John Zuill Kay
John Zuill Kay, gas engineer/inventor, played an active part in Dundee's industrial past for twenty years. During that time, he oversaw continued development of both Gas Works in Dundee and he recognised practical applications for the by-products of the industry.
Subscription value in 1863:
Relative to inflation up to 2021:
Relative to income compared to 2021:
Personal details and history
John Zuill Kay
Date of birth
Place of birth
Name of spouse
Age at death:
Place of death:
Date of death:
Affiliations, clubs, offices and related subscribers
Clubs / societies
14th Forfarshire Rifle Volunteers ((Highland) - Captain: Admitted Free Master of the Bonnetmaker Trade 1854: Right Worshipful Master of Lodge No 47 Operative - Lodge Room, 43 Overgate: Grand Treasurer of Provincial Grand Lodge of Forfarshire 1861-1865: Guildry Incorporation - Assessor:
- Subscriber 222 – Messrs Shiell & Small, writers, Reform Street, Dundee – this firm of John Shiell and David Small acted as solicitors for the Dundee New Gas-Light Company throughout the tenure of John Zuill Kay as Manager and Gas Engineer. He also named one of his sons John Shiell Kay.
- Subscribers 231 – William Small: 238 – Anthony Traill: 56 – Thomas Couper: 104 – Peter Hean: 95 – Alexander Hean – all as Directors of Dundee New Gas-Light Company
- Subscribers 29 – Sir David Baxter: 65 – Peter Duncan: 106 – William Harris:192 – David Reith: 207 Dr Sturrock: 212 – John Symers: 240 – P H Thoms – all as Directors of Dundee Gas-Light Company
Career and worklife
Place of work
Dundee New Gas-Light Company
Career to date:
As a young man in his mid twenties, John Zuill Kay, an engineer in Glasgow, arrived in Dundee to take up employment as manager at the Dundee New Gas-Light Company. This was located at Croll's Rocks, to the East of the existing Dundee Gas-Light Company. The older Gas-Light Company occupied the land between what had been the shore and Ferry Road, to the East of Peep o' Day Lane. It was reported that the Gas Works took 'made-up' ground between what was the shore and the escarpment that carries Broughty Ferry Road. The land was taken by some of the more noxious industries eg - the abbatoir. Between the years 1845 and 1853, John Z Kay remained as manager of the newer Gas-Light Company. By the year 1853, he was listed as manager to both Companies. Soon after, John Z Kay's responsibilities grew as he then assumed the role of engineer to both Gas-Light Companies, although their works, offices, and directors were listed as separate entities. By 1853, he had also been appointed a 'surveyor of steam' by the Board of Trade. John Zuill Kay continued in his role as engineer to both companies until the mid 1860s. He had lived in Dundee for twenty years, during which time he had been responsible for a number of innovative ideas and inventions (see 'comments' below) before returning to Glasgow in the mid 1860s.
John Zuill Kay found it necessary to tender his resignation as manager and engineer of the Gas Works in October 1866. He had spent some twenty years as manager of the New Gas-Light Company and, on the death of Mr Russell (Manager of the older, Dundee Gas-Light Company), became resident engineer to both companies. At the time of his resignation some important changes were mooted surrounding the management of these private companies, “in view of which Mr Kay intended to devote himself to his other public appointments and to private business.”
During his tenure at the works, J Z Kay made a number of innovative claims. In 1853, he proposed a solution for the cleaning and removal of deposits from public conveniences, cesspools and the like. The standing recommended method had been to use black earth. In its place, John Kay suggested using the charcoal of Boghead Coal (aka Torbane Hill mineral). Although similar to peat charcoal, he had found it very effective in removing “deleterious gases,” fixing urine or ammonia and also that it was easily pulverised – “any workman with his shovel will break it down to powder if required.” An additional benefit was in the cost – at 3s per cartload it seemed a small price to pay to spend a penny more sweetly.
1857 saw John Zuill Kay produce yet another of his inventions. He submitted an idea to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in the form of a covering for the head, resembling a diver’s helmet, and enabling the wearer to breathe fresh air supplied by a pipe, from a distance. It was considered that the invention would have many uses -“this is very ingenious and likely to prove a very valuable contrivance.”
In 1863, an advert placed by John Zuill Kay on behalf of the Dundee Gas Light Company advised the use of pure sulphate of ammonia as an effective top dressing for grasslands, less expensive and with a higher content of ammoniacal salts than cheaper guano.
John Z Kay’s abilities to apply his skills also came into play in an aesthetic arena as well as in industrial benefits. He played a large part in the celebrations at the opening of Baxter Park. According to local reports, “the success of the illuminations in the park and at the arches in King Street and Panmure Street was greatly due to the admirable arrangements made by Mr J Z Kay, who not only afforded every facility for the display but evinced a warm interest in its success.”
Although John Zuill Kay returned to Glasgow by 1866, he had by no means severed his links to Dundee. He became a partner in the firm of Messrs Thomas Eddington & Son of the Phoenix Iron Works (an old established and eminent firm). The firm specialised in the manufacture of cast iron pipes for gas and water supply. He was part of this firm for about ten years.
In January of 1874 a party of Commissioners from Dundee were met in Glasgow by contractors D Y Stewart & Co and Messrs Thomas Eddington & Son. The representative from Eddingtons was John Zuill Kay. His role was to demonstrate the moulding and casting of pipes at the Phoenix Iron Works. The group was witness to the first casting of the 27″ internal diameter pipes for the New Dundee Water Works from Lintrathen.
It was unfortunate, however, that some time into their contract, Messrs Thomas Eddington took Dundee Water Works to court for the withholding of payment for works carried out. The counter claim was that some of the pipes supplied were substandard. The Court found in Eddington’s favour but to a lesser amount than was being sought.
John Zuill Kay, born in Balfron, a mechanical engineer in Glasgow, made his home in Dundee for twenty years, before returning to Glasgow. There, he became a leading member of the Incorporation of Hammermen of the Glasgow Trades House. On his death, he left a considerable estate of almost £80,000.
It would appear that he never lost sight of his birthplace of Balfron, having possessed property there and that being chosen for his final resting place.
- Old Parish Records. Balfron. Births. 1819. 472/ 10 299. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Old Parish Records. Glasgow. Marriages. 1843. 644/1 420 666. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Census Returns. Dundee. 1851. Ancestry website.
- Census Returns. Dundee. 1861. Ancestry website.
- Dundee Voters Roll. 1865-1866. Friends of Dundee City Archive website.
- Statutory Registers. Deaths. 1878. 161/FN 11. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Monumental Inscription Index for Balfron Church. memento-mori website.
- Statutory Registers, Dundee. Marriages. 1865. 282/1 198 99. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1861-62. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Lockit Book. 1854. Friends of Dundee City Archives website.
- Dundee Directory, 1858-59. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1864-65. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1844-45. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- National Record of the Historic Environment. Canmore website.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1856-57. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1853-54. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Advertiser. 19 October 1866. Findmypast website.
- Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser. 18 November 1853. Findmypast website.
- Caledonian Mercury, 15 November 1857. Findmypast website.
- Dundee Advertiser, 17 March 1863. Findmypast website.
- People's Journal. 12 September 1863. Findmypast website.
- Grace's Guide to British Industrial History. Grace's Guide website.
- Dundee Courier. 16 January 1874. Findmypast website.
- Legal Records. Wills and Testaments. Glasgow Sheriff Court. 1879. SC36/48/90. Images 52-58. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Valuation Rolls. VR011900011-/17.
The information above about John Zuill Kay has been collated from a range of digital and hard copy sources. To the best of our knowledge it is correct but if you are relying on any information from our website for the purpose of your own research we would advise you to follow up the sources to your own satisfaction. If you are aware of an inaccuracy in our text please do not hesitate to notify us through our Contact page.