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Significant Scots
Robert Gordon


GORDON, ROBERT, founder of the hospital in Aberdeen which bears his name, was born about the year 1605. His father, Arthur Gordon, was the ninth son of the celebrated Robert Gordon of Pitlurg, (commonly designated of Stralloch,) and rose to some eminence as an advocate in Edinburgh. In the latter part of his life he settled in Aberdeen, where he died 1680, leaving two children,—the subject of this memoir, and a daughter who was married to Sir James Abercromby of Birkenbog, near Cullen.

With regard to the founder of Gordon’s hospital, very little is known with certainty. That he was a gentleman by birth is certain, and that he was a man of parts and education, is generally allowed. He is said to have had a patrimony of about 1100 pounds; and, according to some accounts, he spent most of this fortune while traveling on the continent with a friend. According to other accounts, he went to Dantzic, and having engaged there in the mercantile line, realized a considerable sum of money. It is probable that he betook himself to business after having acted the prodigal in the earlier part of his life, and therefore both accounts may be in some measure correct. It is certain, however, that he resided on the continent for a considerable time, and returned to his native country about the beginning of the last century, taking up his residence in Aberdeen. From all that can be learned, he did not, during the remaining part of his life, engage in any sort of business, and, he must therefore have brought home with him money to a considerable amount, otherwise we cannot well account for the large fortune of which he was possessed at the time of his death, even taking into account his extreme parsimony. Whether he set his heart upon accumulating wealth previous to his return from abroad, or afterwards, cannot be clearly be ascertained. It is said that a disappointment in love was the primary cause of his forming this resolution, and there are not wanting instances of men, who, when they found the god of love unpropitious, have transferred their devotions to the shrine of Mammon. The same disappointment is also said to have determined him to live and die a bachelor,—a determination to which he most faithfully adhered. We find in the library of Marischal college a copy of’Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy which had belonged to him, and which he had purchased in London, as appears from his own hand-writing upon a blank leaf. Might he not have purchased this book to divert his melancholy, while suffering under the pangs of unrequited love?

During the latter part of his life, he carried his parsimonious habits to the utmost extreme. He is said to have lived in a small apartment, which he rented, denying himself all the comforts and conveniences of life, and even using its necessaries in the most sparing manner; insomuch, that his whole personal expense, room rent included, did not exceed 5 sterling annually. Many of the anecdotes which have been handed down by tradition, respecting the habits and privations of this singular individual, seem to be nearly the same which are related of certain English misers of celebrity. It is told of him, for instance, that he used to keep himself warm by walking backwards and forwards in his room with a bag of coals on his back, judging, no doubt, that this was a more economical method of procuring heat, than by burning the coals. Also, that he sometimes contrived to satisfy the cravings of appetite by going to the market, and tasting a little of the various articles of provision, such as meal, butter, cheese, &c., by way of ascertaining their quality before he should make any purchase. Another anecdote is recorded of him, which seems less incredible. A particular friend of his who was in the way of spending an evening with him occasionally (for he was naturally of a social disposition), was so highly honoured that, as often as the meeting took place, a small rush-light was produced to enliven the scene. One evening, however, the same friend perceiving the rays of the moon shining brightly into the apartment, observed, no doubt with the view of ingratiating himself more with his host, that it was a pity to waste the candle when the moonlight was quite sufficient. The hint was not lost, and afterwards when the two friends met it was most scrupulously attended to. He is said to have been fond of reading, and in order to indulge his literary taste without expense, during the dark evenings, he is said to have bored a hole in the floor of his apartment, to allow the light from a cobbler’s lamp in the room below to shine through, and by lying down on his side, he thus contrived to get as much light as to see the page before him.

Yet although avarice had taken a strong hold of his mind, and subjected him to the most severe privations, it was never able fully to eradicate the natural sociability of his disposition, or to destroy his relish for the luxuries and enjoyments of life: for he is said to have mixed in society as often as he could do so without affecting his purse, and to have indulged pretty freely in the pleasures of the table, when the banquet was not furnished at his own expense. As he was a person of shrewdness and intelligence, and one who had seen a good deal of the world, and was also known to possess wealth, it may be supposed he was not an unwelcome guest at the table of many of his fellow citizens.

It has been asserted by some, that Mr Gordon’s parsimonious habits arose from the design which he had formed, of founding and endowing an hospital for the benefit of the male children of the poorer class of citizens; and we should be glad to be able to establish the truth of this assertion; but from all we can find, it was not till a considerable time after the desire of amassing wealth by every possible means had taken possession of his mind, and within, perhaps, a few years of his death, that he entertained the benevolent design above alluded to. Severe animadversions have been passed upon his character, on account of his having bequeathed no part of his fortune to his poorer relations, especially to his sister, who was in indigent circumstances, and had a numerous family; and indeed, it is difficult to justify his conduct in this respect. Perhaps it was sufficient for him to know that he was not legally bound to make any provision for his poor relatives; and we know that avarice tends to harden the heart and stifle the feelings of natural affection. While conversing on one occasion with the provost of Aberdeen, on the subject of the settlement which he was about to make, the latter is said to have hinted to him that he ought to remember his relations as well as the public; but this, instead of having the desired effect, drew from him the following severe rebuke:—"What have I to expect, sir, when you, who are at the head of the town of Aberdeen’s affairs, plead against a settlement from which your citizens are to derive so great benefits?"

The deed of mortification for founding and endowing the hospital, was drawn up and signed by him, on the 13th December, 1729. By this deed he transferred, in favour of the provost, baillies, and town council of the burgh of Aberdeen, together with the four town’s ministers, and their successors in their respective offices, the sum of 10,000 sterling, or such sum or sums as his effects might amount to at his death, in trust for erecting and maintaining an hospital, to be called Robert Gordon’s Hospital,for educating and maintaining indigent male children, and male grandchildren of decayed merchants, and brethren of guild of the burgh of Aberdeen, of the name of Gordon, in the first place, and of the name of Menzies in the second (the nearest relations of the mortifier of the names of Gordon and Menzies, being always preferred), and the male children of any other relations of the mortifier that are of any other name, in the third place, to be preferred to others. After these, male children, or male grandchildren, of any other merchants or brethren of guild of Aberdeen, to be admitted; and after them the sons or grandsons of tradesmen or others, under certain restrictions mentioned in the deed. The provost, baillies, town council, and the four town’s ministers, and their successors, were appointed perpetual patrons and governors. A certain sum of money was appointed to be laid out in erecting the building, but no boys were to be admitted till the intended sum of 10,000 sterling was made good by the accumulation of interest. An appendix to the deed of mortification was executed by the founder, on the 19th September, 1730, containing a few trifling alterations. His death took place in January, 1732, in consequence, it is said, of his having eaten to excess at a public entertainment; but the accounts on this subject are contradictory, and therefore entitled to little credit. His executors buried him with great expense and pomp in Drum’s Aisle, and it is likely that the occasion was one of joy rather than of mourning. Mr Gordon was somewhat tall in person, and of a gentlemanly appearance, with a mild and intellectual countenance, if we may judge from an original portrait of him in the hospital. That he was possessed of more than ordinary intelligence and good sense, may be inferred from the excellent regulations which he framed for the management of the hospital. The importance he attached to religion as an element of education, is shown by the anxiety which he manifested, and the ample provision made in the deed of mortification, for the support and encouragement of true religion and good morals in the institution founded by his munificence. He also appears to have been a man of taste, and he left behind him a good collection of coins and medals, and also of drawings.

By his deed of mortification, Robert Gordon excluded females from any office whatever in his projected institution. This has been ascribed to an antipathy which he is believed to have entertained to the sex in general. With greater reason it has been supposed that their exclusion was dictated by an over-scrupulous regard to the moral training of the boys who were to be educated in the hospital; and the same fantastic notion no doubt suggested the introduction of another clause, enjoining celibacy upon the master and teachers. These monastic restrictions were fitted to produce the very effect which they were intended to prevent, besides depriving the institution of everything like home comfort and influence. Before the rule excluding females had been long in operation, the Governors, finding it to be exceedingly inconvenient, if not impracticable, to carry out the founder’s views in this respect, resolved "that women servants be taken into and employed in the hospital;" and afterwards they appointed a matron to superintend them. That part of the deed condemning the master and teachers to a life of celibacy, was strictly enforced until the year 1842, when the Governors resolved that the teachers should be allowed to live out of the hospital, and that they, and also the master, who was to reside constantly in the house, might marry without forfeiting their offices—a plan which has likewise been adopted in Heriot’s Hospital, Edinburgh.

At Mr Gordon’s death, his property was found to amount to 10,300 sterling, a very large sum in those times. His executors immediately proceeded to the execution of their important trust, and erected an hospital (according to a plan designed by Mr William Adam, architect, Edinburgh, father of the more celebrated architect, Robert Adam); and the place chosen for the building was the ground which formerly belonged to the Black Friars, situated on the north side of the School-hill. The expense of the erection was 3300; and as this had trenched considerably on the original funds, the plan of the founder could not be carried into effect until the deficiency was made up by the accumulation of interest on the remainder of the fund. Owing also to the disturbances which took place in 1745-6, and certain other causes, the hospital was not ready for the reception of boys till 1750; but the funds by this time had accumulated to 14,000. The number of boys at first admitted was thirty; but as the funds continued to increase, owing to good management, by purchases of lands, rise in rents, and other causes, the number was increased from time to time. In 1816, an additional endowment was made to the hospital by Alexander Simpson, Esq., of Collyhill, under the management of the Professors of Marischal College, and four of the city clergy. By this endowment, which came into operation in 1838, twenty-six additional boys are maintained and educated in the hospital. At present the whole number of boys in the institution is one hundred and fifty. A head-master, having under him a house-steward, superintends the establishment; there are three regular teachers, and three others who attend the hospital at stated hours. The branches taught are, besides religious instruction—English, writing; arithmetic, book-keeping, Latin, French, geography, mathematics, natural philosophy, church music, instrumental music, and drawing. There is alas a master for drill exercises. The funds are at present in a most flourishing state, and the yearly revenue is about 3500.

Very extensive additions have been made to the original building; and the hospital, as it now stands, presents a spacious and imposing appearance. Accommodations are furnished for about two hundred and forty boys, although many years must elapse before such a number can be admitted, unless the funds be greatly augmented by additional bequests. The concerns of this institution have been all along managed in a praiseworthy manner, and the benefits arising from it have been visible in numerous instances. Many children have, by means of it, been rescued from poverty, ignorance, and vice—have been fed, clothed, educated, and enabled to pursue honourable callings. Not a few have prospered in their native city and elsewhere as merchants, tradesmen, &c., and several have risen in the world, and have amassed very considerable fortunes. Yet it has been remarked that rarely has the institution turned out any man of genius; and the same remark has been made in regard to other similar institutions. There are, it must be confessed, evils and defects attending all institutions of this kind, in so far as they may be regarded as an engine for the moral, religious, and intellectual training of youth; and many enlightened philanthropists of the present day are beginning to doubt whether the evils and defects inherent in such institutions, are not of such a magnitude as to call for a radical change in them. The worst feature which these institutions exhibit, is the unnatural position in which they place so many young boys, shutting them up together, both good and bad, confining them almost entirely to the society of one another, cutting them off from the endearments, and the softening and humanizing influences of home, and of the family circle, and from parental care, admonition, and example. Under such circumstances, it need not excite wonder that boys in hospitals, even under the best management and tuition, should be found to be listless and indifferent in regard to learning and improvement; that their moral feelings should be blunted, and their natural affections weakened; and that their intellectual faculties should be less developed than those of other boys of the same age, placed in ordinary circumstances. It may be laid down as the result of the united experience of Gordon’s and Heriot’s’ hospitals in Scotland, and of similar institutions in England, that no amount of intellectual instruction can make up for the loss of parental and family influence in the formation of character.


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