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History of the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York
Biographies: William Wood



Twenty-seventh President
1865-1867.

William Wood was the eldest son of John Wood and Elizabeth Dennistoun, and was born on the 21st October, 1808, in Glasgow, Scotland. He died on the 1st October, 1894, at his residence in New York City, in the eighty-sixth year of his age.

His father was for many years a prominent merchant and banker of Glasgow, universally respected in financial circles, and could trace his lineal descent from Admiral Sir Andrew Wood, one of the ancient sea heroes of the British Navy.

At the age of seven Mr. Wood was sent to the Grammar School kept by William Angus in the City of St. Mungo for two years, but in 1817 he attended the Glasgow Grammar School, presided over by David Dawrie, where he spent the next four years in the study of the classics, notably Greek and Latin. He also was a student at Dr. Duncan’s School at Ruthwell.

In October, 1821, he entered the Glasgow Academy, where he benefited by the instruction of Josiah Walker, Professor of Latin, and of Professor—later Sir David K.—Sandford, the learned Greek scholar, as teacher. At the age of sixteen he matriculated at the University of St. Andrew’s and attended the class of Dr. Chalmers, who was a distant kinsman, then occupying the chair of Moral Philosophy and Mathematics. Mr. Wood took the second and third mathematical prizes here, and later, in the University of Glasgow, took the highest prize in Natural Philosophy. From 1827-28 he attended the surgery class of Dr. John Burns.

Having thus equipped himself for his future career with a sound and liberal education, Mr. Wood shortly after his graduation entered the firm of J. & R. Dennistoun, and on the 3rd November, 1828, came to the United States on firm business, remaining a short time in New York and then returning to Scotland. In 1830 he again crossed the ocean in the packet ship Hibernia and married, returning shortly after to Glasgow, where he remained until May, 1832. He then went to Liverpool to manage a branch of his firm’s business there.

While in this city, in conjunction with Richard Cobden, he canvassed South Lancashire in the interests of the senior partner of Brown Brothers, the eminent banking house, who was about to seek the votes of that constituency for election to Parliament. When Daniel O’Connell landed in Liverpool, Mr. Wood was chosen by the Liberals to present him with an address, which he did on the platform of St. George's Hall, in the presence of over four thousand people.

In 1844 Mr. Wood came once more to the United States to open the banking house of Dennistoun, Wood & Co., of which he remained a partner until the 31st December, i860. In 1863 he assumed the management of the British & American Bank, and retained this position until 1869, when he retired from business. In May, 1869, he was appointed by Mayor Oakey Hall a Commissioner of Public Instruction, and in May, 1870, he accepted a Commissionership of Docks.

In June of this same year he was appointed one of a commission for widening Broadway, succeeding A. T. Stewart in his retirement. He remained in the Board of Education until the 4th April, 1873, when the Reform Party legislated him out of office. Mayor Wickham subsequently reappointed him a Commissioner of Education, and he eventually became President of the Board, serving nearly twenty years and introducing many improvements, notably the substitution of copy books for slates in the schools, and the establishment of the Normal College for the training of teachers. It is undoubtedly due to his sagacity and energy that the educational system of this city was lifted out of its indifferent and sluggish routine, and that the present effective organization was made possible. Mr. Wood had the strongest confidence in the higher education of women and never ceased to urge the more liberal training and employment of women as teachers in the school system. His addresses at the Graduating Exercises of the Normal School and to the Board of Education, all of which have been published, are models of just criticism and sage advice.

Mr. Wood was a member of the Century Association and many other social organizations of this city, and had received the honorary degree of LL.D. from an American college. He served for many years as an Elder of the Collegiate Dutch Reformed Church, although he was a member of the Congregational Church, and in this office showed himself an earnest, humble and devout Christian.

He had a fine patriotism and pride in Scotland and those of her sons who have won renown in poetry, music, literature, science and art, and his speeches at the numerous Saint Andrew’s banquets were full of classic sentiment and love for the ‘‘Land O’ Cakes.” He was an orator of no mean power, and his address at the laying of the foundation stone for the pedestal of the Walter Scott Monument in the Central Park on the 15th August, 1871, will be long remembered. In politics he was a Democrat, but so discussed and lived lip to this political creed as to win the esteem and respect of his opponents, and it is noteworthy that his appointments came from such a variety of men and politicians as Mayors Hall, Wyckham, Cooper and Grace.

He was elected a member of Saint Andrew's Society 011 the 1st December, 1828; served as President of the Society from 1865 to 1867, and thereafter was a member of the Standing Committee in 1868, 1871, 1874, and from 1877 to 1894, the year of his death.

The following extract admirably sums up his private character:

“His whole career has been that of a man who started in life with principles of the highest order and who has clung to them ever since with the firmness of an honorable man and the tenacity of a Scotchman. Holding office under a corrupt administration, he yet preserved his name unsullied and his honor unimpeached. He has demonstrated to the world that an honest man may without contamination fill a position in the government of a city which was at the very time bringing disgrace upon the whole country. II is tastes in his retirement are illustrative of his early education and tenderness. Living in the land of his adoption he regards America with all the love of one of her own sons. Like many other eminent Scotchmen, he was early in life imbued with republican principles. He was attracted toward this country by force of sympathy and professional ambition and became bound to it by the ties of after life. He has won the respect equally of his countrymen and of strangers, and represents all that is best and most manly in the character of an Americanized Scotchman.”

Mr. Wood married on the 15th September, 1830, Harriet A. Kane, daughter of John Knne and Maria Cochvise. After her death he married Margaret Laurence, daughter of Janus Van Horne Laurence and Emily Kane. After the death of his second wife he married on the 6th December, 1883, Helen Mason, daughter of Henry .Mason and Lydia James. He had surviving issue, six children by "his first, and four by his second wife, viz: (1) John Walter; (2) Charlotte M; (3) Elizabeth Dennistoun; (4) Harriet Maria; (5) William; (6) Helen; (7) Dennistoun; (8) Henry Duncan; (9) Chalmers; (10) Van Horne.

His portrait is reproduced from an admirable pastel by Rigby, now in the possession of his daughter, Mrs. Helen M. Watts.


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