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History of the Town of Greenock
Part 11


The progress of literature in Greenock has been much behind its other improvements; and though societies have been frequently formed for reading original essays, &c., as also for debating interesting and popular subjects, yet these have been but short-lived, and consequently their effects, in forming the public mind, of but little importance. The first literary society was commenced in 1792, and existed about eighteen months. In 1812 The Society for encouraging Arts and Sciences" was established, and continued for about two years. In 1814, "The Literary and Philosophical Society" was instituted, and existed for about twelve months. On the ruins of this, however, another was established, under the same name, which existed for five years. In 1819 and 1820, two debating societies were begun, and ended the same year. At present Greenock posseses nothing in the shape of a literary and philosophical society. The only thing approaching to this is the ''James Watt Club," instituted in 1813, and intended to do honour to the memory of the celebrated improver of the steam engine, who, it is well known, was a native of Greenock. The members hold their meetings in the James Watt Tavern, at the low west corner of William-street; and what renders this place doubly conspicuous, is the fact that on this identical spot stood the house in which Mr. Watt was born. The members consist of gentlemen belonging to the town, and honorary members in other places. The meetings cannot be said to be for any particular object, as regards science or literature, as no subjects are brought forward farther than the social conversation of the day; and, we believe, all subjects of a political or theological nature are excluded, lest their introduction should tend to injure the harmony and kind feeling which have hitherto been their principle characteristic.

The want of literary societies must have had a blighting influence in making our soil so barren in men of letters; and, however some may scout the idea, yet past experience confirms the fact. Look to many of our first senators; and where was it that the powers, which afterwards drew forth admiration, were first conspicuously developed? Was it not amidst these assemblies? In answer to this, turn to the names of Pitt, Sheridan, Fox, and Curran. And Burns, the Bard of Nature, states, that in a society of this kind in Tarbolton, he first felt that he possessed something like genius. The humble village of Crawfordsdyke has done more for literature than Greenock; though wee are not to suppose that Jean Adam could have had any opportunity of catching the breath of inspiration from source now alluded to. Her song of "There's nae luck about the house," is a fine composition; it is one of those lyrics which have immortality stamped upon them. Some friends of the poet Mallet very injudiciously attributed this as a production of his pen, because, forsooth, a copy was found in his own hand-writing amongst his papers. So would many have given Lord Byron the credit for writing Wolfe's noble "Lines on the Burial of Sir John Moore," from the fact of Medwin having heard his Lordship recite them, and his having stated the belief, in his Conversations," that they were his production. Both Mallet and Byron were rich enough in fame; and, from weighing every argument in favour of Jean Adam, she is as much entitled to be considered the author of this song, as Wolfe was, as the writer of that beautiful ode. It is strange that many, like this poor female, have given but one single gem to the world; and that that stray effusion has borne their memory along the stream of time, while more ponderous works have sank for ever in its depths. Burns envied the author of ''Keen blaws the wind o'er Donnocht head;" Lowe wrote almost nothing but ''Mary's Dream;" Herbert Knowles his ''Lutes in a Churchyard:" but the fact is so obvious, that it is useless to go farther. As little is known of Jean Adam, perhaps the following biography may not be out of place:-

Her father father was a shipmaster in Cartsdyke, and she was born there about 1710. Her productions prove that her education must have comprehended reading and writing; she must have learned needle-work too, for that was afterwards one of her sources of subsistence. Now, these three branches, though they may be thought a scanty education by people of the present age, really formed the whole course given to very respectable ladies in her time.

"She for some time supported herself by keeping a day-school, in the town of Cartsdyke; and she was in the practice of giving her services occasionally, at needle-work, in the neighbouring families. A talent for making verses, especially in a woman, would in those days naturally be looked upon with some degree of wonder, by the inhabitants of the small town where the prodigy lived. Jean's verses were, therefore, much admired by her friends and acquaintances; and their flattery encouraged her to prosecute her favourite amusement, and to neglect the more solid industry on which she ought to have depended for support. She collected her poems, and had them published by subscription, in a small duodecimo volume, printed at Glasgow, by James Duncan, in the year 1734 They are dedicated to the Laird of Cartshurn: their success does not seem to have been very great; for there is a list of subscribers prefixed, amounting only to 123. In consequence of the disappointment, she exported a large bale of the impression to Boston, in America. which was at that time the worst market in the world, even for good poetry : and Jean's having no quality to attract the attention of the public, remained unsold ; and she missed the golden harvest that she had fondly anticipated.

"Poor Jean Adam laboured under a nervous sensibility to a great degree. It led her into very great extravagance of conduct, of which Mr. Cromek has collected the following instances:—One day she told her scholars that she would read one of Shakespeare's plays to them. She chose Othello, which she read with uncommon pathos; and at the end of it she was so affected that she fainted away. On another occasion she told her scholars, that having read Clarissa Harlowe, she felt such a deep interest in it, and such reverence for the author, Mr. Richardson, that she had determined to walk to London, to pay her personal respects to him. This romantic journey she actually performed in about six weeks, and then returned to her school at Cartsdyke.

"She was a very pious woman: she treated the children who attended her school with great tenderness; and she was much beloved by all of them. But her strange enthusiasm proved fatal to her comfort and respectability. Whether she gave up her school in a freak of extravagant adventure, or whether it dwindled away from her neglect of it, it does not appear: but for some time she led an unsettled life, wandering about, and living upon the bounty of her friends. Some time after the year 1760, she came begging to the house of Mrs. Fullarton, who had formerly been her pupil; and though a little remaining pride made her at first refuse some articles of dress that were offered to her, yet she afterwards returned and accepted of them.

Her end was such as might be expected from the state of beggary to which she had been reduced; as the following extracts from the records of the Poor's House of Glasgow will show:-

Glasgow, Town's Hospital, 2d April, 1765.

Admit Jean Adam, a poor woman, a stranger in distress;—for some time has she been wandering about; she came from Greenock, recommended by Baillies Gray and Millar.'

Glasgow, Town's Hospital, 9th April, 1765.

Jean Adam, the stranger, admitted on Tuesday the 2d current, died on the following day, and buried at the house expense.'

In science, the only institution connected with Greenock is that established for mechanics in 1824. For the two first seasons it went on prosperously, but of late there has been a considerable lukewarmness on the part of those attending; and last winter the lectures were discontinued. In connection with this institution is an excellent library, and a number of valuable philosophical instruments, with apparatus for illustrating the subjects treated in the lectures. Those who have given lectures here were mostly natives of the place, or residing amongst us.

Greenock abounds with societies of all kinds, for the relief of those at home, and for sending aid to foreign countries. The first is, the British and Foreign Bible Society, which has three different branches, or penny-a-week auxiliaries. There is a branch of the London Missionary Society; a Gaelic School society; a Female Missionary Society; and one lately established, called the Home Mission as also the Society for aiding the Jews. There is, for the relief of distressed females, the Female Association; the Old Man's Friend Society; and one for aiding the Destitute Sick. Independent of these, there are a number of Trades' Societies, which give aid to sick members; as also three Mason Lodges—viz., the Greenock Mount Stewart Kilwinning, No. 11; the Greenock Mount Stewart Kilwinning, No. 111; and the Greenock St. John's, No. 176.

The character of the people of Greenock stands very high; the superior ranks are considered intelligent and well-bred, as well as kind and hospitable to strangers. The middle ranks are thought to be also well-informed, and to possess a pretty accurate knowledge of the events and literature of the day. James Ilogg, the poet, has often acknowledged that Greenock was the first l)1tce in Scotland that received his works with a friendly feeling, and spread their fame abroad. The poet Burns, who was only once in Greenock, had the satisfaction of finding his works wherever he went ; and it is well known that Greenock was the first place which commemorated his birth-day in Scotland. It was also the first which commemorated the birthday of James Watt in the United Kingdom. We have already spoken at considerable length of the loyalty of the inhabitants. But it was a considerable sacrifice of religious feeling, which compelled them, on the 15th July, 1777, to cause the drum to beat through the town on a Sacrament Sabbath, for men to be enrolled for maiming three privateers to protect the trade. A writer in the Scots Magazine for September 1777, thus alludes to this somewhat memorable fact :-

In consequence of an express which was received on the 12th, informing that several vessels have been taken by provincial privateers, so stationed in the mouth of the river that nothing can pass them, as such as attempt to run they sink,—the Council met yesterday; and have resolved to fit out three vessels, one of 16, one of 11, and one of 12 guns: for which purpose a subscription paper was set a going about twelve o'clock; and about two o'clock, when it came to be subscribed by Collector P—, with whom I was then in company. I observed no less than L.2900 subscribed for. A committee is appointed for superintending the equipment; a commodore and captains are already named; and though this be Sacrament Sunday, the drums are beating for seamen to serve for one month only, by which time it is expected that government will send armed vessels to dear the coast. About 100 sailors are already enlisted; 600 stand of arms are come down from Dumbarton; and plenty of stores and ammunition. The vessels are already victualled; and the sailors appear so keen for the expedition, that, in case of calm weather, they are taking plenty of oars on board."

A striking proof of the quietness of the inhabitants, may be found in the fact of no military being ever stationed here, except when some emergency has called for their presence. It has been confessed, however, that when mobs have assembled in our streets, though this has been seldom, that they have partook much of the character of the ''Porteous Mob" in Edinburgh for the time, but soon over. The most serious was the Sailors' Riot, of which the following account is given in the Scots Magazine for June 1773:-

On Thursday, March 4, a great number of sailors assembled at Greenock, and, in a riotous and disorderly manner, peremptorily insisted for an increase of' their wages, which the merchants declined complying with, as they have already from four to five shillings per month more than what is given In any other port in Britain. The magistrates and several of the inhabitants were at the greatest pains to convince them of the impropriety of their conduct, and the bad consequences that might result from their persisting in it; notwithstanding which, they next day were more outrageous and having obliged the jest of the sailors to join them, they went on board all the outward bound vessels, struck their topmasts, locked up the public sail-lofts, hindered the loading and unloading of any vessels, and put an entire stop to all manner of business at the port, parading the town in a hostile manner, and threatening and punishing such sailors as refused to join them. In order to assist the civil power in putting a stop to such illegal proceedings, two companies of the 15th Regiment marched from Glasgow for Greenock on Sunday morning, March 7th; and the same evening some of the inhabitants secured four of the ringleaders, and delivered them over to the custody of the military, who were immediately surrounded by a vast number of the sailors, and most incessantly pelted with stones, bricks, &c. The magistrates again used their utmost efforts to prevail upon the mob to desist and disperse, but without effect, for they still continued throwing stones, bottles, &c., both at the magistrates and military, who were at last obliged, in their own defence, to fire, whereby two women were unluckily killed, and a man and a woman wounded. The mob then gave way, but assembled again in greater numbers, about nine o'clock, threatening to burn the houses of the magistrates, and the ships in the harbour, if the prisoners were not immediately delivered up to them, which was complied with. They were joined the next day by about two hundred sailors from Port-Glasgow; after which they were still more daring; added new articles to their proposals, and refused to accept of their former demand. On this more military were applied for ; and two troops of dragoons had arrived to assist in quelling the mob ; but their assistance was unnecessary; for, by the activity of the grenadiers and light infantry of the 15th regiment, on Thursday, March 12th, above forty of the rioters were secured. Upon examination, they were dismissed, excepting twenty-four, supposed to be the chief actors in the mob and, on Friday, the magistrates of Greenock, attended by the principal inhabitants, without any of the military, went out to such of the sailors, as kept in a body; when the latter, observing that their behaviour was disagreeable to the townsmen, forthwith dispersed, and most of them returned to the respective ships they belonged to."

The Meal Mob, in 1785, showed much determinsation, though on this occasion the female part of the community were the principal actors.

Rather an unfavourable impression has been made on the minds of strangers, as to the correct morals of the inhabitants, from the number of public-houses in our streets; every third or fourth door, in many places, having to the name of the occupant this appendage—''licensed to deal in British and Foreign Spirits" and the number of licenses annually granted for the town being, in 185, 1228—and in 1829, 1116. The decrease on the number issued has arisen from tea and tobacco dealers having given up as, on the whole, those granted to beer and Spirit retailers have increased.

How far the imputation is correct, it is difficult to say; but if the lower orders did not give considerable encouragement to these places of resort, many of them would soon be abandoned. It is a pleasing trait, however, in the character of the inhabitants, that a due reverence is paid to the Sabbath; though probably this is not so much attended to as it was. Not many years ago it was impossible to walk the streets about nine o'clock, on evening of that day, without hearing the "sound of praise from kindred roof;" and the herring vessels laying at our quays sent forth a similar sound of worship at the same hour.

The want of public works, or rather of cotton manufactories, has been much felt, as regards the rising generation. Boys are often found wandering about the streets and quays; and in many instances get into a careless, idle kind of life, which injures their future prospects. It is to be hoped that public works, through the means of the Shaws Water Company, will soon spring up amongst us, and give employment, not only to them, but also to delicate females, who are unable to work at a more laborious occupation.

ln common with most of the towns in this country, Greenock has a Saving Bank, where the poor are enabled to lay up their earnings, and keep them entire for some future emergency. By doing this,when sickness comes, they are not altogether unprovided, and thereby much misery is prevented. If, in place of frequenting the public-house, the money to be spent was put aside in this way, our poor's rates would soon diminish, the comforts of the people would be bettered, and our nation's best defence, viz, the ordinary classes, would take their stand, as once they did, as the pride and glory of our country.

It has been stated by many, that sea-port towns are unfavourable for the encouragement of manufactures, except what merely belongs to the furnishing of ships and other stores connected with the sea. This assertion has been long exploded, and it only requires talent and enterprise to succeed as well here as any other place. The principal manufactures in the meantime, however, are, in a great measure, connected with the seafaring life.


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