United Wire Works

Text of booklet published late 1940s

Chapter 2

In the year Eighteen Hundred and Twentyfive, William McMurray set up in a modest way as a wire worker in the Trongate in Glasgow. This small business expanded and, in the course of expansion, changed its location a number of times before it left Glasgow for the East Coast. It is interesting to note that one of the addresses of this peripatetic but growing business was number 43 Saltmarket. This is no less than the hypothetical address of the semi-hypothetical Bailie Nicol Jarvie of Scott's Rob Roy.

In its early stages this business which now seems so remote to us, but which was eventually to have such a great influence on one of the prime industries of Scotland and Great Britain concerned itself with only small affairs. William McMurray's wire-working establishment dealt with the manufacture of such ordinary and domestic articles as fire-guards, bell-pulls, and even mouse-traps. There is no hint at this early stage that the founder of the firm had any interest in the production of paper which was eventually to make his fortune, and form the basis of the large national concern which exists to-day.

None the less, the business of producing mouse-traps, fire-guards, and bell-pulls, etc., prospered. So much so that the firm moved their premises from the West to the East of Scotland, from the Saltmarket in Glasgow to Leith Walk in the environs of Edinburgh. In the same year, William’s step-brother, James McMurray, was taken into partnership. It may seem strange that it should be a sign of prosperity for a firm to leave a growing centre of commerce for a city which was beginning to be looked upon as an antiquarian's paradise rather than a centre of business. Had William McMurray but known it, he was moving his concern to the city and district which was destined to be the printing, and paper capital of the British Isles-possibly of Western Europe. It is almost certain that he did not know that, owing to the accident of circumstance, to the industry of his step-brother and other connections of his, this small industry of his would soon become inextricably mingled with the pride of Edinburgh – its printing. However, one thing is sure – he did not move his business for any of these possible and future reasons. Probably the real reason he moved from West to East is this: let me give it in Mr Burnett’s own words as made in his original outline for this book:

‘Obviously, there must have been some urgent and compelling reason for this most important step, but unfortunately there is no trace in the records of any authentic explanation.

Bearing in mind that Glasgow even in those days was a big industrial centre, and that the business had on its own doorstep a ready market for its output-the question arises, why this change to Edinburgh?

While casting around for an explanation the writer obtained a copy of Henry Cockburn’s Memorials of His Time, 1831-54 the years covering the period of the transfer and lighted on his description of the trial of five Glasgow cotton spinners which began in Edinburgh on 3rd January 1838. To appreciate fully the state of turbulence prevailing about that time in Glasgow, a description of the trial and train of events leading up to it may assist the reader to visualise the condition of violence and unrest which then existed in that city.

For about twenty years the Glasgow cotton spinners had an Association which had been the prime mover of all the combination and strikes of workmen in the manufacturing districts of Scotland. Workers who obeyed their instructions and required aid were paid out of a fund which had been accumulated during the years of prosperity. Those who disobeyed were proclaimed `Nobs' and were insulted, obstructed, and punished.

Trouble flared up to a high pitch in 1837, and in April of that year a general strike was ordered. On 22nd July a man named Smith was shot and murdered in the public street. This led to the apprehension of the leaders of the cotton spinners in their meeting-place, the Black Boy Tavern, Glasgow.

Then followed the trial of five of them, who were accused of Smith’s murder, of sending threatening letters, of assault, and of fire-raising and conspiracy. The trial began in Edinburgh on 3rd January 1838, and ended on the night of Thursday the 11th. The case created intense interest throughout Scotland; nothing else was talked about-public meetings were held – and petitions were sent to Parliament on behalf of the prisoners, abusing the law of Scotland and its administrators. The jury were terrified and intimidated by the populace, and, to cut a long story short, the prisoners were convicted on the minor counts of the indictment only, and sent to Botany Bay for seven years.

After reading this description of the trial and the industrial conditions obtaining generally in Glasgow about that time, it is not altogether surprising that Mr McMurray may have felt an urge to get out of an arena of industrial unrest and carry on his business in the quieter atmosphere of Edinburgh.

Mouse-traps, fire-guards, and bell-pulls began to take a second place in the industry of William McMurray, not long after he had changed his place of business and had purchased the factory buildings at Steads Place, Leith Walk. This change, which was to revolutionise his business, enlarge it beyond his wildest dreams and materially affect the paper production of Great Britain came about in this way.

William McMurray had in 1835, perhaps more by instinct or accident than deliberate forethought, become interested in a papermaking business at Kinleith on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It is almost certain that he did not foresee the remarkable way in which his two business interests would co-ordinate. If he had, he would have seized the opportunity earlier. In the meantime, since the removal to Leith, two things were happening to the fortunes of William McMurray. His Wire Works concern was, on its own merits, and quite apart from paper, flourishing on its own, and gaining a national reputation. At the same time, but quite independently of his first concern, his interests in paper-making were growing and succeeding. He now owned several paper mills in different parts of the country. Indeed, he had expanded his business and his interests to the purchase of esparto estates in Spain – esparto is one of the best constituents of the pulp which goes to make high-class paper. He was becoming increasingly absorbed in the business of paper-making without understanding how his right hand of wire weaving might help his left hand of paper-making, and he began to be more interested in his left hand than in his right. None the less, -Edina Wire Works- in Leith Walk continued, in that Golden Era, to prosper.

Leith Walk cannot be said to have much glamour, except for those for whom ‘Descensus Averni Facilis Es’ – for whom the descent is easy to... I hasten to say that I make no comparison between Leith and Avernus. Leith Walk was not, however, always so. I do not think I can do better than to quote from Mr Burnett’s outline in which he admirably sketches what Leith Walk looked like, and of what it was composed at the time of the establishment of the ‘Edina Works’. These are Mr Burnett’s words:

Leith Walk is a street which makes a distinct impression; its breadth – especially at the Edinburgh end – its bustle, and its fame as an avenue of commerce, all contribute towards its reputation. The architecture is nowhere imposing. And yet, when the -Walk- was given over to nurseries and manufactories, when it was a comparatively open space, there was some attempt at the picturesque, and these survivals we see here and there, especially in the vicinity of Pilrig.

The beginning of Leith Walk, historians tell us, came about as the result of the famous military operations between Cromwell and Leslie in 1650. The Covenanting general arranged his army in a line covered by a trench and mound, which from end to end practically represented what we now know as Leith Walk, from Greenside northwards towards Leith.

When the scene of the campaign changed, the mound became a footway between the Capital and the Port, and this in the course of time developed into a busy artery; but, indeed, for years, it was dreary and unsafe in more ways than one. As one writer puts it, the footpath on the east side of the road was for a long time eighteen feet higher than the carriage-way.

The journey on foot to Leith at night was an undertaking requiring no little courage. There was no well-paved footpath lined with lamps, but a long dreary road, combined with the risk of falling off the footpath and breaking a limb, and, at the Gallow Lee – near Shrub Hill – having to pass two or three bodies hanging in chains and creaking dismally in the wind.

Wheeled traffic was long a problem on the Walk. A century ago there were coaches every half-hour from two points of the High Street, Edinburgh, to the shore of Leith. They were in time succeeded by horse buses, and the train service to North Leith (which was long the only line) made a wonderful difference in communication, altho’ for many a day the carriages were primitive indeed.

The buses survived until 1871 when the horse-car appeared on the scene. This system continued, so far as Edinburgh was concerned, until 1899, when cable traction was introduced. Leith, however, lagged behind, and several years elapsed before their splendid electric car service came into being.

A century ago, between Baxter’s Buildings – just above London Road-and Leith, lay '‘the most beautiful nurseries that are to be met with in Scotland’. Not only were there great nursery grounds, but a little north of Gayfield Square – a once fashionable place of residence, with a peer’'s mansion, later to become a veterinary college and laundry, at the foot – were the Botanic Gardens which were later transferred to Inverleith.

A glance at an old map shows that Leith Walk – consequent on its proximity to the sea – was also a scene of great industrial life. Stretched along the famous road were iron and brass foundries, marble and glass works, and so on. Some of the works survive to this day, and one has only to visit the extensive goods station at Leith Walk to have proof of the thriving local industrial life.

Prominent among the famous religious buildings in Leith Walk was ‘The Tabernacle’.

One of the most eminent lay ministers to preach within its walls was Mr James Haldane, and it is interesting to note here that the grandson of the famous preacher was Lord Haldane, the eminent War Minister. This unique building in later years became a furniture store, and at the present time the Playhouse Cinema occupies the site. From Piety to Pictures – what a transition. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The only comment I can make on Mr Burnett's last quotation, which, goodness knows is apt enough, is that it might have been as apt to say ‘Sic transit Gloria Coeli’. In 1858, however, there was an alteration in the name of the firm which had taken up its habitat in the growing Leith Walk. This alteration was not in name only. In this year the 'Edina Works' by which Mr McMurray's business had come to be known, announced to Edinburgh and their customers all over the world that the business would now be known as

Robert McFarlane & Son, Successors to Wm. & Jas. McMurray, Wire Cloth Manufacturers and Patentees of the Self-Acting Cylindrical Pulp Washers. "

It will be noted that not only had the firm changed its name, but that in the announcement of its patent it was pointing in the direction which it was to follow with international success for nearly a century. At last the wire-weaving industry of old Mr William McMurray had begun to co-ordinate with his other interest-paper. The result of this union was probably unforeseen by all, except one young man at that time. This one young man was John McFarlane, a nephew of the McMurray brothers. His father, Robert (of whom there is only scanty information), had married William McMurray’s sister, Susanah, and had been taken into his brother-in-law’s business. It is not recorded that he himself had much influence on the McMurray brothers. It is significant, however, that his activity, such as it was, was mostly in the paper side of their interests. His son John joined the firm in 1856 at the age of nineteen. Shortly after he joined the firm his father, Robert McFarlane, died, leaving the management of the business on the youthful but capable shoulders of John. John had not only capable shoulders but also an imaginative brain. His early accession to...

(Two pages missing from the original at this point), all designed to produce this new and distinctive type of wirecloth.

‘ It cannot be supposed that all was plain sailing during this arduous transition period. In its initial stages the production, as in most human affairs, had to go through the customary ‘teething trouble’ period. Technical difficulties had to be surmounted, and they were many. Two of the most difficult problems were – (1) To produce wire of a uniform ductility or temper, and (2) to provide a suitable and durable seam to convert the paper machine wire into an endless band. These and other problems were tackled with considerable success; in fact the keynote and watchword of the firm’s policy was and is to this day to attain the maximum of efficiency in this new product together with strict adherence to the highest standards of quality and value.

This policy the youthful manager tirelessly pursued; and it paid substantial dividends. Soon the firm was generally recognised by the paper mills in this country as the foremost of its kind in the industry in point of practical efficiency. ’

Having achieved this success as a youthful manager of a family business it may well be imagined that John McFarlane’s ambitions soared. In the true spirit of the nineteenth century industrialism, he wanted to make it (the business which he had built up) all his own. He does not appear to have met with much difficulty in this objective. His uncle, Mr William McMurray, was well advanced in years, and was, besides, deeply committed with his paper-making and other enterprises. In any event the sale of the Edina Wire Works business was agreed upon between uncle and nephew in 1872. The nephew, John McFarlane, purchased the ground, buildings, plant, and equipment of the Edina Works for a sum which, considering its future, seems moderate enough to us to-day – £8,000.

At the same time an elder and (in his own day) no less enthusiastic man was retiring from the scene. Mr William McMurray was a remarkable man, characteristic of his time and his country. The reader is referred to the frontispiece of this book where he will see a reproduction of a portrait of William McMurray. One may smile at the old-fashioned growth of whiskers and the hint of old linen fashion beneath them. One smiles, I hope, affectionately; for to-day one rarely sees faces with so much character, and perhaps even native humour – more is the pity.

He was a man of imagination and wide interests. He was born in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars – in 1806 – and died eighty-one years later. The span of his life began with the dawn of nineteenth-century enterprise, endeavour, and expansion. It ended at the high noon of that period. When the old man died on the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, there was an unbounded spirit of optimism in these islands. It seemed to men that there would never come a time when ‘progress’ would receive certain halts. British industry, commerce, science would go on expanding for ever. More and more of the map of the world would become coloured red. Since then, those who have survived from that period (even if they were only children in 1887) have seen this idea of life receive some hard knocks. Nevertheless, as has been proved in many ways, the spirit of enterprise and endurance still survives. It is perhaps better to achieve in the face of difficulties than to be borne along on an easy flow of optimism. One thing is certain. If William McMurray could see to-day The United Wire Works at Granton, the great Organisation which sprang originally from his venture in the Trongate in 1825, and if he could be told the immense difficulties and obstacles which British industry and commerce have had to overcome since his death, he would not only be amazed at what he saw, but proud of those who came after him.

He was typical of his time and class. He was expansive, inventive, and hopeful. In 1825 he either inherited from his father or acquired or initiated the wire industry in the Trongate at Glasgow. Within ten years, however, he was looking for fresh fields. Some instinct may have led him to the business of paper. For paper, and the publication on paper of words were to become his passion throughout his long life. He may have had some inkling of the fact that his first small venture would be eventually and inextricably linked up with his prime interest. Before his death he certainly knew it.

He bought and established paper mills in Scotland and the South, and estates for the production of his raw material in Spain and even farther afield. Naturally, however, so expansive a personality could not confine his interest to paper alone. He wanted to have a hand in what was printed and published on it.

He became a newspaper proprietor and had the satisfaction of seeing his own paper bear many millions of words. The diversity of some of his publishing interests may be shown by the fact that he owned The Family Reader, a highly Victorian weekly journal. Its name gives the clue to its character. He also owned The Sporting Life, with which was incorporated Bell’s Life. Every student of the Victorian back volumes of Punch will remember Bell’s Life as being one of the essential ornaments of the ‘Masher’s’ or ‘Swell’s’ private apartments. Nowadays its faded leaves, full, at one time, of such racy as well as racing news, seem just as Victorian in their own way as do the pages of The Family Reader. Mr McMurray also, rather surprisingly, had a substantial interest in, amounting to ownership of, The Sunday Observer.

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