays.  He was said to have “all the genius of his father, with a great deal of animation and ardour which is all his own”.  

Thomas Campbell, Poet (source)

At Glasgow University he met the poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), and they remained friends.  Campbell described him as “a splendid stripling – literally the most beautiful youth I ever saw”.

After he left University, in 1797 he was made a partner in his father’s business, but he suffered from ill health, consumption.  He was sent to Penzance for his health by local physician Dr William Withering (1741-1799).  His father thought that while in Penzance, he could try to learn about the family business.  He travelled to Cornwall with William Murdock (1754-1839), an Ayrshire man who worked for Boulton and Watt at the Soho Works, Birmingham.  Murdock was an engineer and inventor of, among other things, coal gas lighting. He was in Cornwall on business as Boulton and Watt supplied engines for many of the Cornish tin mines. 

Sir Humphry Davy

At Penzance Gregory Watt lodged with Mrs Davy the mother of Humphry Davy (1778-1829).  The young men shared an interest in scientific subjects and conducted various experiments.  Watt was also interested in geology and minerology.  At Penzance he also met up with Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and his family who were also there “for the air” especially for their son, Thomas Wedgewood (1771-1805).  Wedgwood was a friend of James Watt.

His health having somewhat improved, Gregory returned to Birmingham but did not work with his father and brother.  His interests were in experiments with gasses and air.  He then travelled for his health.  During the winter of 1801/1802 Gregory travelled to Europe.  In Paris he met the Scottish-American geologist William Maclure (1763-1840).  Born in Ayrshire, William Maclure travelled on business between Britain and the United States.  He was in Europe collecting geological specimens to send back to America.  On his return to the United States after his European tour, he produced “Map and Observations on the Geology of the United States”.  He is known as “the father of American geology”.   The pair travelled to Italy.  They reached Naples and, despite Gregory’s bad health, ascended Vesuvius.  This increased Gregory’s interest in geology and he conducted many experiments on basalt.  He also made a geological map of Italy.  In May 1802 in Naples he met William Thomson (1760-1806), a mineralogist.

William Maclure, geologist

Gregory returned home and in 1803 he wrote articles on geology and minerology for the Edinburgh Review.  Unfortunately, Gregory’s health deteriorated.  However, he continued his experiments especially in melting basalt and cooling it.  He took trips to Clifton and Bath with his father and mother in the hope of improving his health.  Dr Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) attended him.  Beddoes was the leading physician of that time in treating tuberculosis and had attended Gregory’s younger sister, Jessie who had died of the same disease a few years earlier.  Later the Watt family travelled to Exeter.  Watt was very concerned for his son and wrote to his business partner, Boulton – “Ever since we left Bath ours has been a state of anxiety very distressing to us”.  Gregory Watt died at Exeter aged just 27 and was buried in Exeter Cathedral.

Thomas Beddoes

James Watt and his wife were devastated at the death of their son.  The contents of James Watt's workshop from the family home at Heathfield, Birmingham were transfer to the Science Museum in London.  Among the tools, papers and various other odds and ends was a travelling trunk.  It contained the schoolbooks of his beloved son, Gregory Watt.  He had been unable to throw them away.

James Watt's workshop

Gregory Watt's paper on basalt was published in the Philosophical Transactions Royal Society and read before the Royal Society of London in May 1804, just a few months before his death.

Gregory Watt - death notice

The Pneumatic Institute was set up by Thomas Beddoes in Bristol in 1799 for medical research.  Humphrey Davey was Superintendent and had been recommended by Gregory Watt.  James Watt made some of the equipment for the institute which experimented with gasses and their effect on health.

Sir Humphry Davy was related to the Shaw Stewart family and often visited their estate at Ardgowan.

Friday 24 May 2024

Recruiting at Greenock

This article appeared in the Caledonian Mercury dated 28 March 1792.  It gives a wonderful description of a Royal Navy recruiting squad in Greenock.  

The article reads:- "Our recruiting has begun today with spirit – a neat small boat, handsomely painted and ornamented, with ensign, pendant and jack, was mounted on a four-wheeled carriage, and manned with four handsome boys, dressed in white frocks and trousers, and black caps banded with blue ribbons, inscribed “Clyde Volunteers”.

"A Ship Master dressed in sailor’s jacket and trousers, with a huge hanger in his hand, and a fur cap on his head, sat as coxswain.  The boat was drawn through all the streets, the boys imitating the actions of rowers".

"It was preceded by the Commissioners with fiddles, playing “Rule Britannia” etc and followed by the Volunteers, with blue inscribed ribbons in their hats, marching with drums and fife.  The Ship Master harangued at proper stations.  Beef and biscuit were handed from the boat; and the air resounded with “God save the King, down with the French, huzza!”

Must have been quite a show!

Saturday 18 May 2024

Fire at the Ardgowan Distillery - river of burning whisky

The fire at the Ardgowan Distillery in Greenock in June1903 was one of the worse fires Greenock had ever experienced and resulted in the deaths of seven people. 

The Ardgowan Distillery had only been in existence for five years.  It stood at the top of Baker Street in Greenock and was opened in 1898.  It was a large building with a Coffey’s patent still, one of the largest of its kind at the time, capable of dealing with 8000 gallons of wash per hour.  The mash-house contained mash and maize tuns (casks) which held over 60 gallons.  Much of the grain for the works was brought into the James Watt Dock from the Black Sea ports such as Sulina.  There was also a six storey bonded warehouse attached, Russell & Spence were the consulting engineers for the building which was added in 1899.  The Ardgowan Distillery and the Adelphi Distillery in Glasgow were taken over by Distillers Company Ltd in June 1902. 

On Friday 12 June 1903 just after six o’clock, the police were notified that a fire had broken out in the Ardgowan Distillery’s store where the barrels of whisky were kept.  The Fire Brigade, under their chief William Taylor, rushed to the scene.  Bluejackets and marines from HMS Benbow (Clyde guardship) quickly arrived to aid the firefighters.  Within a very short space of time flames broke through the roof of the building and could be seen for miles around.  People gathered in Wellington Park and other vantage points to watch proceedings and the local Volunteers added their assistance in fighting the fire.  It was said that the heat from the fire could be felt as far away as the Wellpark.

The Distillery was in a densely populated part of Greenock and soon local householders in Ingleston and Baker Streets started moving their furniture and valuables outside, afraid that the fire would spread to their homes.  A river of burning whisky from the stores ran down Baker Street setting alight any furniture which had been left out in the street – “The burning torrent poured down Baker Street several inches in depth, and with the flames mounting into the air to a distance of about seven feet the crowd saw the imminent danger not a moment too soon … fortunately no person in the crowd was caught.” 

The Greenock Telegraph describes the scene – “About forty families in this neighbourhood took leave of their homes, and many pathetic scenes were witnessed as little children ran here and there looking for their parents, and equally anxious mothers bustled about with tearful faces looking for missing little ones.

However, as the burning whisky ran downhill it also got into the water system which fed the local foundries and mills.  An explosion took place at Muir & Sons Grain Mill at (Deerpark Mill) on the corner of East Stewart and Springkell Streets and the building collapsed.  This was where most of the casualties occurred.  Flames spread through what was left of the building.   Several people had been in this area when the building collapsed, and rescuers spent many hours clearing away the rubble in the hope of finding survivors.  One hundred bluejackets from HMS Benbow were marched to the scene to assist.  Nine people were rescued and sent to the Infirmary in Duncan Street.  Seven people, including women and children died that night. Among the dead were Archibald Nicol (15), Agnes Dunlop or Purcel (48), William Sloan (16), David Collins (8), Chrissie Buchanan (4), William Richardson (50) and an unknown boy.  Many more were injured.

The burning liquor, once in the water system got as far as Stanners Street to the east of the town and there was some panic there with people taking their belongings out into the street.  But there was little damage there.

As night fell, the fire continued to blaze, lighting up the sky and was visible for miles around.  Many people travelled to the area to view the scene and the police were kept busy containing the spectators.  The building collapsed and firefighters had a difficult job trying to stop the flames spreading from the store to the distillery itself. It was three o’clock in the morning before the fire was eventually contained.  It was estimated that a million gallons of whisky were destroyed.

During the blitz blitz of May 1941 the Ardgowan Distillery was once again set on fire during the heavy bombing by the Germans during WWII.

Thursday 16 May 2024

William Spence and logarithms

William Spence died in 1815 at the age of just 37.  Born in Greenock in 1777 he became an accomplished mathematician.  He was so well regarded that a subscription was raised to mark his life with a memorial in the Mid Kirk of Greenock.  There it can still be seen today, more than 200 years after his death. 

Picture source - Watt Institution

William Spence was the son of Greenockian Ninian Spence (1727-1797), coppersmith, who had married Sarah Townsend in 1766.  William was born in July 1777.  His father owned several properties in Greenock – their home in Hamilton Street, a tenement later the site of Gourock Ropeworks Stores facing Shaw and Cross Shore Streets (Spence’s Land) and another tenement at the head of William Street later the site of the British Linen Company and Provident Bank.  In 1793 Ninian Spence was the Town Treasurer.  William’s grandfather, John Spence, also a coppersmith was married to Jean Rowan (he married three times).  Ninian was their son.

 Aged just four, William Spence sent to the English School in the Royal Close and later to the Grammar School.  He also received lessons in arithmetic and writing in another school in the same building.  That’s where he met his lifelong friends, John Galt and James Park.  At the age of twelve he was interested in science, constructing brass cannons, making gunpowder and fulminating powder (explosive powder) to the extent of conducting experiments in the home and gaining the admiration of his young schoolfriends Galt and Park.  In his biography of Spence, Galt would later write – “His manners also were no less peculiar and his staidness was so remarkable, even before he became a mathematician, that about the age of fourteen he obtained from his companions the title of the Philosopher; and this title, although certainly not intended as a mark of respect, was undoubtedly bestowed from a sentiment of that kind mingled with something in ridicule of his constitutional gravity.

After receiving his education, Spence was sent to Glasgow and placed in the offices of a friend of his father a Mr Struthers who as well as conducting business, was interested in mathematics.  He passed that interest on to Spence.  He occasionally returned to visit Greenock but at that point he had outgrown his former schoolmates.  Galt writes - “By this time we had put off the carelessness of schoolboys and began to pay some attention to dress; but our friend was moving altogether in a different sphere.  His apparel was of the gravest hue and the most formal cut, and worn with a degree of negligence that might well have become a much older philosopher.”


He remained working with Struthers until 1797.  His father had died, and he returned to live with his mother in Greenock.  Once back in the town he joined the literary society. Spence was also interested in music, composing and playing the flute.  He and his brother John (an accountant) became subscribers to the Greenock Library which he presented with an autographed  copy of his essay “Logarithmic Transcendents”.  He also presented several books to the “Foreign Library” (foreign language library, Greenock) in 1808.

In 1805 he, along with Park, travelled throughout England and visited Galt who was living in London at the time.  In 1814 he again travelled to London and married Sarah Gardner at St Pancras Church, London on 12 September.  They returned to Scotland and he died in a hotel in Glasgow where they were staying for the night on 20 May 1815.

The following obituary appeared in the Greenock Advertiser – “in the 37th year of his age, a loss which the scientific world has reason to lament, and which will long be felt by a circle of friends in England as well as in Scotland, who knew and admired his genius, and to whom he was endeared by his many private virtues and amiable qualities.  Of his profound mathematical researches he had given some proof in a paper read a few years ago before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and which he afterwards printed in a more enlarged form for the use of his scientific friends and particularly of the few eminent mathematicians In Britain and on the Continent who alone were capable of estimating the value of his labours.  At the time of his death he had another work in the press of still greater promise, and he has left behind him a large collection of manuscripts which prove the zeal with which he had cultivated the science of mathematics, the boundaries of which he is understood to have materially extended.

Unfortunately Spence died intestate and without issue.  In 1817 his widow presented to the Greenock Library “the whole of the mathematical collection of her late husband for the purpose of founding a Mathematical Library for the use of the students of the town of Greenock, agreeably to her husband’s wishes and intentions expressed to herself”.  It was known as “The Spence Library” and contained about 200 volumes. 

In the New Parish Church (now known as Wellpark Mid Kirk) is a marble tablet.  The inscription reads – “In memory of William Spence, Esq.  His friends and fellow citizens have subscribed this tribute to his worth.  His mathematical works form a more lasting memorial of his talents.  He was born at Greenock on 31st July 1777 and died May the 28th 1815.  This was the church in which he worshipped when he was in Greenock along with this sister and wife.

In 1819 his mathematical essays were edited by John FrederickWilliam Herschel (1792-1871).  Galt wrote a biography of Spence for this publication.  The portrait of Spence which can be seen at the top of this post, was presented to the Greenock Library by David Agnew who also donated a likeness of John Galt.

Monday 6 May 2024

The Bell Entry, Greenock

The increase in trade across the Atlantic with America in the 1740s and 1750s made the need for more storage space for imported goods in Greenock particularly important.  The cellars (as the warehouses were called) that existed, did not provide enough accommodation for the rise in the amount of goods coming into Greenock.  Merchants in Greenock, as well as the Glasgow tobacco merchants urged the Magistrates and Council to build new cellars near the harbour.  

The Town Cellars, as the Bell Entry was originally termed, were constructed in 1750 at the entrance to the West Harbour near the bottom of the Vennel, a major street in Greenock at the time.  The stone for the cellars, (and many other buildings in Greenock at this time came) from quarries at Finnart – in the west of the town, which at the time was way out in the country. 

Picture source - Greenock Burns Club

A few years later many of those who worked around the harbour decided that a clock was needed in the area as well as a bell to indicate starting and finishing times for work.  In the book “Views and Reminiscences of Old Greenock” (James McKelvie & Son, 1891), is an extract taken from local council minutes of November 1754 – “It was proposed that a Bellhouse be erected upon the roof of the New Cellars, to be so executed as that a clock may be placed therein”.  A wooden bell tower, which some say was designed by James Watt’s father (a member of the council at that time), was erected above the archway which led to the passage through the building and a bell and clock incorporated.  The place then got the name “Bell Entry”.  

The bell was purchased in Glasgow and, as recorded in “Historical Sketches of the Town and Harbours of Greenock” (Dugald Campbell, 1879) weighed 2cwt 3qrs and 2lbs and cost 1s 2d per pound, the total came to £18 1s 8d”.  The clock, with four hands was bought from Jordan watchmaker, Glasgow.  This was the only public clock in the town until the spire of the Mid Parish Church in Cathcart Square was erected in 1787.

The passageway through the building had a very practical use.  An idea of why they were built in such a manner can be seen from Greenock Merchant James Scott on obtaining land in the area just before the town cellars were built, petitioned the Magistrates and Council – “In the event of Tobacco Cellars being built – there shall be a gate in the middle of the wall (enclosing the ground) through which the said James Scott and his foresaids shall have liberty to roll their tobacco into the closs belonging to the community immediately at the back thereof, and of dressing the same there…”.  At this time most cargoes were transported and stored in wooden barrels.

Picture source - Greenock Burns Club

The bell and clock were in use until 1839 when the bell tower was removed as it deemed dangerous.  The Bell Entry had a number of other uses over the years as more warehouses were built.  For a while a loft in the eastern part of the building was used as a chapel for the Seamen’s Friends’ Society.  Over the years as can be seen from these old photographs, the building became very run down and in 1880 the western part of the Bell Entry was demolished in the name of town improvements. 

Curiously, in 1880 when a new badge of office (costing £60), was being designed for the town’s Dean of Guild (the council official responsible for buildings in the town), it contained an image of Art on one side and an image of the Bell Entry on the other.  On presenting the badge to the Dean of Guild, Allan Bertram Smith, the Provost, Dugald Campbell, said of the Bell Entry that – “it was a relic of Greenock 150 years ago” and that he hoped that the Dean of Guild “will take measures, if not too late, to preserve a more substantial relic than even the view of it on the badge.”  The newspaper article goes on to say, “There are surely some of the old stones, which could be retained and placed, say somewhere about the New Corporation Buildings or better still, they might be presented to the Watt Monument Committee, if that somnolent body has not breathed its last.”  Another newspaper article commented on this badge being given to the Dean of Guild – “If every member of Council is to receive a golden badge, the sooner we see about the importation of Californian mines over to the old country the better”.  

Picture Source - The Watt Institution

Over the years, the Bell Entry changed from being a proud testament to Greenock’s trade to becoming an overcrowded and unhealthy place.  Crime was rife – assaults, theft, prostitution and shebeening (sale of unlicensed alcohol) just some of the examples.  Fortunately today there are still images of the Bell Entry as it was in its heyday.

Sunday 5 May 2024

John Galt - Steamboat tales

John Galt’s work “The Steam Boat” or as it was advertised – “The Steam Boat; or the Voyages and Travels of Thomas duffle, cloth-merchant in the Salt Market of Glasgow” was published in 1821.  It is a wonderful collection of short stories told by Galt's character, Thomas Duffle as he heard on his various travels by steamboat from Glasgow.  His fellow travellers provide him with fabulous stories of their own lives as they go down the River Clyde from Glasgow to various places on the steamboat’s route.

Port Glasgow former Town Buildings

Thomas Duffle himself narrates his own views on the various landmarks they pass and of special interest are his observations on Greenock and Port Glasgow and the perceived (or perhaps real) views of the differences between Portonians and Greenockians and what each thinks of the other.  Of course, Port Glasgow was where Britain's first commercial steamship "Comet" was built in 1812 at John Wood's Yard in the town which makes the stories even more interesting.

Dry Dock mural, Port Glasgow

At a stopover in Port Glasgow, Duffle narrates “I was thankful when the vessel reached the quay of Port Glasgow, where I went on shore to take my breakfast an an inn, being resolved to leave her there and travel by myself on to Greenock, which is situated about three miles to the westward.  This determination, as it proved, was most judicious on my part; for I found a comfortable house, and great civility in the attendance, facing the shipping in the harbour, with excellent warm rolls, piping hot from the baker’s, and fresh herring that would have been a treat at any time”. 

Comet passing Dumbarton Rock

Duffle then goes on a walk around the town – “The waiter, to be sure, as his wont doubtless is with all strangers, directed my attention to the steeple, telling me that it was higher than the Greenock one”.  The visitor then satisfies himself that the steeple is not, as was a derogatory comment doing the rounds at the time, crooked, but perfectly straight.  He continues – “I visited the dry-dock, a very useful place for maritime purposes of various sorts, especially for repairing vessels’ bottoms; and then I went to investigate that famous antiquity, the old castle”.

Newark Castle, Port Glasgow

He also has views on the local people - “I saw several of the inhabitants at their shop-doors, and some elderly characters standing forenent the inns, waiting for the London papers.  Upon the whole they appeared to be a hamely race …”.  So ends Duffel’s short stay in Port Glasgow as he then travels on by coach to Greenock. 

It is still possible to recognise several of the places named by Galt.  The steeple referred to is that of the former town buildings and now Port Glasgow's library.  In 1821 the only other comparable steeple in Greenock was that of the Mid Kirk in Cathcart Square.  Unfortunately the dry-dock is no more, but it used to be situated just at the back of the town buildings and it is possible to see what it would have looked like by examining the wonderful mural on the wall just to the east of the Health Centre car park.  “The old castle” – Newark Castle is fortunately still in existence.

 In January 1884 the Greenock Herald published extracts from the book.

Read more about John Galt and his Greenock connections - The Greenock Galts.  His friend and fellow Canadian explorer was William "Tiger" Dunlop - a fascinating man.  The Story of Bryce Gilliland is a fabulous sea-faring tale,

You can read more about the stories told to Thomas Duffel on the Steamboat on this blog – just click on links.

Buried Alive and a real life tale of experimental galvanism - Dead or Alive!  

The Coronation - a story about the Coronation of George IV - what a strange event!

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Brawling in the Vennel

On a Saturday night in July 1909 a large crowd gathered in the Vennel in Greenock where two “pugilistically-inclined” women were having a fight.  The brawl only came to an end when one of the women pushed the other through a window. 

The women were arrested and ordered to appear at Greenock Police Court before Bailie Lemon where they were charged with creating a breach of the peace.  Only one of the women, Jane Hamilton or Keenan (whose address was given as East Breast, Greenock) actually appeared, the other, although charged instead of appearing, forfeited a pledge of 20 shillings.  .

One of the witnesses was an egg merchant in the Vennel who gave evidence in court.   The local newspaper summarised his account in their own words– “for fully half an hour the two women waltzed around each other in a spirited face-disfiguring and hair-pulling competition – perhaps not under the approved Queensberry rules, but yet with all the enthusiasm and energy of enraged femininity.”

The merchant stated that when the woman was pushed through the window, which happened to be his premises, “pyramid upon pyramid of eggs came toppling down in a heap.  Altogether about 30 shillings worth of eggs were hopelessly smashed”.

Jane Keenan denied that she had been the one to push the other woman through the window as several of her friends swore when giving evidence in court.  One stating that “it was the crood that broke the window”,  another giving an alternate theory – “the ither wumman took a wake turn and fell through hersel”!

Source - Greenock Burns Club

Bailie Lemmon pronounced Keenan guilty of taking part in a disturbance and handed down a sentence of a fine of 20 shillings or ten days in jail.  Later in the year she was again in court charged with assaulting two women and sent to prison for thirty days.

It was not Mary Hamilton or Keenan’s first brush with the law since 1903 she had several breach of the peace court appearances, had been charged for using obscene language and in 1907 she had been charged with riotous and disorderly behaviour.  Just another Saturday night in Greenock's closes!

Want to read more about what went on in the narrow and overcrowded streets of Greenock?  Then you might enjoy the following posts, just click on the links:-

The Greenock Ripper
Greenock's Dunghill Problem
Mince Collop Close
Cartsdyke's Problem Piggeries

Sunday 28 April 2024

Workers' Memorial Day

Workers' Memorial Day, 28 April, has been marked in Greenock by the laying of wreaths at the Men of the Clyde sculpture in Clyde Square.

The sculpture represents "an industrious Greenock", and was designed by Naomi Hunt, the sculptor was Malcolm Robertson.

The special day is in remembrance of those workers who were killed, injured or otherwise made unwell by their work.

Read more about Workers' Memorial Day here.

Saturday 27 April 2024

Welcoming Visitors to Greenock

It is the start of the cruise ship season here in Greenock.  Over the next few months many thousands of visitors will arrive hoping to explore what the area has to offer.  They couldn't have come to a better place!  Not only does the area boast the most amazing scenery, but we have a lovely, friendly community who are only too willing to help visitors find their way around and tell them about what they should visit locally.

Maps of the area are available at many venues, but if you are planning your visit in advance then you can download a map from the Inverclyde Council website - just click on the link.  (Inverclyde is the name of the local authority area which includes Greenock, Port Glasgow and Gourock.)  Here you will find lots of interesting information for visitors - maps, walks, trails and information about local historical figures - well worth a visit.

"Ginger the Horse" a local landmark!

The Greenockian Blog has lots of local information.  Try a self-guided walk in Port Glasgow or if you are interested in architecture, then my Greenock West End Architectural Ramble might be just what you are looking for.  If a short stroll is more your thing then try out my Waterfront Walk - especially useful if you don't have much time in the town, but would like a glimpse of what Greenock is all about.  All these self-guided walks have maps and can be downloaded from this blog - just click on the links.

If you are interested in local history or genealogy, check out The Greenockian Guide to what resources are available locally.

For more information about places of interest then check out this local information page on my blog.  Have a wonderful visit.  If you have any questions, please get in touch using the "Message" link on the right column of this page.

Have a wonderful visit!

Friday 26 April 2024

A Bow Street Runner at Greenock 1796

Just as the Amsterdam Packet was about to set sail from Greenock bound for New York on 7 April 1796, John Rivett, a police officer from Bow Street (known as Bow Street Runners), London arrived and arrested a passenger as he was about to board.  


The man was John Miller, a linen draper wanted by the police in London.  Miller was suspected of having wilfully set fire to his house at 2 Great Newport Street on the morning of 26 February 1794, intending to defraud the Sun Fire Office.  He had insured the premises for £1200 shortly before the fire.  Fortunately the fire had been put out before too much damage had occurred.

Miller had appeared before the magistrate at the Public Office in London.  John Simmons of Goswell Street, a surveyor gave evidence that he had examined the house on the morning of the fire and “from every appearance of the papering in the parlour, he had no doubt of its having been set on fire wilfully, the paper being burnt in two separate places, as though lighted with a candle”.  Other witnesses also spoke to the fact that the fire looked deliberate.  John Miller did not help himself in any way.  He absconded and made his way to Greenock where he booked a passage using the name John Laing, on the Amsterdam to go to America.  Rivett managed to trace him from London and got to Greenock just in time to apprehend him before the ship sailed.  Miller was taken back to London for trial.

The arrest of Miller on the quayside must have given one of the other passengers on board, David Downie, quite a start as he was being transported from Scotland for the crime of high treason.

Thursday 25 April 2024

Banished - a letter from America

On 7 April 1796 the Amsterdam packet left the harbour of Greenock on a voyage to New York.  On board was David Downie and his four young children (Charles Stewart (born 1774) Mary Anne (born 1776) James Drummond (born 1787) and Margaret (born 1781)).

David Downie, Edinburgh

As the ship left port, Downie knew that he would never be able to set foot in his native land ever again.  He had been sentenced to be transported from Britain, never to return.  His crime - high treason!

An Edinburgh goldsmith with premises in Parliament Square, David Downie had been tried in 1794 along with a co-conspirator Robert Watt (a government spy) for being part of what became known as the Pike Plot.  Downie and Watt had joined a radical group called the Society of the Friends of the People and had planned to take Edinburgh Castle by force.  They were both tried, found guilty and sentenced:

"The judgment of the Court was, that you Robert Watt, and you, David Downie, be taken from the Bar to the place from whence you came, and from thence to be drawn upon a Hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck, but not till you are dead, for then you are to be taken down, your Hearts to be cut out, and your Bowels burned before your Faces, your Heads and Limbs severed from your bodies and held up to public view, and your bodies shall remain at the disposal of his majesty, and the Lord have mercy on your Souls."

Both were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle.  Watt was hanged and beheaded.  Downie, after a year in prison, had his sentenced commuted.  On Saturday 19 March 1796 it was reported that Downie had been released from Edinburgh Castle by a remission granted by the King on the recommendation of the Jury.  The conditions were that he “shall depart from His Majesty’s Dominions of Great Britain and Ireland within ten days after being set at liberty, and never be found therein during all the days of his natural life, under pain of the former sentence being put into execution against him; unless he shall obtain a licence for that purpose under the Royal Sign Manual."

Downie was taken to Greenock to board a ship to America.  His family met him in the town.  He wrote to a friend after arriving in New York and the letter was published in Bell's Weekly Messenger.

"From Mr David Downie, late Goldsmith in Edinburgh.  (Who was found guilty of High Treason) to a Friend in Perth, dated New York, June 22, 1796.

“Dear Sir.

On the 7th April, when I had the pleasure of writing you from Greenock, we set sail in the Amsterdam Packet, Captain Charles Henderson, a humane good man, and a prudent sailor, to whom we were much obliged for his attention on the voyage.  After clearing the land, with a fair wind in eight days we had the wind a-head for 21 days; notwithstanding which, by coursing to the N. and S. we made 800 miles, the wind still against us; but on the 9th of April, we were obliged to lie-to for 24 hours, lash the helm, and leave the ship to the mercy of the wind and waves.  At this period we experienced sundry trials, but all kept perfect health, except my eldest daughter, who was sea-sick.
After this, we experienced great vicissitudes of fair and cold, according to the different latitudes we were in. From the 1st of May we had tolerably fair wind; and arrived on the 28th just at the very spot the Captain wished.
Finding the necessaries of life at an exorbitant cost occasioned by the demand of the Powers at War, we found a room, and furnished ourselves ... I have been at Philadelphia, partly by land, and by water, to enable me to judge of the country, where I shall finally settle. By the assistance of Mr. Napper Tandy, a keen old man, about 70, I have found my good friend, Mr. Stock ... By his kindness my eldest daughter is gone to the family of Mr. Dallas, Secretary to the State of Pennsylvania, to teach his children music, French, &c. I have hopes too of young Charles a situation here. The other two and my wife go to Georgia, where I can both exercise my business, and purchase from 300 to 500 acres, which I will improve as ability may permit. They are called prime or first-rate lands, to be disposed of at 5s. per acre.
You will judge me ill qualified to give an opinion of America, being only 24 days an inhabitant; but this I venture to affirm, that it is a poor man’s country. ... A dollar is not valued here more than a shilling is in Britain.  The body of the People have the whole power of management.  They can put in and put out whom they please, without control.  An instance of this we have just now, a Carman, or, as you call them in your country, a common Carter as a Representative of this city; his name is Lamb.
Please remember me to all your good neighbours, who have been my trusty friends.  
I am, etc
David Downie"

David Downie settled in Augusta, Georgia and died there in 1816.  Read more about David Downie here.

Just before the ship Amsterdam sailed from Greenock, a Bow Street Runner arrested an arsonist from London who was trying to evade the law and sail to America!  Read about it here!

Monday 15 April 2024

Greenock's first pillar boxes

 In January 1856 Greenock got its first Post Office pillar boxes.  

They are described as “octagonal in shape and about three and a half feet high.  The letters will be deposited in a box placed beneath the slit, which is guarded inside by valves from any attempt to abstract letters”.  The first three pillar boxes (or letter boxes) were placed at George Square, Brougham Street and Rue End Street.

The postmaster at the time was Thomas McMillan (1820-1889).  Thomas McMillan, born in Kilmacolm, worked in Robert Cowan’s drapery business at Cathcart Square, later going into business with another draper at premises in Hamilton Street.  A strong supporter of Viscount Melgund in the 1847 Parliamentary election when he became Greenock's MP, it was said that it was through this influence that he was appointed Postmaster for Greenock in 1848.  He remained in that office until May 1888 when he retired through ill health.

Some of the Greenock Post Office staff in 1872.

When he first became Postmaster, the post office was in Church Place (at the west side of the Mid Kirk), it was later moved to William Street then the lower floor of the Customhouse.  Later a new building was opened in Wallace Square (now Greenock’s central library)where a large staff were employed.  He was a member of Trinity UP Church (now Lyle Kirk, Union Street).  He married Janet Suttie in 1844.  The family lived at Maybank, Finnart Street, Greenock. 

Photo source - Greenock Burns Club

Janet Suttie (wife of Thomas McMillan, postmaster) was one of the daughters of Thomas Suttie (1788-1857) and his wife Janet Brown (1791-1857).  Thomas Suttie was a smith in Greenock with premises at 18 Cathcart Street.  He was a manufacturer of, among other things, post boxes.  In 1857 Suttie & Co received a large order from the East India Company to supply pillar boxes for India – 20 for Bombay and 50 for Bengal.  They were quite ornate, standing at five feet and surmounted by a crown.  Suttie also made pillar boxes for other parts of Britain.  Thomas Suttie also designed a Range Boiler which was put in use in heating Greenock’s gaol.  He provided railings for many local buildings and was employed to install a new safe in one of Greenock’s banks.  They made grates and boilers for many local premises.

Another of Suttie's daughters, Robina Suttie (1826-1896), married Hugh Macfarlane, bank agent and justice of the peace of Paisley at Innellen in 1859.  You can see a needlework sampler made by Robina in 1839.  It is now in the possession of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  

Thomas Suttie died while on a visit to his daughter in Millwall, London in 1857.  His wife, Janet, died just a few months later.

Charles Suttie (1816-1897) was the son of Thomas and took over the company on his father’s death.  He married Susan Clark (1839-1899), daughter of John Clark, jeweller in Greenock in 1859.  They had a large family of seven sons and three daughters and lived at 40 Forsyth Street.  Their eldest son, John Clark Suttie died in 1882 at Cradock, South Africa.  The family emigrated on the P and O ship SS Clyde to New Zealand in 1883 and settled at Onehunga, Auckland.

You can see a photograph of a Suttie Pillar Box here.