The Subscribers

Image of the The Cox Brothers c1894

The Cox Brothers c1894

Who were they?

Picture of Mary Ann Baxter

Mary Ann Baxter

The subscribers to the Albert Institute were a cross section of the (male) ‘middling sort’ and those above them in the economic hierarchy of the town. Women are grossly under-represented, typically appearing only where they were using money inherited from male relatives, such as the three Jobson sisters, Ann, Marion, and Helen, who together subscribed £30, or the much better known (and seriously rich) Baxter sisters, Eleanor and Mary Ann, who subscribed £300 each. The men ranged from well-known linen and jute ‘barons’ such as the Baxters (both Sir David and Edward subscribed £1000) and the Cox Brothers (£100), to those who have left little mark in the historical record beyond the fact of their subscription. An example of the latter category is John Colville (£10), who worked for the National Bank in Reform Street for his whole life, never married, and whose other activities were mainly linked to the church. Colville was typical of many of his economic and social standingin owning a number of properties in the town, in his case seven houses or shops (at this time over 90 per cent of the population rented their dwelling, including most of the better-off). While we can never know the motives of the subscribers, it is possible that Colville was one of those (a small minority?) who saw the Institute as a money-making opportunity; likely much more common were motives of civic pride, philanthropy and emulation of other ‘public men’ of the town.

How did they differ from Dundonians today?

Surveying the biographies of this diverse group brings out how different in key respects the Dundee of a hundred and fifty years ago was from today’s city. Today large numbers of the city’s middle class are employed in the public sector, but in the 1860s better paid work was overwhelmingly in private sector activities, in manufacturing and commerce, and related activities such as lawyers (‘writers’). Typical of the last of these was James McEwen (£20), who continued a High Street legal practice begun by his father.

But perhaps what stands out most when we look at the biographies of the subscribers is the extent to which in their time life in Dundee was both more ‘local’ and more ‘global’ in character than it is today.

James Keiller & Sons Marmalade.

James Keiller & Sons Marmalade.

In the 1860s most employers were local men, who lived in the town, and participated in local affairs. Alexander Keiller (£50), of the Marmalade company, lived in turn in six houses all within easy walking distance of the company’s various factories and offices in the town centre.  But the marmalade produced relied on oranges from Spain, peel and lemons from Sicily, and sugar from the West Indies. Keiller’s was a unique enterprise, but the staple industries of the town, jute and linen, commonly displayed the same character of owners who lived locally, with lives that focussed on the town, but whose economic fortunes depended upon global connections. A few of the richest of the town’s capitalists were starting to move to country estates, such as Edward Baxter to Kincaldrum, near Forfar, but the most of the commercial activity of the town relied on face-to-face contact and the owner’s daily presence in the office, factory and mill.

How did they earn their living?

Jute merchants were also, of course, prominent in the town, often combining that activity with another jute process, such as J.P Shaw (£30), who was also a calendarer (finisher) of jute products. It was typical of the time to combine buying and selling jute with using it in manufacturing, as with Alexander Grimond (£100), a pioneer in the manufacture of jute carpets. Gilroy Bros. (£300), who built the enormous Tayworks in Lochee  Road, with around 3,000 employees, were pioneers of jute importing direct from India, which became a central part of the city’s international commerce. The existence of such commerce helped to underpin Dundee as a major shipbuilding centre, including the yard owned by William Stephen, a £10 subscriber.

As well as a major shipbuilding centre, Dundee was home to many sailors and ships masters, and a characteristic path was for these seafarers to eventually retire from the sea and set-up in maritime-related activities in the town, such as shipowners and shipbrokers. This was the path taken by John Machan (£10).

Linen production relied on flax from the Baltic, and perhaps the biggest Baltic merchant of the time was George Armitstead (£500), who was born in Riga, but as a flax merchant and shipowner became a pillar of the town, serving as Liberal MP in 1868-73 and 1880-85. Also characteristic of the times was the marriage pattern amongst the town’s elite: they married people from their own social circle. Armitstead married a daughter of Edward Baxter.

Beyond ‘jam and jute’ international economic connections are evidenced in the life of D and W Robertson (£100) ‘wholesale and export’ iron merchants, who came to specialise in iron exports to Australia. Along with these trading connections went, at least for some, a ‘global consciousness’. Patrick Anderson (£50), a jute merchant, like many of the subscribers, had a wide range of philanthropic and civic interests.  He was a strong supporter of the visit of the British Association to Dundee, and mainstay of his local church, but he also subscribed to a fund for victims of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, to a fund for the relief of an Indian famine a few years later, one to help ‘peasant victims of the Franco-Prussian war,’ and the anti-slavery movement.

What else did they do?

Civic activism of various kinds cemented the local middle classes to the town and to each other. Charles Parker (£100), the Provost in 1861-7, was the owner of an engineering company with 180 employees, and an expert on power looms, one of the key technological changes in the local textile industries in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Another key figure in the development of these looms was Peter Carmichael (£300) a partner in Baxters, who was elected to another key local role, President of the Chamber of Commerce, five times. Most of the parliamentary candidates for Dundee were also local men; for example, alongside Armistead in the 1880-85 parliament was Frank Henderson, a partner in Henry Henderson and Son (£30).

In the 1860s, Dundee was a Liberal city, with a strong reforming tradition, but opposing candidates also tended to be local, such as John Gloag (£20), a writer of Walker and Gloag, who stood as a Conservative in the 1874 election, when he polled 573 votes out of a total 11,563. His obituary states that he accepted that this was “sufficient intimation that Dundee was not in sympathy with his political aspirations” (later in the century there was a marked shift amongst the ‘middling sort’ towards Conservatism/Unionism).

What was the biggest occupational category?

Inter-marriage, inter-connected civic and philanthropic activities, inter-dependent economic lives characterised many of the subscribers. Central to economic life were the merchants, thebiggest single occupational category of the subscribers. It is striking how wide was the range of commercial activity this term could embrace.  Of course, many traded in linen and jute, but in a rapidly-growing town there was plenty of space for other traders such as Robert Small (£10), a coal, lime and cement merchant, who also operated as a brick and tile manufacturer. Outside linen and jute, the biggest manufacturingactivity was the production of machinery, largely for these industries, such as John Kerr and Co., owners of the Douglas Foundry, where one of the partners, William Kerr, subscribed £20.

Which of them are still in business today?

The scale of economic change since the 1860s is suggested by how few subscriber names survive in the corporate and public life of present-day Dundee. But an exception is Thomas Thornton (£60, along with his legal partner, James Pattullo), a lawyer who was a key figure in public life for most of the second half of the nineteenth-century, who has his legacy in the legal firm of that name. He, too, was very active in the town, and indeed, as Town Clerk in the early 1890s, he was instrumental in Dundee becoming a city in 1894. His partner, James Pattullo, in the 1850s became a part-owner of the Dundee Advertiser, the town’s Liberal newspaper down to the 1920s (along with John Leng, (and W.C Leng) who together subscribed £30). In textiles, a name that survives is John Stevenson (£10), listed as a dyer in 1863, now part of the cotton-waxing company at the Baltic Works, Halley Stevenson.

Another corporate name that survives is Don Bros. (£200), engaged in the ‘buying and selling of linen webs from self-employed weavers’, with fewer than six employees. The name, but not the activity, survives in Don and Low Holdings, specialists in artificial fibres, based in Forfar. Even less now survives of William Halley and Sons (£60), whose derelict factory, which prominently displayed the name, was demolished in 2018.

Professor Jim Tomlinson

 © Images courtesy of University of Dundee Archive Services. Not to be reproduced without permission.