Robert McGavin, a prominent Dundee merchant, lived out his life demonstrating a quiet philanthropy within his native Dundee. Having been a man of means, he was renowned for having supported and contributed financially to many charitable ventures within the town.
Subscription value in 1863:
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Relative to income compared to 2019:
Personal details and history
Date of birth
Place of birth
Name of spouse
Age at death:
78 years - Robert McGavin's death record lists his age as 74 years - the discrepancy of 4 years may have been the misinformation of the informant - his nephew Andrew Greig.
Affiliations, clubs, offices and related subscribers
Congregational church - he attended Ward Chapel in Dundee for many years. In his later years, while residing at Ballumbie, Robert McGavin attended Murroes Parish Church and gifted a stained glass screen in the North aisle, depicting the McGavin family arms.
Robert McGavin took no active, public interest in politics, showing more interest in charitable institutions.
Clubs / societies
Scottish Meteorological Society - Robert McGavin was admitted as a member in 1866.
Director of Baldovan Industrial School from 1865: Member of Dundee Landward School Board for 30 years: Justice of the Peace: Commissioner of Supply for Forfarshire: Director of the Dundee Corn Exchange Company: Treasurer of the Prison Aid Society: Council Representative to Dundee Harbour Board: A director of Dundee Industrial Schools Society: Ordinary Director of Dundee Eye Institution: A Director of the Albert Institute: Harbour Trustee:
- Subscribers 102 – Messrs H Henderson & Sons, – Leather Merchants, Meadowside (his cousin, Annie Lindsay Henderson, was the daughter of Henry Henderson)
- Subscribers 105 – William Halley & Sons, – Merchants, Cowgate (his cousin, Annie Lindsay Henderson, married George Halley – son of William Halley)
- Subscriber 209 – George Stephen – Somerville Place (his cousin, James Henderson, married George Stephen’s daughter Ann Stephen)
Career and worklife
Career to date:
On the death of his father, William McGavin, Robert and his older brother James succeeded to and continued their father's business as shipowners and flax merchants. Their father had operated extensive, flax, handloom weaving operations in works at Mid Street, Lochee. His sons did not enter into the development of weaving using power looms and they withdrew from the manufacturing aspect of the business, concentrating their efforts on the mercantile side, together with shipping. James and Robert were large shipowners, engaged primarily in the Baltic trade throughout the 1840s. James McGavin was one of the original subscribers of a Pilotage Committee formed in 1851. Among their schooners, were two named the 'Caledonia' and the 'Viola'. The brothers purchased the Ballumbie estate in 1847, after the death of their father in 1843. However, James McGavin died in 1854, leaving Robert as the sole operative in the business, as well as being the sole proprietor of the Ballumbie estate. Robert McGavin also became proprietor of the neighbouring estates of Baldovie, Duntrune and Drumgeith as well as Mid and East Craigie (part of which was acquired by the town for the purpose of laying out the Eastern Necropolis). He also owned a loft and warehouse in Tannage Court, 7 Cowgate, together with houses in Park Wynd.
Robert McGavin, (named after his uncle Robert McGavin), was the youngest son and last surviving member of the family of William McGavin (flax manufacturer, merchant and shipowner) and his wife Margaret Lindsay.
The family lived at 11 Wellington Street. Robert’s father, William McGavin, had been a prominent yarn/flax manufacturer and ‘green cloth’ merchant, described as ‘one of the best known and largest flax merchants in his day in Dundee.’ He was also a shipowner, dealing largely in the Baltic trade. At the time of his death in 1843, William McGavin was a very wealthy man, leaving an estate valued at over £44,000. He was survived by his widow, Margaret Lindsay, and 5 surviving offspring. From William’s testamentary inventory, his mercantile interests were far-ranging in diversity and location. He would appear to have conducted business with companies from Glamis and Kirkinch in the hinterland, to global companies in Rio de Janeiro, New York, and many Baltic towns – Memel, Pernau, Liebau, Riga etc. He also owned and had shares in a number of barques, brigs and schooners.
William McGavin, in his will, also expressed various wishes outwith business aspects. He declared ‘I have it in contemplation to invest on the security of landed property, or other heritable estate, of such value as will afford unquestionable safety.’ To that end, he had allocated a sum of £25,000. He wished that his trustees would bring that to fruition should he not have done so by his death. In keeping with their father’s hopes, his sons James and Robert purchased the Ballumbie estate after his death in 1847.
James McGavin’s death in 1854 ensured that Robert McGavin became the sole proprietor of Ballumbie and neighbouring estates. His older sister Jessie (wife of Bailie Andrew Greig Jnr – shipowner) did not survive beyond 1860, which left the responsibility of supporting an ageing mother and two remaining spinster sisters firmly in Robert’s hands. Once again, his father’s dying wishes came into play. William had stipulated his hopes that ‘they (the family members) live together in peace and mutual love and with affectionate kindness and respect towards each other until, in the course of providence, they are separated by ties or by death.’ Robert complied with his father’s wishes, ensuring appropriate provision for his siblings.
Robert McGavin’s obituary declared ‘that he loved to do good by stealth.’  The evidence would seem to support the impression that he lived a life of his father’s bidding – a life that was ‘kind and just (….and trust that all (members of the family) will act in kindness and with justice to each other.’ not merely within his family but also outwith. His motivations, having been influenced by his father’s wishes, appear also to have been innately altruistic.
- Old Parish Registers. Dundee. Births. 1823. 282/150/170. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Statutory Registers. Murroes. Deaths. 1901. 313/10. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Dundee Courier, 08 November 1901. p.6, Findmypast website.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1861-62. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1864-1865. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Postal Directory, 1867-1868. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Advertiser. 19 October 1866. p.2. Findmypast website.
- Census Record. 1861. Murroes. 313/ 2/ 9. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Robertson, Hamish. (2006). Mariners of Dundee - Their City, Their River, Their Fraternity. Dundee. PDQ Print Services.
- Legal Records. Wills and Testaments. Dundee Sheriff Court. 1844. SC45/ 31/ 6. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Montrose, Arbroath & Brechin Review & Kincardineshire Advertiser. 05 February 1847. Findmypast website.
- Valuation Roll. 1865. VR008800018 - /287. ScotlandsPeople website.
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