‘We are all so engrossed in this city in labouring for the means that perisheth’.
Letter from Stow to Chalmers,
7th April, 1824
Stow probably left school at the age of fourteen when at least some of his peers would go on to university. Instead, he worked at a loom,1either with his father or his eldest brother, both of whom had premises in Causeyside Street.2
In 1811, however, at the age of eighteen, Stow was ‘extensively engaged with a commercial firm’3in Glasgow. The move to Glasgow could suggest that there was no room for another son in the family business in Paisley, or that Stow was sent to the industrial capital to extend the business, or that the demise of the silk industry in Paisley was already becoming apparent,4or simply that since his sister Anne had married into the silk trade, there was an obvious position available for her brother in her husband’s firm.5
The firm he joined was Wilson, Hervey and Co., situated at 115, Trongate. The Wilsons and the Herveys were clearly friends as well as partners. John Hervey, along with John Stow (Stow’s brother), witnessed the registration of the Wilson’s second child.6
Fraser refers to Stow, at this time, as a clerk in a counting house but by 1817, both Stow and Wilson had become partners in the firm of Wilson, Stow and Company and, according to the records of the Burgesses and Guild Brethren of Glasgow, admitted as Burgesses:
Interestingly, the contribution from John Wilson to ‘The Glasgow Gaelic and English Schools Society’ in 1833 is signed ‘John Wilson, W. S. & Co.’ suggesting that Stow’s father, William, was still the elder partner. William Stow died in 1831, and John Wilson in 1832, so it was probably about this time that, at the age of 39, Stow became sole owner. 8
A survey of the Glasgow Post Office Directories shows various addresses for the firm. In 1815, the address is given as 115, Trongate, Glasgow. By 1825 the ‘silk warehouse’ was at 38, Argyle Street, moving to 75, Argyle Street in 1826; in 1834-5 the business had moved to 85, Buchanan Street.9
Such moves do not necessarily indicate that the firm was becoming increasingly successful, but since there is considerable evidence that Stow drew on his own financial resources to subsidise his educational ventures, and that he died a wealthy man, 10
it may be assumed that his business flourished. Throughout his life, Stow describes himself variously as a Manufacturer,11 Silk Merchant,12Mercer,13Worsted Spinner,14Woollen Manufacturer,15Mill Owner,16and Merchant.17Indeed, in one Post Office Directory Stow is listed among the Carpet Manufacturers and Merchants, and the Wool and Worsted Spinners and the Cotton Spinners.18
He was probably astute enough to realise that the British climate was fundamentally unsuitable for the sericulture of silk worms. Raw materials had to be imported from the colonies of India and Bengal and the silk industry was overly dependent on fluctuating import duties.19
Besides, the industry was riven with complications.20The income of the weavers (particularly in silk and cotton) fluctuated in parallel with political interference and, in turn, sparked unionism, strikes and riots. Possibly, all these difficulties affected Stow’s silk business. Certainly, at some point, in moving from silk to wool, Stow obviously felt it was judicious to keep faith with a similar process of production but change the product.
Although most references to Stow’s business refer to his firm as ‘The Port Eglinton Spinning Company’, it did not achieve this title until 1847-8. Andrew Aird in his book ‘Glimpses of Old Glasgow’ refers to ‘the large wool-spinning and carpet manufacturer of Wilson, Stow and Co., the chief partner of which was the late Mr David Stow’21near the Port Eglinton Hotel and the entrance to the Paisley and Johnstone Canal22in Hutchesontown. Eglinton was a good choice for a manufacturing works. It was served by an omnibus every half-hour and by canal boat from Paisley. It was a thriving business centre including timber and wood merchants, sawmills and a power-loom manufacturer.
By 1852-3 John Freebairn and David George, two of Stow’s sons, appear in the firm, the latter continuing after his father’s death until the fire of 1874. His nephew, Lorraine Stow, was also employed. By 1825, Stow was also a partner in the firm of ‘Stow, Brothers and Co.’23
in Leeds, the brothers being William Fenwick Stow and Matthew Kenyon Stow. They owned a shop in Guildford Street at the western end of Head Row, one of Leeds’ finest streets. He also owned a part of a house in Fountain Street nearby.
The acquisition of property may be significant in understanding Stow’s motivations. He could not be unaware that industrial capitalism was providing significant wealth to those willing to invest time and money in business. Two Scots, James McConnel and John Kennedy, from whom his father and possibly Stow bought machinery,24had moved to Manchester and ‘set up their own firm in 1795 with an initial capital of £1,770 …… by 1810 their capital had risen to £88,000. By 1820 the company had three mills and had established itself as the leading spinner of fine cotton in Manchester’.25
Yet at his death more than half of Stow’s wealth was in property. Granted, he owned £22,864 in stock in the Port Eglinton Spinning Company (and his second wife had twenty shares in the Scottish Union Insurance Company) but most of his capital was tied up in estates in Glasgow 26and Dunoon which, in addition to providing his own housing, brought in over £740 per annum in rents. It would appear he inherited a preference for investment in estate rather than industry. And as other articles will illustrate, his business does not appear to have been of much interest to him. ‘Business, business appears to be the morning and evening song,’ he wrote to his first wife, Marion, on 6th February, 1826. ‘Oh that we could always feel equally alive about the one thing needful, and that better portion which can never be taken from us’.27
He was conscious of his merchant and industrial background: ‘You will excuse the hurried lines of a Mercantile Pen’ he wrote to Thomas Chalmers.28He organised his Sabbath Schools ‘upon the principle of a division of labour’.29
He used the language of the market place to argue his case that trained teachers employed by the Poor Law Unions must be treated as professionals: ‘Commercially, a fair price must and should be paid for a good article, according to the principle of demand and supply’.30
And he speaks of the need for little children to ‘let off steam’ after each fifteen minute lesson. However, as ‘a sort of amateur schoolmaster’,31he seems to have found the business side of his life frustrating:
‘I must apologise for not writing sooner’ he writes to Chalmers in 1824, ‘but ever since my return, the late alteration in the Silk duties have so overturned the system of our business, as almost completely to engross my time and attentions. We are not yet over with this affair, half of our Goods still being in Bond for drawback. I find our affairs scant (?) now and this organising of a board continues to occupy too much of my attention to the exclusion oftentimes of higher and more important objects.’32
The absence of a silk waistcoat in any of his three surviving portraits perhaps also indicates that education was a more absorbing interest than his business. In any event, he was aware that God and mammon were uneasy bed-fellows. And, unlike other Glasgow firms, he never advertised his business when making charitable donations.