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History of the Gartsherrie Industrial Empire

William and James Baird (1796-1864)

Painting of William Baird

William and James Baird were the eldest and fourth of the eight sons (and two daughters) of Alexander Baird and Jean Moffat, from the Monklands area of Lanarkshire. The family moved from farming to coal mining and iron smelting, with the first Gartsherrie furnace opening on 4 May 1830.

William Baird took over the business after his father's death in 1833, and served as MP (Conservative) for the Falkirk Burghs 1841-46. He was a director of the Caledonian Railway Company and the Forth and Clyde Canal. He married Janet Johnston in 1840, and bought the Elie estate in 1853.

James Baird was MP (Conservative) for the Falkirk Burghs 1850-57. He was a Deputy-Lieutenant of Ayr and Inverness, and bought the Knoydart estate in 1857. He was twice married: in 1852 to Charlotte Lockhart and in 1859 to Isabella Agnew. There were no children. James Baird died at Cambusdoon.

WILLIAM and JAMES BAIRD were perhaps the most remarkable members of a remarkable family - the Bairds of Gartsherrie. They were not proprietors of the estate of that name, which belongs to Mr. Hamilton Colt. All the property which they possess there is the ground on which their great ironworks are erected.


Their father was also a remarkable man, and their mother - nee Jean Moffat - was a fine specimen of that higher type of the old Scotch matron which is so seldom met with now. Mr. James Baird used to say that the success which her sons achieved was in a great measure, owing to her precepts and good example. He thus wrote of her in 1874:- "She was married in comparative poverty while her husband was sub-tenant of the small, and not very productive, farm of Woodhead. By her sagacity and indomitable energy she contributed largely to her husband's prosperity, and to form in her children those habits of diligence and integrity by which they became distinguished. When they were old enough to go to school, she always found time, among the many and onerous duties of the farm, to assist them at their lessons, and she was careful in imparting to them the best religious instruction. The children were all early instructed in farm labour, and all of them, as they grew up, had a task assigned to them commensurate with their strength; but nothing, however pressing, was allowed to interrupt their lessons or interfere with their school hours. Thus was her family imbued with the best principles, and trained to the practice of industry and economy; and the lessons then acquired they never forgot. She survived her husband eighteen years, and lived to see the prosperity of all her sons. She died at the age of 83. Pride was unknown to her, and she never was heard to allude to the riches or success of her family."

Mr. Alexander Baird, her husband, was - so far as his limited means went - an energetic and skillful farmer and improver. But farming was not in his days what it is now. The plough and the harrow, and even some of the tines of the latter, were made of wood, and so simple was their construction that a wright in Old Monkland was able to make a plough in one day. There were no threshing-machines, and everything was done by hand labour; yet Mr. Baird was paying forty-five shillings an acre for his land. By his marriage with Jean Moffat, Mr. Alexander Baird had a family of eight sons and two daughters. In the early years of the young Bairds they had hard work at the farm of High Cross and Kirkwood. Their house accommodation was very inferior, but the habits of hardiness there acquired were never lost.

Mr. Alexander Baird, besides his occupation of a farmer, had, early in the century, engaged in the working of coal on a small scale, and in the year 1816 he obtained from Miss Alexander, of Airdrie House, a lease of the coalfield of Rochsolloch. The management of this work he confided to his eldest son, William, then a youth of twenty; and it proved very successful.

In 1822 he engaged in a much larger concern, having taken from Mr. Buchanan of Drumpellier, the coalfield of Merryston, on the farm of Newmains, and this also, under the management of Mr. Baird and his sons, proved a successful concern. William attended to the book-keeping, and Alexander, the third son, had charge of the sale of the produce in Glasgow. James, the fourth son, while he assisted in the business of the colliery, was also engaged in the management of the farm; but he and most of the other members of the family were now beginning to look upon farming as but a secondary matter. John, the second son, was the only one whose inclinations lay in another direction, and when his brothers had become great ironmasters, he continued to the last to be a farmer.

The coalfield of Merryston had been unskillfully wrought by a former tenant, but under Mr. Baird and his sons it became an important colliery. Mr. Baird had a lease for ten years, with a break at an early period in the landlord's option, and when that period arrived, Mr. Buchanan availed himself of the option and put an end to the lease. This was, at the time, a great disappointment to Mr. Baird and his sons, but it proved, eventually, the making of their fortunes.

Mr. Baird immediately entered into negotiations with Mr. Hamilton Colt, of Gartsherrie, which resulted in his acquiring a lease of the large and important coalfields on the estate of that name. This was in 1826, and from that date the prosperity of him and his family advanced without a check.

On William, again, the chief charge devolved, but soon afterwards James became almost entirely occupied in the management; and even greater skill and enterprise were exhibited than had been evinced at Merryston. Pit after pit was sunk; all the boats and plant which they feared would have been lost were again brought into requisition. The Canal Company constructed a branch to two of the pits, and arrangements were made for delivering the coal either on the canal or on the railway - thus giving the Bairds a great advantage in the coal trade, as regarded both Glasgow and Kirkintilloch.

The opening of the Garnkirk and Glasgow Railway, in 1830, secured another communication with Glasgow, and established the Gartsherrie Collieries as the best situated in the county as regarded access to markets.

To these fields Mr. Baird and his sons added, in 1827, the important coalfield of Gartgill, on another lease from Mr. Colt; and very soon after this there were six pits going on these two fields, each producing a large output.

Hitherto they had nothing but coal, but in the following year they became ironmasters also, having acquired from Mr. George More Nisbet a lease for forty years of the ironstone in the lands of Cairnhill. In that same year, 1828, they began to erect the first iron furnace at Gartsherrie, and on the 4th of May, 1830, it was put in blast. Furnace after furnace followed. The second was put in blast in September, 1832, and the third in 1833. Still the business increased. By 1839 eight blast furnaces were in operation on the east side of the canal, and by 1842 eight more had been erected and put in blast on the west side. Sixteen furnaces were thus in operation, capable of producing upwards of one hundred thousand tons per annum.

The Company afterwards obtained, along with other neighbouring companies, a lease of a portion of the Airdrie House field. Besides a large fixed rent, the lordship paid by the different companies who leased this important field of ironstone amounted to the enormous sum of from five shillings to eight shillings and sixpence a ton of 22½ cwt. calcined ironstone. This raised the rental of the Airdrie House estate from £1000 a year to about £20,000, and this continued for upwards of twenty years.

With all these works going on - there being in all sixty blast furnaces in the neighbourhood producing iron - the increase of population was necessarily great. In a district not more than twelve miles in diameter, an increase in population of not less than 26,000 had taken place within the six years preceding the year 1841. With such a consumption in the district as so many furnaces implied, it was evident that the Lanarkshire field could not last long, and most of the parties began to look for ironstone elsewhere.

In 1844, William Baird & Company directed their attention to Ayrshire, and they acquired important mineral fields there under leases from Lord Eglinton and others; and here the well-know Eglinton Iron Works, extending to eight blast furnaces, were erected. An incident connected with the name given to these works is worth telling. On one occasion when Mr. James Baird had occasion to meet the Earl at Eglinton Castle, he took with him his manager, John Jack. When other matters had been concluded, Mr. Baird asked his Lordship what name he would suggest for the works, and he kindly said, "You may call them Eglinton." On this John Jack observed that "it would do very well for the pigs." Lord Eglinton stared, but when Mr. Baird explained that what John meant was that the name would do well for branding on the pig iron, he laughed heartily. Three of the Eglinton furnaces were started in 1846, and by 1859 the eight had been completed. In 1852 the Company acquired the Blair Iron Works, with five furnaces. Then those of Muirkirk and Lugar were acquired; and afterwards the Portland Iron Works, near Kilmarnock.

During all this time of prosperity the religious instruction of their workmen, and the education of their children, had a large share of the attention of the Company. With this view, in every place where a considerable number of houses was built, a school was erected and a teacher engaged - care being taken for the religious as well as the secular education of the children. At the time of the passing of the Act of 1872 the Company had already school accommodation provided for 4,500 children, independent of a large academy at Coatbridge, called the Gartsherrie Schools, erected chiefly at the expense of Mr. William Baird.

At an early period, also, church accommodation was provided at Gartsherrie. At first there were two preaching stations, and then a commodious new church was erected. It was opened in 1839, and it was subsequently endowed by Mr. James Baird.

Mr. Alexander Baird (the father) acquired in 1825 the estate of Lochwood in Lanarkshire, which he greatly improved. On his death it was inherited by his son William, and, by arrangement among themselves, it was presented to John by his more wealthy brothers. Mr. Alexander Baird died at his farm of High Cross in 1833. His widow died in 1851.

Our notice of the brothers, other than William the eldest, and James, the fourth son, the immediate subjects of this article, must be short. The second son, John, was born in 1798. As already mentioned, he never took to any pursuit but farming, and when he became proprietor of Lochwood he went to reside there, and proceeded to complete the improvements commenced by his father. In 1861 he acquired the estate of Easterhouse, adjoining Lochwood; and in 1862, on the death of his brother Alexander, he succeeded to the estate of Urie in Kincardineshire, to which he removed in 1867. He was a man of a contented and joyous disposition, of great tact, and with a readiness of repartee possessed by few. His good temper and friendliness of disposition gained him many friends. In 1862 he was appointed Deputy-Lieutenant for the County of Kincardine. He died at Naples in 1870, leaving two sons and a daughter by his wife Margaret Findlay, daughter of John Findlay, Esq. of Springhill, in the county of Lanark.

Alexander, the third of the Gartsherrie family, was born in 1799. He was seldom about the iron works, being engaged in Glasgow in the management of the sale department of the coal and iron. The first office of the Company was in Spreull's Court, Trongate; they next occupied a house on the west side of Madeira Court; from that they moved to No. 1 Moore Place, and since the year 1860 their offices have been in a property, built by themselves, at 168 West George Street.

Like all his brothers, Alexander was a decided Conservative, and he took a keen interest in politics. He was a man of great shrewdness, and was noted for his witty and sarcastic sayings. But his personal observations were generally made in the presence of the party concerned, and although often calculated to cause a hearty laugh, they were never characterized by anything bitter or ill-natured. In business he was able and judicious, and his advice was sought and valued by many friends in Glasgow. In November, 1841, he was elected a member of the Town Council of Glasgow, and was appointed Bailie of the River and Firth of Clyde. He purchased in 1854 the estate of Urie, and was a Deputy-Lieutenant of his county. He died unmarried in 1862, lamented by a large circle of friends. He was greatly missed from his accustomed haunts, for he was one of the notabilities of Glasgow. By his settlement he left £20,000 for charitable and religious objects.

James, the fourth son, will be noticed presently. The fifth son, Robert, was by his father destined for the law, and on this account he received a better education than his brothers. After completing his legal studies he commenced business in Glasgow, but he continued in practice a very short time. The business of William Baird & Company had become so extensive and important that he was made a partner in the firm. At first he was appointed to the charge of a colliery at Thankerton, but soon afterwards he was transferred to the office in Glasgow, in order to take the principal charge there, and to conduct the correspondence, and this he did with great ability. In 1854 he purchased the estate of Auchmedden, having been induced to do so less from considerations of a profitable investment, than from the desire of bringing back into the possession of a Baird an estate which had, for a long time, been held by proprietors of that name. In connection with this purchase an incident is worth mentioning - the facts being well authenticated.

Robert Baird was a Deputy Governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal, and at the time of his death he held the office of Lord Dean of Guild of Glasgow. His habits of life were simple and regular. He was a man of great shrewdness and sound judgment, and he was well read in all our best literature. His legal knowledge, which was considerable, was of great use in the conduct of the business. He died unmarried in 1856.

Douglas, the sixth son, was born at Kirkwood in 1808. On his return from school in Glasgow, where he lived with his brother Alexander, he was employed by the Company in office work, and became an expert clerk. He kept the accounts and paid the men. When the firm of William Baird & Company was formed he was made a partner, and he afterwards undertook the charge of Thankerton Colliery. In 1848 he purchased that part of the estate of Closeburn in Dumfriesshire which belonged to the late Mr. Leadbetter, and in 1851 he acquired the remainder from Sir James Menteath. He died suddenly at Closeburn in 1854. This was the first death in the family of Alexander Baird. He married Charlotte, only daughter of Captain Henry Acton, by whom he had twin daughters, who succeeded him. The eldest married Mr. Villiers, son of the Bishop of Durham and nephew of Lord Clarendon, and the second married Lord Cole, eldest son of the Earl of Enniskillen.

George Baird - the seventh of the brothers, and a partner in the Company - was born at the farm of High Cross in 1810. As a child he was precocious. He was a great favourite with Captain Lawson of Cuparhead, and as soon as he was able to walk he made frequent visits to that place. On one occasion, seeing the servant blowing up the fire with a small bellows, he asked: "Do you keep win in the house?" "Oh, aye," was the answer; "do ye no keep ony?" "No," was the child's reply; "but we hae plenty in the stackyard." High Cross stood on an eminence, and the stackyard was a peculiarly windy place. In his youth George was for a considerable time in delicate health, and on this account he was kept longer at school than any of his brothers. He got a good education: first at Langloan, and afterwards in Glasgow. After the ironworks were started he had charge of the above-ground work at the collieries, and when the Ayrshire works were acquired he took the chief charge there. In 1855 he purchased from Lord Lovat the estate of Strichen, in Aberdeenshire, and he resided a good deal there. In 1869, on the death of his brother David, he succeeded to the estate of Stichill, in the counties of Berwick and Roxburgh, where he built a palatial residence. He acquired other estates of considerable value. He died suddenly at Strichen in 1870. He was a Deputy-Lieutenant of Berwickshire. By his settlement he left £25,000 for religious and charitable purposes. He married in 1858 the daughter of Admiral Hatton of Clonard, by whom he had one son, George Alexander, who succeeded him.

David, the youngest of the brothers, was born in 1816. Like George, he was precocious as a child, and he was a great favourite with his brothers and sisters, as well as with his parents. He received an excellent education. He had thoughts at first of entering the army, but he abandoned that intention, and after being some time in Paris he joined his brothers in the business. He was fond of hunting, and in 1853 he purchased the estate of Stichill chiefly because it was in a good hunting country. He died unmarried in 1860.

Both of the two daughters of Alexander Baird possessed a large amount of the ability and sound sense which characterized their brothers. The first, Janet, was born in 1794. She married (first) Alexander, son of Mr. Whitelaw, farmer at Hill of Tannock, by whom she had a son, Alexander, who attained to great eminence in Glasgow. In 1874 he was elected Member of Parliament for the City, being the only Conservative member that Glasgow had returned since the first Reform Bill. Janet Baird married (second) Mr. John Weir, by whom she had twin children, William, and Janet who married Mr. David Wallace. Mr. Whitelaw, Mr. William Weir, and Mr. Wallace all became partners in the firm of William Baird & Company.

The second daughter of Alexander Baird, Jane, was born in 1804. She married Mr. Thomas Jackson of Coats, by whom she had a large family.

We have now to speak of William and James, the immediate subjects of our notice. William, the eldest son, was born in 1796, and died in 1864. He was a man of large views, bold in his undertakings, and of clear judgment. His brother James described him truly when he wrote of him thus in 1874: "The success of the Company was in a great measure owing to William's great sagacity, his almost unequalled business habits, his great power of utilizing to the best advantage the means within his power, his steadiness of purpose, and his strict observance of his engagements, by which he gained the confidence of all who dealt with him." And, Mr. James Baird adds, what is noteworthy, "He held strictly to cash payments, and no account by William Baird & Company has ever been settled by a bill." William was member of Parliament for the Falkirk Burghs from 1841 to 1846, and was for some time director and chairman of the Caledonian Railway Company, and also a director, and afterwards governor, of the Forth and Clyde Canal. He acquired in 1853 the fine estate of Elie in Fife. He married in 1840 Janet, daughter of Mr. Thomas Johnston, coal-master, Gartcloss, by whom he had a large family.

James Baird, the fourth son, was born at the farm of Kirkwood on the 5th of December, 1802. He showed at an early period a capacity for work and a sound judgment, and in the important share which he had in establishing the great concern of which he became so distinguished a partner, he was noted for his singular sagacity, and the great fertility of his resources. He took an active part in the management of the collieries, and afterwards in the establishment of the ironworks, and at one time, when the Company was left without a superintending engineer, during the construction of the furnaces, he took on himself the whole direction of completing them. At this time the amount of work he went through was very great. Everyone, from the skilled workmen to the lowest labourer, came to him for instructions, and at one time he was not unfrequently on the ground for not less than twenty hours out of the twenty-four. In all the great undertakings of the Company it was William, the eldest brother, who was the guiding spirit, and who gave the orders to advance; but James was the one chiefly instrumental in carrying out and giving practical effect to his brothers' plans. With himself, however, there originated many important improvements connected with the manufacture of iron.

William Baird and his brother James lived through an interesting period in the history of the iron and coal trades. In their boyhood these trades were quite insignificant, but they had reached enormous dimensions by the time they attained to middle life. Till a period comparatively recent very little coal was used in Scotland. While the old forests remained, wood, with furze and peat, formed the principal fuel. So late as 1578 the Archbishop of Glasgow let "the haill coilheuchtis and colis within the baronie of Glasgow" for a sum which in sterling money amounted to only £7 5s. per annum. At that time a laid or load of coal (about 320 pounds) was sold for 2½d. sterling. There were no deep pits: the only coal wrought was what was found near the surface. In 1655 the magistrates, in letting their coal, gave a grant of £55 11s. to the tenant to defray the expense of "setting down twa shanks" to work it. The pits could not have been very deep which could be put down for that sum. But the consumption was not great, and the price of coals was low. In 1742 a "cart" of coals (9 cwt.) was sold for fifteen-pence. The output gradually increased, and by the middle of the present century it had attained to a large amount. In 1854 the total output in Scotland was five million tons. At present it amounts to twenty million tons in a year.

The development of the iron trade was more recent than that of coal, but the increase of production was very rapid. In 1827 the entire production of Great Britain was 690,000 tons, of which Scotland contributed only 36,000. In about twenty years afterwards (1849) the make in Scotland alone was 690,000 tons. This was produced by 113 furnaces in blast. There were 31 out of blast, making a total of 144 furnaces, the great majority of these being in the Glasgow district. In 1883 the production of pig and hematite iron had increased to 1,129,000 tons. The total number of furnaces, including 38 out of blast, was in that year 148, and of these 33 belonged to William Baird & Company - 27 being in blast and 6 out of blast.

As may be supposed, the number of the employees of the Company was very great. The Gartsherrie works alone gave employment to 3,200 men and boys, and the consumption of coal at the furnaces there amounted to l,000 tons a day. But this gives but a small idea of the total extent of the works of this great Company, and of the amount of accommodation required for their work-people. The total number employed at their different collieries and ironworks continued to increase till it amounted to nine thousand men and boys - equivalent, at a moderate computation, to a population of thirty thousand souls.

In addition to the operations already described, the Company exercised a considerable influence in the development of the different railways of Lanarkshire. Among the undertakings of this nature, toward the successful carrying out of which they materially contributed, the most important was the Glasgow, Bothwell, Hamilton, and Coatbridge Railway, authorized by Parliament in 1874.

We have already mentioned the attention which the Company, in the midst of their operations, found time to pay to the education and religious teaching of their work-people. In all that they did in this direction Mr. James Baird took a prominent part, and his own contributions to Church extension, and to charitable objects generally, were many and liberal. He took an intelligent interest in all religious matters, and, as an elder, he was for many years a member of the General Assembly of the National Church. In 1871 he pleaded publicly for the continuance of religious education in day schools. Mr. James Baird established a lectureship, now called "The Baird Lecture," for the illustration and defense of the vital truths of religion, and for this purpose, and for other purposes in connection with the Church of Scotland, he paid over to trustees, during his life, the princely sum of half a million sterling. The deed of trust was signed by Mr. Baird, and the whole £500,000 paid over on the 24th of July, 1873. The donation was recognized by all as the most important gift that had ever been made in the history of the Church of Scotland.

When Mr. Baird entered the hall of the General Assembly on the 26th of May in the following year, to take his place as a member - while the debate on the Patronage Bill was proceeding - immediately on his being recognized, the members of Assembly, and the whole audience, rose to their feet, and cheered loudly and repeatedly. The "Baird Trust" is often spoken of, but the objects of the grant, as expressed in the Trust Deed, are not generally known. They are these:- "I hereby declare and direct that the said funds shall be expended for the support of objects and purposes in connection with the Established Church of Scotland, all of a religious character, and for the aid of institutions having the promotion of such purposes in view, my grand object being to assist in providing the means of meeting, or, at least, as far as possible promoting, the mitigation of spiritual destitution among the population of Scotland, through efforts for securing the godly upbringing of the young, the establishing of parochial pastoral work, and the stimulating of ministers, and all agencies of the Church of Scotland, to sustained devotedness in the work of carrying the Gospel to the homes and hearts of all." In addition to this large sum, Mr. Baird gave £7,500 towards the erection and endowment of five new churches in Aberdeen, and he also subscribed £100 towards the erection and endowment of each of two hundred new parish churches. He also purchased and endowed a church in Bath Street, one of the finest in Glasgow.

In 1850 Mr. James Baird was elected Member of Parliament for the Falkirk Burghs, and he continued in Parliament till 1857. In that year he acquired the extensive estate of Knoydart, in the county of Inverness, formerly the territory of Macdonald of Glengarry. He purchased the estates of Auchendrane, in Ayrshire, in 1862; Muirkirk, in the same county, in 1863; and Drumellan in 1866. On the death of his brother Robert he succeeded to the estate of Auchmedden, and he afterwards acquired the small estate of Cambusdoon, near Ayr, where he chiefly resided. He was a Deputy-Lieutenant in each of the counties of Inverness and Ayr, and he was a director of the Forth and Clyde Canal. It may be of interest to mention that the prices of the various estates purchased by Mr. Baird and his brothers amounted to nearly two millions sterling.

Mr. James Baird married (first), in 1852, Charlotte, daughter of Robert Lockhart, Esq. of Castlehill; and (second), in 1859, Isabella Agnew, daughter of Admiral James Hay of Belton, by whom he was survived. He died at Cambusdoon, without issue, on 20th June, 1876. By his settlement he left £20,000 for Christian and benevolent purposes.

Article reprinted from the Glasgow West-End Address and Their Occupants website

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