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A History of our Firm

The book is an attempt to collect some memorials of the co-partnerships of the firm of Pollok, Gilmour & Co., and its numerous connections and offshoots. The Company has witnessed the many changes and developments of nearly 120 years, among which are the complete transformation of the conditions of commerce which has been brought about by the introduction of the steamboat, the replacement of the stage-coach by the railway, the reduction of the Atlantic passage from four weeks or more to little over four days, the marvellous acceleration of communications produced by these changes, as well as by the introduction of the telegraph, the telephone, the submarine cable, the motor, the aeroplane, the submarine, the seaplane, and much else. The story of a firm which has had to adapt itself to all these changes is worth telling, especially if I could hope to trace in detail the alterations in business methods which they involved.

Unfortunately the task is undertaken under manifold difficulties. The original partners have long since passed away, as have also their immediate successors, and loquacity was not a weakness of either generation. Consequently much that might have been conveyed from father to son has been lost, and the founders of the firms have left few written records behind them. I have always felt an interest in the subject, and regret not having taken fuller advantage of the opportunities which were—but are no longer—at my disposal. Much that I did hear I have forgotten, and I can only put together loose notes of what information is yet available. The pity is that the writing was not undertaken some thirty years ago, when the memory of some predecessor could have furnished greater stores. If fully told I believe the firm's career would furnish one of the romances of commerce.

Of the men who led the concerns I have heard more than of the actual working and details of their business, for they were stirring men with well-marked characters. Hence my pen is more readily attracted to gossip and the discussion of individuals than to the analysis of business methods. It is a fault I fear I am unable to correct, for my fixed material is not great. It is, however, enhanced by the records of two lawsuits—going to law was ever a luxury dear to our Scottish forefathers, and to have what was termed "a guid gauning" law plea was only a sign of their respectability, and lent them prestige. I have also some partnership dates and other particulars kindly furnished by Messrs. A. & G. Young, who under that title, or until 1872 as G. & A. Young, were ever our Scottish solicitors.

In these circumstances the method I have followed has been, in successive chapters, to sketch briefly the history of the parent firm and of each of its offshoots in chronological order; following each sketch I have given some account of the principal members of each firm. Where, as has often happened, the same man has belonged to more than one of the firms, I have written about him in connection with the firm which he founded, or with which he was most closely associated. I have added a chapter on ships and captains, and in a chapter headed 'Retrospective and Discursive' have gathered up sundry memories and reflections which had not found a place elsewhere. Finally, I have, in part, printed in an appendix an interesting narrative of a business tour in America made by Allan Gilmour senior in 1828-9.

It may be convenient at the outset to avoid confusion by setting out the names of all the allied firms.

The original firm was

Pollok, Gilmour & Co., Glasgow.

The others were

Arthur Pollok & Co. (existed previously, but continued on), Grangemouth, Scotland.

Gilmour, Rankin & Co., Miramichi, New Brunswick.

Robert Rankin & Co., St. John, New Brunswick.

Allan Gilmour & Co., Quebec.

William Ritchie & Co. (afterwards Gilmour and Co.), Montreal, Canada.

Gilmour & Co., Ottawa, Canada.

J. Young & Co., Hamilton, Canada.

Arthur Ritchie & Co., Restigouche, New Brunswick.

Ferguson, Rankin & Co., Bathurst, New Brunswick.

Rankin, Gilmour & Co. (now Rankin, Gilmour- and Co., Ltd.), Liverpool.

Hoghton, Rankin & Co., New Orleans, U.S.A.

Pollok, Hoghton & Co., Mobile, U.S.A.

John & William Pollok, Calcutta.

Gilmour, Rankin, Strang & Co., London.

One of the most remarkable features in the history of the firm is that for two generations almost all the partners, both of the parent firm and of its branches, came from the same parish, where they had been taught by the same schoolmaster and preached to by the same minister. Some account of this background to the firm's history seems appropriate to this place.

The parish of Mearns in Renfrewshire is about eight miles from Glasgow, in undulating country and with good soil ; yet even to-day it is untouched by the railway. It is and was peopled by small lairds and tenant-farmers with their dependants, and the few craftsmen—smith, carpenter, and the rest who are to be found in every village. In the district, a century ago, there were to be found families of Polloks, Gilmours, Rankins, Ritchies and Hutchisons, long planted in this and the neighbouring parishes, and linked together by many intermarriages, and by the universal clannishness of Scottish districts. They were a long-living, shrewd, hard-headed, hardworking, thrifty race, attending assiduously to their own business, and little disturbed by what passed in the growing city near-by, or in the greater world beyond. But when one or two of them went out into the world and began to prosper, it was natural that they should find places for cousins and nephews and brothers; and so it was that in the first half of the century men from the Mearns were spread out in the New World, organising new outlets for business, and starting to make fortunes for themselves, with which they came back to buy estates in their native land, with the homing instinct of the Scot.

The chief centre of population in the Mearns was the village or hamlet called The Newton, which lay in a corner of the parish, at a junction of roads. To-day, and I do not think there has been much change; it consists of a modest inn, a post-office, a branch of a Glasgow bank, open for a few hours in the week, a joiner's shop, a smithy, a small purveyor's shop, and a few detached buildings. The village contains neither the church nor the school. These lay some quarter of a mile nearer the centre of the parish, and no doubt represent the site of the 'old town' of the Mearns, before The Newton grew up by the cross-roads.

The church is a square-built, quaint, rather ugly building, like most Scottish churches. Here for thirty-five or forty years the parishioners enjoyed the ministrations of the Rev. Mr. McKellar. His congregation was no doubt a critical one, and consisted not only of the heads of houses and all their families, but 'the man-servant and the maidservant' who faithfully attended every 'session of worship.' All arrived early—the women-folk decorously taking their places forthwith in the Heritor's Pew attached to their farm; while the men discussed parish affairs, and the state of crops and markets, outside the church door until they were assured the minister had ascended the pulpit stairs and awaited them.

Mr. McKellar was a courtly, cultivated gentleman, and his interests did not cease with his clerical duties. Especially was he in close sympathy and touch with the adjacent parish school, and with its master Mr. Jackson.

To the latter should be assigned a prominent place in this history, for though he was not of the firm, yet had it not been for him there would probably have been no justification for this writing. To him came the hopefuls of the parish, and not a few were attracted from adjoining parishes. Tall, erect, an iron-grey man, he was a disciplinarian, yet had something in his manner that attracted. He was a student of character as well as of books and of his art, and it was his work on the crude material which furnished the greater number of the striking characters, that built up the early fortunes of the- firm of Pollok, Gilmour & Co. and its branches. He may be said to have moulded two generations of the firm. Among those whose work and character will be subsequently described, he trained, wholly or in part, Allan Gilmour senior, John Pollok, Arthur Pollok (the original partners of the firm), James Gilmour, Alexander Rankin, Allan Gilmour junior, Robert Rankin, John Rankin, William Ritchie, Arthur Ritchie, Robert Ritchie, Richard Hutchison, James, John, and David Gilmour (A. G. junior's brothers). He was a schoolmaster of the excellent type that Scotland then produced for her village schools, a scholar himself, with an apt faculty for imparting knowledge to others. While he instilled into his pupils the three R's and dipped with them into the classics, he was not one to spare the rod and spoil the child. I have heard my uncle tell of the skill with which he could throw the 'tawse' from one end of the class-room to the other, to alight with unfailing accuracy before the nose of the offending boy; then followed, in injured tones, the order, 'Bring those tawse here, sir '—an order to be obeyed not without apprehension.

Almost under the shadow of his old school there lived, until 1914, Mr. James Pollok, Laird of Blackhouse and several other adjoining properties —a fine old Scottish gentleman, modest about his age as about all else, he did confess with a twinkle to being over eighty. As a boy he knew several of those who contributed their lives to P., G. and Co., and was at school with James Gilmour. Of his old schoolmaster, Mr. Jackson, he writes, 'As a teacher he was exceedingly competent; was well up in all the branches of education of his day, including the classics; and he had that magnetic influence which does more to bring boys on than severity.'

My resources do not enable me to chronicle the achievements of those whom he sent to the University. Doubtless there were several, for the custom of Scottish country life of that period enacted that every 'lad of parts' should be given his chance to bring credit on the family, even though his parents had to stint themselves, and his brothers bide at the plough-tail all their lives. It was a law the chief merit of which lay in the splendid sacrifices which its faithful fulfilment involved: its vital principle, well-meaning but misguided philanthropy is now endeavouring to dole out of existence.

I have put Mr. Jackson and his work in the forefront of my story because it would ill become a Scotchman, in telling how a group of country-bred youths built up a great business, to forget the village schoolmaster who trained them.

It is fitting, perhaps, that the following letter from one of Glasgow's leading shipowners should find a place in the introduction to the second edition of this book, for Mr. Nathaniel Dunlop was a contemporary of many of the men who appear in this history, and as eminently a St. Lawrence and British North America man, was competent to pass an opinion on them.

Biggar, N.B.,
20th May, 1909.

Dear Mr. Rankin,
I have completed the reading of the History of your firm, and now have the pleasure of returning the book to its owner.

I gave the leisure of the whole time since it came, to its perusal, and I think I may claim to have had more enjoyment in it than any other reader, apart from yourselves, is likely to have had. This because, when I entered business over óo years ago, I was placed in the midst of your firm's business activities; I was acquainted with some of its leading members, and familiar, too, with much of its history. It has been like living again through that wonderful period of my young life when so many great chiefs of industry filled the ground around, and the future was full of promise.

I have nothing really to add to or take away from the story you have told. It was a wonderful time when men from Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, and Argyllshire—all mostly of the same stock—men with big heads, full of courage and enterprise, abounding energy, and the highest integrity, went out into the fields of foreign trade that were waiting to be opened up, founded great industries, and spread themselves out in every direction. Among these were not only those of whom you write—the Gilmours, Polloks, and Rankins, with their immediate relatives and friends—but there were the Allans, who founded the business with which I am connected, establishing themselves in Canada as pioneers; the Gillespies from this neighbourhood, who founded the Gillespie-Moffat firms of London and Canada, and the timber-trading houses of Quebec which bore their name. There were the Patersons and the Greenshields from Ayrshire, the Smiths and Workmans who first in Ireland opened up the linen trade, and later became great warehousemen and shipowners in Glasgow, founding the City Line of sailing ships and steamers to India; the Burnses, who became coasting and foreign steamship owners associated. with the Cunards in the great Atlantic Line; the McKenzies, McKinnons, and Halls from Kintyre, who founded the British India Co.; the Kidstons, shipowners and iron merchants, and a host of minor men filling up the intervening spaces in trade —men of individuality and force.

I was, as I have said, plunged more than 60 years ago into the heart of this work, and had an opportunity, afforded to few, of seeing the rise, the culmination, and alas, the setting of some of these honoured names. I think you fairly well describe the characteristics of the Glasgow house of your old firm. I did not expect that the bit of temper which distinguished the Gilmour lot had been noticed by any but myself. The- 'Allan ' of my time sometimes exhibited it, but he had it in beautiful subjection in dealing with his fellows. He was a lovely character in business, though perhaps severe in his private dislikes.

George Sheriff, who has not stood high in your esteem for initiative and ability, had good parts, but was completely overshadowed by Mr. Gilmour, and any force that might be native to him had no scope. He looked after the sale of the timber, and when P., G. & Co. resolved to wind up the business he was too old to strike out afresh for himself. His eldest son —one of the big family—and the partner he took into business with him to carry on the timber agency, had not the opportunity to make their mark: times had changed.

Speaking of temper, I mentioned at my club to-day, at lunch, to an old legal friend who was near me, that I was reading with interest your book and the history of P., G. & Co., when he exclaimed, 'It is curious; I have to-day been engaged on a question relating to the Eaglesham Estates of a later generation of the Gilmours of Eaglesham,' and without a word from me he said, 'they have a bit of the temper for which the old folk were distinguished.' Such incidents as these are very curious.

It is also, as you say, strange to think that your firm, so closely associated with Canada in its early history, should be entirely separated from it now. But many similar changes could be pointed to. To me the pleasure of having lived among and known so many of these fine old men is great indeed. But, alas, it is chastened by the thought how completely many of them have passed away.

You have done a good service in writing the history of your firm, and your trade review, which is at once accurate and comprehensive, is excellent. What a fine example some of your grand old men have set to the younger generation.

With kindest regards,
Believe me,
Yours sincerely.

John Rankin, Esq.,
67, South John Street, Liverpool.


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