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A History of our Firm
Chapter XV - 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 directions—more 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.

(2) Mr. Strang, our cashier—a brusque, but kindly gentleman—had an enormous amount of work on his shoulders—shipping 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.

(4) Mr. 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 Westcott—Mr. Douglas still continuing to vend our timber contracts in Wales and southwest of England.

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 Committees—the 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. R. junior was a very good buyer, but a very unwilling seller—I 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.

On 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.

I 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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