Note: There are many different spellings of Speirs. These include Speers, Spears, Spiers and Speirs.
In my John Glassford post Part 1 I referred to William Cunningham, Alexander Spiers and John Glassford as the most prominent of the Glasgow Tobacco Lords. As with Glassford, the purpose of this post is to comment on Speir’s family background, his business activities and partnerships. Without the use of slave labour however it is clear that none of these individuals, and others, would have been as successful as they were and, perhaps, Glasgow’s financial pre-eminence in the tobacco trade and the concomitant development of local industry would not have occurred. This I believe would have inhibited the city’s commercial growth and progression in the 19th century as a significant amount of ‘slave delivered’ funding would not have been available.
Again, I refer those with an interest in Glasgow’s involvement with slavery to the writings of Stephen Mullen, Tom Devine and others.
Alexander Speirs’ parents were John Speers, an Edinburgh merchant and burgess of the N.W. (Tolbooth) parish in Edinburgh and Isobell Twedie, the daughter of John Twedie an ex Lord Provost of Peebles (1703-1707). They married in 1708 and had eight children, three sons and five girls, Alexander being the fourth child and second son, born and baptized in September 1714. John became a burgess of Edinburgh in 1705, his third son James in 1743. The eldest son John died in 1726 at the age of fourteen from drowning.
What Alexander did as a young adult is not clear, however there is some evidence to suggest he went to Virginia in the 1730s, more of which in Part 2. However in 1740 at the age of twenty six he did travel to Virginia. If he had gone to Virginia earlier it would have been as a factor/associate of a tobacco company, which is what a number of young men did then, and in his case, more than likely for the Buchanan family which again will be looked it Part 2.
Whatever the reason he became involved with the Cary (Carey) family plantations in Virginia, eventually marrying Sarah Cary the youngest daughter of Henry Cary jnr. of Ampthill in Chesterfield County, and his second wife Anne Edwards. Henry Cary’s main occupation was as a contract builder. His buildings include the President’s House and the Brafferton Building of William and Mary College, both still existing, and Ampthill House, the family home built in 1732. In 1929 the house was dismantled and rebuild in Richmond where it remains.
Additionally, he owned a large acreage of land, slaves, cattle, horses etc, the land and the slaves most likely used for the cultivation of tobacco, in which Spiers was to become involved, in due course. In 1860 the Virginia census showed that the population of Chesterfield county consisted of ten thousand and eighteen whites, and eight thousand three hundred and fifty five slaves, suggesting an ‘industrial’ level of slaves working in the fields. It’s worth remembering the UK had abolished slavery in 1833.
Alexander married Sarah (born in 1729) in 1741 although other sources say it was in 1748 or 1746. At the time of her marriage she had two live siblings, Archibald, born in 1721 and Judith, born in 1726. Judith married David Bell in 1744 who along with Archibald and Spiers’ brother James, ran Alexander’s tobacco interests in Chesterfield subsequent to his return to Scotland, more of which shortly.
Note: Henry Cary jnr. had three children with his first wife all of whom died before they reached their majority. He had four children with Anne Edwards, the first of whom died as an infant. He married for a third time in 1741, Elizabeth Brickenhead, the marriage producing no children.
Henry Cary jnr. died circa 1749. His will dated 1748, naming Archibald as his executor, detailed a number of bequests as follows:
to his wife Elizabeth, essentially liferent of property, slaves and money
to his daughter Judith and her husband, three thousand acres of land on Hatchers Creek in Albemarle, including livestock, buildings, slaves etc.
to his son in law Alexander Speirs, three thousand acres of land on Willis Creek, “currently in his possession” also the plantation slaves, cattle, horses etc., “including a negro wench named Sarah and a negro girl named Nell”.
to his son Archibald , the residue of his estate both real and personal.
It’s clear from the above that Speirs was working the land bequeathed to him for a period of time, probably from the time of his marriage at least.
When Cary’s third wife Elizabeth died in her will dated 1751 she left bequests to Mrs Judith Bell and Mrs Alexander Speirs.
Alexander and Sarah came to Glasgow around 1750 shortly after her father died. As perhaps expected he began to be involved in the civic life of the city. In 1750 subscriptions were being raised to erect an episcopal church in Glasgow. In due course the church became known as St Andrews by the Green. The original subscribers and directors of the project included a number of well known merchants of the city to which, in September 1751, Alexander Speirs was added. His personal life however was to change in June the following year, his wife Sarah unfortunately dying; the marriage having produced no children.
Despite his personal loss Speirs continued to develop and expand his tobacco interests. In April 1754 a co-partnery was established between Archibald Buchanan, Alexander Spiers, John Bowman, Hugh Brown, Thomas Hopkirk, Alexander Mackie and James Clark, all tobacco merchants, the latter two located in Virginia. The partnership was pre-dated to July of 1753. It was to last for seven years, the capital in the company amounting to £16,200, with borrowing and profit taking rules established for the first three years. Item three of the partnering conditions stated that it was also agreed that no one partner could act separately until April 1756.
There was one exception however to that condition. Item ten allowed Speirs to continue to operate his Chesterfield plantation in the way he had done before the partnership was signed. He would be able to trade his crops as he saw fit, transport them as he required, all managed in Virginia by his brother James, his brother-in-law Archibald Cary and his sister-in-law Mrs Judith Bell.
He had become a burgess and guild brother of Glasgow in 1753, ,and was a merchant councillor, being elected Glasgow Treasurer in 1755. This was followed by his election as a Bailie in 1757 and again in 1762.
He also remarried, this time to Mary Buchanan in 1755.
His return from Virginia and his second marriage was the start of a new and highly successful period of his life, leading to him becoming one of the richest merchants of his time. Part 2 will look at his family life, the growth of his business and his partnerships, his new wife’s family and the part they played in his commercial success, and his property purchases.
Note: Charles Rennie Cowie and his son John always in Bold.
In 1964 the widow of East India merchant John Cowie, Mrs. Elizabeth Janet Cowie, donated to the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in Edinburgh and the Mitchell library in Glasgow a collection of rare books, historical manuscripts and letters, included in which are rare editions of Robert Burns poems, first editions of Milton, Galt, and Scott, and a large number of letters of Burns and others. It consists of several hundred items and is an astonishingly eclectic accumulation of material covering over six hundred years. The NLS was to get that material which was of national importance, the Mitchell the rest, the decision making process being undertaken by personnel from both libraries, Mrs. Cowie and her lawyer. Eventually the NLS collection consisted of manuscripts of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and the poet Allan Ramsay.
The individual who had collected all this material was not John Cowie however, it was his father Charles Rennie Cowie, also an East India merchant, who had bequeathed it to his wife Grizel on his death in 1922. In his will the collection was identified as of National and Historic Interest, thereby excluding it from his estate for tax purposes, and valued at £4083. Today, at that valuation, the joint collections would be worth around £2 million. Grizel died seven years later with the collection eventually going to John.
Who was Charles Rennie Cowie, what was his and his wife’s family background? By what means did he fund his purchases? One other question which seems unlikely to be answered by this research is from whom did he make his purchases?
The Cowie family originated in Stirlingshire, most likely in the parish of Larbert. JohnCowie’s great grandfather was forester James Cowie who was married to Margaret McAlpine. It’s not clear when they married however John’s grandfather, also John, was born in 1817, the fifth of eight children all born in Larbert. They lived in Carronhall village to the east of Larbert, James dying there in 1843. Margaret remained in Carronhall until circa 1863 when she moved to Grahamston to live in a house owned by her son John. She died there at the age of eighty seven in 1870.
John married Margaret Rennie in 1839, she also being born in Larbert the daughter of iron founder John Rennie and his wife Mary Alexander. It’s not clear what his occupation was at the time of his marriage however by 1841 he was a grocer in Grahamston in the parish of Falkirk, an occupation he followed for most of his working life. He and Margaret had twelve children between 1840 and 1862, seven sons and five daughters, the relevant offspring to this research being Charles RennieCowie and three of his brothers, James, Archibald and Thomas, and his sister Jessie.
John and Margaret lived in Grahamston until at least 1872 however by 1881 they had moved to Mavis Villa, Riddrie, which is where he died in 1882. Margaret lived a further twelve years, dying in Hyde Park, Blantyre in 1895. Interestingly in the 1891 census she was resident in Rutherglen, living on a private income, with her son James, another East India merchant, and two grandchildren John and Mary, both born in Rangoon, the children, as I’ll show, of her son Charles Rennie Cowie.
Charles was born on the 24th October 1851 and baptized in July the following year. His initial education was at a local school. He then attended Anderson’s College in George Street in Glasgow studying chemistry under Frederick Penny. Penny was a Londoner who had studied chemistry under Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution and in 1839 had been appointed Chair of Chemistry at the College, a position he held until his death in 1869. He also was involved in testing the water quality from Loch Katrine to establish if it was suitable for Glasgow’s water supply and gave expert testimony in a number of criminal trials involving poisons including that of the infamous Dr. Pritchard who had murdered his wife and mother in law.
When Charles left College is not certain, nor is it clear what his qualification was, but he must have left around 1870 as by 1871 he was employed as chemist at the Uphall Oil Works in Linlithgow, living in lodgings at Crossgreen Farm in Uphall. In due course he became manager of the facility which was just a few miles from James ‘Paraffin’ Young’s refinery in Bathgate. In 1873, being described as ‘gent’ he was appointed ensign in the 5th Linlithgowshire Rifle Volunteers.
He did not remain in Uphall very much longer as around 1874 he travelled to Rangoon eventually becoming manager of the Rangoon Oil Company the precursor of Burmah Oil, this being his occupation when he married Grizel or Grace Purdie in 1878, more of whom shortly.
Between 1876 and 1878 he registered two patents in Rangoon, one dealing with the use of rice husks as furnace fuel in rice mills, the other about improving the efficiency of steam furnace combustion. The first patent at least halved the cost of milling rice with the added benefit of the burnt rice husks proving to be an effective deodorizer used to cover all kinds of refuse dumps. His invention not only found use in Burma but also in Thailand and French Indo-China. He also registered a third patent with a colleague in 1881, again dealing with furnace efficiency.
He remained manager of the oil works until circa 1878/79 at which time he founded in Rangoon the trading company Charles R Cowie & Co., trading in almost any commodity that was required by customers in British India and elsewhere. That was the beginning of Charles, his brothers James, Archibald and Thomas, and his eventual sons, becoming East India merchants
His wife Grizel was the daughter of Thomas Purdie, farmer, and Margaret Storrie,  her birth being commemorated by her parents having a christening mug made by Bo’ness Potteries.
The family originated in West Calder where Grizel’s grandfather Andrew Purdie farmed at West Mains which is where he died in 1863 age ninety five. In 1837 whilst Andrew was the tenant of the farm a servant girl Elizabeth Brown was charged with child murder or concealment of a pregnancy. She confessed and was sentenced to ten months imprisonment. The court records make no mention of the male involvement only that Elizabeth’s address was c/o Andrew Purdie, West Mains Farm. 
Thomas Purdie farmed at Forkneuk, Uphall from around 1855 which makes it likely that Charles and Grizel met before he went to Rangoon, the farms being in close proximity to each other. They married at Forkneuk on the 17th December 1878, the beginning of a married life that for the first twelve or so years saw them travelling frequently between Rangoon and Glasgow.
Their first born child was John, the ostensible donor of the Cowie Collection. He was born in Rangoon in October 1880 and baptized there in July 1881. They had a further nine children between 1882 and 1903 as follows:
Mary Storrie, born 1882 at Rangoon and baptized there.
Margaret Rennie, born 1884 at Portobello, baptized in Rangoon later that year.
Gracie Purdie, born and baptized at Rangoon in 1886.
Thomas Purdie, born at Woodend House, Partick in 1893.
Charles Rennie, born at Woodend House, Partick in 1895.
Gladys Dorothy, born at Woodend House, Partick in 1903.
Whilst Charles ran his company in Rangoon his brother James in 1880 was working for Jas. L. McClure & Co., merchants and agents for a number of companies dealing in iron and steel products. Two years later he established his own agency company, James Cowie & Co., representing a number of similar companies from England and Scotland.
In the following year Cowie Brothers & Co. were formed located at the same address, 59 St. Vincent Street, as James’ company. No other brother seemed to be involved at that point however it does appear that simply was a matter of timing as within the next twelve months brother Archibald joined the company.Charles was home in Glasgow that year (1884), not associated with either of the family businesses but with merchants Russell, Macfarlane & Co., a situation that occurred every time he came home from Rangoon until circa 1891 when he came home to Glasgow for good. He had lived at various address on each return home finally settling at Woodend House, Partick sometime after 1891, his wife Grizel being recorded as the owner. His Rangoon company however still operated in his name as before directed by Rangoon partners and his sons.
The two Glasgow Companies continued to operate for another ten years, latterly from 196 St Vincent Street, with Charles continuing to be associated with Russell, Macfarlane and Co. until 1893 when he formally joined Cowie Brothers & Co. It’s clear brother James was seriously ill at that time as he died the following year of cirrhosis of the kidneys which he had suffered from for at least six months. James’ company ceased trading in 1897/98, the last year it appeared in the Glasgow directory. Cowie Brothers & Co continued for several years afterwards with brother Thomas joining the company in 1905, remaining involved until 1911. Subsequent to that date the Cowies involved in the company were the three sons of Charles, namely John, Thomas and his namesake Charles. The company was still listed in the Glasgow Directory in 1975.
Charles senior’s company in Rangoon also continued to operate at least until the late 1930s, with his three sons all involved to varying degrees, travelling back and forth to Rangoon as required. The last journey from Rangoon I have established is that of son Charles Rennie Cowie and his wife Norah on the M.V. Oxfordshire during April/May 1939. However he is listed as a lieutenant in the Rangoon Battalion of the Burmese Auxiliary Force in 1940, having been a member of the force since 1938. He continued to be listed through 1941 as such although it seems he was promoted captain in April 1941. Exactly where he was located during this time has not been established although I have come across of photograph of him and fellow officers, along with their honorary colonel, Sir Alexander Cochrane, in Burma (Rangoon?) in 1940. Lieutenant C. R. Cowie is seated at the extreme right hand side.
Brother Thomas Purdie Cowie married in Rangoon in 1921. In the Thacker’s Commercial Directory of 1925, the company was located at 6 Merchants Street and described as machinery importers, mill furnishers and mill stores, engineers and contractors, electrical stores, insurance agents, importers and exporters, and as agents for the Dollar Steamship Line. There were no Cowies listed as Rangoon partners although Thomas was listed as an assistant in the company. He returned to British India in 1945, this time to Bombay, as the Director of Stores for the Indian Red Cross.
As stated previously, the Cowie companies traded any commodity that had a buyer. Their sales included cutlery, steam engines, pottery, biscuits and bricks. Where they could they labelled or marked the items with their company name.
Their involvement with bricks came about when Charles senior’s sister Jessie married coalmaster Mark Hurll in 1888. At the time of his marriage his brother Peter was a fireclay brick manufacturer in Glenboig. About three years later Mark set up with his brother as a brick manufacturer, amongst other similar products, forming P & M Hurll, with works in Maryhill, Garscsadden as well as Glenboig. This led to the Cowie brothers trading the bricks and applying their name to each individual product.
Their involvement with biscuits in terms of their trademark however was not as successful. In 1896 at the Court of Session they applied for an interdict against biscuit manufacturers George Herbert, a supplier of Cowies, to stop them using what they claimed to be the Cowie trademark, an image of the Glasgow Municipal Building, on biscuits sold by Herberts on their own behalf in Rangoon.
Charles Rennie Cowie and brother Archibald gave evidence essentially saying that Cowies had traded biscuits to Rangoon since 1889, with that trademark. The defendant had also been trading in Rangoon but had begun to use a similar image of the Municipal Building on biscuits he sold directly there thereby confusing potential native purchasers. After a very longwinded obtuse argument involving images of temples and mosques, the judgement went against Cowies and the interdict was refused, the judges essentially declining to accept Rangoon natives would be confused.
It will be pretty obvious by now that the money Charles senior earned through his business ventures as an East India Merchant was the means by which he created his collection. When he died in 1922 his estate was valued at £144,507, current worth somewhere between £7million and £70million.
The NLS collection is listed on the library website as contained within MSS 15951 – 15975 and consists of manuscripts relating to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and the poet Allan Ramsay. The manuscripts include an autobiographical letter written by Burns to Dr. John Moore in 1787 in which the poet writes retrospectively of his life to date (MS 15952), and a series of thirteen manuscripts relating to the seven volume collection ‘The Works of Robert Burns’ edited by W Scott Douglas, 1877-1879 (MSS 15955-67). Also included are proofs of ‘The History of Scotland’, 1829-1830, by Sir Walter Scott (MS15969), the final version of ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ by Allan Ramsay, 1724-1725 (MS15972), and letters of Sir Walter Scott to Robert Southey and others (MS15971).,
The Cowie collection at the Mitchell is somewhat different. Although it also contains a lot of Burns material, it has an exceptional range of other manuscripts, books, including first editions, and letters from an extremely wide range of individuals including royalty. As far as I’m aware there are no digitalised records of the collection however there are two catalogues which contain a full list of the items donated. They are ‘The John Cowie Collection-Catalogue’ and ‘The John Cowie Collection-Autograph Albums. Index 1 to 4’.
The following will give some idea of the range of topics and material that the Mitchell holds.
Statutes of Edward I and II. MSS dated 1274.
Rerum Scoticarum Historia. Edinburgh: A. Arbuthnot 1582. Author George Buchanan.
Quintus Curtius. Venice 1494. De Rebus Gestis Alexandri Magni.
John Milton – Paradise Regained. 1st Edition 1671.
Carolus Gustavus, King of Sweden. Last will and Testament – 1660.
Aesop Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange. 1692/1699.
The Rosebery Burns Club, Glasgow. Its origins and Growth 1906.
Charles Edward Stuart – Order signed by him to raise the Mackintoshes – 1746
Letter of Leopold I, King of the Belgians 1850.
Paul, Emperor of Russia letter to Baron Dimsdale 1778.
Bassendyne Bible 1576
C.F. Brotchie. History of Govan 1905
Eikon Basilike. The Pourtraicture of his sacred Majestie in his solitudes and sufferings. 1648. (Charles I).
Acts of Parliament – 1711.
Royal Navy Accounts of Cruisers and Home- Convoys – 1704.
George I Document headed 15/4/1724
M.W. Turner R.A. lecture ticket dated 1818.
William Wilberforce various letters 1819 – 1825
Louis XVI. Order for lieutenant to command the corvette ‘La Poulette’ – 1781.
Last will and testament of Carolus Gustavus King of Sweden – 1660.
Allan Ramsay The Ever Green, a collection of poems – 1724.
Sir Walter Scott. Guy Mannering, Edinburgh 1815
An account of the taking of the late Duke of Monmouth. Samuel Keble 1685.
Giuseppe Garibaldi – letter to Rear Admiral Mundy. 1860.
James III letter to Cardinal Gotti, Bologna. 1729.
James Boswell. The journal of a tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. London:1785.
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer 4th John Kyngston 1561.
His enthusiasm for Robert Burns went beyond collecting books and manuscripts. He contributed significantly to the purchase and restoration of buildings associated with the poet.
Burns’ house in Castle Street (previously Back Causeway), Mauchline, where he and Jean Armour lived was put up for sale at the beginning of 1915 by its then owner, a Miss Miller. The Glasgow and District Burns Clubs Association were interested in purchasing it and sent a delegation to examine the premises, which included Cowie as president of the Partick Burns Club.
It was decided to buy the property despite it being in the need of repair. It’s not clear what the total costs involved were however Cowie donated the required funds to purchase and repair the house. The building once restored was formally opened to the public on the 28th August 1915. In addition to the museum created, provision was made in the other rooms of the property to accommodate deserving elderly people. At the end of the ceremony Mrs Cowie was presented with a silver key to mark the occasion and her husband’s generous gift.
Following on from that in 1916 Charles funded the purchase of the property adjoining the Burns house which had been once owned by Dr. John MacKenzie who had apparently attended Burns’ father at the end of his life. Little work was done during the war but by 1919 the premises were fully restored allowing the museum to expand and to provide accommodation for additional elderly people. His final act of generosity in this respect was for the purchase of Nanse Tinnocok’s Tavern across the road from the other two properties. It was formally opened after repair on the 24th May 1924 by Mrs. Cowie, Charles having died in 1922.
Charles Rennie Cowie died at Woodend House, Partick on the 18th November 1922, cause of death given as chronic nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). In his lifetime he had been a very successful chemist, inventor and merchant, amassing a fortune from his trading activities which allowed him to indulge his interests in Burns, and collecting.
His obituary in the Glasgow Herald makes reference to his professional life and to his collecting, describing him as a an ‘ardent admirer of the national poet’ and ‘keenly interested in the history of Scotland’. It also adds that he was prominent in temperance circles, an elder in Dowanhill U.F. Church and a member of several General Assembly committees.
He was President of the Abstainers Union and had been a director of the Scottish Temperance League, also supporting these organisations and others financially, and had purchased the old Partick Academy gifting it to the Western branch of the Y.M.C.A. He had also endowed one of the beds in the Arran War Memorial Hospital, an island he visited annually on holiday. He was a J.P., vice president of the Hillhead Liberal Association, had been a member of the Govan School Board, and was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. (F.S.A.). 
In his obituary in The Straits Times of 16 December it was stated that every rice eater owed the cheapness of his meal to the ‘unobtrusive chemist from Scotland’. He was also described as a ‘public spirited and charitable citizen’.
John and his mother Grizel were named as executors and trustees of Charles’ estate. Grizel inherited all the household items including his collection and other artefacts and there were also a number of bequests to his church and the temperance organisations he had been involved with. The residue was then to be split half to Grizel, and the other half equally divided between his ten children.
John married Elizabeth Janet Ramsay in 1908. She was the daughter of Robert Ramsay, postmaster and Jane Brown. As far as I can tell he and Elizabeth had one child, Elizabeth Jean Ramsay born in 1915. She married provision merchant John Turner Massey in 1938.
Grizel died in 1929 leaving the collection to John. He died on the 10th March 1963 of a heart attack.