Stow’s Business Interests

‘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,[footnote]Children’s Employment Commission. (1843) Second Report of the Commissioners. Trades and manufactures. para. 183. He employed a five-year-old ‘Draw-boy’ even at this age.[/footnote]either with his father or his eldest brother, both of whom had premises in Causeyside Street.[footnote]William Stow, his father, at 165 and John, his brother, at 125 Causeyside Street: The Paisley Directory containing a list of the merchants, manufacturers, Trades in the town and suburbs, corrected till 1812.[/footnote]

In 1811, however, at the age of eighteen, Stow was ‘extensively engaged with a commercial firm’[footnote]Fraser. (1868) op cit, p.12.[/footnote]in 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,[footnote]In the case of Dick V. Stow and Pollock (1809) in which William Stow sued Dick for payment of £39, Stow was unable to pay Dick £7, as suggested by the magistrate to simplify matters because ‘he had not the wherewithal’. David Dick v. William Stow for behoof of Stow and Pollock (1815) National Archives of Scotland CS271/50912 and CS271/50945.[/footnote]or 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.[footnote]John Wilson was Stow’s eldest sister’s husband. He was born in 1770 and is described as a silk merchant, as was his father, Lorrain(e) Wilson. He and Ann married on 17th August 1807 in the Low Church, Paisley, when he was 37 and she was 23. Their first child, also Lorraine Wilson, was born in 1810 and seven children followed. John and Anne lived in at 2 South Wellington Place in the Gorbals and David, who also lived in the Gorbals when he first went to Glasgow, might well have been their lodger.[/footnote]

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.[footnote]John Hervey’s daughter, Barbara, married another silk merchant in Glasgow also, confusingly, named John Wilson, whose business eventually moved to Cumberland Street, along the road from ‘The Port Eglinton Spinning Company’ see below[/footnote]

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:

‘Stow, David, merchant, one of the partners of Wilson, Stow and Company, silk merchants, 115, Trongate, (admitted Burgess and Guild Brother by purchase – August 11th, 1817’).[footnote]Burgesses and Guild Brethren of Glasgow 1751-1846, Vol. 2 Edinburgh 1935 p. 304.[/footnote]
David Stow company

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. [footnote]Burgesses and Guild Brethren of Glasgow 1751-1846, Vol. 2 Edinburgh 1935 p. 304.[/footnote]

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.[footnote]The Glasgow Directory. 18th Edition, 1816, pps.165, 209, 231, 259.[/footnote]

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, [footnote]The inventories of his will appear to indicate that Stow left a little over £58,000 (£2,503.280 at today’s values) although Morse (ODNB) puts this at £22, 052.15.1. This figure appears to omit the content of a second inventory. Stow could not have financed the developments described in other articles without this personal wealth.[/footnote]

it may be assumed that his business flourished. Throughout his life, Stow describes himself variously as a Manufacturer,[footnote]Roll of the Freemen of Berwick 1800-1899.[/footnote] Silk Merchant,[footnote]Glasgow Burgesses and Guild Brethren 1811-1825.[/footnote]Mercer,[footnote]Glasgow Post Office Directories 1826.[/footnote]Worsted Spinner,[footnote]Sarah Stow’s death certificate.[/footnote]Woollen Manufacturer,[footnote]Scottish Census 1841.[/footnote]Mill Owner,[footnote]Scottish Census 1861.[/footnote]and Merchant.[footnote]Sarah and Agnes Stow’s baptismal records; William’s entry in Glasgow University’s Academic Lists; his own Death Certificate; Inventory of his Estate.[/footnote]Indeed, in one Post Office Directory Stow is listed among the Carpet Manufacturers and Merchants, and the Wool and Worsted Spinners and the Cotton Spinners.[footnote]Glasgow P. O. Directory, 1852-3.[/footnote]

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.[footnote]When the high duty on raw materials was lifted in 1824, the silk industry flourished: even when the importation of foreign silk goods became legal in 1826 (albeit with a 30% duty) demand outstripped supply. However, ‘by 1846, duties on foreign goods were reduced to 15%, making the fine and abundant French silks only marginally more expensive than their inferior English counterparts.’ Baird, Alison. Silk in England. 2002[/footnote]

Besides, the industry was riven with complications.[footnote]In an archetypal example of the law of unintended consequences, in 1792 the British Parliament had ruled that all operatives should be paid the same, whether the work was produced by hand or machine. The result was a block on innovation and any skilled machine workers were put out of work. The Act was finally repealed in 1824 although the ‘Spitalfields Acts’ continued in force from 1795 to 1824.[/footnote]The 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’[footnote]Aird, Andrew. (1894) ‘Glimpses of Old Glasgow’. Glasgow: Aird and Coghill, p.108.[/footnote]near the Port Eglinton Hotel and the entrance to the Paisley and Johnstone Canal[footnote]The completion of the Paisley to Glasgow’s Port Eglinton was achieved some time in 1811.[/footnote]in 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.’[footnote]Conveyance of a share of the partnership in premises in Leeds from David Stow of Glasgow to William Fenwick Stow of Leeds and Matthew Stow of Leeds (1852); Glasgow Post Office Directories for 1836-37.[/footnote]

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,[footnote]Papers of McConnell and Kennedy, The John Rylands Library, Manchester[/footnote]had 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’.[footnote]Fulcher, James. ‘Capitalism, A very short introduction’. Oxford, O.U.P. 2004.[/footnote]

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 [footnote]Including a school house and dwelling house rented to James Buchanan at £100 per annum for both.[/footnote]and 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’.[footnote]Stow’s letter to Marion Freebairn dated, 6th February, 1826, quoted Fraser, op cit.[/footnote]

He was conscious of his merchant and industrial background: ‘You will excuse the hurried lines of a Mercantile Pen’ he wrote to Thomas Chalmers.[footnote]Stow’s letter to Thomas Chalmers, 1st December, 1823.[/footnote]He organised his Sabbath Schools ‘upon the principle of a division of labour’.[footnote]Stow (1831) in Cleland, James. Statistical Work, 2nd Edition, 1831[/footnote]

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’.[footnote](1859) The Training System op cit, 11th ed., p. 506. Note Stow’s italics.[/footnote]

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’,[footnote]Stow’s response on receiving the bust by Handyside Ritchie in 1851[/footnote]he 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.’[footnote]Stow’s letter to Thomas Chalmers, 7th April, 1824. In 1824, Parliament passed a battery of laws that drastically changed the silk market in England. The high duty on raw silk was repealed, and the tax on silk thread was reduced by nearly one-half.[/footnote]

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.