A History of our Firm Chapter
- Mr. Hill's Reminiscences
In February, 1847, by favour, I was entered on
the books of what was then and ever will be to me 'The Firm.' I was
but an urchin, but was immediately plunged into the maelstrom of
earnest, persistent hard work, shared in by every individual in the
establishment from Mr. Rankin, 'the Head,' downwards. The hours were
very long, but this was the usual custom all over the commercial
circle of the town. So it continued until a gradual change came over
the mode of doing business--influenced from many directionsmore
seaborne mails, better port facilities, railways, telegraphs, cables
and other influences.
After going through my rudimentary training I
was sent, as all youngsters were, to the docks to 'take weights' of
goods landed or shipped. This meant being on the spot about 6 a.m.
sharp, till .6 p.m.
When I entered the office the staff included first, foremost and
immeasurably above all others, our 'Chief,' a very clever, astute,
farseeing, courageous merchant, and a most able
financier, economical and methodical.
Mr. Strang, our cashiera brusque, but kindly gentlemanhad an
enormous amount of work on his shouldersshipping and paying off
crews, ordering all ship stores, checking and paying all accounts and
invoices, ordering all the shiploads of goods that were sent each
spring and fall to the North American concerns, seeing to all ordinary
finance matters, retiring all acceptances, superintending and
directing all the captains. And when one realizes that there were
seventy or eighty sailing ships, nearly all of which, while managed at
Glasgow, came to Liverpool at either one time or other of the year,
the amount of work he got through as one thinks of it now, was
appalling. Subsequently, a good many years afterwards, he became
partner in London.
(3) Mr. Lindsay, our
correspondent and bill book clerk. He came from a bank in Rochdale; he
was painstaking but not brilliant.
John Carmichael (son of Donald Carmichael the book-keeper at the Head
Office in Glasgow).
(5) Mr. Robert Rankin
junior, entered the office shortly after I did. He was petty-cash
keeper, and 'orra' man to help anybody else.
(6) Then there was the book-keeper, my father.
This staff was so small that it
seems impossible it could have accomplished what had to
be done; but it simply worked like a machine.
Homogeneous, methodical, persistent, it was better than
if twice the number had been employed; but the office
was, from to-day's standpoint, simply a treadmill. Men
have come and men have gone from that office, but to my
mind from 1847 to 1860 the
pink of them (except the 'boy') were there.
Mr. Westcott, our book-keeper, and Mr. Douglas,
the timber salesman, had both just left a little before I joined, and
had formed the firm of Douglas and WestcottMr. Douglas still
continuing to vend our timber contracts in Wales and southwest of
Mr. Rankin had great knowledge
of character, and was rarely disappointed. One instance may be given
Mr. Thomas Dixon, then of Lame, an importer and retailer of timber,
bought from the concern from time to time small cargoes of timber, but
he was almost constantly in arrears in meeting his acceptances. Yet
Mr. Rankin again and again renewed them for many years (after small
part payments), and in the outcome enabled him to build up a very fine
business. This his sons subsequently much developed and finally
removed to Belfast, and holding steadfastly to the same honourable
character have achieved great wealth. Their senior, Sir Daniel Dixon,
Bart., recently died. Though Sir Daniel occupied
for many years the foremost position in Belfast, he did not, as is so
frequently the case, ignore the help he had received, but ever
recognised what he directly and indirectly owed to the firm.
When Mr. Lindsay left, I,
without leave or license took his seat and took on his work, day-book,
bills receivable and payable, the ordinary correspondence,
account-sales of timber cargoes and cotton, etc. Mr. Rankin never said
a word, but for six months or more I knew that he was unobtrusively
watching me keenly. The bills themselves in those days were a big
thing, both in numbers and amounts, and with Mr. Rankin's keen desire
that nothing untoward should occur with any of his bills, one can
easily understand his watchfulness; but I got through with colours
flying. He rarely praised, but very rarely blamed.
Our letters in those days,
both sent to and received from the houses abroad, were terribly long,
mostly ten to twelve pages and very frequently more, owing, of course,
to the infrequency of the mails. The incoming originals were all sent
to Glasgow after being copied by hand, and the mail time was a very
busy one for everybody in the office, all other work being laid aside.
Mr. Rankin went out to North
America about 1857 to make a thorough inspection of our different
concerns there, accompanied by Mrs. Rankin and their son and daughter.
From New York, Boston, etc., they went on to St. John, N.B., and on
landing at the railway terminus (on the opposite side of the harbour
from St. John) he received a great ovation. The whole place was alive
and bedecked with flags, and when he crossed the harbour and landed in
St. John guns were fired in salute, addresses were presented, and
deputations received him in welcome. While he was in business in St.
John he and Mrs. Rankin had made their mark far and wide in the city
and province, and they were not forgotten after many years.
He afterwards proceeded to
Miramichi, Bathurst, Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa, at each of which
places the firm had establishments. Subsequently (about 1870) these
(New Brunswick) firms were all turned over to the resident partners,
and the Canadian firms about four years later.
Mr. Rankin was for many years connected with the
old Dock 'Committee' and the succeeding Dock Board, and was
successively Chairman of the most important Committeesthe Works and
the Finance Committees. When he was Chairman of the Board itself they
were running short of funds; their bonds were not being renewed with
avidity, and new money was not corning in freely. Mr. Rankin went to
London and interviewed the Governor of the Bank of England, who said
that the security offered was undoubted and ample, and he would
unhesitatingly lend whatever was needed were it not that the rules of
the Bank then absolutely barred that class of security, and he had to
decline. Mr. Rankin was naturally a good deal crestfallen when he
reported this to the Finance Committee, who were somewhat in a corner;
but he said he would provide at any rate immediate funds himself to
meet immediate necessities. This offer was gladly accepted. He
immediately communicated with Glasgow and London to send down what
they could spare, and within a few days the money was paid into
Heywood's Bank in cash. This was the only occasion on which I have had
£100,000 in my pocket.
R. junior was a very good buyer, but a very unwilling sellerI mean
when a venture turned out wrong he could not find it in his heart to
sell and be done with the thing; he would rather hold on, and with
interest and charges accumulating, this nearly always meant
accentuating the loss.
the other hand his native shrewdness, capacity, untiring energy, and
financial ability at the time of his succession to the Headship were
invaluable to the firm.
Just before the outbreak of the American War two of the firm's ships,
the Award (new), Captain Watts, and the Ronachan, Captain Scott, both
sailed from Liverpool on the same day with a ballasting of salt for
New Orleans. They encountered terrific weather in the Channel for days
and days, and the Award was driven ashore on Scilly and totally lost;
as was customary, she was uninsured. The Ronachan managed to run under
Lundy for shelter. It was getting very late for New Orleans, though a
little too early for the St. Lawrence. However, it was promptly
decided that her voyage, thus delayed, should be altered, and that she
should wait for a week or two and go to Quebec. Mr. Rankin disliked
telegrams and telegraphing, and he wrote the Captain amending the
destination. Meantime the Ronachan sailed. At New Orleans she came in
for a record freight list
nearly all the ships had already left, and there was ample cotton
crying for shipment, as in a few days the port was to be blockaded by
the North. In the Gulf the Ronachan encountered a U.S. warship who
wanted to detain her, but on a liberal use of the British ensign, and
strong protests from Captain Scott (who declined even to allow the
ship's register, to be endorsed, stating it was the 'Queen's property
and me her servant') she was allowed to proceed. The result of that
voyage alone amply paid for the old Ronachan.
As for the Award, about 1,000 bales on the ship's
account unsold from her only previous voyage were long held by Mr.
Rankin and ultimately sold at the top war prices. The profit thereon
amply covered the cost of the Award, new ship as she was, and a
handsome sum beyond.
remember in connection with the transfer of the Canadian concerns,
that Allan Gilmour, of Ottawa (Long Allan he was called) had, as part
of his being paid out, to draw a bill on the home concerns for
£50,000, but no definite date had been fixed nor had the tenor of the
draft, or the firm it was to be drawn on, whether Glasgow, Liverpool
or London. However, Allan drew the bill on Liverpool 'on demand,' and
the advice of his having done so was only received the same day. Of
course it was a biggish thing to meet without reasonable notice. Our
only banking account was then with the Bank of England when, as I
suppose is the custom to-day, cheques are only honoured to the extent
of funds in hand, produce deposited, or bills discounted. Robert
Rankin junior was awfully mad about it, but we managed to scrape the
money together before three o'clock.
Bank of England in the fifties.The Bank had been
discounting our trade bills pretty freely, and showing some
inclination to be 'sniffy'; Mr. Rankin went up and requested them to
rediscount all the bills they held with our name on, and he would take
them up. Thereupon nothing more was heard.
With Brown, Shipley & Co. at one time when our
cotton imports were very heavy, our acceptances in their hands were
running into a large sum. Mr. Rankin sent me down to see Mr. Hamilton
(the acting partner in B., S. & Co.), and ask if our line was not
getting a little unwieldy, and if he would like it reduced. Mr.
Hamilton replied, 'Tell Mr. Rankin everybody has their "line," but
that his still carries bait, and I will warn him in good time if it
should be necessary.'
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